What Does the Jordan River Teach about John the Baptist?
- Thursday, March 03, 2005
Editor's Note: This is the second of a two-part series. Click here if you missed Part one.
The famed Jordan River weaves a ribbon of life along the eastern border of modern Israel, dividing it from the country of Jordan. Birthed at the feet of Mt. Herman and vanishing into the Dead Sea, it has survived the centuries.
Yet the Jordan changes, cutting new banks from time to time, moving as it wishes, adding a flourish where none existed. It is a mere trickle today compared to the wide watercourse flowing when the repentant, curious, and religious status seekers found John the Baptist on its banks and heard his fiery prophecies.
There is new interest in John the Baptist stimulated by rediscovered sites and a resonating message that speaks to today's issues. Since the 1948 birth of Israel, John's message piques the curiosity of Israeli academia in Christianity and how it grew out of Judaism, says Dr. Paul Wright, president of Jerusalem University College. John is the olive sprout off the Jewish roots from which Christianity sprang.
Says Dr. Wright: "Jesus is seen as a Jewish rabbi - one of many preaching at the time - not normative Judaism but not totally way out there either. There were a variety of Jewish voices in the First Century, not all of them lockstep behind the Pharisees or Sadducees. John is another one of these voices. The fact that John is pre-Jesus in terms of his ministry and John is saying things against the temple in strong language, "You brood of vipers! Who has warned you to flee...?" has led people to look at the connection between Jesus and John, a Jewish voice heralding God's intervention in time."
Among sites associated with John, an area remembered by 4th century Byzantine Christians as "Bethany Beyond the Jordan" has recently been cleared of landmines and reopened to pilgrims. Located 7 miles north of the Dead Sea on the eastern bank, it recalls John's baptism of those leading lives consecrated to God - including Jesus. The site hosts multiple excavations of chapels, caves, pools, and hermit cells marked by pilgrims along Jordan's variable banks.
With the Jordan's honey-colored waters swirling around his leather belt, John didn't baptize everyone requesting it. Nor was he flattered when his priestly peers came to be baptized.
Full immersion baptism at the Mikveh (ritual bath) was widely practiced in First Century for any number of reasons. Observant Jews practice it today and understand its significance, perhaps better than many Christians. Ritual baths had nothing to do with surface dirt, but a lot to do with the way contact with the world leaves residue on the soul. Worshippers at the temple immersed themselves first at the Mikveh and then came into the temple courtyards for worship. This symbolized confession of sin and a hope of forgiveness.
John turned this practice on its ear. "Bring forth the fruit of repentance and then be baptized," John demanded. For John, immersion indicated that a change of life had already taken place. The old life was behind; a changed life was already in progress.
Priests also practiced ritual immersion prior to serving in the temple. For this reason and to declare that His carpenter shop had just gone out-of-business, Jesus insisted that John publicly baptize Him. John saw a dove descend and heard the Voice of God and proclaimed Jesus as the Lamb of God. From that time forward, John recommended that his own disciples and the crowds seeking spiritual nourishment follow Jesus instead of him.
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