John begins baptising

Mk 1:1-8         John teaches that people must change their lifestyle and turn away from wrongdoing if they wish to be forgiven by God. He baptises them, immersing them in the River Jordan, to show that their wrongdoings have been ‘washed away’ by the running water. Their immersion in the River Jordan also symbolises a new start and a new freedom, just as the Jewish people, after their Exodus from slavery in Egypt, had waded into the Jordan as they crossed from the eastern desert. They, too, had started a new life in the ‘promised land’ of Canaan over a thousand years earlier.

Many people from Judaea and Jerusalem flock to hear John. The road they travel from Jerusalem drops steeply for 3000 feet / 1000 metres as it crosses the hot, barren wilderness and descends to the valley floor of the River Jordan (see Fig. 1).

          Painting of John the Baptist

 

 

 

 

 

 

John the Baptist (Matthew 3:4)
(Bartolomeo Veneto, 1470-1531)

 

 

 

Jn 1:19-28      John is baptising at Bethany, on the east bank of the River Jordan when the Jewish authorities in Jerusalem send priests and levites (who minister and assist in the Temple) to question him (see 1 on Map 3). John states clearly that he is not the Messiah.

 

                   Bethany beyond the Jordan

John the Baptist could have picked any point along the River Jordan to baptise the crowds. But his chosen spot – on a winding stretch of the river, 5 miles / 8 km to the east of Jericho – was full of religious and historical significance to the Jews who flocked to hear him (see Map 3).

When John decided to baptise at the place now known as Bethany beyond the Jordan (to distinguish it from another Bethany, near Jerusalem), the site was already well known by those who read the Jewish scriptures. It was regarded as the spot where the Jewish prophet Elijah had crossed the River Jordan shortly before he was taken up to heaven (see 2 Kings 2:8).

It was widely believed in John’s day that the prophet Elijah would return to herald the coming of the Messiah or Christ – God’s anointed one (see Malachi 4:5). So it was a highly symbolic act for John to baptise at this very spot and to point his followers to the coming of Jesus, whom John declared to be “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29).

Visitors to Bethany beyond the Jordan, in modern-day Jordan, can view the extensive archaeological remains that have been excavated in the vicinity of Elijah’s Hill (Tell Mar Elias) and Bethany (Tell al-Kharrar) since 1996. These include a 3rd century Roman building with a beautiful mosaic floor (which may have been used by early Christians) and a 5th century Byzantine monastery with numerous chapels and pools for baptising believers. In addition to the modern Greek Orthodox Church of St John, there are also the remains of four other early Byzantine churches with baptistries close to the river, where modern facilities for baptisms have also been provided.

 

Bethany beyond the Jordan - remains of baptismal site (Jean Housen)

Remains of an ancient baptismal site at Bethany beyond the Jordan   (Jean Housen)

 

John baptises Jesus

Jn 1:29-36      The next day, John sees Jesus coming towards him and testifies that Jesus is the one for whom he is preparing the way: “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29) (see Isaiah 53:7, Exodus 12:3-11 & 21-23 and 1 Corinthians 5:7).

 

Matt. 3:13-17 Jesus (who, at thirty-one or thirty-two, is about six months younger than John) has come from Galilee. John baptises him in the River Jordan in the summer of 26AD. The Spirit of God descends on Jesus like a dove, and a voice from heaven says, “This is my Son, whom I love, and I am very pleased with him” (Matthew 3:17).

 

Jn 3:22-36      The following summer, John is baptising in the River Jordan at Aenon, near Salim (see 2 on Map 3), “because there was plenty of water there” (John 3:23). Jesus and his disciples are also baptising nearby in “the area of Judaea” (John 3:22). One of John’s disciples complains that people are flocking to see Jesus. John replies, “He must become greater, and I must become less important” (John 3:30).

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