From The Messianic Foundations Series
Mayim Chayim: The Living Waters
by Kevin Williams
As appearing in: The Pneuma Review (Volume 2, Number 4) Fall 1999
Imagine a cold, icy winter, the kind that seeps into the marrow and makes the body shiver. Walking along the streets, you exhale, and your breath freezes in the air; you inhale, and draw the frigid reality into your lungs. Head down, arms wrapped tightly across your chest, you barrel forward, feet crunching on the ice beneath, each step draining the warmth from your already numb toes. But soon this atmosphere is exchanged for another, as you walk down steps into a warm, refreshing pool, life flowing back into your icy joints as you join in the ancient rite of your people. This observance, which stretches back to Mount Sinai, is the mikveh, and you have stepped into the Mayim Chayim, the Living Waters. The chill is almost gone now, swept away by the warm, inviting waters. You submerge, drowning out all the sounds and sensations of the arctic world, and enter into the muffled quiet of the reservoir, the womb-like environment from which you entered into the world.
Would not that kind of daily refreshing be worth looking forward to? It would be a welcome relief in a harsh environment, a physical reminder of the spiritual promises of God.
In the world of Orthodox Judaism, this event is called the mikveh, the immersion. It is the root and origin of the Christian practice known as Baptism. Some believe John the Baptist invented baptism, but ritual purification by water is nearly as old as time itself.
Literally, the mikveh is identified as a collection of water, a pool of sorts, which has gathered by God's design. That is to say, there was no human intervention, no one dug a hole, no one collected water in jars to fill the pool. This collection of waters might be a river or a sea. The water source came about as part of the Almighty's plan, which gives it the nomenclature: Living Water.
Genesis 1:9 speaks of the waters being "gathered together." The Hebrew term used here is mikveh
, a source for Living Water. In Genesis chapter 7, we have the account of Noah's Flood, when the Most High chose Living Water as the vehicle to cleanse the earth. In Genesis 35:2, Jacob commands his household to destroy their idols and to "purify themselves." The Jewish sages understand this purification as none other than the mikveh.
Virtually from the very beginning, this concept of the mikveh and Mayim Chayim plays and important role, a role which carries over into the rest of the Torah?the five books of Moses. In what parallels the "born again" experience of the modern Christian, Jewish theologians look at the crossing of the Red Sea in Exodus 14, as a mikveh. Certainly the sea qualifies as a pool of Living Waters, and the crossing of the Hebrews demonstrated not only God's immense provision, but likewise, a separation from that which defiled them, Egypt, and that which gave the nation of Israel new life, the crossing through the midst of the waters. Today, we are not far from that event ourselves. In 1 Cor. 10:1-3 we read, "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" (emphasis mine). Our immersion places us on the same shores as those Hebrews in Exodus 14. They were a redeemed people, now able to rest from slavery to Pharaoh. Soon, they would have God's instructions at Mt. Sinai. And then, they would be on their journey to the Promised Land. If this was true for them, then how much more so for us through the redemption of our High Priest, Yeshua the Messiah? We have been redeemed, washed clean, brought into rest from bondage, we are learning about God and His ways, and we are enroute to the eternal Promised Land!
As we progress through the Bible, we find water playing a crucial role in the cleansing of the priesthood, as the sons of Levi must be ritually purified before carrying out their religious duties.
In fact, by the time we get to the New Testament, the mikveh was a critical part of life in the daily routine of Jewish religious society. Women had to undergo the immersion every month after the completion of their menstrual cycle. Men, particularly the religiously observant ones, engaged in the mikveh every dawn, in preparation for morning prayers in the Temple. Archeologists continue to unearth ancient mikveh pools near and around the Temple mount. These pools are identical in form and construction to the mikveh baths found in modern Orthodox Jewish synagogues.
Today, when a Gentile converts to Judaism, his final act is to go through the immersion of the mikveh. In this practice, the Talmud teaches that he enters the waters, dies to himself, is buried, and emerges on the other side, "born again." Not unlike the Christian understanding, is it?
Immersion was observed for a variety of reasons, one of which was the immersion of repentance, the practice we find John the Baptist engaging in the gospel of Matthew. He had not created a new liturgical ritual. Rather, he was following in the tradition of his fathers. John was the son of Zechariah, of the Levitical clan of Abijah (Luke 1:5). As a Levite, John would have been well accustomed to the mikveh. In fact, one custom among the Levites was that in order for a priest to be ordained, he had to undergo immersion and have that ritual purification witnessed by another Levite.
In Matthew, chapter three, we find Yeshua coming to John for baptism. This has long perplexed Christian theologians and laymen alike forcing the question, "If the Messiah was without corruption, Why did he need to go through the immersion?"
Alfred Edersheim aptly points out "Had it primarily and always been a 'baptism of repentance,' He [Yeshua] could not have submitted to it" (The Life
, p. 280). Certainly we would all agree! Yeshua had nothing to be repentant of, no sins to confess.
However, He was about thirty years of age, the biblically required age of a man to be ordained a priest. John was a Levite, qualified to witness such immersions. When Yeshua says, "We must fulfill all things righteously," (Matthew 3:15) He is not referring to a baptism of repentance, but rather stepping into the Living Waters of ordination. Yeshua was about to take on his mantle as Messianic priest.
This might help us understand the point of Yeshua's immersion, but what about us? Why is it an important part of faith today? Why did the Messiah command this ordinance for all converts in Matthew 28:19? On the one hand it can safely be looked at as an outward expression of an inward condition. Immersion, or baptism, certainly is this and it has great validity. But this author thinks there is something more.
The Mayim Chayim has some important spiritual qualities. According to the Torah, a source of Living Waters cannot be defiled. Mayim Chayim overcomes defilement, but defilement can never overcome Mayim Chayim. When something becomes defiled, or ritually unclean as defined by the Biblical standard, whether a person or an object, it must be immersed in Living Water to be declared "clean." Anyone unclean, or defiled was forbidden access to the Temple and therefore, unable to participate in worship or sacrifice.
This aspect of the mikveh is of great relevance to the modern believer. In John 7:37-38 we read, "If any man is thirsty, let him come to Me and drink. He who believes in Me, as the Scriptures said, 'From his innermost being shall flow rivers of Living Water'" (referencing Isaiah 44:3, 55:1, 58:11).
Is it possible that what Yeshua was saying, is that we?through faith in His death and resurrection?have become a source of this wellspring of Living Water? This would imply that, as Peter says in Acts chapter 10:28 "unto me hath God showed that I should not call any man common or unclean." In other words, what God has declared clean, like the Mayim Chayim, cannot become unclean, it is now a source for Living Water.
The relevance for the contemporary Christian, therefore, is that baptism is an external testimony of an internal change. The lessons of the mikveh and the Mayim Chayim show that we are now a source of Living Water on legs. We can go into the world, sharing this good news to an unclean world. Because this bubbles up from within us, nothing can defile the source. Nothing can render spiritually unclean the Holy Spirit's sanctifying presence within the believer.
This point becomes even clearer when we watch the example of the apostles. In Israel then and now, touching a dead person, a leper, a menstruating woman, and unclean spirit, all had the biblical properties of rendering an individual unclean. Yet, we find Yeshua doing just this in the gospels time and again. Yeshua was and is the Living Waters and nothing could ever make Him unclean. As a source of Living Waters, none of these things that would render an ordinary man unclean, can overcome Yeshua's Mayim Chayim.
In Matthew chapter 10, this same authority, this same overpowering Mayim Chayim, was instilled into the disciples. "Yeshua called his twelve disciples and gave them authority to drive out unclean spirits and to heal every kind of disease and weakness."
That may be fine for them, but what about us? "If any man is thirsty, let him come to Me and drink. He who believes in Me, as the Scriptures said, 'From his innermost being shall flow rivers of Living Water.'"
That means, the promise of Living Water is in us! We have the same authority and Spirit living inside us. Nothing of the unclean world can overcome us. We are a source of Mayim Chayim. Like the mikveh pools, unclean things do not defile us, we are free to worship the Almighty without barrier or concern of being accepted by Him.
I am reminded of a personal experience several years ago. My sister-in-law was dying of AIDS related complications. Her parents asked me if I would go in and spend some time with her, to minister to her. I was somewhat fearful at first. I did not want to contract the unclean virus. But the Almighty reminded me that I am now a source of Living Waters, that I cannot be made unclean. With the Lord's strength, I spent time with my sister-in-law, and she committed her life to Yeshua! Three days later, she was gone. Fear nearly kept me away, but the Mayim Chayim poured out from me, and she is now with her Creator.
What John the Baptist accomplished at the Jordan is crucial to our faith. Together Yeshua and John initiated the Messianic High Priesthood through mikveh, "to fulfill all righteousness" (Matthew 3:15). Yeshua could now begin the work of atonement, a work much greater than that of His Levitical brothers in the Temple (see Hebrews 7:11, 24; 8:6). Yeshua was to be the fulfillment of the shadow and rehearsal that the priests had been performing for centuries.
We must also remember what is said in Matthew 3:11. John prophesied, "As for me, I baptize you with water for repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, . . . He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire."
There are some significant points here we should not miss. Throughout the Scriptures, the Holy Spirit and water are often found together, as in Genesis 1:2, "and the Spirit of God was moving over the surface of the waters."
Passages such as Zechariah 12:10, "I will pour out on the house of David and on the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the Spirit of grace and of supplication," and Isaiah 44:3, "For I will pour water upon him that is thirsty, and floods upon the dry ground: I will pour My Spirit upon thy seed, and My blessing upon thine offspring," join water and the Spirit of God. No wonder then, that in Hebraic theology the Holy Spirit (Ruach haKodesh
: The Breath/Wind of God) and the Living Waters are synonymous.
The Prophet Joel (2:28, 29) wrote, "And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out My Spirit upon all flesh; and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions: And also upon the servants and upon the handmaids in those days will I pour out My Spirit." This passage plays a prominent role on the last day of the Feast of Tabernacles (Shavuot). This last day, the great day of the feast, is the occasion when the Israelites would gather together in the Temple and pray for God to send the rains. They would read and declare the passages we have just mentioned: Zechariah 12:10, Isaiah 44:3, Joel 2:28, 29.
It was at this festival that Yeshua spoke while standing in the Temple, "Now on the last day, the great day of the feast, Yeshua stood and cried out, saying, 'If anyone is thirsty, let him come to Me and drink. He who believes in Me, as the Scripture said, "From his innermost being will flow rivers of living water."' But this He spoke of the Spirit, whom those who believed in Him were to receive; for the Spirit was not yet given, because Yeshua was not yet glorified" (John 7:37-39).
I pray that the significance of immersion is clearer for those of us who have gone from death into life through the symbol of mikveh, or baptism. It is a harsh world in which we live, often frigid. But just like the man in the beginning of our story, we have the ability within us to enter the refreshing pool every day, every hour, every moment, if we so chose, and to rest in its warm, protective covering. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, in whose names we have been baptized, are always with us, filling us to overflowing. Brethren, be a river of Living Water!
- Jewish New Testament Commentary. David H. Stern. Clarksville, MD: Jewish New Testament Publications, 1992.
- Josephus. William Whiston, trans. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1970.
- Mishnayoth. New York: Judaica Press, 1964.
- The Artscroll Mishnah Series, Seder Toharos, Vol. IV (b). Brooklyn: Mesorah Publications, Ltd., 1991.
- The Life and Times of Yeshua the Messiah. Alfred Edersheim, 1907.
, Litt. D., H.L.D. has served in Messianic ministries since 1987, planting indigenous Messianic Jewish congregations with the purpose of reaching God's Chosen with the good news. He helped establish Adat Etz Chayim (Tree of Life Congregation) in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and is on full-time staff with RBC Ministries. Kevin has written numerous articles and been a featured speaker at regional and international conferences on Messianic Judaism.