Just as with us all, Jesus started out a stranger to His disciples. Many first heard about Him from John the baptist, a man conceived and born for this very purpose.
“…he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.”
– Luke 1:16-17 (ESV)
Since the people might not recognize their Lord when He came, it was necessary that John come first. (He was born six months earlier than Jesus, and his ministry came and flourished first.) John was like the forerunner of a king telling the people to clean up their streets and houses, for their ruler would be arriving shortly.
“Prepare the way! Make straight His paths!”
But this King would not be concerned with buildings and roadways. He didn’t want His citizens to hide their eyesores: the embarrassing poor, lame, and homeless. Nor did He want to see them replaced with freshly painted park benches and pretty flowers. No, the preparation had to be spiritual, for this King would be looking at people’s hearts.
A unique King required a unique forerunner. John’s message was summarized in his oft repeated call:
“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near!”
Calling the people to repentance was, perhaps, not too novel of an idea. After all, the prophets had done so for hundreds of years. But the way John went about it was strange: he baptized people in an unusual location and for an unusual reason.
It was common for people to arrive at the temple in Jerusalem in a ceremonially unclean condition. So special baths called mikvehs were provided where the Jews would immerse themselves, becoming ritually clean so they could worship in the temple. (These baths were also used by gentiles when they converted to Judaism.)
Since there were cleansing pools at the temple already, the Pharisees probably wondered who John was, baptizing out in the wilderness. Why would people want to travel away from Jerusalem, the Jewish center of all things spiritual, to the desert, where they’d have to walk through mud to get in and out of a dirty river? Weren’t the baptismal pools at the temple good enough? So, they sent priests and Levites to ask (John 1:19-28).
The Jordan river held an important place in the history of the Israelites. Joshua had led the people across this river to enter the Promised Land. Some see this as a picture of baptism, but there’s one problem with this idea: the people went across on dry land. They never got wet. Whatever your view of baptism is, sprinkling or immersion, you should feel at least a little bit of moisture!
But another event happened at the Jordan, foreshadowing John’s baptism. You can read the story for yourself in 2 Kings 5, but I’ll summarize the relevant details.
Naaman was the commander of the Syrian army. He was directly under the king of Syria. He was powerful, respected, and a leper. Through a series of events, Naaman found his way to Elisha, the prophet of God in Samaria, seeking a cure for his disease. Elisha told him to go dunk himself in the Jordan river seven times. At first, Naaman was incensed.
“Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them and be clean?”
– 2 Kings 5:12 (ESV)
But his servants convinced him to do what the prophet had said. When he came up out of the Jordan river, his leprosy was gone, his skin became as new as a baby’s backside, and “he was clean” (vs. 14).
Returning to Elisha, humbled and grateful, he said:
… “Behold, I know that there is no God in all the earth but in Israel … from now on your servant will not offer burnt offering or sacrifice to any god but the LORD.”
– 2 Kings 5:15-17 (ESV)
What was once a stubborn, proud, idol-worshiping leper was now a humble, repentant, clean man who would henceforth live to worship Yahweh alone. Naaman was the first to be baptized in the Jordan. His was a baptism of repentance, and he did so under the command of Elisha, who like John, came in the spirit and power of Elijah (2 Kings 2:9-15, Matthew 11:44).
Unlike the ceremonial washings at the temple (or the more attractive Abana and Pharpar rivers of Syria), the Jordan baptisms were about repentance – a humbling change of heart towards God. Sinners, recognizing their condition, would seek God to be cured of their spiritual leprosy. This was the preparation of the way that John called people to. And the King who was coming would be the one to heal them.
Jesus answered them, “Those who are well don’t need a physician, but those who are sick do. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.”
– Luke 5:31-32 (ESV)
I expect many of Jesus’ followers were first baptized by John. Andrew was, and likely John and Philip also. (It was John’s testimony that led them to follow the King of kings.) They began their journey with repentance, and it is a necessary step for all who would follow Jesus.