In Mat 3, John the Baptist appeared and began preaching repentance, because the kingdom of heaven was at hand. When the people repented, they were immersed in the Jordan River, what we know as baptism.
Baptism was not a new practice beginning with John the Baptist. In fact, every Christian sacrament has its foundation in Torah (the first five books of the Bible). We will discuss Torah along with the rest of the Scriptures in this Bible study. Torah is not for Jews only. We saw in Mat 2 that Jews (who are 2/12 of the tribes of Israel) were not even formed as a people until after the destruction of the first Temple in 586 bc. And today’s form of Judaism, rabbinical Judaism, is an even later creation, which came into being after the time of Jesus and the apostles.
The Torah predates all of that, and is simply God’s explanation of His ways — what He considers right and wrong (or to put it in theological language, righteousness and sin). Torah shows how a man is to live life in a manner which pleases Him by its holiness. Any person who desires to join himself to the God of the Bible can live according to God’s ways of righteousness, they do not have to be Jewish. (Of course, if one wants to have their violations of Torah forgiven, then one needs to come to faith in Jesus Christ and receive His substitutionary death on the cross.)
Back to repentance, kingship, and baptism: John was calling the people to repent, to turn from sin. Sin, to a 1st century Jewish person, would be anything which was a violation of Torah (1 Joh 3:4), summarized by the Ten Commandments (Deu 4:13). Why repent now? Because the kingdom of heaven was at hand.
John was announcing the kingship of the Messiah. The kingdom of heaven is in juxtaposition to the kingdoms of this world, the kingship of men, which has been opposed to the kingdom of heaven ever since the Tower of Babel (Gen 11), the first kingdom of this world since the Flood.
So living according to the world’s ways, according to man’s ways — sin — was sort of like announcing your citizenship in the kingdom of the world. Living according to God’s ways — righteousness — was sort of like announcing your citizenship in the kingdom of heaven. This would be the 1st century Jewish understanding of John’s message.
Since the kingdom of heaven was coming, then it was time for men to repent of sin, and re-establish their citizenship in the kingdom of heaven.
The ceremony which showed that repentance had taken place was immersion in water. This is a Torah practice, called immersion in a “mikvah” (pool) in Hebrew. There are several places where God commands immersion in water to purify oneself from uncleanness or defilement in Torah. An example is:
Interesting enough, the Hebrew word translated “running” in this passage is most often translated “living” when it is used to describe something other than water. One is to immerse themselves in living water, to purify oneself from something that causes him to be unclean.
So when the people came to John the Immerser, they had repented, and were wanting to be immersed in the mikvah – the running or “living” water of the Jordan – in order to be purified from the uncleanness that sin and separation from God had conferred upon them.
The time of the year when John was most likely preaching repentance was during the days of teshuvah, or repentance, from the new moon of the 6th month to the new moon of the 7th month, which was the Feast of Trumpets. This is the traditional time of repentance in Hebrew culture, because the Day of Atonement was celebrated on the 10th of the 7th month. This piece of trivia is important to biblical prophecy which we will come across later, so just file it away for now.
So it is not the process of baptism, or immersion in the mikvah, that saves a person — Jesus had not yet died on the cross or been raised from the dead. But it is like a declaration of intention to change the way of life from here on out. Observant Hebrews were immersed in a mikvah multiple times during the year, or whenever they came into contact with an uncleanness of some kind.
Now the Torah is a book of history which also prophesies. Think of the Exodus and its prophetic implications for the Lamb of God which takes away the sin of the world. Even the laws concerning the mikvah, of being purified from uncleanness, is a law which prophesies about the living water which would one day purify us from the uncleanness which the world and sin has imposed upon us.
Today I am reflecting on my baptism, when I announced to the world that I had decided to follow Jesus, no turning back. May I repent of anything which smacks of the world’s ways, and may I apply myself to God’s ways, out of love for Him. 🙂