A Jew who lived in a Catholic neighborhood drove the neighbors crazy with the smell of barbecue every Friday night. The neighbors went on a campaign to persuade him to convert, so that like them, he would be constrained to eat fish on Fridays. He agreed. Surprised at how easy the conversion was, he asked the priest, So that’s all there is to it?” “That’s right,” answered the priest, “I’ve sprinkled you with the waters of baptism and now you’re no longer a Jew; you’re a Catholic. So on Fridays we eat fish, not meat.” The next Friday the neighbors were shocked when the aroma of barbecue once again wafted through the neighborhood. A group went to confront the newly converted Catholic, who was barbecuing a steak. “What’s this?” one neighbor exclaimed, “You know we eat fish on Fridays!” “Of course,” agreed the Jew, “This is fish. It was a steak, but I sprinkled water on it and ‘presto!’ it became a fish.”
That joke underscores the fact that we are what we are—that identity is not something to be shed like an extra layer of skin. Yet some Jewish believers seem to fear that baptism might wash away their Jewish identity, as though somehow one could go into the water a Jew and come out a Gentile. In fact, even as I was writing this article a new Jewish believer called and expressed that very fear.1
Chances are that you have been baptized, yet many Jewish believers have not yet taken this important step. Some fear their family’s reaction: “Believe what you want, just keep it to yourself and don’t ever tell me you were baptized!” with an implied “or else…” Some Jewish believers argue, “It’s what God did inside my heart that counts, not what others see.” Others realize the importance of baptism years after coming to know Yeshua but may be ashamed that they haven’t yet taken that step. Some people avoid baptism simply because they are afraid of water or of standing up in front of large groups. I want to encourage all Jewish believers in Yeshua to “take the plunge!” If you or any Jewish believer you know has yet to be baptized, I hope you will consider this issue very carefully.
The most simple and straightforward reason to be baptized is that Jesus taught that it was the right thing to do, by example and command.
He insisted on being baptized despite the protests of his cousin John (Matthew 3:14-15). Jesus didn’t need to be baptized, but in doing so he humbly identified with sinful humanity.
Later, Messiah instructed the apostles to go, make disciples and baptize them.
All authority is given to Me in Heaven and in earth. Therefore go and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things, whatever I commanded you.
When the Holy Spirit ignited Peter to preach to all the Jewish pilgrims in Jerusalem on Shavuot, his message was:
Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ to remission of sins, and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is to you and to your children, and to all those afar off, as many as the Lord our God shall call.
“As many as the Lord our God shall call” receive two things: a promise and a command. The command to repent and be baptized is simple. We either obey our Lord or we don’t. It was normal for first century believers to immediately be baptized upon their profession of faith.2 Why should it be any different today?
Baptism is the prescribed way to identify ourselves with Yeshua and to memorialize what He has done for us. In baptism, we give ourselves to God and He does an amazing thing. He takes our old self and raises us to new life in Messiah. Of course, I’m talking figuratively; but water baptism paints an incredibly vivid picture of these New Testament realities. We have died with Messiah, been buried with Him in baptism and we are raised with Him to newness of life (Colossians 2:12; Romans 6:3-4).
Baptism also symbolizes the wonderful truth that we have been cleansed from sin (1 Peter 3:21). As believers we must be willing to openly identify with Jesus no matter what others say or do. We don’t lose our identity as Jews, just our identity as sinners. I thank God for using everyday images that enable us to grasp what He’s done. Baptism began as a Jewish ritual, and like many of our holiday traditions it is a “show and tell” event, in gratitude for what God has done for us!
We gain a new identity as one of His followers and as a member of His body. Paul wrote that, “You are all sons of God through faith in Messiah Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Messiah have clothed yourselves with Messiah” (Galatians 3:26-27). Though differences between Jews and Gentiles, males and females remain, in Messiah we are all made one, equal members of his body. “There is one body…one Lord, one faith, one baptism…” (Ephesians 4:4-5). We cannot and should not forsake our identity as Jews. How much more should we not forsake our identity as members of that universal body of believers who gather to fellowship, worship and serve our Lord? We must actively seek to find our place, both locally and globally, in Messiah’s holy congregation so we can give and receive as He directs. Baptism plays a key role in demonstrating our new identity in Yeshua.
In our relationship to God, gratitude and obedience go hand in hand. Baptism is a way for us to show both, because it allows us to make a bold statement: “I belong to Jesus! I am His. I thank God for what He did for me and I want everyone to know it.” That statement is for the good of our own soul, but it is also a blessing to those who witness it. Here’s an example from one of the South Africa branch Jews for Jesus missionaries:
Congregation Beit Yeshua in Johannesburg began as a Jews for Jesus Bible study. Recently five Jewish believers (who came to faith through Jews for Jesus) were baptized there. As missionary Eliyah Gould was explaining the procedure, one of the women inquired, “Would it be okay if I wore a snorkel?” Eliyah could not quite suppress a chuckle and Judith quickly realized that no diving equipment would be necessary! One woman, Natalie, had invited (as yet) unbelieving Jewish friends to witness her public commitment. One of them, Dorienne, was surprised to see her old ballet teacher, Yvonne, at the baptism. Yvonne, (also a Jewish-as-yet-unbeliever) had attended Beit Yeshua the previous night. She heard the baptism announced and came out of curiosity. Both Dorienne and Yvonne asked our missionary, Laura Barron, to meet with them for further discussion during the week. Who could have known that this baptism would become an outreach!
I believe God knew that baptism would facilitate outreach. Believers are encouraged in faith as they see God’s work in a baptized person’s life, and non-believers are challenged as well.
Baptism matters. If you know of a believer who refuses to be baptized or continues to put it off, I would encourage you to challenge that person. I would ask, “If you don’t feel it necessary to obey God in regard to baptism, I wonder what you think He’s done in your heart.”
Some want to wait until their families are more sympathetic before they undergo baptism. The fear of losing family over this issue points out an important truth. Somehow, unsaved family members seem to realize that a public profession of faith helps to cement the relationship with Jesus. It’s seen as an irrevocable step. And while they may misunderstand what that step means, they know that it marks some kind of change. All of us have our doubts and our struggles when it comes to faith. We need to memorialize and build landmarks that we can look back on during difficult times. Baptism can be one of those landmarks.
It is painful to face rejection from loved ones, but if we’ve trusted God for our salvation, then we can trust Him for our families. In fact, though our baptism may initially alienate family members, on the long road of witness it will help us. Over and over I’ve heard the same story, that baptism was a turning point. And no wonder! In baptism, God builds up our own faith and confidence. When we stand with him in baptism, we are strengthened and gain the ability to stand for him in more difficult circumstances in the future, whether that’s before aggressive family members, snickering co-workers or other opposition to our faith.
If you’ve received Yeshua but have not been baptized, ask God what He wants you to do. Baptism remains the first significant step of obedience to God. Without it, how can any of us aspire to a life of faithfulness to Him? By choosing to be baptized, you let God know you are taking him seriously. Then comes the exciting part. God will give you new opportunities to obey Him, new adventures in which to follow Yeshua—and it’s in following the Lord that we find life!
- Some people are not aware that baptism is actually a very Jewish ritual, coming from a long tradition of Jewish water purification ceremonies. For an excellent article on the Jewish roots of baptism I refer you to Baptism: Pagan or Jewish, by Ceil Rosen.
- Cf. Acts 8:36; 10:47; 16:33; 18:8; 22:16.