In the Jewish law, ceremonial washing was required to allow a man or a woman to be ceremonially clean before God. There were several situations in which a person could be considered to be ceremonially unclean and need to be washed. Those might include:
- A woman’s menstruation
- A man or woman’s discharge of sexual fluids
- Contact with a dead body, either an animal or a person
In addition, ceremonial washing was also frequently performed in advance of celebrating the sabbath, or important days such as Yom Kippur or the festivals when the Jews would make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.
A new convert to Judaism would also need to be washed.
And finally – so to speak – they would also generally perform a washing for the dead prior to burial.
In these, and probably also other scenarios, the washing would need to be performed through full immersion in what they would call “living water”, meaning water that was running and continually refreshed. That might be a river, but was most frequently done in a pool or a bath that was connected to a fresh water spring, thus allowing the water to be refreshed by the continual running of the water from the water coming from the spring.
I mention this because today I have been reading in John 3 where both John the Baptist and Jesus were at the Jordan baptizing. Jesus and John had both been preaching a message of repentance from sin, and for this the people came to be baptized – probably in their minds, ceremonially washed, similar their prior Jewish custom.
But this washing was, indeed, different. In the Jewish custom, you don’t see cleansing from sin as one of the reasons to be washed and yet here, they are washed as a sign of repentance from sin.
Earlier in the chapter, Jesus points out to Nicodemus, who had come to him in the night from the Jewish ruling council, that if you want to enter the kingdom of God, you must be born of the water and of the Spirit. Jesus is talking about a washing that occurs from the outside – a demonstration of your repentance from sin and belief in Christ through the washing of baptism – and through the washing and rebirth of the person’s spirit by the Spirit of God.
“Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’John 3:5-7
This lasts even up to today. Jesus isn’t calling us to follow all of the requirements of ceremonial washing and by “ceremonially” clean. The ceremony of the rituals of sacrifice has been completed through God’s sacrifice of Jesus on the cross.
Instead, he calls us to be completely clean, both inside and out, through a washing by water as well as a new birth – from death to life – by the Spirit of God’s work within us. Praise God that he comes for us to give us new life!