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.
But John did not confine his sermons to religious issues. Unflinchingly, he attacked social and political ills of the day to prepare the way for Lord, something modern Christians need to do to be relevant - and to expect the same result.
When John publicly criticized what some would consider private behavior on the part of consenting adults - Herod's affair with his brother's wife - he was arrested and imprisoned far away from Israel in the mountains of Transjordan. While Salome was still rehearsing her erotic dance, John was locked in his lonely cell, unable to see the revival spawned by his teaching and baptism. Doubts tormented him. He sent his disciples to ask Jesus, "Are you the Christ? Or should we expect another?"
Jesus' response spoke directly to John's "live it: don't just talk it" viewpoint that made him the "greatest among those born to women": "Tell John what you see. The blind see, the lame walk, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor. Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of Me."
The footprints of John the forerunner are still visible through the shifting sands of time and human philosophy. "Don't just talk your faith. Live it."
Rebekah Montgomery is the editor of Right to the Heart of Women ezine and the author of numerous books on spiritual growth. In 2006, she and Dana Kempler plan to walk across Israel, reporting on it for Crosswalk.com. She can be contacted for comments and speaking engagements at rebekahmontgomery.com
Dr. Paul Wright is president of Jerusalem University College (JUC) on Mount Zion. JUC is an extension campus for more than 100 accredited Christian Universities. Take a photo tour at Jerusalem University College Home Page.
World Travel Express, the leading tour operator to Israel and the Middle East, helped to make this article possible. For more information, visit them at worldexpresstravel.com.