John the Baptist and Baptism

Q. From where did John the Baptist get Baptism?

John the Baptist was seen as “The One Preparing the Way” for Jesus. Jesus was likely a disciple of John’s, and the Biblical account consistently tells us that Jesus’ own baptism was the beginning of his public and world-transforming ministry. But where did John the Baptist get baptism from? John attracted a great deal of attention for his message which said “The Time is Near!” and therefore, “Repent!” (literally, ‘turn your lives around!’) He then baptized those who were compelled enough by his message that they indeed decided to turn over a new leaf. The baptism took place in the Jordan River and would have been by full immersion. We have to do a little bit of guess-work to figure out where John’s baptism comes from, but we have some helpful pieces of information with which to work. The word ‘baptism’ comes from a Greek verb which means to wash, to dip, to plunge or to overwhelm. It was a word that was used in John’s time to refer to both ordinary, everyday acts of washing, as well as the ritual washings in which Jewish people would engage so that they could be considered ritually clean (in fact, the word occurs in the Bible several time in contexts other than what we associate with baptism). John was also picking up on the rite that was (and still is) used of initiating a convert to Judaism into the faith. Conversion is symbolized by immersion in a ritual bath (called a mikveh), thereby marking the person as now being part of the Jewish faith. John’s baptism was exclusively for people who are already part of the faith, not for those wishing to convert, but it very much resembles the actions used in the conversion rites. It would have also been recognizable as a continuation of the sort of cleansing rituals with which Jews would have been very familiar, but takes it to another level with full river immersion and with setting up the location of the baptism ‘in the wilderness’ – the wilderness referring to dangerous terrain well outside of town or village limits. It was John’s proclamation that if enough Jewish people could cleanse, purify, and re-orient their lives through this new-fangled baptism, then God’s favour would shine on them once again, and God would send the much-awaited Messiah who would free them from oppression and poverty and Roman rule. Of course, it is our Christian belief that the Messiah did come to us through the way prepared by John, but the Messiah looked a lot different from what anyone anticipated. Interestingly, although baptism played no role in Jesus’ own ministry, it very quickly became a central part of the early Christian church. Those first Christians changed up baptism again, incorporating various elements from these different influences: -baptism, like the Jewish mikveh, became an initiation ritual into the Christian faith. -baptism, as it continued to evolve, made reference to repentance and forgiveness of sins, picking up on John’s imagery. -baptism continues in John’s vein of ‘preparing the way of the Lord’ by joining the newly baptized to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, but incorporating the person into the Body of Christ – the community, the church, seeking to walk in the way of Jesus.


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