Why Did John Baptize?
As Christians, we are told that the Baptism of John is not enough, we must do more than that. Yet when I ask what it was, I am told it was 'merely a baptism of repentance'. While I agree that we must do more than just 'repent', I have always felt like I had the short end of the stick when I got that answer. Surely that is not what it was to the people at the river Jordan? To them it was a very significant event, they had come a long way, they were not 'merely' doing something insignificant.
Then I realized that I was getting a Christian definition for a Hebrew event. These are not Christians coming to John, so it was not a Christian or even Christ-related event AT THAT TIME. So what were they doing? Where they getting baptized, when that word doesn't even appear in the Old Testament?
No. They could not have been. They were doing something that to them made sense. It made sense to these Hebrews to be immersed in a river of running water, to be ... washed.
There are many references to Hebrew washing in the Old Testament, and a review of EACH one follows. I learned much going over the list, and reviewing the events and comparing them to what happened when Jesus walked up to John that day in the river Jordan.
- Exodus 29:4 and Exodus 40:12 tells about the washing of the priests before they began their service. The people were not coming to John for this, but this baptism does begin the ministry of Jesus. This is one of the reasons Jesus was baptized.
- Exodus 40:30 talks about the washing of these priests each time before they come to the altar. This does not seem to be what John was doing, nor does it seem to be the reason people were coming to John. Yet, if coming to the altar is the same as presenting yourself to God, then Jesus, as priest, was to come to the altar very soon. Later, in about three years, He comes to the altar as the sacrifice, but that is different.
- Leviticus 1:9 talks about washing the sacrifice, which is doubtfully what was going on at the River Jordan. These people were not sacrificing themselves. However, Jesus' baptism may well fall under this category, even if it was three years early!
- Leviticus 11:25 talks about washing after handling a dead body. Certainly, before becoming spiritually alive, we are all spiritually dead and may need to be washed from having contact with ourselves. This also seems to fit the baptism of John, done with the people, but not the one done with Jesus! He certainly was not spiritually dead!
- Leviticus 13:6 and 14:8 talk about the cleansing of the leper, and the pronunciation of their cleanliness. Hmm. This may well fit John's baptism of the people, if he was treating them as "spiritual lepers" that needed healing. It may have also served to 'declare' that Jesus was 'clean' as well, though he certainly already was clean.
- Leviticus 14:47 talks about cleaning to get away from the plague. This may fit, as from a spiritual point of view the unrepentant are certainly dying from the plague of sin and death. Again, Jesus didn't need this to become clean, in his case it would have again been symbolic, as Jesus wanted things to be done for the sake of being done right.
- Leviticus 15:5 talks about cleaning after touching a bodily discharge. It is extensive and specific. Certainly, whenever we speak from our unrepentant hearts, we discharge unclean discharge, or when someone around us speaks from their unrepentant heart, it is an 'unclean' discharge. This would not have been the reason for the people to come to John.
- Leviticus 16:4 talks about cleaning Aaron the High Priest before he offers the sacrifice after unholy fire had been used by some rebels. This would not apply to the baptism by John of the people!
- Leviticus 17:15 talks about a cleaning necessary whenever one eats meat that died naturally, instead of doing one's own killing. It talks of cleaning the outside, after consuming something unclean inside. If we 'consume' the spiritual ramblings of others, we are unclean until we wash ourselves. This would fit John's baptism of the people, but not of Jesus, unless in the symbolic way, again.
- Numbers 8:7 talks about cleaning the Levites by sprinkling, shaving and then washing the clothes to make them clean. It is specifically a ceremonial cleansing, done because they shall become the priests. John may have been ceremonially cleansing the people that were taking on the role of priesthood, which at that time, they may not have been doing. However, Jesus' baptism fits this perfectly.
- Numbers 19:7 and on talks of cleaning the priest after the sacrifice of the red heifer. This sacrifice was very special, and had to do with the purification of the people. If one relates 'repentance' to this sacrifice, then the baptism of the people by John is related to this. Since Jesus may have been this red heifer in addition to being the sacrificial lamb, then Jesus may have been baptized along this definition as well.
- In Numbers 31:24, there is a washing of all that has been captured from the enemy, that can not be washed by fire. It must be washed by the water of purification. Certainly, if people's souls have been captured from Satan, as so believed because of their repentance, this washing fits the baptism of the people by John, and thus symbolically, of Jesus.
- In Deuteronomy 21:6, there is the washing of the hands of the elders who have slain a heifer to pay for a man's death. Here an innocent animal is slain, to pay for a person's death when they don't know who the killer is, thus justice is served. Thus no one is still guilty, because the price has been paid. This doesn't really fit the baptism of the people by John, though it does lead us to the death of Christ for all of us.
- Deuteronomy 23:11 talks about the need for a man who becomes unclean because of some 'occurrence in the night' to stay outside the camp until he cleans himself before sunset. Unclean people and things (refuse) must stay outside the camp. John may have been cleaning the unclean so that they can be let back into the camp, so along these lines, the baptism of John may fit. Jesus didn't need this, but may have agreed to it for symbolism's sake.
- In Ruth 3:3, she washes before lying down next to Boaz and offering herself to him. Certainly, before we offer ourselves to God, our uncleanness must be washed, so John's baptism fits this Old Testament washing.
- In both 1 Samuel 25:41 and 2 Samuel 11:8, there is a symbolism of a woman washing a man's feet and becoming his wife. Thus cleanliness and intimacy are weaved together. John's baptism of people fits this type of washing.
- In 2 Kings 5:10-13, Naaman must wash in the Jordan River to be rid of his leprosy. From a symbolic, spiritual view, this fits what John was doing with the people in the same river!
- 2 Chronicles 4:6 mentions materials made for ceremonial washing the burnt offering and the priest before the offering. Thus both the item sacrificed and the one carrying out the sacrifice wash before hand. John's baptism in the river Jordan of the people fits this if the people were sacrificing their old ways of living for living by God's Word. Thus John also had to be in the river! For both reasons, Jesus had to be baptized!
- Psalm 51 talks about being cleaned from iniquity and sin, which fits a baptism of repentance, such a John's.
- In Isaiah 1:16 there is the command to "wash yourselves, make yourselves clean; put away the evil of your doings from before My (God's) eyes." This also fits the baptism of repentance done by John.
- In Jeremiah 2:22 God laments that the washing has been in vain, and that they people's "iniquity is marked before Me". In the next verse it refers to how they deny their wrongdoing, in contrast to a repentant cleansing! Again, John's baptism fits the combination we have seen of repentance, washing and renewing.
- In Jeremiah 4:14, the people are told to wash their hearts from wickedness, that they may be saved. Ceremonially, that may be why John was baptizing.
What does that mean for us?
We must remember that the baptism of John, was a Jewish one, whose meaning we may totally lose if we merely claim that it is something that Jesus wants us to physically do after we accept him as Lord and Savior.
Yes, baptism is commanded, and we should not withhold obedience because we do not understand. But the full richness of what is happening is easy to miss.
I pray that a deeper understanding of what may have been going on when John stood in the river Jordan has enriched your spirit.
Yes, we must do more than repent, do more than merely say we want to be okay before God. Our lives must change. Our direction must change, our priorities must change.
It is not possible for a self-centered person to emerge from baptism and live life the same way if they truly become Christ-centered.