Lk. 3:1-18 John, by now aged thirty-two, begins his ministry in 26AD in the Jordan Valley (see 1 on Map 3). John says he’s fulfilling Isaiah’s prophesy as he is the voice “of one who calls out: “Prepare in the desert the way for the LORD”. " (Luke 3:4) (see Isaiah 40:3-5)
People ask John if he’s the promised Messiah – the Christ or ‘Anointed One’ foretold in the Hebrew scriptures. John replies that he’s merely preparing the way for another. “I baptise you with water… He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Luke 3:16).
The River Jordan
The River Jordan runs along a wide, flat-floored ‘rift’ valley with steep sides (see Fig 1). The Jordan (meaning ‘the descender’) rises from springs at the foot of Mount Hermon and descends to 1280 ft / 385 m below sea level at the Dead Sea (see Map 1). Approximately 100 miles / 160 km from its source to the Dead Sea, it is the longest watercourse in Palestine. It flows all the year round, and was a suitable place for baptisms by John the Baptist and by Jesus’s disciples (see John 3:22-23).
Today, the lush greenery of the irrigated Jordan Valley appears in stark contrast to the neighbouring Judaean Desert. The River Jordan continues to wind its way slowly across the flat floor of the floodplain, just as in the days of John the Baptist, though in New Testament times it would have been considerably wider and deeper as much of the water is now extracted for irrigation. The area attracts many groups of pilgrims, and Christian baptisms can often be seen taking place at Bethany beyond the Jordan and at the Yardenit baptismal site where the River Jordan leaves the Sea of Galilee.
The River Jordan emerges from springs at Banias (Luke 3:3)
John’s Baptism and Christian Baptism
John taught that people must turn away from wrongdoing if they wish to be forgiven by a holy and righteous God. He baptised them by immersing them in the River Jordan, to show symbolically that their wrongdoings had been ‘washed away’ by the running water.
‘John’s Baptism’ was seen by the crowds as a form of Jewish ritual cleansing, by which Jews believed they would become holy and acceptable to God by ritual washing (see Exodus 30:17-21, John 3:25 & 11:55). By John’s day, many wealthier Jewish families had their own mikvah (a bath for ritual cleansing), while Jews visiting the Temple in Jerusalem ceremonially ‘cleansed’ themselves in ritual baths located, for example, just outside the Hulda Gates on the south side of the Temple Mount.
Both John and Jesus made a point of contrasting John’s form of baptism with the baptism about to be initiated by Jesus (‘Christian Baptism’) (see Luke 3:16 & Acts 1:4-5). In John’s Baptism, the water was believed to bring about cleansing from sin; in Christian Baptism, the water is only symbolic and it is Jesus’s death on the cross that actually brings about cleansing from sin (see John 1:29 & Romans 3:23-26). In John’s Baptism, believers were ‘baptised’ (Greek meaning ‘drenched’ or ‘filled to overflowing’) with water; in Jesus’s version of baptism (‘Christian Baptism’), believers are ‘baptised’ or ‘filled to overflowing’ with the Holy Spirit (see John 1:33, Acts 2:38, Acts 19:1-7 & Acts 10:44-48).
Who was the Messiah?
In New Testament times, most Jews were eagerly awaiting the coming of the ‘Messiah’ (Hebrew) or ‘Christ’ (Greek), meaning ‘the Anointed One’. There were many views on what the Messiah would be like, but three main ideas dominated most people’s expectations of ‘the one who is to come’.
1. A great spiritual leader – a prophet like Moses
Many Jews at this time expected that the Messiah would be ‘a prophet like Moses’. Moses was revered for having led the people of Israel, under God’s guidance, out of slavery in Egypt in c.1447 BC. In the Jewish scriptures, Moses promised the people that “The LORD your God will give you a prophet like me, who is one of your own people” (Deuteronomy 18:15). Many expected the Messiah would be a great spiritual leader like Moses, who would lead the people to a new freedom – a new ‘Exodus’.
2. A powerful military leader – a king like David
According to the prophet Isaiah, the Messiah would be a powerful military leader descended from Israel’s most successful warrior, King David: “He will rule as king on David’s throne and over David’s kingdom. He will make it strong by ruling with justice and goodness from now on and forever” (Isaiah 9:7). The prophet Ezekiel, revealing the will of God, stated, “Then I will put over them one shepherd, my servant David” (Ezekiel 34:23) “My servant David will be their king, and they will all have one shepherd” (Ezekiel 37:24). Micah prophesied that this mighty ruler would be born in Bethlehem, the birthplace of King David (see Micah 5:2).
3. A supernatural leader – the ‘Son of Man’
In the opinion of many people, the Messiah would be a human being (a ‘son of man’), but with something of an ethereal or heavenly dimension. In his dream, the prophet Daniel saw someone ‘like a son of man’ – “someone who looked like a human being coming on the clouds in the sky… He was given authority, glory and the strength of a king. People of every tribe, nation and language will serve him. His rule will last for ever, and his kingdom will never be destroyed” (Daniel 7:13-14).
To many Jews, Jesus of Nazareth did not appear to be the Messiah because he did not fulfil their own expectations of the Christ. Knowing that he was brought up in Galilee, some believed he could not be descended from David or have been born in Bethlehem (see John 7:40-44 & Matthew 13:55-57). Many Jewish religious leaders felt that a man who challenged their interpretation of the Sabbath laws (see Mark 2:23-28 and Matthew 12:9-14) and associated with those who were ‘unclean’ under the Law of Moses could not be the expected prophet (see Mark 2:13-17). Others saw his claims to a special relationship with God as ‘blasphemy’ (profound disrespect for God) (see Matthew 9:1-3, 26:63-68, Luke 5:17-21 & John 8:48-58).
It was one of his closest followers, Simon Peter, who first recognised that Jesus really was the Messiah (see Mark 8:27-30). But it was only after his resurrection from the dead that many others began to worship Jesus not only as the Christ, the ‘Son of Man’, but as the Son of God himself (see Matthew 28:8-9, Luke 24:50-53, & John 20:26-31).