|Volume 24 Number 3 March 2022
“To what does ‘purification’ refer in John 3:25? Doesn’t the context refer to Jewish purification and not baptism?” To answer these questions, we need to address both one significant aspect of Jewish purification as well as what John 3:25 teaches.
First, one widespread form of Jewish purification resembled John’s and Jesus’ baptisms.
Three kinds of washing are recognized in Biblical and rabbinical law: (1) washing of the hands, (2) washing of the hands and feet, and (3) immersion of the whole body in water. …The washing of the whole body, however, is the form of ablution most specifically and exactingly required by the Law. The cases in which the immersion of the whole body is commanded, either for purification or consecration, are very numerous. (“Ablution”)
Citations for the above quotation include Exodus 29:4; 40:12; Leviticus 15:5-10, 16, 18-27; 16:24-28; 22:4-6; Numbers 19:7-8, 19; 2 Samuel 11:2, 4.
Consequently, numerous ancient baptistries were carved out of stone in Jewish communities and neighborhoods. Such a baptistry, however, is called a mikveh, mikvah, mikve or miqweh. A mikveh “is a bath used for the purpose of ritual immersion in Judaism to achieve ritual purity. Most forms of ritual impurity can be purified through immersion in any natural collection of water” (“Mikveh”).
The following quotation distinguishes one use for the mikveh and how the purification was performed and differed from John’s and Jesus’ baptisms. “…Jewish practice in the mikveh, for proselyte baptism as well as for other ritual purifications, is self-immersion, in contrast with the common present-day Christian baptismal practice of being immersed by someone else” (Stern, “Acts 22:16”). “…A Gentile initiated into God’s people Israel had to (1) immerse himself in a mikveh for ritual purification, (2) offer a sacrifice at the Temple (a requirement which ended when the Temple was destroyed) and, if a man, (3) be circumcised” (Stern, “Galatians 5:2-4”).
Another occasion for Jewish ceremonial or ritual purification pertains to marriage. “A Jewish bride enters the mikveh (ritual bath) in order to be purified prior to the marriage ceremony, which is called kiddushin (literally, ‘being set apart for God’)” (Stern, “Ephesians 5:26-27”). Furthermore, “today’s Orthodox Jewish women cannot offer a sacrifice, since there is no Temple; but they immerse themselves in a mikveh in partial observance of the purification rite. …In our own times, even though neither the Written nor Oral Torah requires it, some Orthodox Jewish men immerse themselves in a mikveh on Friday afternoon in order to be ritually pure before the commencement of Shabbat” (Stern, “Luke 2:22-24”). Readiness for “the full Sabbath… does require preparation, especially the mikveh, which is immersion for purification, also called sanctification” (Morford).
The Jews who witnessed the baptisms being administered by John’s disciples as well as by the disciples of Jesus were very familiar with the outward form of baptism because they had undergone similar acts of purification throughout their lives. Let there be no mistake that the baptisms performed by the disciples of John and by the disciples of Jesus were ceremonial or ritual forms of purification. What’s more, Christian baptism, which superseded the baptisms of John’s disciples, as well as prior Jewish purifications, is also the zenith form of ceremonial or ritual purification – actually forgiving sins (Acts 2:38; 22:16; 1 Peter 3:21). When one believes and is baptized (Mark 16:16) – inward conviction validated with outward activity – Jesus adds him or her to “the church” (Acts 2:47), while at the same time, the Holy Spirit adds one to the “body,” (1 Corinthians 12:13), which is the church (Ephesians 1:22-23; Colossians 1:18).
The mikveh or mikvah often was rectangular and large, but they came in all sizes and shapes. They were often near a water source and usually associated with a synagogue. “The mikvah often had a divided or double stair-case, which allowed the ritually unclean person to enter on one side and depart on the other side after being cleansed” (“Waterworks”). For an illustrated and informational depiction of the mikveh, go to the website for The Interactive Bible at www.Bible.ca and search for “mikveh.”
Now, secondly, what are we to understand about John 3:25? The context in which the verse appears concerns non-disciples of John the Baptist – one or more Jews – the disciples of John and John the Baptist. The subjects mentioned were purification – possibly Jewish purification – John the Baptist, Jesus Christ and baptisms performed by the disciples of John and Jesus. John 3:25 reads, “Then there arose a dispute between some of John’s disciples and the Jews about purification” (NKJV).
The Jamieson, Fausset and Brown Commentary says, “About purifying - that is, baptizing; the symbolical meaning of washing with water being put (as in John 2:6) for the act itself.”
Most of the context – John 3:22-36 – is John’s exaltation of Jesus Christ. John the Baptist disregarded any complaints and inquiries suggesting a rivalry between himself and the Christ, for Christ’s disciples baptizing more people than John’s disciples.
Contemporary doctrines in Christendom conflict regarding baptism, but that’s nothing new. “The disciples of John came to him with the dispute (the first known baptismal controversy, on the meaning of the ceremony) and with a complaint” (Robertson’s). Brother Guy N. Woods observed, “Having noted that both Jesus and John baptized, assumed that this act was comparable to the purification rites of the Jews, which involved dipping in water, and undoubtedly his question was with reference to this. Also, he must have asked about the relative position of Jesus and John.”
Refusing to engage in a rivalry between himself and our Lord, John the Baptist defused the primary complaint that Christ’s disciples were baptizing more souls than were his own followers. “The subject of debate seems to have been, whether the baptism of John, or that of Christ, was the most efficacious towards purifying” (Clarke). “It [contention] would seem probable that it was about the comparative value and efficacy of the baptism performed by John and by the disciples of Jesus” (Barnes). The debate essentially was “as to whether the baptism of Jesus or of John had the greater purifying power” (Vincent’s).
In conclusion, the Jewish purification that involved immersion in water and the baptism performed by John the Baptist and Jesus Christ (through His disciples) resembled each other. They were both immersions, but whereas Jewish purification by immersion was self-immersion, John’s baptism and later, Christian baptism are administered by someone. In addition, and more importantly, the purposes of Jewish purification, John’s baptism and Christian baptism differed from each other. Jews typically would go through Jewish immersion for purification hundreds of times in their lives. John’s baptism, administered by John’s disciples and the disciples of Jesus were one-time events for the remission of sins but contingent on offering the perfect sacrifice – the Lamb of God (Jesus Christ). After the establishment of the church (Acts 2:47), Christian baptism is also a one-time event and actually for the remission of sins.
John the Baptist was fully aware of and completely embraced his role as the forerunner of the Messiah. He said, “You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, ‘I am not the Christ,’ but, ‘I have been sent before Him’…He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:28, 30).
Finally, Jewish immersion for purification and John’s baptism are types, foreshadowing Christian baptism, through which one derives the ultimate purification – the forgiveness of past sins (Romans 3:25). “There is also an antitype which now saves us — baptism (not the removal of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God), through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 3:21).
“Ablution.” International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia. Electronic Database. Seattle: Biblesoft, 2006.
Barnes, Albert. Barnes’ Notes. Electronic Database. Seattle: Biblesoft, 2014.
Clarke, Adam. Adam Clarke’s Commentary. Electronic Database. Seattle: Biblesoft, 2006.
Jamieson, Fausset and Brown Commentary. Electronic Database. Seattle: Biblesoft, 2014.
“Mikveh.” Interactive Bible, The. 31 Jan 2022. <https://www.bible.ca/synagogues/Mikvah-Christian-Maker-Baptistry-wash-sins-Architectural-ancient-Synagogue-pre-70AD-standardized-typology-design-incorporated-copied-similarities-into-church.htm>.
“Mikveh.” Wikipedia. 31 Jan 2022. <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mikveh>.
Morford, William J. “Preparation Day.” The One New Man Bible. Travelers Rest, SC: True Potential P., 2011.
Robertson’s Word Pictures in the New Testament. Electronic Database. Seattle: Biblesoft, 2006.
Stern, David H. “Acts 22:16.” Jewish New Testament Commentary. Clarksville, MD: Jewish New Testament P., 1992.
_ _ _. “Ephesians 5:26-27.” Jewish New Testament Commentary. Clarksville, MD: Jewish New Testament P., 1992.
_ _ _. “Luke 2:22-24.” Jewish New Testament Commentary. Clarksville, MD: Jewish New Testament P., 1992.
Vincent’s Word Studies in the New Testament. Electronic Database. Seattle: Biblesoft, 2006.
“Waterworks.” International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia. Revised ed. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans P., 1979.
Woods, Guy N. The Gospel According to John. Electronic Database. Nashville: Gospel Advocate Company, 1989.