Baptism in Jewish thought

Immersion in water (baptism), according to Jewish customs and ceremonies, was considered a supreme symbol of consecration. By complete submergence under water one severs all contact with his visible surroundings. Upon re-emergence he begins life anew, like a newborn babe (Yevamot 22a). Converts to Judaism were required to precede their initiation into the new faith with immersion as a symbol of consecration (Yevamot 46b). Immersion in water was a symbolic act of cleansing, having turned from sin in order to devote oneself to God.

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 through baptism to prepare for the coming of the Messiah.

Bearing in mind that baptism was a Jewish practice of consecration for Gentile proselytes and for penitent sinners, those who considered themselves righteous students of Torah saw no need for themselves 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 and they failed to realise their need of the Redeemer to set them free from their slavery to sin. When the Messiah who was in their very midst said to them, “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) comments, “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 baptising in the Jordan, close to Bethany, the very same place where Joshua had led the Israelites across the Jordan into the Promised Land. Those who went out to be baptised in the wilderness were in effect acknowledging that they had been enslaved all over again and had to symbolically 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. He 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?” (Mal.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” (Mt.3:11). This baptism was alluded to by the prophet 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.”

Those who had recognised John as a true prophet received Jesus, but those who had refused John’s call to repentance rejected 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).

Baptism into the Messiah represents the real crossing over into the Promised Land. This is the crossing over from death into life through the resurrection. This is where the redeemed of all ages 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).

“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).