John’s Baptism

The Greek word βάπτισμα (baptisma) was specifically devised to describe the practice of immersing proselytes in water.

The Law of Moses prescribed washing in many cases where cleansing and purification were required. For example, for contact with a dead body (Numbers 19:11-12) and for nocturnal emissions (Deuteronomy 23:10-11). These washings never brought about a permanent cleansing and were an ongoing part of the religious life of the Jews.

The specific mission of John the Baptist was to prepare the way for the one who would come as the durable solution for every form of human defilement – Jesus the Messiah, described as a refiner’s fire and a launderer’s soap (Malachi 3:2) – who cleanses by the washing of water through the word (Ephesians 5:26).

“In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the Desert of Judea and saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.’ This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah: A voice of one calling in the desert, Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him … People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan. Confessing their sins, they were baptised by him in the Jordan River. But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptising, he said to them: ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not think you can say to yourselves, We have Abraham as our father. I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The axe is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. I baptise 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 baptise 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 3:1-9).

John called the Jews – those in covenant relationship with God and heirs to the Messianic promise – to confess their sins and repent. Only those who did this qualified to receive the Redeemer: ‘The Redeemer will come to Zion, to those in Jacob who repent of their sins, declares the LORD.’ (Isaiah 59:20)

John baptised across the Jordan River (Jn 10:40), probably at the place where the Israelites crossed into the Land at the time of Joshua (Joshua 1:2). In terms of the Law of Moses, the Land was promised to the Israelites as an inheritance, as long as they remained obedient to the covenant made at Mount Sinai: ‘Keep all my decrees and laws and follow them, so that the land where I am bringing you to live may not vomit you out. You must not live according to the customs of the nations I am going to drive out before you. Because they did all these things, I abhorred them. But I said to you, You will possess their land; I will give it to you as an inheritance, a land flowing with milk and honey. I am the LORD your God, who has set you apart from the nations.’ (Leviticus 20:22-24)

By withdrawing across the Jordan, the penitent ones of Israel acknowledged that they had forfeited their inheritance through disobedience, placing themselves at God’s mercy in anticipation of the coming Redeemer: ‘All the people, even the tax collectors, when they heard Jesus’ words, acknowledged that God’s way was right, because they had been baptised by John. But the Pharisees and experts in the Law rejected God’s purpose for themselves, because they had not been baptised by John.’ (Luke 7:29-30)

Many of the Pharisees came to John for baptism, but he turned them away because they presumed the inheritance without repentance – through their descent from Abraham.

When John told the Pharisees, out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham, he was probably referring to the memorial erected at the time of Joshua and spoken of in Joshua 4:4-7. At the same time the Baptist was anticipating God’s adding into Israel of faithful believers from among the Gentiles – as various prophets had predicted:

I will record Rahab and Babylon
among those who acknowledge me –
Philistia too, and Tyre, along with Cush –
and will say, This one was born in Zion.
Indeed, of Zion it will be said,
This one and that one were born in her,
and the Most High himself will establish her.
The LORD will write in the register of the peoples:
‘This one was born in Zion.’
 (Psalm 87:4-6)

John asked the Pharisees who came for baptism: who warned you to flee from the coming wrath (Matthew 3:7). The advent of the Redeemer would also be the time of God’s unique punishment upon the Jews who rejected the New Covenant as His final offer of mercy. Elsewhere the prophets had warned:

‘Zion will be redeemed with justice,
her penitent ones with righteousness.
But rebels and sinners will both be broken,
and those who forsake the LORD will perish.’
(Isaiah 1:27-28)

Jesus would come first as the Redeemer of those who acknowledged their guilt, but then, forty years later in AD70, he would come to bring judgment on the unfaithful remnant of Old Covenant Israel – those who refused to repent and believe.

John’s ministry began the trumpet call that preceded the judgment.