Ezekiel, Yohanan Ben Zechariah and Messiah Yeshua
Partners in Israel's Kingdom Purification?
Hanoch Ben Keshet åéãáø ä' àìé ìàîø: àúä çÄöÌÄé äáøåø, äçáåé áàùôúé, åéøéúéê áéåí ô÷åãä.
[This article provides a brief preview to three other articles related to Ezekiel 36:25-27 and the Messianic Kingdom (links at the end of this article).]
Yohanan Ben Zechariah (John the Baptist) appeared as a great prophet to Israel, even as an Eliyahu (Elijah)-type figure according to Messiah Yeshua (Christ Jesus). Josephus indeed records Yohanan's powerful and righteous impact on Israel. Yohanan's urgent warning led many Jews to repent and to prepare for the long-awaited Kingdom, to participate in the national purification with water that soon bore Yohanan's name, and to expect the Coming One who would transform them with the Ruach Hakodesh (Holy Spirit). This article proposes that Yohanan inaugurated Israel's Kingdom purification, promised by Ezekiel, and that Messiah Yeshua followed close behind and inaugurated Israel's internal transformation by the Ruach Hakodesh, also promised by Ezekiel:
I will take you from among the nations and gather you from all the countries, and I will bring you back to your own land. I will sprinkle [splash] clean water upon you, and you shall be clean: I will cleanse you from all your uncleanness and from all your fetishes. And I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit into you: I will remove the heart of stone from your body and give you a heart of flesh; and I will put My spirit into you. Thus I will cause you to follow My laws and faithfully to observe My rules. Then you shall dwell in the land which I gave to your fathers, and you shall be My people and I will be your God. (Ezekiel 36:24-28) JPS Tanakh
This proposition contains two key points:
• The Messianic water rite, based on Eze 36:25, is Israel-specific and is for Yeshua-believing Jews, and for Israel as a nation, and is still in force today.
• Like the internal benefits of Jeremiah’s New Covenant, the inner transformation of heart and the indwelling Spirit promised in Eze 36:26-27 are available by trust in Messiah Yeshua to the Jew first, and also to the Gentile.
Why is this proposition important?
The book of Acts relates several explicit episodes of people undergoing a literal Messianic water rite, most famously on Shavuot (Pentecost) in Acts 2. The question is, what motivated Kayfa (Peter) to command that Messianic repentance rite to the “men of Israel” on Shavuot? Was it the terse summary teaching attributed to Messiah Yeshua in Matthew’s Greek besorah (gospel) (i.e. Matt 28:19), a work composed as much as four decades after the Shavuot episode, and which contains, in stark contrast to Kayfa’s command in Acts 2:38, a unique command unlike any in the New Covenant writings? Or was Kayfa’s source on Shavuot actually Yohanan’s national repentance rite for Israel, which Messiah Yeshua publically endorsed in the Temple to Sanhedrin representatives only two months earlier (Matt 21:23–27, Mark 11:27–33, Luke 20:1–8), and which is now to be performed by the authority of the risen Messiah (i.e. in his name)?
This article argues that there is a clear preferred choice regarding the source of the Messianic water rite: it is Israel’s national repentance rite inaugurated by Yohanan and endorsed by Messiah Yeshua; it is not Matthew 28:19, which is unlike any liturgical form found in any other of the New Covenant writings. This article argues that the first Yeshua-believing Jews searched the Tanakh (Hebrew Scripture) for insights into the Messianic Age and fully understood that Ezekiel 36 describes Israel-specific aspects of the Kingdom which were now inaugurated by both Yohanan Ben Zechariah and Messiah Yeshua. Ezekiel 36 also clearly distinguishes the water and the Ruach Hakodesh, in precise accord with both Yohanan (Luke 3:16) and Messiah Yeshua (Acts 1:5; 11:16), and which sharply contrasts the historical blurring of water and Spirit in the so-called “sacramental” rite.
Make no mistake. This proposal directly challenges the flawed Christian consensus that began to emerge in the second century which asserted that Messiah Yeshua instead had commanded a literal water rite for all nations (Matt 28:19). The historical Church asserted that this Christian rite was simultaneously water and Spirit (John 3:5) unlike Yohanan's rite which was water alone, and that it indeed superseded Yohanan’s rite.
The short reply to this emergent Christian view is that Matt 28:19 speaks not of literal water but of transformation of idolatrous first-century Nations by real knowledge of the living G‑d. Moreover, the water and Spirit of John 3:5 alludes to Eze 36:25-27, which Yohanan and Messiah Yeshua actually inaugurated. Arguably, the Christian misreading of Matt 28:19 as a universal water rite primed the pump for the supersessionist paradigm which swept into the Church, and this error in turn hid crucial truths from Israel for nearly two millennia.
With Yohanan beheaded and with Yeshua executed on the stake, it is an understatement to say their success in Israel was limited. Only a remnant of Jews believed Yohanan's warning of the Coming One and then in Yeshua's Messianic credentials. Scholars describe various aspects of Israel's inaugurated Kingdom with a “now” but “not yet” phase and Eze 36:25-27 can equally be included. Indeed commentaries often cite verses 26-27 on the internal transformation Yeshua-believers receive by the eschatological Ruach Hakodesh (Holy Spirit). At the very least, then, the internal New Covenant transformation is virtually identical to the spiritual second half of Ezekiel's prophecy. This article aspires to show that the NC (NT) writings also point to the inauguration of the first half, of Israel purified with pure water.
Why propose Ezekiel 36:25-27?
Ezekiel's prophecy is proposed on the one hand because it speaks directly of Israel's eschatological Kingdom, of repentance, of water purification and spiritual transformation, just as Yohanan urgently announced to Israel. While splashing with pure water is unlike practices decreed by second commonwealth sages, this form is well within the boundaries of both Torah demands and the Tanakh's data on first commonwealth practices. Eze 36:25-27 is also noted on such passages as John 3:5, Hebrews 10:22 and Titus 3:4-6, and this implies that authors had it in mind as they wrote. At the same time, controversy has dogged the subject of baptism in the Church virtually from the beginning, and this almost certainly stems from refusal to recognize Hashem's continued Israel-specific workings first described in the Tanakh.
The Tanakh is the natural first-source for investigating Yohanan's water rite since it provided the basis for Yohanan's and Yeshua's understanding of Israel's Kingdom. Yohanan self-identified as Isaiah's “Voice.” Yeshua saw Yohanan as Eliyahu, promised in Malachi. Messiah's out-pouring of the Spirit was promised by Joel. It stands to reason that Yohanan's eschatological purification was also among the Tanakh's Kingdom promises to Israel. Ezekiel 36:25 squarely fits this demand.
Why isn't Ezekiel 36:25-27 cited?
Admittedly, Ezekiel's promise is not found in the NC writings so it is justifiable to ask why is there no direct citation of it. The answer is this: Eze 36:25-27 is Israel-specific and applies solely to Yeshua-believing Jews. The astonishment of Kayfa (Peter) in Acts 10 certainly supports the idea that the early Yeshua-believing remnant was committed to an Israel-specific Besorah (Good News). Yet Hashem revealed an unanticipated course-change in Cornelius' house. That episode marked a profound paradigm shift in the Yeshua-believing Jews' Besorah: a remnant of Israel, and a remnant of the Nations, would precede the full establishment of Israel's Messianic Kingdom on earth. Thus, long before any of the four extant Greek besorot (gospels) were composed, the evangelion of the fore-skinned (cf., Gal 2:7-9) was being announced to the Nations, spear-headed by the shaliah Shaul (apostle Paul). Consequently, though Eze 36:25-27 was never voided for the remnant of Israel, it did retreat from the foreground of the Besorah's proclamation, especially after the national disaster of 70 C.E.
Then too, the letter of Ya'acov (James) is thought to be an early NC document, but it is written in the form of admonition and encouragement, not a delineation of inaugurated prophecy. Paul's letters are thought to be among the earliest New Covenant documents, yet he wrote almost exclusively to gentiles and thus would not be pressed to mention Ezekiel's Israel-specific prophecy.
Note also that other crucial prophecies of the Tanakh find limited citation in the NC writings. Joel's promise of the out-poured Spirit is cited only for the day of Shavuot (Pentecost) in Acts 2, and in Rom 10. Yet Messiah's outpouring of the Spirit was directly compared to Yohanan's activity with water, and that implies that Yohanan's activity might also have been prophesied in the Tanakh. Isaiah's outpouring of the Spirit in Isa 44:3 is not quoted in the NC writings, and the full citation of Jeremiah's New Covenant occurs only in Hebrews 8, 10. So we see that crucial Kingdom prophecies other than Eze 36 find limited or no appearance in the NC writings. Yet Luke, citing Peter, speaks for the Yeshua-believing community when he writes:
Indeed, beginning with Samuel, all the prophets who have spoken have foretold these days. (Acts 3:24)
While one cannot press this statement as final proof that the first Yeshua-believers thought Eze 36:25-27 had been inaugurated, it does strongly support the idea. This verse also tells readers that the Tanakh has far more information than Luke included in Luke-Acts, or than what Peter was able to proclaim to his audience at the Temple.
Does Yohanan's rite conform with Ezekiel 36:25, or with the mikveh?
The form of Yohanan's activity, when scrutinized, actually aligns much better with Eze 36:25 than with self-immersion in a mikveh. Yet this issue, the form of Yohanan’s activity, in no way raises questions about the legitimacy of other purification practices observed by Israel. Indeed, there is no sign that Eze 36:25 replaces other Torah purifications such as found in Leviticus 15, nor did Yohanan’s Messianic rite replace the other Torah purification practices of his era. Participation in the national Messianic rite should lead the repentant to greater devotion to the Torah, including its varied purifications. Nevertheless, this question of form involves several issues, including the meaning of the Greek word baptizo (βαπτίζω), which are addressed in the remainder of the article.
First of all, if Yohanan's rite did originate in Ezekiel, then he actually performed a first commonwealth purification promised by a prophet, not a second commonwealth purification decreed by the sages. This distinction is important to remember because the second century C.E. Mishnah decrees a particular form for Torah washings, i.e. tevilah (èáéìä) or (self-) immersion, yet the Tanakh is simply less rigid.
The Torah orders many bodily purification washings with the Hebrew word raḥaẓ (øçõ), i.e. a washing of ambiguous form, but no bodily purification of the Torah is commanded with the word taval (èáì), i.e. dip or immerse. Indeed, on occasion the Tanakh describes assistants washing the person to be purified, especially in prophetic imagery (cf., Eze 16:4, 9; Isa 4:3-4). The fact is archeological field work has cataloged some 850 ancient mikva’ot, yet at the same time has failed to date any of these purpose-built mikva'ot prior to the Hasmonean period, or roughly the mid-second-century B.C.E. In other words, from the first commonwealth down to the Hasmonean period, Israel's purification practices evidently did not involve dedicated mikva'ot. For these reasons self-immersion cannot be considered the sole mode of washing during the first commonwealth; splashing, pouring and sprinkling almost certainly were also practiced. This realization again does not call into question the decrees of the sages, but it does directly impact the legitimacy of Ezekiel's earlier prophecy as a literal purification washing. The Jewish Soncino commentary on Eze 36:25 has no qualms spelling out the imagery of a niddah's purification, even though self-immersion in a mikveh is accepted practice today:
Since Israel's evil ways were compared to the uncleanness of a woman in her impurity (verse 17), the forgiveness of his sins is characterized as a purification by cleansing water.
Late origin of the mikveh?
The Hasmonean time period also roughly coincides with the initial dissemination of the LXX. Surprisingly, the LXX translation of Lv 11:36 expands the Torah's original provision for two kosher sources of pure water into three sources, thus creating the mikveh as an independent purification installation:
Two sources of pure water in the Masoretic Torah
However, a spring or cistern in which water is collected shall be clean. (JPS Tanakh)
àÇêÀ îÇòÀéÈï åÌáåÉø îÄ÷ÀåÅä-îÇéÄí, éÄäÀéÆä èÈäåÉø.
Three sources of pure water in the LXX
πλὴν πηγῶν ὑδάτων καὶ λάκκου καὶ συναγωγῆς ὕδατος, ἔσται καθαρόν· [bolding added]
R. Aryeh Kaplan describes the logic of the sages in his book, The Waters of Eden, The Mystery of the Mikveh, and points precisely to their interpretation of Lv 11:36 as the source for the mikveh. According to R. Kaplan the sages determined from this verse that a “mikveh mayim” is not solely descriptive of the bor (cistern, or pit) but rather it is a class of purification installation which is distinct from both the mayan (spring) and bor (cistern). The language of the Mishnah is la'mikveh le'taher be'ashboren (ìÇîÌÄ÷ÀåÆä ìÀèÇäÅø áÌÀàÇùÑÀáÌÉøÆï) (m Mikva'ot 1.7). The sages then also extrapolated the rule that all seas are a mikveh mayim and are suitable for purification as well (cf., Gen 1:9-10), yet on the face of it the original Masoretic Hebrew of Lv 11:36 seems to refer to drinkable water, which would exclude oceans.
In any case, second commonwealth sages decreed that washings of the Torah must be performed, at minimum, in a kosher mikveh, and the decreed form was tevilah (èáéìä) or (self-) immersion, a term not found in the Tanakh. The sages evidently derived tevilah from 2 Kings 5:14, the account of Na'aman from Aram, where taval (èáì) appears in the text in conjunction with his washing. Yet in view of the Tanakh's fifteen other usages of taval, the 2 Kings author-editor probably intended to say simply that Na'aman himself got into the river to wash instead of having servants wash him on the bank, defying tactical vulnerability that was surely a concern for a military leader. The semantic range of taval in the Tanakh shows that Na'aman need not self-immerse in order to fulfill the word's meaning; even a partial dipping would satisfy the word's demand. Perhaps Na'aman did self-immerse, or perhaps he got in the river and washed by splashing himself. The semantic range of taval is not confined to the former, nor excluded from the latter.
At any rate, while fences ordered by the sages may indeed keep Israel from stumbling lightly into transgression, there simply is no demand for Yohanan to conform his rite to second commonwealth decrees. If his rite indeed originated from the Tanakh, specifically Ezekiel, then he would certainly maintain its stated form.
Was Yohanan's Besorah (Good News) originally in Hebrew?
The language Yohanan used to proclaim his Besorah (Good News) also helps determine the form and purpose of his rite. David Flusser says the Dead Sea Scrolls and Bar Kokhba letters confirm the view that second commonwealth Israel was fluent in Hebrew. While Yohanan may have been conversant in both Aramaic and Greek, he almost certainly proclaimed his message in Hebrew. It is hard to imagine that Hebrew-fluent Israel would receive Yohanan as a great prophet, or Eliyahu, or even the Messiah, unless he proclaimed his message in terms of the Hebrew Tanakh.
By all accounts the four Greek besorot (gospels) were composed at least three decades after Yohanan's martyrdom and, as we are told, present a distilled account of his activity:
And with many other warnings besides these [Yohanan] announced the Good News to the people.” CJB (Luke 3:18) [Emphasis added].
Moreover it appears that the terminology of the Greek besorot, especially use of the word baptizo (βαπτίζω), reflects purification and sanctification in the original Hebrew, not immersion.
Yohanan's activity: immersion or purification?
Many today assume that Yohanan proclaimed something similar to the following: “I immerse you in water” (àðé îèáéì àúëí áîééí) but this assertion falters under scrutiny. Had Yohanan done so, he would certainly have mystified his Jewish audience.
First of all, the Tanakh contains no occurrence of taval (èáì) in the hifil form (i.e. active causation of immersion). Second, there is no explicit Kingdom prophecy that calls for Israel to be immersed. The most plausible reply to these two objections is that Yohanan devised a de novo rite for the Kingdom based on current second commonwealth practices. But Yohanan self-identified as Isaiah's “Voice” figure promised seven-hundred years earlier; why ignore Ezekiel's six-hundred-year-old promise and create a different purification? Why would the great Eliyahu-like prophet Yohanan claim to be a figure promised for centuries, but then devise a new rite when another cohen, Ezekiel, promised one that immediately precedes the Kingdom, precisely as Yohanan was proclaiming about his?
Third, the sages defined self-immersion in the mikveh as proper practice, not one person immersing another. In response to this third criticism, some scholars speculate that Yohanan did not actively immerse, but that he instead acted as a “witness“ to self-immersion. This notion is based wholly on the flawed assumption that baptizo (βαπτίζω) must mean immerse rather than purify, and that since Yohanan baptized people he must have immersed them somehow; if not directly, then as an observer calling them to self-immerse. However the witness theory falters when it is applied to a well-known NC phrase of comparison between Yohanan's activity and Messiah's activity (cf., Mk 1:8; Acts 1:5); the phrase simply collapses in unbearable complexity: “I call you, as a witness, to self-immerse, in water; the Coming One will call you, as a witness, to self-immerse, in the Ruach Hakodesh.” No one self-immerses in a pool of the Ruach Hakodesh under Messiah's watchful eye. On Shavuot Kayfa indeed cited Joel and said that Messiah pours out the Spirit. Nothing, then, prevents Yohanan from doing likewise with water. In this case purify is thus the preferred meaning for the Greek word baptizo: “I purify you with water; the Coming One will purify you with the Ruach Hakodesh.”
It seems quite likely that Yohanan originally proclaimed a rich cluster of Hebrew purification-sanctification terminology which NC authors consolidated under the flexible Greek word baptizo. Josephus attested to Yohanan's widespread approval and said his rite provided sanctification on the basis of a soul made righteousness by previous purification (i.e. repentance). It provided:
ἀλλ᾽ ἐφ᾽ ἁγνείᾳ τοῦ σώματος, ἅτε δὴ καὶ τῆς ψυχῆς δικαιοσύνῃ προεκκεκαθαρμένης.
If Yohanan's goal was Israel's sanctification, then how might he have originally described his activity in Hebrew? Actually he might easily have declared sanctification directly:
I sanctify you with water. The One coming after me will sanctify you with the Ruach Hakodesh and fire.
àðé îÀ÷ÇãÌÅùÑ àúëí áîéí, åäáà àçøé éÀ÷ÇãÌÅùÑ àúëí áøåç ä÷åãù åáàù.
Indeed, the hope of being “sanctified” by the Holy Spirit is emphasized in Hebrew because that term is from the same root (÷ãù) used in Ruach Hakodesh (øåç ä÷åãù). So this phrase would resonate strongly with Hebrew speaking Jews. At other times Yohanan might have emphasized eschatological purification:
I purify you with water. The One coming after me will purify you with the Ruach Hakodesh and fire.
àðé îèäø àúëí áîéí, åäáà àçøé éèäø àúëí áøåç ä÷åãù åáàù.
The benefit of this version is that it joins two eschatological purifications known to Israel: the first, purification by water (Eze 36:25), and the second, purification by fire, by Messiah (Malachi 3:2-3), which itself strongly implies purification by the Ruach Hakodesh (Holy Spirit):
For he will be like a refiner's fire, like the soapmaker's lye. He will sit, testing and purifying the silver; he will purify the sons of Levi, refining them like gold and silver.
îìàëé â á-â
ëÌÄé-äåÌà ëÌÀàÅùÑ îÀöÈøÅó, åÌëÀáÉøÄéú îÀëÇáÌÀñÄéí. åÀéÈùÑÇá îÀöÈøÅó åÌîÀèÇäÅø, ëÌÆñÆó, åÀèÄäÇø àÆú-áÌÀðÅé-ìÅåÄé åÀæÄ÷ÌÇ÷ àÉúÈí, ëÌÇæÌÈäÈá åÀëÇëÌÈñÆó.
Yohanan was identified as the initial messenger of Mal 3:1, and since he was a cohen – a son of Levi – then arguably he had this purifying transformation in mind when he told Yeshua that he needed to be baptized, i.e. purified by him (Matt 3:14). Very likely Malachi 3:2-3 influenced Yohanan's announcement of Messiah's work with the Holy Spirit and fire, an expression that could be understood as a hendiadys, i.e. the Holy Spirit, even fire (áøåç ä÷åãù, àó áàù). The fiery Ruach Hakodesh promised in Malachi would purify what was valuable by burning away the dross.
At other times Yohanan may have used raḥaẓ (øçõ), the standard Hebrew verb for purification washing. The first part of his phrase would echo Moses' washing of Aaron and sons in Lv 8:16, while the second part, of Ruach Hakodesh and fire, would loudly echo the fiery washing of Isa 4:3-4:
I am washing you with water. The One coming after me will wash you with the Ruach Hakodesh and fire.
àðé øåçõ àúëí áîéí, åäáà àçøé éøçõ àúëí áøåç ä÷åãù åáàù.
Moshe brought Aharon and his sons, washed them with water.
åé÷øà ç å
åÇéÌÇ÷ÀøÅá îÉùÑÆä, àÆú-àÇäÂøÉï åÀàÆú-áÌÈðÈéå; åÇéÌÄøÀçÇõ àÉúÈí, áÌÇîÌÈéÄí.
And he who is left in Zion and remains in Jerusalem will be called holy, everyone who has been recorded for life in Jerusalem, when the Lord shall have washed away the filth of the daughters of Zion and cleansed the bloodstains of Jerusalem from its midst by a spirit of judgment and by a spirit of burning.
éùòéä ã â-ã
åÀäÈéÈä äÇðÌÄùÑÀàÈø áÌÀöÄéÌåÉï, åÀäÇðÌåÉúÈø áÌÄéøåÌùÑÈìÇÄí--÷ÈãåÉùÑ, éÅàÈîÆø ìåÉ: ëÌÈì-äÇëÌÈúåÌá ìÇçÇéÌÄéí, áÌÄéøåÌùÑÈìÈÄí. àÄí øÈçÇõ àÂãÉðÈé, àÅú öÉàÇú áÌÀðåÉú-öÄéÌåÉï, åÀàÆú-ãÌÀîÅé éÀøåÌùÑÈìÇÄí, éÈãÄéçÇ îÄ÷ÌÄøÀáÌÈäÌ--áÌÀøåÌçÇ îÄùÑÀôÌÈè, åÌáÀøåÌçÇ áÌÈòÅø.
Yohanan may also have declared the Besorah (Good News) in modal terms, both for his activity and for that of the coming Messiah. Thus Eze 36:25, zarak (æø÷), i.e. throw or splash, would apply to his activity, while Joel 3:1 (2:28) shafaḳ, (ùôê), or Isa 44:3, yaẓak, (éö÷) i.e. pour, would apply to Messiah's. Followers of Messiah understood Yeshua's activity in terms of Joel's outpouring of the Spirit so it is certainly possible that Yohanan also had that prophecy in mind as he proclaimed Messiah's coming.
I am splashing water on you. The One coming after me will pour out the Ruach Hakodesh and fire on you.
àðé æåø÷ òìéëí îééí, åäáà àçøé éùôåê (éöå÷) òìéëí àú øåç ä÷åãù åàù.
Yohanan almost certainly declared his Besorah in Hebrew and probably described his work in different terms at various times, including that of washing, sanctification and purification. If so, then there is no reason to deny the possibility that Ezekiel's purification was at the forefront of his thoughts.
Does the Greek verb baptizo (βαπτίζω) only mean immerse?
The question of what baptizo (βαπτίζω) means determines how we understand Yohanan's rite, as well as how we understand the entire subject of New Covenant baptism. If baptizo exclusively means immerse in the NC writings, then Yohanan did not inaugurate Eze 36:25. If, however, baptizo bears the idea of purify, then suddenly Yohanan's rite falls neatly into the parameters of Ezekiel's promise.
The fact is that Greeks used baptizo in various ways and in assorted semantic domains centuries prior to the Jewish NC writings. Then too, there are many occurrences in ancient Jewish sources including four in the LXX, one of which, Isa 21:4, speaks metaphorically of overwhelming controlling influence, not of simple immersion in water.
The Jewish scholar Philo of Alexandria used baptizo in several semantic domains, including once for drunkenness just as Plato had centuries earlier. If New Covenant writers had used baptizo in this semantic domain, they might have recorded an amusing incongruity to modern Christian ears:
For these people are not baptized, as you suppose, since it is only the third hour of the day. (Acts 2:15)
Yet these very people in Acts 2 had indeed just been baptized with Messiah’s out-poured Ruach Hakodesh (Holy Spirit), which had caused the tremendous transformation and generated their vocal expressions. Josephus, likewise, used baptizo in various semantic domains including maritime disaster, destruction and drowning. Again, NC writers did not use baptizo in these semantic domains, even though they could have:
But when [Peter] saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to be baptized he cried out, “Lord, save me.” (Matt 14:30).
In light of the wide-ranging evidence it is simply wrong to say that among Jews baptizo exclusively meant immerse in water. The NC writings often use baptizo in a religious or purification semantic domain, and occasionally where affusion is the key mode. The BDAG lists its first definition of baptizo (βαπτιζω) as: “1. Wash ceremonially for purpose of purification, wash, purify, of a broad range of repeated ritual washing rooted in Israelite tradition...(Mk 7:4; Lk 11:38).” There simply is no proof that baptizo only means immerse. This realization strengthens the idea that the neologism baptisma (βάπτισμα), first found in Romans 6, means far more than immersion.
In addition, the active and passive verb forms establish an impressive feature of NC usage. Yohanan actively baptizes while the repentant, including Yeshua, are passively baptized. As noted above, it is hard to imagine Yohanan actively immersing people to prepare for Israel's Kingdom. Nor is passive immersion consistent with contemporary Jewish practice of what ought to have been middle-voice self-immersion. But these forms are completely intelligible with Yohanan actively purifying the repentant, the repentant being passively purified, and all fulfilling Eze 36:25 with precise accord.
Does Matthew 28:19 supersede Yohanan's rite?
Arguably, for the Church Matthew 28:19 is the single-most influential New Covenant verse in the baptism controversy. From the Didache until today Christians and modern Messianic Jews believe Messiah commanded a literal water rite, a universal Christian baptism for all nations which supersedes Yohanan's national rite for Israel.
Dr. Zvi Sadan argues that Yeshua-believing Jews ought to express great appreciation of Jewish sources when trying to understand the New Covenant writings, and to beware of a masked supersessionism that undermines fidelity to Israel’s Jewish heritage. Sadan highlighted the profound adverse effect the evangelical interpretation of Matt 28:19 has on Yeshua-believing Jews in a paper he presented to the Borough Park Symposium in 2008, which was recently republished. Sadan follows the theological progress of a hypothetical Israeli Yeshua-believer named Yoram and writes regarding Matt 28:19:
One of the first things Yoram learned was that of the few commandments of Jesus that must be obeyed, this was the most important one. Yoram was taught to believe that the highest achievement of any “believer” is to convince others that the evangelical Jesus is the Messiah. The more people one “brings to the Lord,” the better he is in God’s eyes. It is not surprising that the new role models Yoram adopted were the great Protestant English missionaries of the nineteenth century … Yoram learned that to be completely and absolutely saved, a would-be “believer” had to … get himself baptized by a “spiritual leader” who would dip him in water, backwards, and say: I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Anything less—if one had water sprinkled over him by a priest or was baptized only in the name of Jesus—the baptism was useless and the baptized was yet to become a true believer.
Zvi Sadan, “You Have Not Obeyed Me in Proclaiming
Messiah Journal, Issue 111, Fall 2012/5773, 35-46.
Sadan captures both the sense of haste and perplexity that Matt 28:19 arouses in the Church. The problem is, first of all, that Messiah often spoke in parables, so authors of the four besorot (gospels) were comfortable with him speaking parables in their works. We are told that the disciples once failed to understand Yeshua's warning of the Pharisees' bread because they interpreted his words literally rather than metaphorically as he intended. That Matthew might couch his besorah’s (gospel’s) closing quotation of Messiah in metaphorical terms is simply no surprise. Moreover, the crucial word baptizo is also found in Messiah's mouth in metaphorical form in Mark 10:38-39 and in Luke 12:50. So Mark and Luke prove that New Covenant authors could have Messiah use baptizo metaphorically, which itself conforms with centuries of previous metaphorical use by many Greek writers, the LXX, Philo and Josephus.
But by imposing a strictly literal view on Matt 28:19 the Church, in effect, banned any alternative view of the Messianic rite found elsewhere in the NC writings. For the historical Church any post-resurrection Messianic water baptism, such as in Acts, is in fact the execution of Matt 28:19. Yet from an academic viewpoint this is not exegesis, but eisegesis pure and simple, by imposing a unique Matthean formula as the key to interpret Acts and ignoring the fact that Luke’s besorah (gospel), the actual precursor to Acts, contains no command from Messiah that annuls Yohanan’s rite or that establishes a new universal water rite.
Moreover, from a conceptual point of view it is puzzling that Messiah would, at the Temple, publically endorse Yohanan's rite as a mitzvah to Israel in the final week of his pre-resurrection sojourn, but after resurrection order a new water rite which has no explicit source in the Tanakh and is unlike any liturgical form found in the other NC writings.
Significantly, modern commentators do recognize a nuanced metaphorical intent in the baptismal aspect of Matt 28:19, throwing the demand for a literal water rite into question, as for example seen in the comments of conservative evangelical R.V.G. Tasker, Professor of New Testament Exegesis at King's College, London:
Furthermore, it may well be that the true explanation why the early church did not at once administer baptism in the threefold name, is that the words of xxviii 19 were not originally meant by our Lord as a baptismal formula. He was not giving instructions about the actual words to be used in the service of baptism, but, as has already been suggested, was indicating that the baptized person would by baptism pass into the possession of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. [Emphasis added]
St. Matthew, Tyndale
New Testament Commentaries
(Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1976) 275.
Furthermore, internal study of Matthew casts doubt on the idea of a universal water rite. Matthew praised Yohanan on multiple occasions and in his telling of Messiah's purification Yohanan protests of not being worthy to perform the rite for him, though he relents when Messiah tells him it is to fulfill all righteousness. Certainly that, of itself, implies that reception of Yohanan's rite is part of Israel's requirement for Kingdom righteousness. Indeed this could imply that Yohanan's rite actually was a demand of the Tanakh.
Matthew also repeats the phrase of comparison between Yohanan's activity with water and Messiah's activity with the Ruach Hakodesh (Holy Spirit), and long before Eze 36:25-27 predicted the conjunction of water and Spirit at the inauguration of Israel's Kingdom. The distinction Matthew records is between water and Spirit, not between water (i.e. Yohanan's baptism) and water+Spirit (i.e. the so-called Christian baptism of John 3:5) as historical Christianity asserts. Matthew also has Messiah publically endorse Yohanan's rite as a binding mitzvah when challenged by Sanhedrin representatives in the Temple, Matt 21:23-27. These data show that Matthew had the utmost regard for Yohanan and his rite.
Finally Messiah's command in Matt 28:19 appears. Donald Hagner quotes D.A. Carson favorably on Matt 28:19: “There is no evidence we have Jesus' ipsissima verba here,” and Hagner also says “...it is very clear that the words are recast in Matthew's style and vocabulary.” Rather than ipsissima verba it appears that Matthew expressed Yeshua's ipsissima vox, or voice (i.e. intent) as he perceived it at the time. Indeed, long before, Kayfa had gone to Cornelius' house, and Shaul had been proclaiming the evangelion of the fore-skinned for many years by the time Matthew composed his besorah (gospel).
The light of Matthew's internal evidence implies that the risen Messiah gave no command for a literal universal water rite. Certainly Luke-Acts supports this conclusion since there is no record of the risen Messiah commanding a water rite; instead Yeshua compares Yohanan's activity with water to his soon coming activity with the Ruach Hakodesh (Acts 1:5). Moreover there is no command from Messiah for a new water rite in John, nor in the critical text of Mark. Paul explicitly states that Messiah had not sent him to baptize with water in 1 Cor 1.
Such being the case, it seems clear that Messiah actually ordered his Jewish Shli’him (Apostles) to transform-purify the Nations by providing them a true knowledge of Israel's living G‑d. One other thing is certain, there is no sign in this verse that Gentiles were ever commanded to administer any rite of their own, or by themselves.
Ezekiel 36:25-27: Overarching paradigm for New Covenant baptism?
The NC writings make clear that a Messianic water rite was performed after Messiah's resurrection (cf., Acts 2, 8), and that the repentant eagerly expected to receive the long-promised Ruach Hakodesh (Holy Spirit). Yeshua publically endorsed Yohanan's rite in the Temple and weeks later on Shavuot the Shli’him (Apostles) perform a repentance rite for Israel, in the name of Messiah. Arguably, by Messiah's authority, i.e. in Messiah's name, the Shli'him continued to perform Israel's national purification rite inaugurated by Yohanan. Indeed, Paul only mentions Yohanan's rite to all Israel in the synagogue in Antioch (Acts 13:24), and later performed a Messianic rite in Messiah Yeshua's name for a few Corinthians, Crispus explicitly being Jewish, and the others he mentioned in 1 Cor 1 may have been as well.
As astonishing as it sounds, careful reading of the NC writings reveals that there is only one episode of gentiles who were explicitly water baptized, those in Cornelius' house. All other cases are ambiguous in various aspects. Yet there are unusual factors in Cornelius’ case which cannot be ignored, the first being that the Shli'him had not yet begun to freely proclaim the Besorah (Good News) to the Nations. So up to this point in Acts it makes much better sense to see the Messianic rite in Israel-specific terms of Eze 36:25, not the universal terms mistakenly derived from Matt 28:19 as the Church asserts.
Secondly, Messiah poured out the Ruach Hakodesh on the Gentiles in Acts 10 without a water rite. Surely this is Hashem's loud declaration that the Ruach Hakodesh is the real Source of true human purification, not water rites. Indeed, after Messiah’s sacrificial death, the Ruach Hakodesh is now charged with New Covenant power of the spotless Passover Lamb, which can purify every unclean-thing in the Universe. But this is yet to be fully understood by Kayfa and his stunned Jewish companions, who as dedicated Torah-loyal Jews think that just as they are supposed to be purified by the Messianic water rite, so the gentiles too must surely need to be purified too. Thus Kayfa ordered them baptized, but this incident is far from over, and after further consideration, in Acts 11:16 Kayfa recounts Messiah's original word in Acts 1:5, comparing Yohanan's water and Messiah's superior Spirit. Here the elements of Ezekiel's Kingdom promise are clearly present, but the Ruach Hakodesh is revealed as far superior to water.
Acts and Paul's letters prove that Yeshua-believing Jews continued to live a Torah-loyal lifestyle (c.f., Acts 21:20-26; 1 Cor. 7:18), which included administering the Messianic water rite. But, clearly, Hashem's great eschatological Gift to all humanity, for Jew or Gentile, was the Ruach Hakodesh (cf., 1 Cor 12:13; Rom 5:5; Eph 1:13-14). Paul emphasized to Ephesian gentiles that for the entire Ekklesia there is one Lord, one faith and one baptism (Eph 4:5), which certainly must speak of the Ruach Hakodesh, not water. Yet Hebrews 10:22 reminds Yeshua-believing Jews of having our bodies washed with pure water, which must recount the Messianic water rite, and this verse is often noted as an echo of Eze 36:25.
In conclusion, this brief article only scratches the surface of the complex matrix of issues related to Eze 36:25-27, to Yohanan's activity with water, to Messiah's activity with the Ruach Hakodesh, and to the New Covenant Messianic water rite. However it does suggest that placing Eze 36:25-27 within the New Covenant interpretational hermeneutic is nothing short of imperative. For further study go to: