Dr. James D. Spinnati, Director
What was the process that took place when one converted to Judaism? Were there steps to be taken and how long did it take? What brought those converts into Old Testament Israel? These questions and many others have entered the minds of men through the ages. So, what are the answers?
Who Were These Candidates?
First, we must realize that these proselytes were Gentile converts to Judaism and that the Old Covenant was never exclusively national, limited to the descendants of Jacob. But, it was primarily a religious covenant, and people who accepted the religion of Israel became full-fledged members. They were accepted into the “chosen nation.”
During the first Century, during the time of Christ, the Jews were very missionary-minded. This was especially true concerning the Pharisees and scribes. In fact, the Bible proves this emphatically. We even see Jesus proclaiming this fact in Matthew 23:15. Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye compass sea and land to make one proselyte, and when he is made, ye make him twofold more the child of hell than yourselves.
What Were The Requirements?
There were three requirements for Gentile proselytes to enter Judaism; circumcision, baptism and sacrifice. Immersion in water (baptism), according to Jewish customs and ceremonies, was considered a supreme symbol of consecration. By complete submergence one severs all contact with his visible surroundings. Upon re-emergence they begin life anew, like a newborn babe (Yevamot 22a). Converts to Judaism were required to precede their initiation into the new faith with immersion as an act of consecration (Yevamot 46b). Immersion in water was an act of “cleansing,” having turned from sin in order to devote oneself to God.
Rabbinical literature deals so much with proselyte baptism that a sizable book could be written if all the material were gathered together. Please also note that proselyte baptism was used extensively before the birth of Christ. It was also practiced by Israel throughout Christ’s public ministry. In fact, Alfred Edersheim writes in his book, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, “We have positive testimony that the baptism of proselytes existed in the time of Hillel and Shammai. For, whereas the school of Shammai is said to have allowed a proselyte, who was circumcised on the eve of the Passover, to partake, after baptism, of the Passover, the school of Hillel forbade it. This controversy must be regarded as proving that at the time previous to Christ’s first coming and during His public ministry proselyte baptism was customary.”
There had been a silence of the prophetic word for approximately four-hundred years when John came, announcing that the Kingdom of God was at hand and calling all Israel to a public act of repentance and baptism to prepare for the coming of the Messiah.
Bearing in mind that baptism was a Jewish practice of consecration for Gentile proselytes, those who considered themselves righteous students of the Torah saw no need to be baptized. While the common people flocked to the wilderness to receive John’s baptism the religious leaders and Pharisees, who had a reputation for meticulous observance of the Torah which set them apart from the sinners, were not ready to admit that they needed to repent of anything. Unlike the prophet Daniel, who had identified with the sins of his people (cf. Dan. 9:11), they were confident in their own righteousness and in their position as Abraham’s descendants. They failed to realize their need of the Redeemer to set them free from their slavery to sin.
Jesus confronted this attitude in John 8:31-33. “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free,” they answered, “We are Abraham’s descendants and have never been slaves of anyone. How can you say that we shall be set free?” (John 8:31-33).
Professor F.F. Bruce in his New Testament History (p. 149) wrote, “In so far as proselyte baptism provides an analogy to John’s baptism, John was saying in effect to true-born Jews, proudly conscious of their descent from Abraham: “Your impeccable pedigree is irrelevant in God’s sight; if you wish to be enrolled in the new Israel of the age that is about to dawn, you must take the outside place, acknowledging that you are not better in his eyes than Gentiles, and you must enter the end-time community of his people by baptism, as they have to do.”
John was baptizing in the Jordan, close to Bethany, the very same place where Joshua had led the Israelites across the Jordan into the Promised Land. This is clearly seen in 1 Corinthians 10:1-2. Moreover, brethren, I would not that ye should be ignorant, how that all our fathers were under the cloud, and all passed through the sea; 2And were all baptized unto Moses in the cloud and in the sea. Those who went out to be baptized in the wilderness were in effect acknowledging that they had been enslaved all over again and had to go back into the wilderness, pass through the Red Sea and be led back into the Promised Land by the Messiah.
The baptism that John administered was merely the precursor to the baptism that the Messiah would bring. John was sent to prepare the way for the Messiah who would be like a refiner’s fire, a purifier of silver and of whom it was written “but who can endure the day of his coming?” (Malachi 3:2) John testified: “I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me will come one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not fit to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire” (Matthew 3:11). This baptism was alluded to by the prophet Ezekiel in Ezekiel 36:25. “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.”
Remember that the Pharisees and Sadducees refused John’s baptism. Then went out to him Jerusalem, and all Judaea, and all the region round about Jordan, And were baptized of him in Jordan, confessing their sins. But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees come to his baptism, he said unto them, O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bring forth therefore fruits meet for repentance: And think not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham to our father: for I say unto you, that God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham. And now also the axe is laid unto the root of the trees: therefore every tree which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire. I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance: but he that cometh after me is mightier than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to bear: he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost, and with fire: Whose fan is in his hand, and he will throughly purge his floor, and gather his wheat into the garner; but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire (Matthew 3:5-12)
What the Pharisees and Sadducees rejected, Jesus consented to. Then cometh Jesus from Galilee to Jordan unto John, to be baptized of him. But John forbad him, saying, I have need to be baptized of thee, and comest thou to me? And Jesus answering said unto him, Suffer it to be so now: for thus it becometh us to fulfill all righteousness. Then he suffered him. And Jesus, when he was baptized, went up straightway out of the water: and, lo, the heavens were opened unto him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and lighting upon him: And lo a voice from heaven, saying, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased (Matthew 3:13-17).
In Matthew 5:20 Jesus said, “For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20). Was this statement an off handed remark? Did it deal with the pride of the Pharisees and Sadducees? Or did it deal with their rejection of John’s baptism? Please, note the common “thread” running through these verses, righteousness and baptism.
Those who had recognized John as a true prophet obeyed God’s call, but those who had refused rejected both John’s call to repentance and Jesus’ teaching: “All the people, even the tax collectors, when they heard Jesus’ words, acknowledged that God’s way was right, because they had been baptized by John. But the Pharisees and experts in the law rejected God’s purpose for themselves, because they had not been baptized by John” (Luke 7:29).
New Testament baptism represents the real crossing over into the Promised Land. We are not waiting for victory we are already victorious! This is the crossing over from death into life through the death, burial, resurrection and ascension of our Lord. This is where the redeemed will receive their eternal inheritance together with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and all the men of faith.
“I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit” (John 3:5).
For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ (Galatians 3:27).
“Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus the Messiah for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off–for all whom the Lord our God will call” (Acts 2:38-39).