John’s baptism at the Jordan River has for quite some time been one of the more enigmatic scenes in the Gospels to me. It’s a bizarre picture: John, waist-deep in a filthy river, dunking folks into the water for forgiveness of sins while at the same time shouting at Pharisees on the shoreline, calling them things like, “brood of vipers.” Add to that the fact that it’s one of a select group of pericopes that appears in all four Gospels and John’s Essene background, and we have a rather peculiar piece of the biblical witness. I think the reason we fail to see the significance in this scene has to do in large part with the general evangelical disregard for the Old Testament and the story of Israel, and I think we can most likely attribute this shortcoming to the rise of dispensationalism (I’ll defend that hot take in another post).
John’s baptism in the Jordan doesn’t belong at the abstract beginning of the New Testament. Rather, it fits best as one scene in the midst of God’s bigger redemptive story, and once we see it in its rightful place, it becomes much less bizarre and much more impactful. The Jordan River itself plays a central role not only in John’s baptism event, but in the story of Israel as a whole. Let us remember Joshua 3:11-17:
“Behold, the ark of the covenant of the Lord of all the earth is passing over before you into the Jordan. Now therefore take twelve men from the tribes of Israel, from each tribe a man. And when the soles of the feet of the priests bearing the ark of the LORD, the Lord of all the earth, shall rest in the waters of the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan shall be cut off from flowing, and the waters coming down from above shall stand in one heap. So when the people set out from their tents to pass over the Jordan with the priests bearing the ark of the covenant before the people, and as soon as those bearing the ark had come as far as the Jordan, and the feet of the priests bearing the ark were dipped in the brink of the water, the waters coming down from above stood and rose up in a heap very far away, at Adam, the city that is beside Zarethan, and those flowing down toward the Sea of the Arabian, the Salt Sea, were completely cut off. And the people passed over opposite Jericho. Now the priests bearing the ark of the covenant of the LORD stood firmly on dry ground in the midst of the Jordan, and all Israel was passing over on dry ground until all the nation finished passing over the Jordan.”
The Jordan's a big deal. Joshua’s account of the Jordan crossing echoes the Exodus account and by extension, the redemption that resulted from it. Israel is delivered from the slavery of Egypt through the Red Sea on dry ground, and they enter into the Promised Land through the Jordan on dry ground. It seems that John’s activity in the Jordan isn’t a happenstance wandering into the nearest Palestinian river. If it is that, it’s certainly not only that. It seems like just as Joshua’s Jordan crossing echoed the Exodus and deliverance from Egypt, the advent of Jesus’ ministry in the Jordan is meant to prefigure the deliverance of God’s people once again. Additionally, just as Joshua’s Jordan crossing meant entrance into the Promised Land, Jesus’ baptism by John in the Jordan prefigures the entrance of God’s people into the final Promised Land through their covenant head, Jesus Christ. Here’s J.V. Fesko, coming in hot with a much clearer and more concise assessment:
"It appears that John was re-enacting Israel’s post-exodus entry to the Promised Land. However, given Israel’s sinfulness, he was calling the nation to repentance. Israel needed to prepare for the second (or eschatological) exodus that would come by the ministry of Christ.”
With Fesko, we should look for the redemptive-historical plotline of the entire Bible, and understand that oftentimes, the events of the Gospels are the final reenactment of Israel's history. However, where Israel fails as God's disobedient son, Christ succeeds as the perfect Son. Immediately following His baptism, Jesus is led into the wilderness to live among the animals and be tempted by Satan for 40 days (Mark 1:12-13). Even here, we see Jesus fulfilling the role Adam failed to play: Adam, in a friendly garden, fails to keep the commands of God. Jesus, however, goes into a hostile, post-fall wilderness, and keeps the commands of God for His people. In a similar vein, just as Israel spends 40 years in the wilderness, Jesus, as the true Israel, spends 40 analogous days in the wilderness. Adam is crowned king of God’s creation only to lose it, whereas Christ is the worthy King of all Creation and New Creation. Adam’s disobedience is occasioned by a tree, and Jesus’ obedience leads Him to a tree.
Christ’s atoning death isn’t the only thing that happened during the Son’s 33 years, give or take, on the Earth. His entire life is situated within the history of a people, and even more so, His entire life is the fulfillment of that history. In order to rightly understand the New Testament, we must read it in light of the Old. Our God is a story-telling God, and Jesus Christ’s obedient life and substitutionary death, both for us, are joined together as the climax of this story, thank God.
*Many of these biblical-theological insights are thanks to Brandon Crowe, The Last Adam, and Richard Hays, Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels.