John the Baptist is in a sense the last of the Old Testament prophets who point toward the coming of the Messiah, Jesus Christ (cf. Jn 1:8). Jesus was baptized by John in the River Jordan, an event which inaugurated Jesus’ public ministry (cf. Mt 3:13-17). Here, Jesus enters into the plight of Israel’s story—indeed, humanity’s story: for Jesus was not in need of baptism for himself; rather, he enters into our story in solidarity with us, ultimately to die our death and bring us to new life.
But why the Jordan River?
The Jordan River has momentous meaning in Israel’s history; among other things, it was the crossing of the Jordan that completed the Exodus. God delivered Israel from Egypt, but ultimately for the Promised Land; and it was the crossing of the Jordan after forty years of wandering in the wilderness that completed this arrival to the Promised Land (Josh 3-4).
A Prophet on the Cusp of Salvation History
The prophets had long foretold of a new and greater Exodus, one even greater than the defeat of Pharaoh’s armies; this previous earthly salvation foreshadowed a greater heavenly Exodus to come. John the Baptist is clearly tapping into these expectations by going down to the Jordan River; he is evoking the most heartfelt hopes of Israel; and the voice of the Father at Jesus’ baptism confirms this: “This is my beloved Son with whom I am well pleased” (Mt 3:17). This line draws from two Old Testament passages, the combination of which describes the great mystery of Jesus’ royal mission. The first (“my beloved son”) draws from Ps 2:7 which is a coronation psalm, thought to have been sung on the day of the Davidic king’s enthronement; the second draws from Isa 42:1 “with whom I am well pleased,” which is the first of Isaiah’s well known “servant songs” which culminate in the famous Suffering Servant (Isa 52:13-53:12)—a passage which is fulfilled by Jesus’ Passion and death on the Cross.
Thus, the voice of the Father here in Jesus’ baptism is affirming Jesus as Davidic King (Ps 2:7), but a unique kind of king: Jesus conquers by the blood of the Cross as Suffering Servant, not by the edge of the sword, thereby defeating Israel’s true enemies—sin, death, and the devil—not her earthly antagonists (e.g., Egypt, Babylon, Rome).
A New Elijah
Malachi, the last prophet of the Old Testament proper, prophesied that Elijah would return before the Lord’s majestic return to His people (Mal 4:5 [3:23 in the NAB]). This is why the passages which describe John the Baptist as the New Elijah are so profound (cf. Lk 1:17; Mt 11:13-14)—in fact, even the way John is dressed in Mt 3:4 is reminiscent of Elijah (cf. 2 Kgs 1:8): John is the New Elijah preparing the way for the return of the Lord, and YHWH’s longed-for return to His people occurs in and through Jesus!
A Prophetic Anticipation
It is very interesting to note how John the Baptist’s life mirrors Jesus’ in anticipation. John, as the New Elijah, prepared the way for Jesus; and John’s death likewise presaged the Passion of our Lord. John famously challenged the authorities of the day, much like Jesus; in John’s case, Herod Antipas threw him in prison for criticizing the marriage between him and Herodias (Herodias had been previously married to Philip, cf. Mt 14:1-4). At the request of Herodias, Herod Antipas had John beheaded in Macherus, a military fortress near the Dead Sea (cf. Mt 14:5-12; also: Josephus, Ant. 18.116-19). Thus, John gave witness to Jesus by his life and death—and for this reason, Jesus referred to him as the greatest of those “born among women” (Mt 11:11), that is, of those of the Old Covenant pointing ahead to the New.
A Lesson in Humility
As great as John the Baptist was at the time, he famously said of Jesus, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (Jn 3:30). This the great Christian paradox: the more self-forgetful we become, the more we radiate with divine life—and the more enriching our life turns out to be. In other words, we often wonder, “if I surrender this or that to Jesus, will I lose myself?” But the great paradox is that in so doing Jesus transforms us into even better versions of ourselves than we ever dreamed of; He “takes away” only to transform and transfigure. And this brings us to the true nature of humility, which paves the way for love. As C.S. Lewis said, “Humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.” In this way, humility frees us to love, turning us outward in love of God and neighbor.
Is there something the Lord wants you to surrender over to him—a particular struggle, an anxious worry, a certain ambition—something which is blocking greater intimacy with him, as well as keeping us from being more outward-focused?
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