Tevilat Mashiach

4.6 Tevilat Mashiach: Decisions & Commentary

4.6.1 Tevilat Mashiach is a mitzvah, a commandment of the Messiah. It is not a rite reserved for the most dedicated followers of Yeshua or a mark of special piety. Rather it is a basic practice that marks faithful reception of the good news and entry into the community of the disciples of Yeshua.

Tevilat Mashiach poses unique challenges for Jewish disciples of Yeshua. In Jewish historical memory the rite is associated with coerced betrayal of the people of Israel and of its divinely-bestowed covenant. This abuse of the rite by those who were entrusted with its administration constituted a radical perversion and reversal of its true meaning, such that Jews in these circumstances who refused to receive it and suffered the consequences walked the path of the very Messiah whom they were ostensibly rejecting. Ironically, these Jews were able to live out the truth of Tevilat Mashiach by refusing to receive its perverted expression. Consequently, Tevilat Mashiach calls to mind a tragic and traumatic chapter in the history of Jewish dealings with the Church.

Despite past Christian abuse of this rite and past Jewish suffering as a result of this abuse, we cannot deny that Tevilat Mashiach is a commandment given by the Messiah. Moreover, it is not a minor or “light” commandment whose evasion might be easily justified due to tragic historical circumstances. Instead, it is a weighty mitzvah which embodies in concrete ritual form the Messiah’s call to discipleship and the disciple’s willing response in trusting faithfulness. Thus, the mitzvah of Tevilat Mashiach tests the readiness of Jewish disciples of Yeshua to follow their Messiah wherever he leads.

4.6.2 To be eligible for Tevilat Mashiach, one should have received basic instruction in the message of the good news and its implications for Jewish life and in the meaning and significance of Tevilah, and should have expressed in words and deeds a commitment to Yeshua and his mitzvot and to the responsibilities of membership in the community of Yeshua’s disciples.

What does Tevilat Mashiach signify (i.e., of what realities is it a sign)? To answer this question, we must take seriously the primary meaning of the phrase “Tevilat Mashiach”: it refers first and foremost to the immersion that Yeshua himself received at the hands of Yochanan. When disciples of Yeshua receive Tevilat Mashiach, they are joining Yeshua in his own tevilah. From this fact, we may identify five interconnected realities which the mitzvah of Tevilat Mashiach signifies.

(1) Union with the Messiah: Yeshua’s tevilah points forward to his death and resurrection and interprets the meaning of those events. He bears the sin of Israel, suffers the judgment Israel deserves, and rises as the pledge and mediator of Israel’s future redemption. Thus, a disciple’s immersion signifies identification and union with the Messiah in his suffering, death, and resurrection (Romans 6:4).

(2) Forgiveness of Sins: The tevilah which Yochanan administered was one of “repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1:4). Yeshua needed no forgiveness, but nevertheless submitted to Yochanan’s tevilah in solidarity with the people to whom he belonged and of which he was the head. As a result of his death and resurrection, Israel receives the first-fruits of the forgiveness of sins that accompanies the renewal of the covenant (Jeremiah 31:34). A disciple’s immersion signifies reception of this forgiveness and the foretaste of participation in the renewed covenant.

(3) Immersion in the Spirit: Yochanan promised that the one whose coming he prepared would immerse not only in water but also in Spirit (Matthew 3:11). This promise points to the Messiah as the one who would fulfill the restoration of Israel announced by Ezekiel (36:22-28). Ezekiel proclaims that the Spirit will be given to renew the hearts of the people of Israel and to enable them to obey the mitzvot. When Yeshua arises from the water, the Spirit descends on him (Matthew 3:16) to demonstrate that he is the one who lives with this renewed heart and who is thus qualified to immerse others in the Spirit. A disciple’s immersion in the water of Tevilat Mashiach signifies reception of the Spirit through union with Yeshua, and thus also the foretaste of participation in Israel’s renewed obedience and restoration.

(4) Membership in the community of the Messiah: All who received Yochanan’s tevilah were linked together as a fellowship of those who were humbly awaiting Israel’s renewal and restoration (Matthew 21:31-32). Yeshua’s immersion brought him into fellowship with them, and even more brought them into fellowship with their Messiah. A disciple’s immersion signifies participation in the community of the Messiah, a community which even now experiences a foretaste of Israel’s—and the world’s— redemption.

(5) Taking upon oneself the yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven: All four of the above interconnected realities consist of divine actions. This accords with what is stated below (4.4.5): “Tevilat Mashiach is primarily the action of God through Yeshua by the Spirit.” At the same time, however, Tevilat Mashiach “is also a mitzvah that calls for a human response of obedience.” This obedient response is not merely a pre-condition for the fulfillment of the mitzvah, but is in fact a crucial element in what Tevilat Mashiach itself signifies. Yeshua expressed his commitment to the will of his Father by submitting to the tevilah of Yochanan. In following after him by submitting to Tevilat Mashiach, a disciple expresses commitment to the Messiah and to the reign of Hashem in his or her daily life.

All five of these realities signified by Tevilat Mashiach entail the foretaste of participation in Israel’s renewed covenant. Thus, Tevilat Mashiach summons us as Jews to live lives of radical covenant fidelity, following our Messiah in his love for Israel, Torah, and the Holy Blessed One.

4.6.3 Ideally, Tevilat Mashiach should be administered in a body of water that meets the traditional requirements for a mikveh. However, if such a body of water is not available, Tevilat Mashiach may be administered in any body of water that is large enough to permit full body immersion.

4.6.4 As a rite signifying reception into the community of the disciples of Yeshua, Tevilat Mashiach should be administered in the presence of ten or more people who have themselves already received Messianic Tevilah. In exceptional circumstances this requirement may be waived, but in such cases there should be at least three witnesses (including the officiant).

4.6.5 While Tevilat Mashiach is primarily the action of God through Yeshua by the Spirit, it is also a mitzvah that calls for a human response of obedience, both from the one officiating at the immersion – as representing the community of disciples who originally received the commandment (Matthew 28:19-20) – and from the one being immersed. Its character as a mitzvah should be expressed through recitation of the mitzvah berachah (’al tevilat HaMashiach) by the officiant and by the response of “Amen” from the one being immersed.

Like all mitzvot, Tevilat Mashiach actualizes what it signifies. This is especially clear on the level of human response. Judaism has always integrated internal disposition and external deed in its mode of responding to divine revelation. Thus, we are called to love Hashem and the words of Hashem, but we are also called to express this love in ritual form by reciting the Shema and laying Tefillin. In the same way our internal disposition of love for Yeshua takes concrete ritual form in Tevilat Mashiach. As in the recitation of the Shema and the laying of Tefillin, disciples of Yeshua take upon themselves the yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven by receiving Tevilat Mashiach. The rite actualizes the human response which it signifies.

What is true on the level of human response is also true on the level of divine action. In rabbinic thought this is evident when considering issues of status. A convert to Judaism must fulfill a set of prescribed rites and be acknowledged by a duly constituted Bet Din in order to become a Jew. When the process is complete, it is believed that Hashem recognizes the person as a full member of the covenant. A new status is established before Heaven, which implies a change in the person’s earthly reality. A proper internal disposition in the convert is required for this change to occur, but such a disposition is insufficient apart from the external rites.

Similarly, in order to be married people must fulfill a set of external conditions. Once they have completed the communally sanctioned process, their marriage is acknowledged by Hashem. Their relationship has a new status before Heaven, which implies a change in their earthly reality. Again, proper internal disposition towards one another is required, but it is insufficient apart from the external process.

Tevilat Mashiach is a mitzvah that relates to our status as disciples of Yeshua and members of his messianic fellowship. Like traditional Jewish rituals that establish a new status, it is a once-for-all event (unlike the recitation of the Shema or the laying of Tefillin). Also like such rituals, it actualizes what is signifies not only on the level of human response but also on the level of divine action. In Tevilat Mashiach Yeshua commits himself to the one being immersed, so that the person is established in the status of one united to Yeshua, forgiven, immersed in the Spirit, and joined to the community of the Messiah. The new status before Heaven entails a transformation in the person’s earthly reality.

To say that a mitzvah dealing with status “actualizes what it signifies” does not mean that it does so apart from its setting within a broader context of internal dispositions and external practices. For example, a conversion or a marriage can be annulled if it becomes evident that the intent of an individual involved was incompatible with the action undertaken. Moreover, even a conversion or a marriage which is validly performed may fail to realize its purpose of creating a transformed earthly reality. In the same way, the rite of Tevilat Mashiach depends for its validity on the adequate intention of the one undergoing it, and depends for its transformative power on other factors in the communal preparation, post-immersion pastoral care, and continued faithful response of that person.

To say that a mitzvah dealing with status “actualizes what it signifies” also does not exclude the possibility that the reality signified by the mitzvah might in certain circumstances be established apart from that particular mitzvah. Thus, as ecclesial tradition has consistently acknowledged, union with Yeshua, forgiveness of sins, immersion in the Spirit, and membership in the community of the Messiah are in certain circumstances bestowed on those who have never undergone the rite of Tevilat Mashiach. While the risen Messiah has committed himself to act in response to the fulfillment of his mitzvah by his community, he remains free to act by the Spirit as he sees fit. He has established a normative pattern for his followers which should be received by them in loving obedience, but that pattern restricts neither his freedom nor his power.

For this reason, we do not question the work of God in individuals who have met the qualifications articulated in 4.4.2 but who have not yet undergone a valid Tevilat Mashiach. Nevertheless, we would aim to instruct such people concerning the importance and significance of Tevilat Mashiach, and encourage them to obey the mitzvah.

4.6.6 After the recitation of the mitzvah berachah and its response, the officiant will recite in Hebrew and/or in the vernacular the words, “I now immerse you [one may include here the person’s Hebrew name] in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit” (HaBen uvshem Ruach Hakodesh).

הִנְנִי אַנִי מַטְבִּיל אֹתְךָ [אֹתָך], _____, בְּשֵׁם הָאב ובשם הבן וּבְשֵׁם רוּחַ הַקֹּדֶשׁ.

An alternate formula, especially appropriate if the officiant is not in the water, would be: “[Name of the person to be immersed] is immersed in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” While we consider the triadic formula of Matthew 28:19 (or its triadic equivalent) to be normative, we will accept as valid bediavad (in retrospect) all baptisms administered in the name of Yeshua (i.e., without a triadic formula) if they were administered in an ecclesial context which affirmed the triadic divine differentiation of Matthew 28:19.

“Is it not they [i.e., the rich] who blaspheme the honorable name which was invoked over you?” (James 2:7). Many scholars see this text as a reference to Tevilat Mashiach. In this rite the “honorable name” is called over the one being immersed, to set the person apart for the one to whom the name belonged. (It is the invocation of the divine Name over Israel which consecrates Israel to Hashem -- see Deuteronomy 28:10; 2 Chronicles 7:14; Jeremiah 14:9)

The name that is invoked (literally, “called”) could be “Yeshua,” but it is more likely a reference to the divine Name (the Tetragrammaton), which God has bestowed on Yeshua (Philippians 2:9) and which now belongs to them both. According to Matthew 28:19, the new disciple is immersed into the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Spirit. This name could be “Father, Son, and Spirit,” but – once again – it is more likely the Tetragrammaton which is now shared by the Father, Son, and Spirit. Thus, for Jewish disciples of Yeshua Tevilat Mashiach entails a renewed consecration to Hashem in acknowledgement of the fact that the risen Yeshua now shares in the divine Name, as does the Spirit who unites us to Yeshua.

According to the book of Revelation, the disciples of Yeshua are “sealed” (7:2, 9:4) by receiving a mark on their forehead, which elsewhere in the book is identified with “his [the Lamb’s] Name and his Father’s Name” (14:1; see 3:12; 22:4). Many scholars believe the seal here is the mark of Tevilat Mashiach, in which rite the divine Name – which belongs to both the Father and the Son – is invoked over the one who is immersed.

Another text from the Apostolic Writings which may have the same meaning is Ephesians 5:26, which refers to Tevilat Mashiach as the “washing of water with the word [rema].” What is the “word” that is involved in Tevilah? A second century text offers a likely interpretation: “Hear, then, why the tower has been built upon the water: because your life was saved and shall be saved through water, and the tower has been founded by the utterance [rema] of the almighty and glorious Name, and is maintained by the unseen power of the Master” (Shepherd of Hermas, Vision 3.3.5). The “word” invoked in Tevilat Mashiach, according to Hermas, is the divine Name.

For other texts from the first two centuries of the Yeshua-community which confirm this interpretation, see Shepherd of Hermas, Similitude 8.6.4; 9.16; Odes of Solomon 42:11, 15, 19-20; Justin Martyr, First Apology 61.

It is thus evident that the words spoken by the officiant as the new disciple is immersed are of tremendous importance. As the Kohanim “placed the Name” of God upon Israel in the sanctuary (Numbers 6:27) by the recitation of the Birkat Kohanim (Numbers 6:24-26), so the officiant invokes the divine Name upon the new disciple of Yeshua, in recognition of the fact that Yeshua now shares in that Name, and that he consecrates us by the power of the Name through his Spirit. Thus, the invocation of the Name brings those immersed under Yeshua’s authority and marks them as those who belong to him.

Matthew 28:19 indicates that the formula pronounced by the officiant at Tevilat Mashiach should involve an explicit triadic invocation of the Father, Son, and Spirit, and this practice became normative among the early followers of Yeshua and remained so until the modern era. In the Book of Acts, however, the rite is said to be “in the name of Yeshua the Messiah” (Acts 2:38; 10:48) or “in the name of the Lord Yeshua” (Acts 8:16; 19:5). Traditionally, these references in Acts have been considered as descriptive shorthand for the full Matthean formula. However, in the modern era certain groups have seen the texts in Acts as modeling the proper formula to be recited by the officiant. Some of these groups have been motivated by anti-trinitarian convictions, but others have affirmed the triadic differentiation of God and have interpreted the language of their formula in light of Matthew 28:19.

In deference to the consensus of ecclesial tradition up to the modern era, we accept the Matthean formula (or a triadic equivalent) as specifying the proper words to be recited by the officiant in the rite of Tevilat Mashiach. Nevertheless, we also recognize that the texts in the Book of Acts could reasonably be interpreted as providing an alternate formula. This is why we will accept as valid bedi’avad (in retrospect) baptisms administered in the name of Yeshua (i.e., without a triadic formula), but only if they were administered in an ecclesial context which affirmed the triadic differentiation of Matthew 28:19.