Jeffrey J. Harrison


There are few places on earth as dramatic as the spot where Jesus was baptized by John.  From Jerusalem, the road drops down steeply among desert hills and cliffs to almost 1,000 feet below sea level.  Here, at the lowest point above water on the surface of the earth, there is a flat, 10-12 mile wide desert area flanked by a wall of huge, rocky cliffs and steep slopes on the east and the west.  Right in the middle of this desert (called the Aravah in Biblical Hebrew) is a much smaller canyon with a river inside it:  the Jordan River.  Aside from a few meters of green on either side of the river, the land is barren and dry--a tan-colored rocky soil with one small desert plant here and another over there.

The first reaction of most people to the Jordan River is disappointment.  It is neither deep nor wide as they expect it to be.  If it was any smaller, you could jump across it.  In part, this is due to all the water that is pumped out today for agriculture.  But even in Jesus' day, in the dry time of year, the amount of water dropped off dramatically.  John had to hunt for stretches of the river where there was enough water to baptize (John 3:23).   

This barren desert location may seem an odd place from which to address the nation.  But John was here in fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah, "The voice of one crying out in the desert, prepare the way of the Lord" (Isa. 40:3, Matt. 3:3, John 1:23).  If he had wanted to, he could have gone much further into the desert.  But the Jordan lay near the major pilgrim route to Jerusalem from the east.  Anything happening along its length would soon be made known in Jerusalem, and from there to the rest of the nation.  John wanted his message to be heard.*

* Until recently, the historical baptism site of Jesus was off limits in a military zone near Israel's border with Jordan.  The only way to see a nearby stretch of the river was to cross between Israel and Jordan at the Allenby Bridge border crossing.  As a result of the peace treaty between Jordan and Israel, accessible tourist sites were developed on both sides of the river, though that on the Israel side is once again in neglect and is inaccessible.   

A voice from the desert carried with it moral authority.  Israel's formative experiences with God were in the desert:  the revelation at Mt. Sinai, the provision of manna, the pillar of fire and cloud.  Great miracles had taken place within sight of the place John was baptizing:  the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, the toppling of the walls of Jericho, the ascension of Elijah to heaven.  By contrast, the wetter side of Israel, nearer the Mediterranean Sea on the west, was the place of temptation and compromise with false gods, the route of foreign armies that had conquered and oppressed the people. 

This gave the desert a sense of purity, of being closer to God.  In the time of Jesus and John this drew many here:  hermits and small communities that renounced the ease of life in the greener areas and came to the desert to live.  One of these groups was the Dead Sea Community at Qumran.  Members of this group gave up all their earthly belongings, and even marriage, in order to live a strict life of work and worship in the desert.* 

* The famous Dead Sea Scrolls were the community's library.  The discovery of a few women in the community's graveyard may indicate that some of the members were married. 

Why did they feel the need to make such an extreme change in their lifestyle?  The writings of the Dead Sea Community reveal that its members were convinced that the Messianic age was about to dawn.  Their withdrawal to the desert was to prepare themselves for the coming of that age, and the part they believed their community would play in its arrival. 

They, together with many others among the Jews, saw evidence for the coming of the Messiah in the trying times that Israel was going through.  The source of most of these difficulties was the loss of independence to the Romans about sixty years before the birth of Jesus.  The Romans were unclean, idol worshippers, and oppressed the people with heavy taxes.  They had replaced the rule of God over the nation with the rule of Caesar.  But the problem wasn't only the Romans:  many of the Jews themselves were attracted by Roman power and wealth and had become collaborators with the enemy. 

The attraction of the West wasn't a new problem.  Hellenization (the influence of Greek ideas, values, and cultural practices) among the religious leaders had sparked a nationalistic uprising that overthrew Greek power and established an independent Jewish nation a hundred years before the Romans arrived (the Maccabean Revolt; 175 BC).  But within a few years, Hellenisim gained the upper hand again, pitting the Hellenized supporters of the Sadducees in a civil war against the more conservative Pharisees--a war that gave the Romans an excuse to conquer the Jews and establish the Sadducees in a position of power. 

For many, the Sadducees, who controlled the priesthood and the Temple, and all those who accepted their Hellenized (today we would say secularized) ways were enemies of God.  This included most of those granted positions of power by the Romans.  The Dead Sea Community was so offended by them, they no longer brought sacrifices to the Temple.  The Pharisees denied those who agreed with the Sadducees' liberal doctrines a place in the world to come.*

* They were especially incensed by their rejection of the resurrection of the dead (Acts 23:8). 

John the Baptist and others in the desert, including Jesus, sided with this conservative "nationalist-religious" camp against the Sadducees.*  Jesus overturned the tables in the Sadducean-controlled Temple and prophesied its destruction;** his parable about the farmers in the vineyard and his cursing of the fig tree expressed a strong rejection of the Temple's Sadducean leadership (Luke 20:9-19; Mark 11:12-21).

* There are many parallels between the cultural conflict among the Jews in Jesus' day and the modern secular-religious divide in Israel.  Although Jesus rebuked the conservative Pharisees for hypocrisy (Matt. 23), he shared with them their primary theological positions, and opposed the opinions of the Sadducees. 

** These prophecies were fulfilled to the letter 40 years later when the Romans destroyed the Temple.

John the Baptist's message cut to the core of the problem.  Even though the Jewish people are set apart for God (made holy), being a descendant of Abraham is not enough to ensure a right relationship with God (Matt. 3:9).  Something more is needed:  personal repentance, and a life that lives out that repentance (Matt. 3:6,8,11).  This message, originally delivered to Jews, applies just as well to Gentile Christians who consider themselves God's chosen people.  A right relationship with God comes not through membership in the right church, but through personal repentance.  Nor can you rely on a one-time experience if there is no fruit in your life.  As John said, "Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire" (Matt. 3:10).*

* This is why a large segment of the Protestant movement objects to the baptism of babies:  Babies cannot repent of sin, nor can they bring forth the fruit of repentance.  The basis of their claim to membership in the body of Messiah is descent:  that they have Christian parents.  The Bible does teach that the children of believers are holy (set apart, just like Israel is set apart for God; 1 Cor. 7:14).  But as John said, it's not enough to be a descendant of Abraham.  Or as Jesus put it, "That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit" (John 3:6).  We cannot see, let alone enter, the kingdom of God without a spiritual rebirth (John 3:3,5).   

But John was not preaching repentance for its own sake.  As a prophet, he saw the dawning of the Messianic age right on the horizon.  His message was a call to prepare for its coming, for all who are not ready will be destroyed by its wrath.  "The Messiah will gather his wheat into the barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire" (Matt. 3:12). 

The dawning of this new age called for a dramatic new start in life.  This is why John turned to the practice of ritual immersion (baptism).  Baptism in water was ordinarily used by the Jews for cleansing from different kinds of impurities.  But it was also used as a sign of new life in the conversion of pagans to Judaism.*  John, and Christianity after him, expanded this last use of baptism--as a sign of new life-- to represent at first readiness for, and later participation in the kingdom of Messiah. 

* Conversion to Judaism required a ritual immersion (baptism), the offering of a sacrifice in the Temple and, if a man, circumcision.  The best water for immersion was "living water," as found in a river or stream.  But rock-cut baths fed directly by rain water were also permitted (see diagram).

John's bold message fell on receptive ears.  Thousands came out into the desert to be baptized.  But John could only bring the people to a point of readiness for the kingdom of the Messiah.  Only the Messiah himself could actually bring them in.  "The one coming after me is greater than I...he will baptize you in the Holy Spirit and fire" (Matt. 3:11).  This anticipates a more supernatural Messiah than the rabbis of later centuries were willing to accept, who came to associate the Messiah more with this world than the next.  But recent evidence confirms the supernatural expectations of the time.  A Dead Sea scroll fragment known as the Wondrous Child describes the Messiah as being preternaturally wise at a young age, and knowing "the secrets of all the living" (col i, 3-).  Another fragment, recently published, says "The heavens and earth will obey God's Messiah....he will heal the wounded and resurrect the dead" (A Messianic Vision). 

John's identification of the Messiah with the supernatural power of the Spirit has a firm foundation in prophecy.  Isa. 11:1-5 speaks of the seven-fold fullness of the Spirit resting on the Messiah to guide him in judging the earth and destroying the wicked.  Isaiah 42 pictures the Spirit leading the Messiah in extending God's covenant to the nations of the earth:  "Look--my servant, whom I uphold; my chosen one, with whom my soul is pleased.  I have set my Spirit on him..." (Isa. 42:1).  These verses are the Scriptural foundation of the instruction given to John, that he would recognize the Messiah as the one "on whom you see the Spirit descending and remaining on him, this is the one who baptizes in the Holy Spirit" (John 1:33). 

When Jesus came up out of the waters of baptism, the Spirit descended and rested on him in the form of a dove.  This is an allusion to Gen. 1:2, where the Spirit is described as "hovering" like a bird over the surface of the waters at the Creation.*  This time, the Spirit hovers over the waters of baptism, joining to them the spiritual baptism by which the souls of men are made into a new creation (2 Cor. 5:17). 

* In the original Hebrew.  The rabbis specifically called this appearance of the Spirit in Gen. 1:2 the Spirit of Messiah, in connection with Isa. 11:2, and relate the waters over which the Spirit hovers to repentance.  (They said: In the same way that a wind always seems to blow over water, the Spirit always seems to move where there is repentance; Gen. Rab. 2.4.)  That this interpretation of Gen. 1:2 dates back to the time of Jesus has been proven by the discovery of the Dead Sea scroll fragment mentioned above ("A Messianic Vision"), which says that the Spirit of the Messiah will "hover" over the poor. 

The significance of this first Christian baptism was confirmed by a voice from heaven, known to the Jews as the bat qol or "daughter voice"--the echo of the voice of the Father.*  This introduces the Father into the picture, to complete the parallel with Gen. 1:  just as the Father, his Word, and his Spirit were present at the Creation, so all three are present in the ministry of Jesus and the process of baptism.  No wonder this passage was so important to the Early Church as a picture of the tri-unity of God; and the baptism of Jesus emphasized above his birth.**

* The words of the Father, by quoting Isa. 42:1, identify Isaiah's servant of the Lord (on whom God set his Spirit) with Jesus as God's Son.   

** In the early Gentile Church, Jesus' baptism was celebrated (on Jan. 6) long before his birth became an object of celebration. Only later was this same date also used for the celebration of his birth, which later was moved to Dec. 25.    

The baptism of Jesus was taken as a pattern by the earliest church:  After repenting and renouncing the devil, new believers were immersed in water.  When they came out, hands were laid on them to receive the Holy Spirit (Tertullian, On Baptism, 8; Const. of the Apost., III.2).  But in the early years, the reception of the Spirit was not understood to be something mechanical that automatically and imperceptibly accompanied the ritual of baptism.  Rather, it was a powerful, life-changing experience described by John as an immersion (a baptism) in the Holy Spirit and fire (Matt. 3:11; see also Tertullian, On Baptism, 20).* 

* This two step process of immersion in water and reception of the Spirit is mentioned in Titus 3:5: "He saved us through a bath [loutron] of new birth and a renewal of the Holy Spirit."

The baptism of the Spirit is the spiritual equivalent of immersion in water:  a removal of impurities from the soul and spirit, just as water cleanses the body of physical impurity.  It's a bath in the Holy Spirit!  The evil thoughts and ideas that defile our spirits can't be removed by our own actions--no matter how hard we try.  Only God, by his Spirit, can burn away the filth from our souls and make them completely new.  This was the purpose of the flames of fire on the disciples on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:3).  They were being cleansed and made new by immersion in the fire of the Holy Spirit!*  And so too are all today who are convicted by the same Spirit of their need for repentance and are baptized and made new in his fire (John 16:8).  Come Holy Spirit, and burn away the dross from our lives, that we might be new in you! 

* The modern Pentecostal movement has emphasized the gift of speaking in tongues as the sign of the reception of the Holy Spirit.  While it's certainly true that this gift accompanied the filling of the Spirit in the New Testament and often does today, a more telling sign of the Spirit's presence is a holy life of love lived in obedience to God's Word (1 Cor. 13:1)--one that brings forth the fruit of its repentance.


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Questions About Baptism

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Updated 10/14/08. Copyright © 2000, 2003, 2008 by Jeffrey J. Harrison.  All rights reserved.
Photos and diagram by the author.  Please do not copy without permission.
For permission to reproduce this article, contact Jeff@totheends.com