An excerpt from my new booklet: You and Your Household
John the Baptist was to go “in the spirit and power of Elijah” who divided the water of the Jordan (2Kgs. 2:8ff). John “prepared the way” for Jesus. He was “preaching a baptism of repentance” at the Jordan river (Mark 1:4). John was in the wilderness beyond the borders of the Land where they “went out to him” (Mark 1:5). We must call to mind what had happened to Israel in the past to make sense of this.
In the Exodus, Israel “passed (Heb. avar) through the midst of the sea into the wilderness” (Num. 33:8). Paul describes this as a “baptism.” They were “all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea” (1 Cor. 10:2). Crossing the red sea is a “baptism.” Under Joshua, Israel was commanded to “cross (avar) this Jordan, to go in to possess the land” (Josh. 1:11). Due to Moses’ anger, he did not get to “cross” over (Deut. 4:22, 31:2). This “crossing” happens again when Elisha is given a “double portion” of the spirit of Elijah. “Elijah took his mantle and folded it together and struck the waters, and they were divided here and there, so that the two of them crossed over on dry ground” (2 Kgs. 2:8). Then in the exile, Judah was expelled out of the Land, beyond the borders of the Jordan River (1 Chr. 9:1; Josh. 3-4).
In the era just before Jesus came, the Jews wanted to know if the exile was over. On the one hand, they were back “in the Land” from Babylon (at least many were). They had walls, a city and a temple. On the other hand, they were still oppressed by foreign powers (Herod(s) and Rome). Had God returned to Zion in fulfillment of the prophets (e.g., Is. 40:1-10)? Now enter John.
John was “preaching a baptism of repentance” (Mark 1:4). This does not mean John was preaching, “You must be immersed.” Rather, given all the history to this point, John was preaching a “baptism” of the renewal of Israel. The baptism he preached showed this. Theologian Colin Brown wrote, “John was organizing a symbolic exodus from Jerusalem and Judea as a preliminary to recrossing the Jordan as a penitent, consecrated Israel in order to reclaim the land in a quasi-reenactment of the return from the Babylonian exile . . . . the purity and quantity of the water were of less significance than the historic, symbolic significance of the Jordan itself as the boundary and point of entry.” Just as Deuteronomy looked to a time of renewal when they “cross the Jordan,” being led by Joshua (Deut. 4:21), so now on the verge of Messiah coming, John was leading them in a symbolic exodus to enter the Land in renewal. The rest of the New Testament draws upon various threads of this “crossing” image in baptism. We are “baptized” into Christ, through death and into resurrection life. We “pass” or “cross” into Him (Rom. 6:3-4, Col. 2:11-12).
In addition to the “crossing,” John may have sprinkled water on people as they passed, as a ritual of cleansing. This is suggested by the words of Jesus about John,“What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind?” (Matt. 11:7). This could be merely metaphorical, but throughout the Bible such branches are used to apply rites of cleansing (Lev. 14). “A clean person shall take hyssop and dip it in the water, and sprinkle it on the tent and on all the furnishings and on the persons who were there…” (Num. 19:18). “Purify me with hyssop, and I shall be clean” (Psalms 51:7). It is unlikely that John physically immersed all the people in Jerusalem, all of Judea, and the district around the Jordan” (Matt. 3:5-6).
What about the baptism of Jesus? So, John’s baptism of Jesus involved this renewal of Israel, crossing the Jordan (as before with the Red Sea, Joshua, Elijah, and Elisha) to “manifest” the Anointed One, “Christ” (Jn. 1:31, Ps. 2:2). Hebrews teaches Christ was appointed “by God as a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek” (Heb. 5:10). He “appoints a Son, made perfect forever” (Heb. 7:28). When did this happen? This happened at Jesus’ baptism (Luke 3:21, 4:18).
John was qualified to be Levitical priest, as was his father (Luke 1:5). However, John did not do his ritual cleansings at the temple, under the corruption of the Sadducees. Levitical priests were appointed through a ritual washing, an anointing with oil, and vesting (clothing) (Ex. 28:41, Num. 3:3). Jesus was consecrated as a priest by John in the baptismal event (Matt. 3:13-17). I would consider John the “last Levitical priest” who anoints the Melchizedekian High Priest, Jesus. Jesus did not get symbolic oil at a corrupt temple; He received the actual Spirit coming down as a dove. Because of this, “having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, He has poured forth” the Spirit on us (Acts 2:33). This is the meaning of the word, “Christ” (anointed), and it goes back to the event of Jesus’ baptism when He was anointed.
So do we “follow the Lord” in baptism? Only with this rich background in mind, can we now see how Christ’s baptism is a model for us. In our baptisms we are cleansed; there is a washing away of sin in the symbolism. We “cross” or “pass” into Christ, and we are clothed. In baptism, we gain a new status as adopted sons and daughters of the Father. We are vested with the Spirit and called “sons/daughters” of God. Priestly ordination is a picture of the “royal priesthood” in Christ (1 Pet. 2:9). Our new identity is conferred in baptism, even as it was for Israel in the crossing of the Red Sea (1 Cor. 10:1-4). This is all another way of saying what Paul states definitively. We are “all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ” (Gal. 3:26-27).