Elementary Principles, Part 5

Instruction About Washings

The previous lessons have attempted to explain the first two principles listed in Hebrews 6:1-2. Both, as we saw, were fairly obvious personal characteristics a believer must be educated in upon accepting belief in Yeshua as the Messiah. If we sat down and came up with a list of necessary principles a believer must understand, these two would definitely top the list. If we expected this trend to continue in our passage, then we might be surprised to find that the next elementary teaching is “instruction about washings.” 

The phrase itself is somewhat cryptic. Is this about baptism? If so, then why is the word plural here? And what instruction is really necessary about baptism other than simply telling a person to immerse? Since this is one of the elementary teachings all believers should know according to the author of Hebrews, we want to try to understand this phrase and what application it may have in our walk.

In Greek, the phrase used in this verse is baptismon didachen. Didachen, as you may have noticed, is based on the root didache, which as we saw in our introduction to this study is translated as “instruction” or “teaching.” The first word, baptismon, is based on the root baptizo, which is where we get our English word “baptism” from. Despite this connection, baptizo does not exclusively mean baptism as one would undergo on entrance into Christianity. Literally translated, the root merely speaks of dipping or submerging. Specifically the form used in our verse in Hebrews can be used to speak of ceremonial washing (Mark 7:4) or baptism (Colossians 2:12). 

Before we look at the second, more familiar definition of baptismon, we will investigate the first, and perhaps we will discover that there is some connection between the two.

Ceremonial Washing

Ritual purity is generally not something we are too interested in hearing about in Christianity today. The concept itself seems archaic, a shadow which was necessary only for a more primitive era. Internal cleanliness, that is, of the heart, becomes the sole focus rather than the external body, which although being a spiritual temple apparently does not require the same attention to potential sources of physical defilement. Thus we feel safe in generalizing the immensity of the purity laws with the simple doctrine, that they were a type and a representation of the spiritual cleansing our hearts would receive when we put our faith in Yeshua. 

Upon closer examination of these purity laws, however, it becomes difficult to stand by this generalization. The detail and breadth of these laws were applied to people’s lives in a literal sense, just as God commanded must be done. In losing sight of the context we are blinded to what we may have learned had we approached the subject with an empathetic mind. Before explaining ceremonial washing, then, it is important to briefly go over the tabernacle in order to understand the system this washing was a part of and why it became a necessary action. 

When God indicated to Moses that He wanted a tabernacle to be built among the children of Israel, its purpose was explicitly stated: “Let them construct a sanctuary for Me, that I may dwell among them” (Exodus 25:8). All of the details required for the design and operation of the tabernacle were to this end, that God might dwell among His people. Several times in previous generations God had manifested His presence on the earth so that individuals may experience Him visually. With the building of this sanctuary, God would allow His presence to reside among the people on a more permanent basis (Exodus 40:33-35, Numbers 7:89). 

One of the difficulties this concept needed to overcome was the contrast between the holiness of God and the commonness or uncleanness of man. God, by His very nature, could not tolerate sin or uncleanness. Therefore it was necessary for a system to be established where man’s nature could be covered in order that God could physically dwell among the people. This is the role which some of the sacrifices and the ceremonial washing played. Despite the complexity and the necessary separation between God and man even inside this system, God’s motivation was His love as represented by a longing to be as close as possible to His people. 

Cleansing was necessary on multiple occasions. Without delving into the topic of sin, we see that various physical circumstances which were not necessarily sinful caused one to be ceremonially unclean (Leviticus 12:2, Numbers 19:11). This unclean status is not about germs or bacteria, but seems to be a physical state one could temporarily enter which prevented them from physically drawing near to God and engaging in certain modes of worship associated with the tabernacle.

Washing was part of God’s prescribed remedy for when such ceremonial uncleanness was contracted. For example, we read that after coming in contact with a dead body, a person would be unclean for seven days:

Then the clean person shall sprinkle on the unclean on the third day and on the seventh day; and on the seventh day he shall purify him from uncleanness, and he shall wash his clothes and bathe himself in water and shall be clean by evening. (Numbers 19:19)

The bathing mentioned here is the ritual immersion which we are speaking of. The same chapter indicates that not just any water ought to be used for this washing, but rather the water one should immerse in was “flowing water” (Numbers 19:17). What this means exactly is not explicitly stated in Scripture. While an ocean, lake, or river seems to be the most obvious form of flowing water (2 Kings 5:10), the rabbis also discerned that rainwater could be considered flowing water where no larger bodies of water were available to immerse in. 

Because of the need for such ritual immersion, many Jewish communities around the world built baths, called mikva’ot, into their synagogues in order to ensure that water was collected in the proper way and to facilitate ease of immersion. Eventually the practice of regular immersion, even while not in a status of ceremonial uncleanness, became a mark of piety. Men would immerse daily before morning prayers as a spiritual act to signify that they had purified their hearts before coming into worship. After the destruction of the temple, this emphasis on immersion as signifying internal cleansing became more prominent since the necessity of ceremonial cleanness is only in effect while the temple or tabernacle worship exists. Today it is customary in some Jewish traditions to immerse before holy days. It is also common for women to immerse before marriage. 

The nature of immersion and its post-temple application is described by Maimonides, one of the most famous Jewish sages of the Middle Ages. On the topic of the true purpose and essence of ceremonial washings he says:

The immersion is a Scriptural decree and requires the focusing the intent of one’s heart. Therefore our Sages said: “When one immersed, but did not intend to purify himself,” it is as if he did not immerse. Although it is a Scriptural decree, there is an allusion involved: One who focuses his heart on purifying himself becomes purified once he immerses, even though there was no change in his body. Similarly, one who focuses his heart on purifying his soul from the impurities of the soul, which are wicked thoughts and bad character traits, becomes purified when he resolves within his heart to distance himself from such counsel and immerse his soul in the waters of knowledge. (Sefer Tahara, Mikvaot 11:12)

According to this interpretation, if one who immersed did not purpose in his heart to cleanse his soul along with his body, then his physical immersion was invalid. Following from this logic, then, he states that this act of immersion is mirrored in repentance and the purification of the heart. Truly the focus of both immersion and repentance, therefore, is for the heart to be changed more into the likeness of God.

Perhaps the most striking example of the beliefs regarding the connection between ceremonial purity and spiritual purity was in the Essene community. Although the Essenes separated themselves from the worship of the temple, they did not disassociate from the concepts of ceremonial purity and immersion, and in fact took on a more extreme view regarding purity. The Essenes emphasized what they saw as the two essential parts of man, i.e., flesh and spirit. A person’s physical nature, his flesh, was inherently sinful and corrupt, while his spirit could be influenced for either good or evil. Despite this, man was not so much considered a duality but a unity, where flesh and spirit became one in forming a person. Therefore impurities and deformities of the flesh were directly connected with impurities of the soul. Sin of the heart made the body ritually impure and ritual impurity in the body defiled the heart. Repentance and immersion were therefore inseparable:

For it is through the spirit of true counsel concerning the ways of man that all his sins shall be expiated that he may contemplate the light of life. He shall be cleansed from all his sins by the spirit of holiness uniting him to His truth, and his iniquity shall be expiated by the spirit of uprightness and humility. And when his flesh is sprinkled with purifying water and sanctified by cleansing water, it shall be made clean by the humble submission of his soul to all the precepts of God. (1QS III, 6-10)

In addition to the requirements of ceremonial purity, immersion, as we have seen, was undertaken for other purposes as well. Different types of immersion existed outside of what was directly commanded in the Torah, and different corresponding interpretations of what immersion meant arose with them. Another type of ceremonial washing that was widely recognized was immersion upon converting to Judaism. In fact, even today a person who wishes to convert to Judaism does so through circumcision (if they are a male) and immersion in a mikvah

In an earlier lesson we touched on how a convert to Judaism would be instructed in various things about the religion prior to conversion. After these instructions were given, and in the case of a male after circumcision took place, the final step in conversion was to immerse. This immersion sealed the convert within their new identity:

Once he has immersed and emerged, he is like a born Jew in every sense… The procedure applies for both a convert and an emancipated slave who, upon immersion at the time of his emancipation, becomes a Jew in every sense. (b. Yevamot 47b)

In each of the various types of washings we have looked at, it has been observed that immersion itself is an important symbol and a type of transformation. Outward washing of the flesh was required in certain circumstances, but this was not to be done without understanding the spiritual significance of the act. As time progressed, this emphasis on the inward aspects of immersion led to its acceptance as a sign of devotion or personal piety outside of or parallel to the Levitical purity laws.

New Testament Immersion

Now that we have established a little bit of a context, we can begin looking at baptism and immersion as we see it in the New Testament. The practice of immersion which was established by John the Baptist and later Yeshua and the apostles was not new in form. We have already looked at the various circumstances which might be a motivation to immerse within Judaism, and the outward practices associated with immersion in the New Testament appear to be another form of these washings. The main difference between baptism and the other washings was the purpose and motivation for immersion and what it signified for a person’s life.

John the Baptist, who obviously gets this name from the practice which he has become famous for, nevertheless did not invent the practice of baptism or immersion. His task was to proclaim the coming King, Yeshua the Messiah, and prepare the people for His coming. To this end, his primary task was to preach a message of repentance (Matthew 3:1-3, Luke 3:10-14). In an earlier lesson we saw that repentance involves turning away from sin and aligning oneself toward God and His ways. John’s immersion was not one of conversion, but of restoration from spiritual impurity. 

Unlike some other forms of immersion, the baptism of John seems to be one that was not to be repeatedly received. Its purpose was to mark a significant one-time event in a person’s life as they committed to repentance in preparation for the coming of the Messiah and His Kingdom. This immersion was not a replacement, but a component within the various washings in Judaism, established during that particular time and place to indicate that those who were immersed had repented and been cleansed in preparation for the coming of Messiah (Luke 3:3). 

Repentance in the heart was necessary before the physical immersion could be exercised, and John would not baptize those who he knew had not really been affected by his message (Matthew 3:7-8). The purpose of baptism in all of this was to serve as a physical symbol of internal purification brought about by repentance. If no repentance was present, then the immersion would be in vain. The people came to him, were changed, and reflected that change by immersing as a sign of a new beginning. They understood the process and what it signified.

Baptism took on a similar form for the followers of Yeshua. Once again, this immersion was a one-time event that could not be repeated. It was an immersion into Messiah’s death, and to repeat it would be to symbolically crucify Him again (Romans 6:3-4). 

When the Holy Spirit was poured out on the day of Pentecost, Peter’s words, like John’s before, cut directly to the soul of those who were listening. According to Yeshua’s command in Matthew 28:19, Peter tells the crowds, “Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Yeshua the Messiah for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38). A few verses later we are told that around three thousand people believed and were baptized that very day. The command to baptize is given without introduction or instruction, because the people already knew what this baptism meant. What was new was that this immersion would serve as a one-time initiatory act declaring their faith in Yeshua the Messiah, the Son of God. Archaeological discoveries within the last century have made it evident that mikva’ot were not in short supply in Jerusalem during that time, so it is not difficult to believe that such a large group of people were able to be baptized through full-body water immersion on that day.

About or Before?

While our discussion thus far has given us valuable insight into immersion and baptism during the Judaism and Christianity practiced during the first century, we are still left with the question, what does “instruction about washings” mean in our Hebrews 6 passage? Was it about how to conduct immersions for personal piety/ceremonial cleanliness or for initiatory baptisms? 

Most believers today would outrightly reject the first option. The early believers would not have seen it this way, however. Baptismal immersion was not seen as a negation of the other forms of immersion and purification. Evidence of this can be seen in the fact that throughout the book of Acts, the temple acts as the main hub of worship, even after Pentecost (Acts 2:46, 3:1, 21:26, 22:17). This fact alone necessitates the practice of ceremonial immersion for the cleansing of physical impurities according to the Levitical commandments. To enter the temple while ceremonially impure would be a transgression of the Torah and a legally punishable offense. 

That being said, it is not likely that the passage in Hebrews is implying these types of ceremonial washings. Jews who came to believe in Yeshua would have already known the instructions regarding washings, and Gentiles were not allowed into the temple. Gentiles sometimes carried out these types of commandments in their own way according to their ability; for example, we see Cornelius praying in his own home during the time of sacrifice (Acts 10:3-4, 30-31). Although this is the case, this is not likely what the passage in Hebrews is talking about.

If this phrase speaks of baptism, then our initial questions we asked still remain: what instructions are necessary when speaking of baptism, and why is the plural form of baptizo used? Perhaps our answers can be found in the Didache. 

After describing the ways of life and death in chapters one through six, the Didache begins this way: “Concerning immersion, immerse in this way: Having first said all these things, immerse in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit in living water” (Didache 7.1). There are several things to unpack from this first verse. First of all, we find that this is quite possibly just what we are looking for: instruction about immersion. This chapter gives us specific instructions for how immersions are to be conducted and prepared for, thus possibly fulfilling the role we are attempting to fill from Hebrews 6

Immersion was only to take place after “having first said all these things.” There are two main possibilities for what this could mean. It could mean that before immersing a person, the words of the Didache were to be read aloud to the one being immersed. This would provide a final reminder of what this baptism would result in for the believer. It is very likely that this was accompanied by the second possibility: that the one being baptized was only to undergo immersion after being thoroughly instructed in the ways a believer should walk. 

In this second case, instead of instruction about washing, it could be thought of as instruction about what washing means, that is, what your life will look like after undergoing the training and being immersed into Messiah. If this is what is being spoken of in Hebrews, then this instruction before washing could be understood as a catechism or education in how a believer walks, e.g., the Didache.

Some may argue that baptism in Scripture, for example throughout Acts,  doesn’t seem to follow this formula. Instead, baptism seems to be the result of an instantaneous conviction and therefore any education in the faith would take place after immersion. A counter-argument to this would be to explain that these examples from Scripture were exceptional circumstances rather than a sustainable general practice. In many of the situations observed in Acts, the ones being immersed already had a religious education and understood the Scriptures. Additionally, it is justifiable to believe that if baptism is a decision to follow Yeshua, then it is necessary to know what this requires prior to being immersed so that a lasting, educated decision can be made rather than a transient, emotional one (Matthew 28:19-20, Luke 14:25-33). 

The question of whether baptism should be before or after a period of catechism essentially rests on our position regarding the purpose and meaning of baptism. If it is a symbol of a changed heart, then we would be more inclined to baptize as soon as the heart changes. If it is rather the result of making a conscious, informed decision to become a disciple of Messiah after having such a change of heart, then we would likely agree that some period of education about the faith is necessary before baptism. If we compare baptism into Messiah with John’s immersions, where the people were educated on how to behave upon coming to John to be immersed, we would probably be more prone to accept the latter opinion (Luke 3:10-14). 

Returning to our verse in the Didache, we see the familiar command to immerse “in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.” Likewise, a couple of verses later we read that if sufficient water is not available to fully immerse, then the proper procedure is as follows: “Pour water on the head three times in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit” (Didache 7.3). The command to immerse according to this formula is found in Matthew 28:19. Yet in Acts we see on the contrary the disciples declaring to the people that they should immerse “in the name of Yeshua the Messiah” (Acts 2:38). Which are we supposed to use, the formula recorded in Matthew or one of the several variations recorded in Acts? Do they contradict each other?

It may be helpful to recognize that the phrase “in the name of” is somewhat common in early Jewish literature. In this context it usually means “for the sake of.” With this in mind, immersing in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit would not necessarily mean vocalizing these names as the immersion took place, although it wouldn’t preclude these words from being spoken either. Instead, it indicated the purpose of the immersion and the intention one ought to have upon immersing. For example, we read the following in the Talmud:

In the case of a Jew who purchased a slave from a gentile, and before he managed to immerse him for the sake of [lit. “in the name of”] slavery the slave preempted him and immersed for the sake of conversion to render himself a freeman, he thereby acquired himself and becomes a freeman, i.e., his immersion effects a full conversion and he is no longer a slave. (b. Yevamot 45b)

Without delving into the meaning of this passage itself and instead focusing on the relevant phrases, we can see that the different types of immersion were classified as being done “in the name of” the reason for immersion. In the example above, we see that one being immersed in the name of slavery was immersing because they were immersing prior to becoming a slave. Likewise one who was immersing to be freed from slavery was said to be immersing in the name of freedom. The difference was not between words spoken at immersion, but of the purpose for the immersion. Applying this to our baptism resolves the discrepancy between Yeshua’s command in Matthew 28 and the apostles’ description of immersing in Yeshua’s name. These were not necessarily binding phrases that were used during immersion, but the phrases used in describing immersion were fluid and not yet bound to any specific formula. What these phrases indicated was that the immersion placed one under the authority of Yeshua and brought one into unity with Him. 

The Didache does seem to indicate here that the phrase was spoken aloud, as we noted above that water was poured on the head three times in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Others who support using the Trinitarian formula in baptism have argued that when the disciples spoke of being baptized in the name of Yeshua, they used that phrase to mean in the manner which He prescribed to them as recorded at the end of Matthew’s gospel. After the Didache, the next earliest document mentioning baptism also indicates that the phrase was spoken aloud at the immersion: “There is pronounced over him who chooses to be born again, and has repented of his sins, the name of God the Father… And in the name of Jesus Christ… and in the name of the Holy Ghost” (Justin Martyr, First Apology 61). 

Moving on in our first verse of the baptismal section of the Didache we see that the immersion is to take place “in living water.” This is followed by the conditional statement, “But if you do not have living water, immerse in other water; and if you cannot immerse in cold water, then immerse in warm water” (Didache 7.2). What is this living water, and why make these types of distinctions? 

Interestingly, the language used here is very similar to that used in the Jewish legal code called the Mishnah in the tractate which speaks of rules for immersion. Here, “living water,” mayim chayim in Hebrew, is categorized as the preferred type of water to be immersed in, described as “pure, potable spring waters” (m. Mikva’ot 1:8). Considered as less preferred but still acceptable for immersion are waters which flow but are not drinkable; a small amount of spring water mixed with a large amount of drawn water (e.g., from a well); water collected in a mikva; rainwater not collected; and least preferred, water collected in shallow pools in the ground. 

Although these distinctions are not described in the Didache, it does seem to be alluding to some already known categories of immersion water by making a distinction between “living water” and “other water.” The reason for distinguishing between different forms of water for immersion is the perceived ritual purity of the waters themselves. While the type of water used to baptize may not make the immersion any less effective spiritually, still in keeping with the symbolism of immersion it is best to use the purest type of water available to fully represent the cleansing nature of baptism into this faith.

The final verse in chapter 7 of the Didache concludes the teaching about immersion in the following manner: 

Prior to the immersion, the one performing the immersion and the one being immersed should fast beforehand, and also any others if they can. Require the one being immersed to fast one or two days prior to the immersion. (Didache 7.4)

From this we can gather that after the student has gone through a sufficient period so that they have completed their catechism, they are then to partake of a fast for at least one day in preparation for their immersion. Different opinions exist today as to what a fast ought to consist of, but Scripture indicates that it was abstinence from eating as well as drinking (Esther 4:16). Not only the one being immersed was to fast, but also the one who led them into baptism. Although it may not immediately come to mind that the immerser plays such a role that he must fast beforehand, we see once again the thought-patterns behind the purity laws showing themselves in this early form of baptism. If the one immersing must fast as a sign of purity, then how much more ought the one who is leading them into immersion and connecting them to their washing be pure in this sense also.

This practice of fasting in conjunction with baptism indicates the solemnity and sanctity that was associated with the practice. Fasts were taken up for various reasons in Judaism and early Christianity. One practice was to fast as an outward sign of penitence or mourning over sins committed. We see several examples of nationwide fasts being declared in this fashion in order to show remorse and to avert God’s judgment (Joel 2:12-14, Jonah 3:4-5, 7-10). This nature of fasting was understood to be applicable in the same manner on an individual basis when sin was committed. Of course the fast itself was not of any use if it was not accompanied by repentance and a changed heart (Isaiah 58:3-8). We also see examples of fasts being taken in order to entreat God’s favor or guidance in some particular area, as we saw in Esther above and as we also see for example in Ezra 8:21 and 2 Chronicles 20:2-4.

We may understand, then, that fasting as associated with baptism was for a couple of reasons. First it was meant to indicate remorse for the believer’s past life of sin. Scripture teaches that fasting is a valid expression of remorse for sinful behaviors, and it is fitting that such a practice would be involved as a final reminder of the sin which the new believer will be leaving behind. Fasting is often associated with prayer and introspection, and these practices combined would serve as a positive reinforcement that this immersion and what it represents was not to be entered into lightly or without thought.

Also partially represented by this practice is another expression of dying to self. Humans obviously need food and water to survive. Abstaining from food and drink leading up to immersion serves to make that mental picture of the “old man” dying all the more vivid before descending into the waters of immersion. 

Examining “instruction about washings” in light of the Didache provides us with an interesting perspective on immersion and illuminates some concepts which may not have entered into much of our discussion about baptism before. It is possible that the phrase “instruction about washings” in our Hebrews passage refers to a similar body of instruction about how to conduct immersions.

Conclusion

Several questions initially arose when we encountered the phrase “instruction about washings” in Hebrews 6. In order to more fully understand what types of washings were being discussed, we began with the purity laws in the Torah and learned how different types of immersion arose from out of these commandments, including immersion as a mode of conversion. As such, early Christian modes of baptism were seen to bear many similarities to what our records of Jewish baptisms indicate.

After all has been examined, there are two main perspectives on what “instruction about washings” might mean. First, it could mean instructions about how to immerse and what the process of baptism entails, as we saw in Didache 7. Another possibility is that “instruction about washings” actually implies a catechism or instruction which is given prior to washing, in our example the Didache itself or some other similar oral or written instruction which is no longer existent. 

Doctrines surrounding baptism are not generally a topic which we tend to invest too much thought in during our daily walk, but the importance of baptism for the new believer should not be underestimated and it should not be rushed into. While dipping in water itself does not change a person, immersion as an outward manifestation of a death and submission to God’s will through Messiah is a serious, life-altering event. The example of the Scriptures is to not allow a person to be baptized unless they fully comprehend the weight of what they are about to do and what this road may require of them. Therefore we ought to keep all of these things in mind in our evangelistic methods and in the way we prepare new believers for acceptance into the body of Messiah.

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