Under the Water
Yeshua commissioned his disciples to go out and “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that [he had] commanded [them]” (Matthew 28:19-20).
A disciple is a student of a rabbi. Baptism was originally a Jewish purification ritual involving immersion in water. Why does becoming a disciple include undergoing this ritual?
When the church separated from Judaism, it also lost track of the meaning and significance of baptism. Messianic Judaism attempts to recover some of that lost meaning and significance.
Christian baptism has evolved into several different types of rituals with a broad range of meaning and significance to various sects of Christianity. It’s a contentious issue. But we can sidestep all that controversy by looking at the ritual as it functioned in early Judaism and in the New Testament era. Regardless of what brand of baptism you might prefer, all of them have one thing in common: they all began as a simple Jewish purification ritual.
Objections to Baptism
Generally speaking, most teachers in Messianic Judaism do not regard baptism as sacramental. Messianic Jews have an uncomfortable relationship with baptism because in the past, Christian missionaries forced Jewish believers in Yeshua to undergo baptism to become members of their respective churches. Those baptisms required Jews to break from the Jewish community. Jewish communities conducted funerals for Jews who underwent baptism. Once a Jewish person was baptized as Lutheran or Catholic or Methodist or Baptist, he or she was no longer considered Jewish or able to practice Judaism. Some unscrupulous missionaries were known to pay Jews to undergo baptism.
Due to these negative associations, most Messianic Jews prefer to avoid the word “baptism” completely. They prefer to translate the New Testament Greek behind the word “baptism” more literally as “immersion.” That’s why you might hear about the interesting New Testament character “John the Immerser” but nary a word about “John the Baptist.”
Many of the Messianic Jewish luminaries who pioneered Messianic Judaism resisted undergoing baptism into any formal church or denomination. Rabbi Isaac Lichtenstein initially baptized himself in a Sabbath mikvah and refused to be immersed as a member of a church. Rabbi Yechiel Tzvi Lichtenstein immersed himself in the name of Yeshua along with other students from his yeshiva in a nearby river. Rabbi Daniel Zion staunchly rejected appeals by various missionaries to let them baptize him.
Most Messianic Jewish teachers would agree that immersion need not be performed in any specific manner, or in fact performed at all, to obtain salvation. Instead, salvation comes by God’s grace, mercy, and kindness, and he grants forgiveness of sins to those who repent from sin in our Master’s name, with or without water. Neither are Messianic Jewish immersions conducted for the purpose of removing original sin—Judaism does not hold with the doctrine of original sin. In Judaism, if a child dies (God forbid), that child’s spirit goes straight to Paradise. So if baptism doesn’t remove original sin, what does it accomplish?
First Fruits of Zion