Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
Matthew 3:4-6 (NRSV)
It is probably not an accident that, in Protestant Bibles, Malachi 4 is the last thing you read before Matthew 1. In Malachi, the very priests of Israel have become corrupt, and God’s judgment is coming as a result. But before that terrible Day of the Lord, God will send the prophet Elijah to bring repentance to Israel so that the Lord will not destroy them along with the evildoers.
We know that Elijah was easily recognizable by his extreme hairiness and tendency to wear a leather belt (2 Kings 1:7-8), so the Elijah cosplay we see in Matthew 3 is totally understandable. John the Baptist wears goat hair to make himself hairy, and he wears the leather belt. He eats locusts and honey, the traditional symbols for the land and those who invade her.
In this way, John creates a sort of show. He has literally dressed up like Elijah and is living out a dramatic message in the wilderness, which is precisely what the Old Testament prophets did – whether it is lying on one’s side for years, marrying a well-known prostitute, making a model Jerusalem and laying siege to it – the Old Testament prophets weren’t just speakers; they were showmen. And John is not different in this way. He dresses up like Elijah because he is the one sent before the great and terrible Day of the Lord to turn Israel’s hearts to repentance so that God may not destroy her when he comes to judge the wicked priests.
The physical sign of this repentance is baptism. Baptism is a Jewish ritual for purification. It is commanded in the Torah for various types of uncleanness. It is also required for consecration of priests. Both of those things may be sub-themes here.
But baptism is also required to convert to Judaism, and even Jews had to go through it if they were only Jews by ethnicity (cf. Matthew 3:9), and so it remains even in Orthodox circles to this day. Yet, there is no particular law in the Torah that requires baptism for conversion. Where does this come from?
It comes from the Red Sea.
Jewish theology traces baptism for conversion back to the Red Sea because so many powerful messages are present in that event that also have meaning for personal conversion. The Red Sea was where the people entered the judgment of God and emerged on the other side while her enemies were destroyed in it. This brings them to the Mount where they are given the covenants that bind them as a people to God. Israel is (re)born in the Red Sea. You just aren’t Israel if you haven’t gone through the Red Sea with them, entering into that watery trial of God’s wrath and deliverance to emerge out the other side into a new covenant with Him and a new identity. Baptism, in Judaism, is how you are united to God’s people in that defining experience.
You can see how seamlessly this fits in with the situation Matthew is describing. The religious leaders of the Jews have become corrupt oppressors of the people. The day has come for God to move against them. It is time for the people to become true Israel. It is time for them to repent and follow the train of their brothers and sisters in an exodus right out of those structures that God is about to dismantle, so that they might not be judged along with them.
John the Baptist is the Elijah turning the people’s hearts to shalom before the great Day of the Lord, and baptism births descendants of Abraham into faithful Israel – they will pass through the Sea and be reborn. Others will die in that Sea because they are the oppressors.
Judgment, deliverance, repentance, and new birth. These are all one thing with God. We find it at the Red Sea. We find it with John’s ministry. We find it in the death and resurrection of Jesus. We find it in our own baptisms and conversions.
Baptism has also marked us off from the world system that surrounds us. It marks our repentance and entry into true Israel, regardless of our ethnicity. Paul tells us that our baptism unites us to the death and resurrection of Jesus. That event was our Red Sea, and you just aren’t truly part of the people of God unless you’ve gone through death and resurrection with them, and our baptism is the ritual that unites us to that experience. In the early church, there wasn’t even some separate notion of conversion followed by baptism – baptism was how you converted – so closely enjoined are these ideas in the first century mind.
We could debate over the proper mode of baptism or whether or not baptism actually “does anything,” or if it’s just an external symbol, but that’s not my focus, because it’s not the Bible’s focus, either. Instead, baptism is a shining example of how the narrative of the people of God in the John the Baptist’s day joins the story of their forefathers going backward and becomes part of our story going forward.
- What does it mean for baptism to unite us to the death and resurrection of Jesus?
- Should baptism have an impact on how you think of yourself and the rest of the world? Should baptism have an impact on how you behave or what you value?
- We’ll be getting to this, shortly, but what do you think it will mean when John the Baptist says that one is coming who will baptize with fire?