Was baptism new to the Jews? A look at Mikveh and what John's disciples may have been arguing about in John 3:22-28
John 3: 22 - 28
22 After this, Jesus and his disciples went out into the Judean countryside, where he spent some time with them, and baptized.23 Now John also was baptizing at Aenon near Salim, because there was plenty of water, and people were constantly coming to be baptized. 24 (This was before John was put in prison.)25 An argument developed between some of John's disciples and a certain Jew over the matter of ceremonial washing.26 They came to John and said to him, "Rabbi, that man who was with you on the other side of the Jordan--the one you testified about--well, he is baptizing, and everyone is going to him." 27 To this John replied, "A man can receive only what is given him from heaven. 28 You yourselves can testify that I said, 'I am not the Christ but am sent ahead of him.'
After the Passover, we left Jerusalem and went out into the Judean countryside. We felt honored that a Rabbi as great as Jesus would want to spend time with us. We learned so much from him. People came from the small towns and villages to listen to him, many of them followed us wherever we went. We found ourselves baptizing. John, the baptizer was also baptizing a bit north of us, on the other side of the river. He was with his disciples in Aenon, near Salim. He was continuing his mission to prepare the hearts of the people for the sacrifice Jesus would make for them. The people were learning that they were sinners and that they needed to repent in order to be forgiven of their sins. They heard that the Kingdom of Heaven was near and they should turn away from their sins and turn towards Jesus who would save them from the penalties of their sins. As John and Jesus preached, the people were confessing their sins and being baptized to show their repentance.
Baptism wasn’t exactly new to us Jews. We called it Mikveh in Hebrew. Immersion was performed as a form of showing regret for past wrongdoings and a willingness to change. This was patterned after our Jewish history of Adam and Eve standing in water up to their necks for days in repentance for their sin. There were also several ceremonial washings required for the purification and cleansing required by our law. High Priests immersed themselves several times a day before certain duties. Different sects among us had different views and practices. For example, the Essenes were baptized every morning so they could pronounce the name of God in perfect purity, or to make sure they were prepared for the coming Messiah. Others felt it was a form of holy living that allowed one to have closer communication with God. Being baptized in a spring or flowing river was considered the highest form of baptism. Called Living Water, it represented the forgiveness of sins. It was through baptism that every new convert to Judaism was cleansed of their idolatry and returned to the purity of a new born man or made a new creature, coming from darkness to light. The symbolism of the different immersions and the parallels to what Jesus would later do for us on the cross were amazing.
I think there was some confusion over the purpose of John’s baptism and the baptism we were doing. We heard that some of his disciples had gotten into an argument over the ceremonial washings with some of the other Jews. It must have made them a bit defensive and maybe even a little competitive. After all, John had been baptizing first but once we started baptizing for Jesus, a lot of the people left John and followed Jesus. I’m sure some of them didn’t like feeling that they were losing influence. It didn’t bother John though. He knew the role God had given him to do and he was content with it. He was glad that Jesus was gaining influence. He reminded his disciples that Jesus was greater than he was and encouraged them to believe in Jesus.
As much as I admired John, we all knew that we had something special in Jesus. He was the real thing, the Son of God. Only he had the ability to truly forgive sins. I hate to think how many souls would have been lost if John had decided that he liked having everyone follow him and neglected to point them to Jesus. It reminds me that God gives each of us a role to play in his kingdom. Sometimes I have to be careful to be content in my own role and not wish to be like someone else who seems to get more attention. I can find it hard to not get jealous of others victories and try to make them my own. I wonder if anyone else is the same way. John is a great example for me. It is good to be content with what God has given us to do.
You may read on to see John's view of Jesus' growing popularity as John the Baptist steps aside. Thank you!
Moseley,Ron Ph.D. "The Jewish Backround of Christian Baptism." Arkansas Institute of Holy Land Studies. http://www.haydid.org/ronimmer.htm .14March2012
"Baptism" Jewish Encyclopedia.com. http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/2456-baptism 14March2012