I like to take groups of believers to Israel to see and experience the places where so many biblical events took place. A highlight is always water baptism in the Jordan River. Because Jesus was baptized in the Jordan—in honor of his example and as an expression of our own rejection of worldliness and our desire to live under his lordship—many of us have opted to share in this experience as well.
Before Jesus was baptized, John the Baptist came preaching that the Kingdom of Heaven was near. He said people should be baptized to show they had repented of their sins and turned to God to be forgiven. This act prepared people’s hearts to receive Jesus, who enabled us to enter into the Kingdom of Heaven—a kingdom where God rules supremely, where there is no sickness, disease, betrayal, sadness, or pain.
While living our earthly lives, we suffer in the midst of many negative influences. John the Baptist’s message opened the door for us to repent of our sinful living so that we can experience some of the Kingdom of Heaven even while still here on the Earth.
Repent of your sins and turn to God, for the Kingdom of Heaven is near (see Matthew 3:2; 4:17).
This message is appealing because all of us experience suffering here on Earth, yet we long for order, peace, and prosperity. In other words, we desire more of Heaven here on Earth. Most of us want to be good and to promote goodness in the midst of the evil, betrayal, greed, violence, and pain associated with living on Earth. And many of us assume that if our lives demonstrate more good than bad, Heaven will be available to us after death.
But John’s message was that we all have evil within us (which is why human attempts to establish order have often led to tyranny). So, John was saying that we all need to turn from the evil that is within us and seek God’s goodness in order for our own hearts to be transformed. Our human goodness is insufficient, even if we express our goodness by trying to please God. As every student of history knows, human attempts at goodness in the name of God often result in horrific tragedy.
That’s why John the Baptist introduced a new way. He emphasized that we all need to turn away from our own attempts to make life better, and submit to God’s way of transforming us into better people.
Until the time of John the Baptist, the Jewish people thought they could make their lives and the world a better place by obeying the Law, cooperating with the Priesthood, and worshipping in the Temple. But with John the Baptist, God was doing away with this system because it lacked the power to change hearts.
John communicated that we all need to let go of our old ideas about achieving goodness, admit our own weaknesses and failures, and allow God to transform us in a new way. In John’s and Jesus’ time, this meant that the people had to go outside the sacred city of Jerusalem to be immersed in the River Jordan.
John’s authority to minister was from God himself, not from the religious leaders. For this reason, most of the leaders opposed him, but the multitudes flocked to him. They knew what they had been doing was insufficient.
John 1:29-34 says,
The next day John [the Baptist] saw Jesus coming toward him and said, ‘Look! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! . . . Then John testified, ‘I saw the Holy Spirit descending like a dove from heaven and resting upon him. I didn’t know he was the one, but when God sent me to baptize with water, he told me, ‘The one on whom you see the Spirit descend and rest is the one who will baptize with the Holy Sprit.’ I saw this happen to Jesus, so I testify that he is the Chosen One of God.
After portraying the significance of this baptism, Jesus
began demonstrating that he was the Son of God through a series of miracles. He also challenged the religious leaders of his day about the authority of John the Baptist. Matthew 21:25-27 says,
Did John’s authority to baptize come from heaven, or was it merely human?
They [the leading priests and elders] talked it over among themselves, ‘If we say it was from heaven, he will ask us why we didn’t believe John. But if we say it was merely human, we’ll be mobbed because the people believe John was a prophet.’ So they finally replied, ‘We don’t know.’
One reason the religious leaders of the day were upset was because the crowds were responding to the power of the transformed lifethat emerges when people repent, believe, and begin to hear the Spirit of God in their hearts.
Hebrews 8:10-13 says,
But this is the new covenant I will make with the people of Israel on that day, says the Lord:
I will put my laws in their minds, and I will write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. And they will not need to teach their neighbors, nor will they need to teach their relatives, saying, ‘You should know the Lord.’ For everyone, from the least to the greatest, will know me already. And I will forgive their wickedness, and I will never again remember their sins.’
When God speaks of a ‘new’ covenant, it means he has made the first one obsolete. It is now out of date and will soon disappear.
The power of this is highlighted in Hebrews 9: 9 and 14 where the Bible says,
For the gifts and sacrifices that the priests offer are not able to cleanse the consciences of the people who bring them . . . Just think how much more the blood of Christ will purify our consciences from sinful deeds so that we can worship the living God.
This explains why billions of believers from every nation on earth gather to worship. They are not constrained by duty, but are motivated by grateful hearts.
John’s baptism was radical. It opened the door for believers to be forgiven and transformed, which is why John said to those coming to be baptized,
Prove by the way you live that you have repented of your sins and turned to God. Don’t just say to each other, ‘We’re safe, for we are descendants of Abraham.’ That means nothing, for I tell you, God can create children of Abraham from these very stones. Even now the ax of God’s judgment is poised, ready to sever the roots of the trees. Yes, every tree that does not produce good fruit will be chopped down and thrown into the fire (Luke 3: 8-9).
The trees that John was addressing were people’s confidence in their genealogies and their religious rituals. Every culture and generation has ideologies and practices that promise a better life, but most of them betray those who believe in them and fail to produce. Communism, alcohol, and greed promise a better life, but they always betray and disappoint.
But Jesus doesn’t ever disappoint. When we make a public confession of sin and repent, with a determination to
- participate in Christ’s body in our community,
- grow in the Word of God, and
- develop a personal relationship with Christ through prayer,
our lives as we knew them never recover. We change.
By stepping into the waters of baptism, we announce to everyone that the solutions of this world are insufficient to produce the goodness we desire.We admit that we fall short and need God to do something inside our lives to change us. We joyfully confess our sins and declare that we need God’s Spirit within to achieve genuine goodness.
Water baptism is a physical demonstration of this turning point in our lives.