Immersed in the Cloud and the Sea

Red Sea
The Red Sea, Image by Angela Rutherford via Flickr

Okay, let’s try this again and pray that the strange error that messed this up yesterday doesn’t repeat itself.

I have been very blessed in the last few days to have the opportunity to email with some of my Christian brethren in Kenya and Tanzania.  One of the subjects that came up fits right in with an event in the Exodus that we don’t have an exact date for, but which probably would have taken place at around this time.  The question was one which has been hotly debated among Protestant Christians for hundreds of years:  Does one have to be baptized–ritually immersed in water–in order to be saved?

This may seem simple to some, but it’s actually rooted in a very Protestant understanding of law vs. grace.  On the one hand, the New Testament doesn’t present immersion as an optional act:  “Repent, and be immersed, every one of you, in the name of Yeshua the Messiah for the forgiveness of sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38).  On the other hand, if you say immersion or baptism is necessary for salvation, you have just inserted works–however small a work it may be–into a salvation that is supposed to be by grace alone (Rom. 3:28, among many other passages).

If you take the position that baptism is manditory for salvation, you run into another thorny problem:  How do you make sure that your baptism is the “right one”?  If you’re baptized at the age of nine at church camp, does that count, or do you have to baptized only as an adult?  If you are rebaptized, does that negate an earlier baptism?  Does it have to be by immersion, or does being sprinkled count?  Should one sprinkle infants?  (On the last question, I have an older article entitled Baptism vs. Mikveh vs. Circumcision that you may find interesting.)

I should note that some of the above questions are far less of a problem in Messianic Judaism where, as in traditional Judaism, we undergo ritual immersion in water many times in our life.  We are immersed when we become adults in a bar mitzvah, and again before becoming married.  I was immersed when I was ordained.  Married women immerse once a month at the end of their periods.  We immerse to purify ourselves after becoming ritually unclean.  It is a common practice to immerse in repentence in preparation for Yom Kippur–or indeed, for anyone who is coming back into his walk with the Holy One to immerse in repentence.

The latter was the origin of the immersion practiced by Yochanan HaTivlei, or John the Baptist.  Yeshua’s immersion was derived from a different practice, that being the conversion of a proselyte to Judaism.  When a Gentile was circumcised, he was allowed to heal and then undertook his first immersion in a mikveh, a ritual immersion pool.  He was considered to die as a Gentile, but came out of the pool “born again” as a Jew:

The proselyte is regarded as a new-born child; hence his former family connections are considered as ended, and he might legally marry his own mother or sister; but lest he come to the conclusion that his new status is less holy than his former, such unions are prohibited (see Shulḥan ‘Aruk, Yoreh De’ah, 269; Yad,” Issure Biah, xiv. 13). This conception of the proselyte’s new birth (Yeb. 62a; Yer. Yeb. 4a) and of his new status with reference to his old family is the ubject of many a halakie [legal]discussion (Yeb. xi. 2; Yer. Yeb. l.c.; et al.)

Read more: Jewish Encyclopedia Online

Nicodemus’ question to Yeshua, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb, and be born?” (John 3:4) was actually an extremely polite, disciple-like way of asking, “What do you mean?  I’m already a Jew!”  But that’s a subject that should be covered in more detail another time.

For now, I’d like to tackle the question of whether a person is saved before or only after their ritual immersion into Yeshua by going down a different route than normally taken by those in this debate.  I think the key to understanding the issue is found in 1Co. 10:1-4:

For I do not want you to be unaware, brethren, that our fathers were all under the cloud and all passed through the sea; and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea; and all ate the same spiritual food; and all drank the same spiritual drink, for they were drinking from a spiritual rock which followed them; and the rock was Messiah.

In other words, Paul is comparing what my Christian brethren call baptism, the ritual immersion into water, to the Red Sea crossing.

The real Red Sea crossing

The Red Sea was the easternmost boundary of Egypt (Exo. 10:19), so crossing it marked the exact time that Israel actually left Egypt.  Prior to that time, they were free, but still on their enemy’s home soil.  Those who celebrated that first Passover and left with Israel were truly set free by the blood of the Passover lamb.  Even if someone somehow died on the way to the Red Sea (like from old age), he died a free man.

However, what if he refused to cross the Red Sea with the rest of Israel?  He would have been taken by the Egyptians back into bondage.

“Come and get us, Pharaoh!”

Spiritually, Egypt represents the world system, which imprisons us in our sin.  We are set free as the Hebrews of Moses’ day were:  By the blood of the Lamb in a day when the Holy One goes to war with the gods of this world on our behalf (Exo. 12:12).  However, we formally leave behind the ways of the world and enter into the Kingdom of God by the ritual immersion in water–just as our Israeli predecessors did in the crossing of the Red Sea.

If a person accepts the Salvation offered in Yeshua’s blood, but through no fault of his own dies before he can be ritually immersed in water to represent the death of the old self and the raising of the new (Rom. 6:4, Col. 2:12), then I have no fear for his soul. He died free because he put his trust and loyalty (Gr. pistis, “faith”) in the King of Israel.  But if a person outright refuses even so simple an obedience as to be baptized, then that tells us that they do not really wish to leave the ways of the world.  They still long for spiritual Egypt, and some part of them does not wish to leave it behind to follow the Holy One to a new country.  I find that such individuals almost inevitably fall away from the faith.

All rituals are a way of acting out with our body what is supposed to be happening in our spirit.  When a person refuses ritual immersion–whether you call it baptism or mikveh–it may be simply that they have been falsely taught about it and will be willing to be guided to a place of obedience through proper instruction given in love.  But it may also be that they have not experienced the spiritual rebirth that the baptism represents.

We have to be very careful with those who outright refuse baptism and try to teach others not to take it.  Many of them are tares among the wheat, demonstrating by their disobedience to even so simple a commandment that they have not experienced the transformation of the Spirit.

To paraphrase an expression I’ve used often, we are not saved by being immersed, we are immersed because we have been saved.  And having been saved and immersed, let us follow the Sh’khinah–the Divine Presence which incarnated among us in Yeshua–to the Mountain of God to learn His ways, in preparation for the glorious manifestation of the Promised Land to come.

Shalom

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