Jesus’ baptism was confusing for everyone expecting the Messiah. Even his cousin John the Baptist was confused by the event. Right before Jesus’ arrival at the Jordan, John prophesied, “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” (Matthew 3:11-12) Following this terrifying prophecy, the very one who will baptize the world with fire arrived on scene and asked John if he would baptize him in a dirty river. John wanted to stop him because he knew the Son of God had no personal need to participate in a baptism of repentance with sinful men.
The confusion John the Baptist experienced that day was the same confusion many of Christ’s followers had the day he was crucified. How could this conquering King be subject to the dirty water of the Jordan River or the event it foreshadowed, his death on the cross?
But Jesus knew the history of baptism, and he knew that none of God’s people would make it safely across the Jordan unless they went with God’s Prophet.
Since creation God has used water as a source (2 Peter 3:5) and symbol (John 7:37-39) of physical and spiritual life, yet it also served as an instrument of death and judgment. (Genesis 6 and 1 Peter 3:18-21)
Peter identifies the first baptism in the Bible as the waters of the flood in Genesis 6. He then highlights the safe passage of Noah, a righteous man, through the waters of judgment by God’s grace. (1 Peter 3:18-21)
With Moses as their intercessor, Paul says the Israelites were baptized into Moses and into the Red Sea. The same waters Israel passed through safely brought death to the Egyptians. (1 Corinthians 10:2, Exodus 15:4)
The next Old Testament baptism is found in Joshua 3-4 at the Jordan River. After Moses died, God said to Joshua “Arise!” and lead Israel safely through the Jordan River into the Promised Land, which serves as a picture of heaven. The Jordan River was known as the River of Judgment. As soon as the priests set foot in the river with the Ark of the Covenant, the water backed up to a city called Adam and the people followed Joshua safely through to their inheritance.
Like Noah, Moses and Joshua, but in greater fashion, Christ chose to lead God’s people through the waters of judgment. Jesus knew his submission to the waters of the River of Judgment was necessary to fulfill all righteousness. Not his righteousness, but ours, “in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us.” (Romans 8:4) He was the only man ever baptized who was worthy to spring to life out of that judgment. This was evident at his baptism when IMMEDIATELY coming up out of the waters God declared him to be his beloved Son, and at his resurrection by which he was declared to be the Son of God with power. (Romans 1:4)
Now, being joined together with Christ in his death and resurrection, we too may follow the Prophet safely through the water and fire of God’s judgment. (Romans 6:5)
“On Jordan’s stormy banks I stand,
And cast a wishful eye
To Canaan’s fair and happy land,
Where my possessions lie.”
Bradley Mooney is the recruiting coordinator at the Kanakuk Institute and graduate of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. firstname.lastname@example.org