What You Might Not Know About John's Baptism

Other than Jesus, John the Baptist might be the most scandalous figure of the New Testament.

With the anointing of God, John set up camp in the Judean wilderness, preaching to any who would listen. His message? Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near" (Matt. 3:2).

Israeltourism (CC)

Here was a guy eating bugs and hanging out in the bush telling people the long-awaited Messiah had come. But the real scandal centered around one thing: his baptism.

Although the Jews were no strangers to ceremonial washing, the type of ritualistic immersion we see in the ministry of John was typically reserved for gentile converts to Judaism. In the Talmud, the Jewish companion to the Law of Moses, we see this plainly and clearly: Male converts to Judaism must first be circumcised. The Talmud provides further instructions:

As soon as he is healed arrangements are made for his immediate ablution, when two learned men must stand by his side and acquaint him with some of the minor commandments and with some of the major ones. When he comes up after his ablution he is deemed to be an Israelite in all respects. Yebamoth 47b

The term ablution here simply means, “ceremonial washing.” Does this process sound familiar? No doubt any Christian would recognize its similarities with baptism.(1)

So when you couple this Talmudic instruction for proselytes with the fact that John commanded that the Jews repent, The scope of John’s scandal becomes more apparent. From the perspective of the Pharisees, this sort of baptism was unnecessary. The Jews were already God’s people, descended from Jacob. They belonged to the covenant of Abraham. They had the law of Moses, written by the finger of God himself! Why should they submit themselves to this desert hippy dunking people in the Jordan?

John, anticipated such a reaction which is why he responded this way to the Pharisees when they came to check out what he was doing:

Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. Matthew 3:8-10

See what he’s saying here? John was trying to prepare them for the Messiah, who was going to turn their religion on its head. Jesus did not come to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it. And, in doing so, Jesus would establish a New Covenant signified, of course, by baptism. No longer could one inherit the covenant as did the Jews. Simply descending from Abraham wasn’t enough to belong to God. The only way to obtain right standing with God was through repentance.

That John the Baptist would make such a claim was not only scandalous to the religious folk, but also insulting. The Pharisees, after all, took it upon themselves to interpret the Law. In their minds, they had everything figured out.

But if John’s baptism was so scandalous, why did the masses flock to the wilderness to submit themselves to immersion?

They were desperate for a messiah, someone to free them from the bonds of Persia, Syria, Macedonia, Egypt, and Rome. They were tired of living as vassals. Even though they had rebuilt the temple, a couple of centuries had passed since they were truly independent. And even while independent they faced war at almost every turn.

So when John proclaimed the coming Messiah, the masses were beyond ecstatic. The Jews were thirsty for freedom and peace, and John’s baptismal waters slaked those desires.

For the Christian, baptism is a symbol of the New Covenant similar to the rainbow and Noah or circumcision and Abraham. I wrote about another covenantal transaction in an essay called, One Thing I Wish I Knew When I Got Married. If you’re interested in reading it, you can get it for free, just tell me where to send it:

The recurring criticism of the Pharisees in the New Testament isn’t so much their theology, but rather their hearts. Submitting to John’s baptism would have required humility, something the teachers of the law did not possess. May this be a lesson to us all: God desires humility over formality and repentance instead of pride.

1. Although the Midrash was not complied until the around the year 200—obviously much later than the days of John, it is based upon the “Oral Torah” which the Jews claim has been faithfully passed down by mouth. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oral_Torah for more. 

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