Throughout history, there are individuals who have bridged one era to another. These transitional personalities lived in times of drastic change and were often part of the reason for the change itself.
In the 1960s, the Beatles had that kind of influence, bridging the conservative days of the “Ozzie and Harriet” 1950s to the turmoil-filled 1970s of Vietnam and Watergate. Their music drew young people into radically different ways of thinking, helping to feed the whitewater rapids of change that were being felt in the culture. The Beatles not only reflected that season of change, they also contributed to it, building a bridge from yesterday to tomorrow.
Bridge personalities become human transition points at critical times in history—and John the Baptizer was one of the most strategic “bridge personalities” in the Bible.
BRIDGING FROM OLD TESTAMENT TO NEW TESTAMENT
John the Baptizer was a prophetic voice in the wilderness who had been raised according to strict Nazirite law (Lk. 1:15; Num. 6:1-21). His message was an uncompromising, radical call for personal and national repentance.
At the same time, John was the emissary and forerunner of the longawaited Messiah King. His calling was to announce the arrival of the One who would bring grace not only to the nation of Israel but to citizens of the whole world.
In this transitional role, John stood on the platform of his own national and cultural heritage—even as he announced the arrival of a radically new day. His use of baptism as a point of identification for the kingdom, therefore, must be seen in this light.
Notice how John himself explained his baptismal ministry:
I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire (Mt. 3:11).
What significance did John intend for his baptism, and how did it relate to his message of repentance? The Jamieson, Fausset, And Brown Bible Commentary says:
This baptism was at once a public seal of their felt need of deliverance from sin, of their expectation of the coming Deliverer, and of their readiness to welcome Him when He appeared. The baptism itself startled, and was intended to startle, them. They were familiar enough with the baptism of proselytes from heathenism; but this baptism of Jews themselves was quite new and strange to them.
John’s baptism would have been to his countrymen both understandable and mysterious. With the history of the mikvah bath, they would have seen in John’s baptism all that was pictured in the mikvah— spiritual cleansing, conversion, and, perhaps most of all, spiritual hope.
The unsettling mystery of John’s baptism, however, was signaled in his words that the One who followed him would baptize them “with the Holy Spirit and fire.” With these words he showed a nation that his mission went beyond the moment, beyond the ritual, and beyond the waters of baptism. It pointed them to the coming of their longpredicted Messiah.
A POWERFUL MESSAGE
John’s baptism expressed the hopes of prior generations— and even more. Matthew 3 helps us to understand the scope of John’s message and his baptism:
A Messianic Announcement
In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” (Mt. 3:1-2).
The any-moment appearance of the longawaited Messiah and kingdom of God was to be both the motivator and the aspiration of the people as they submitted to the waters of baptism. It was not merely about ritual—it was about anticipation.
A Public Confession
Then Jerusalem, all Judea, and all the region around the Jordan went out to him and were baptized by him in the Jordan, confessing their sins (vv.5-6).
John’s baptism was an occasion for public confession of personal and national sin. Those who stepped into the waters with him showed their willingness to prepare themselves spiritually for the coming of their King.
A Call For Change
Therefore bear fruits worthy of repentance (v.8).
John’s message of the kingdom and the King reflected a personal readiness not only for a new day but for new ways. His baptism signaled the need for a spiritual revolution.
That’s why John’s baptism created such a stir—it called people to a transformation of life, and marked them out as those committed to such change. To that end, Mark described the people’s response to that call:
Then all the land of Judea, and those from Jerusalem, went out to him and were all baptized by him in the Jordan River, confessing their sins (Mk. 1:5).
The launching point of spiritual development for many in the first century came from John’s baptism in the waters of the Jordan River. It was a beginning that some of them continued to embrace decades later. Notice:
[Apollos] had been instructed in the way of the Lord; and being fervent in spirit, he spoke and taught accurately the things of the Lord, though he knew only the baptism of John (Acts 18:25). [Paul] said to them, “Into what then were you baptized?” So they said, “Into John’s baptism.” Then Paul said, “John indeed baptized with a baptism of repentance, saying to the people that they should believe on Him who would come after him, that is, on Christ Jesus” (19:3-4).
Perhaps nearly 3 decades later, these individuals were still living out the commitments and decisions made in the Jordan River with John.
JOHN’S BAPTISM OF JESUS
Because John’s baptism is linked to confession of sin, one of the surprising events of the New Testament is that Jesus asked John to baptize Him. Matthew tells us:
Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan to be baptized by him. And John tried to prevent Him, saying, “I need to be baptized by You, and are You coming to me?” But Jesus answered and said to him, “Permit it to be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he allowed Him. When He had been baptized, Jesus came up immediately from the water; and behold, the heavens were opened to Him, and He saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting upon Him. And suddenly a voice came from heaven, saying, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased” (Mt. 3:13-17).
The voice from heaven is important. Together with John’s own declaration of Jesus’ greatness (Jn. 1:29- 36), the voice from heaven separates Jesus from everyone else who was coming to John for baptism.
But why would Jesus submit to this “baptism of repentance”? Historically, conservative Bible teachers have explained that Jesus’ baptism was not an acknowledgment of personal wrongdoing but an act by which He showed His willingness to identify with those He came to save. Within this view, Jesus’ humility gave the Father in heaven an opportunity to declare that Jesus was unique among those who asked John to baptize them.
Recent studies have offered additional insight. Robert L. Webb, for instance, sees John’s baptism as having national implications for Israel. He suggests that John’s baptism was signaling the need for a radical national change in view of the coming of God’s Messiah. Then he adds:
If this is so, then John was calling for the people to respond to who they were as a nation, not really who they were as individuals. Of course, it was individuals who had to respond, and many could respond out of a personal sense of responsibility for Israel’s state. But equally, many of those in Israel who would be considered faithful could respond out of a belief in and desire for John’s reconstituted Israel. Thus, without having to speculate about Jesus’ personal state of mind, we can conclude that Jesus did indeed participate in John’s baptism, and it was for Him a baptism of repentance. Jesus was acknowledging Israel’s sin and need to turn around, and He was committing Himself to do what He could to bring this about (www.bible.org).
If Webb is right, then Jesus stepped into the Jordan River with John to join his generation in a recognition of the need for national repentance. His submission to John’s baptism, then, showed His own commitment to personally do something about the sins of the nation—a commitment He fulfilled for Jew and Gentile alike on the cross.
Regardless of where we land on the issue of defining the scope of John’s baptism, however, one thing is indisputable. As the voice from heaven confirmed, Jesus did not ask John to baptize Him as an admission of personal sin but rather to stand with John in anticipation of great spiritual change.
Looking back, we can now see that, in fulfillment of John’s message, this was a time of spiritual transition from law to grace, from the Old to the New, from the sacrifices of priests to the sacrifice of the Christ. John’s ministry bridged the eras of God’s work, leading from the Old Testament understanding of the need for forgiveness—whether national or personal—to the New Testament focus on spiritual cleansing and personal wholeness for individuals, and perhaps, eventually, even the nation.