Yeshua’s Baptism: What Does It Mean for You?

People instinctively sense that they are ‘unclean’. We know this because, while there are many differences amongst religions and traditions in the world, they all consistently invoke the need for washing with water when approaching the Divine. 

Muslims practice wudu, or ritual washing, before prayer.  Hinduism practices include bathing in sacred rivers, like the Ganges – to purify oneself before sacred festivals. Buddhist monks wash themselves in water before meditating. Shinto undergo Harae, or ritual washing, before worship. Jews practice Tevilah (full body immersion in a mikveh or bath), especially before their sacred festivals. In Christendom, baptism fulfills a similar role.

Muslims practicing Wudu

The various churches practice baptism a little differently, but Yeshaus’ baptism by John the Baptist sets the example.

Baptism of Moses

Although this receives most attention, baptism in the Bible goes back long before the time of Yeshua.  The Apostle Paul writes:

“For I do not want you to be ignorant of the fact, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud and that they all passed through the sea. They were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea.”

1 Corinthians 10:1-2
Crossing of the Sea under Moses was the national baptism of Israel

Paul refers to the Israelite Exodus out of Egypt, just after Passover, as the moment when the Red Sea parted and the Israelites walked through it.  As recorded in Exodus 14, the Egyptians tried to follow, but perished when walls of water came crashing down on them in their pursuit of the Israelites through the parted sea.  The Israelites, led by Moses, were all ‘baptized into Moses’ when they walked through the Red Sea.  It became their national baptism.

Jesus’ baptism mirrors the baptism of Israel

Yeshuas’ Baptism Extends the Pattern

We are exploring the Gospel’s portrayal of Yeshua as the fulfillment, or embodiment, of Israel.  His miraculous birth paralleled that of Isaac, as well as his flight from Herod that paralleled of Jacob/Israel.  Yeshuas’ baptism continues the pattern.  Why did Yeshua undergo baptism?  He did not need cleansing.  John the Baptist said as much when Yeshua approached him for baptism, as Matthew’s Gospel records:

13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John. 14 But John tried to deter him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”

15 Jesus replied, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” Then John consented.

16 As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17 And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”

Matthew 3:13-16
John the Baptist baptizes Jesus

Yeshua did not need baptism for cleansing from impurity.  He was already clean on the inside so nothing physical could make him unclean.  But his baptism was another indicator of his pattern with Israel.  As Israel went through a baptism, so he also went through a baptism.

Baptism of … cups

What does ‘baptism’ mean in the Gospels?  We can answer this by noting how the Gospels use this word.  As a comment on Jewish ritual washing, Mark notes that:

The Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they give their hands a ceremonial washing, holding to the tradition of the elders. When they come from the marketplace they do not eat unless they wash. And they observe many other traditions, such as the washing of cups, pitchers and kettles.

Mark 7:3-4

Three times the word ‘wash’ appears.  In the original Greek, the first wash (in v3) is nipsōntai, the standard word for wash.  But the two other ‘wash’s in verse 4 are baptismous – baptism!  So the Jews ‘baptized’ themselves and their cups when they washed them!  Baptism simply meant to cleanse by immersion in water.

Baptism in water not the issue

Though many view baptism with water in Christendom as being able to cleanse us the Brit Chadasha explains the active source of our cleansing.

18 For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit. 19 After being made alive, he went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits— 20 to those who were disobedient long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built. In it only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water, 21 and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also—not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a clear conscience toward God.  It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ, 22 who has gone into heaven and is at God’s right hand—with angels, authorities and powers in submission to him.

1 Peter 3:18-22

Here it clarifies that the ‘removal of dirt from the body’, that is a ritual physical washing of some sort, is not the baptism that saves.  Rather it is the ‘pledge of a clear conscience toward G-d’ – the inner repentance that John the Baptist taught – that saves.  It saves us as verse 18 explains because it is Yeshua himself who is righteous (spiritually clean) so that he brings us to G-d through his death and resurrection, explored more fully here.  

Baptism into Yeshua

In fact, we need baptism, not in water, but into Yeshua himself, as the Bible explains

Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.

Romans 6: 3-4

In trusting Yeshua he washes us and thus we can ‘live a new life’.

That ‘new life’ involves an ability to have victory over temptation and sin.  Yeshua shows exactly how he does this in what he went through immediately after his baptism. He went into the desert for 40 days for testing by the devil, once again patterning as Israel which had undergone testings for 40 years in the desert immediately after their baptism from Moses.

Zealous in the Wild

Sculpture of Simon bar Kochba on Israeli Knesset Menorah in Jerusalem

History remembers Simon bar Kokhba (Simon ben Kosevah) as the man who led and failed the last Jewish revolt against Imperial Rome from 132-135 CE.  As the self-proclaimed prince of the Jewish people in Judea, he required that all Jews follow him into a war of independence against Rome.  He led this revolt because the Romans were intending to build another pagan city (Aelia Capitolina) on the ruins of Jerusalem (ruined from the failed 66-73 CE uprising). This city would have a Temple dedicated to Jupiter, a pagan Roman god. 

Though initially successful from his base in the Judean wilderness, their fortunes turned when the full might of the Imperial Roman legions counterattacked. Bar Kochba and countless other Jewish insurrectionists were brutally killed in Rome’s final victory.  Before his defeat, many Jewish sages, including Rabbi Akiva, one of the leading contributors to the Mishnah, proclaimed him as the Messiah.

Bar Kokhba directed his religious zeal from the desert wilderness against a foreign, external enemy – Imperial Rome.  His vision saw messianic peace only coming about if the alien occupying military might was expelled and Zion liberated from foreign occupation.

Bar Kokhba Contrasted with John the Baptist

In his religious zeal and messianic fervour from the wilderness, Bar Kokhba resembled his countryman John the Baptist who preceded him by about 100 years.  Yet, though similarly zealous, they differed in how they saw the fundamental problem and consequently the fundamental solution.  Comparing these two revolutionaries will help us understand competing ideas of the human situation and the solution that the Brit Chadasha puts forth.

John the Baptist in Secular History

John the Baptist, like Bar Kokhba, was a powerful figure, often portrayed as rugged in films.

Like Bar Kokhba John the Baptist generated much controversy and attracted a lot of attention.  Josephus, a first century Jewish historian, refers to him with these words:

Now some of the Jews thought that the destruction of Herod’s army came from God, and that very justly, as a punishment of what he did against John, that was called the Baptist: for Herod slew him, who was a good man… Herod, who feared lest the great influence John had over the people might put it into his power and inclination to raise a rebellion… Accordingly, he was sent a prisoner, out of Herod’s suspicious temper, to Macherus, the castle I before mentioned, and was there put to death. 

Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, Book 18, ch 5, 2

Josephus mentions John the Baptist in the context of the defeat of Herod Antipas against a rival.  Herod Antipas had put John to death, and Josephus informs us that his later defeat was viewed by the Jews as Divine Judgment against him for his execution of the righteous John the Baptist. 

John the Baptist in the Gospels

John the Baptist prominently figures as the forerunner of Yeshua in the gospels.  Luke, one of the gospels of the Brit Chadasha, firmly anchors John the Baptist in history by cross-referencing him with other well-known historical figures of that time.

“In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar—when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene— during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet:

“A voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
    make straight paths for him.
Every valley shall be filled in,
    every mountain and hill made low.
The crooked roads shall become straight,
    the rough ways smooth.
And all people will see God’s salvation.’” 

Luke 3:1-6

In support of Luke’s account, Matthew summarizes John the Baptist’s message like this:

“In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

Matthew 3:1-2

John’s Perspective

John saw the fundamental human problem being within us rather than external to us.  Therefore, his preaching directed his listeners to repent

Repent (metanoia in the Greek) means ‘change’ (= ‘meta’), your ‘mind’ (=’noia’). Think of a caterpillar’s dramatic ‘metamorphosis’ when its form changes into that of a butterfly. 

John taught the need for a change of mind so dramatic that it transforms the way we live, not by toppling governments and fighting foreigners as Bar Kokhba thought, but in treating others – whoever they may be – in a compassionate and just manner. This repentance would ‘prepare’ us for the Lord’s way.  In John’s mind, without this repentance, we would not see, grasp or understand the Kingdom of G-d, nor would we experience its ‘forgiveness’.

Confession in Our Repentance

An indicator of true inner repentance that John looked for was this:

People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River. 

Matthew 3:5-6

This contrasts the actions in the earlier Biblical account of Adam & Eve.  After they ate the forbidden fruit, the Bible says that Adam and Eve:

‘…hid from the LORD God among the trees of the garden.’

Genesis 3:8

Ever since, this tendency to hide our sins, pretending that we have not done wrong comes very naturally to us.  Confessing and repenting of our sins is considerably difficult for us to do, because it exposes our guilt and shame. We prefer to try anything else but this. Nevertheless, John’s conviction and message framed repentance and confession as essential to preparing people so that they might experience the coming Kingdom of G-d.

Warning to the Religious Leaders Who Would Not Repent

Some people had indeed done this, but not all could honestly admit their sins before themselves and G-d. The Gospel says that:

But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. 10 The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.

Matthew 3:7-10

The Pharisees and the Sadducees, teachers of Jewish law, worked diligently towards keeping all observances (prayers, fasting, sacrifices, etc.) as commanded by the Law.  Everyone thought that these leaders, with all their religious learning and effort, were the ones who were guaranteed to have had G-d’s approval. But John called them a ‘brood of vipers’ and warned them about the coming Judgment of fire!

Why would John make such a claim?

By not ‘producing fruit in keeping with repentance’ they showed that they had not truly repented.  They had not confessed their sin but instead hid their sin behind their religious observances.  Their religious heritage, good though it was, had made them proud rather than repentant.

Fruit of Repentance

With confession and repentance came an expectation for living differently.  The people asked John the Baptist how they should demonstrate the fruit of their repentance and he answered this:

10 “What should we do then?” the crowd asked.

11 John answered, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.”

12 Even tax collectors came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?”

13 “Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them.

14 Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?”

He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.”

Luke3: 10-14

 Was John the Messiah?

Because of the strength of his message, many people wondered if John was the Messiah.  This is how the Brit Chadasha records this discussion:

15 The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Messiah. 16 John answered them all, “I baptize you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” 18 And with many other words John exhorted the people and proclaimed the good news to them.

Luke 3:15-18

John the Baptist in Prophecy

John’s independent spirit led him to dress coarsely and eat wild food in the wilderness.  However, this was not just an example of his spirit; it was also an important sign.  The prophet Malachi had closed the Tanakh 400 years before with the following:

“I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come,” says the Lord Almighty.”

Malachi 3:1

“See, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents; or else I will come and strike the land with total destruction.”

Malachi 4:5-6 (400 BCE)

Elijah had been an early prophet who also lived and ate in the wilderness, dressed with a

“…garment of hair and had a leather belt around his waist.”

2 Kings 1:8
Timeline of John the Baptist along with those who foresaw his mission

So, when John the Baptist lived and dressed in the way that he did, it was to point out that he was the coming Preparer prophesied to come in the Spirit of Elijah. His garments, his lifestyle and tendency to eat in the wilderness showed that John the Baptist came in G-d’s foretold plan.

Conclusion

John the Baptist came to prepare people so that they would be ready for the Kingdom of G-d.  But he did not prepare them by giving them more Laws, or leading them into rebellion as Bar Kochba did. Rather, he prepared them by calling for their repentance from sin and their confession of it.  This is harder to do than to following stricter rules or participating in an insurrection since it exposes our shame and guilt. 

The religious leaders of that day could not bring themselves to repent and confess their sins.  Instead they used their religion to hide their sins.  One hundred years later they used religion to channel the ill-fated rebellion of Bar Kochba.  Because of their choices to avoid repenting they were unprepared to recognize the Messiah and understand the Kingdom of G-d.  John’s warning is just as relevant to us today.  He maintains that we must repent from our sin and confess them. 

This enables us to experience the Kingdom of G-d, which John helped inaugurate in his baptism of Yeshua, the next historical event we explore.

Yeshua and Israel: Pursued and Hiding

Anne Frank in school 1940

Anne Frank is known for her diary, ‘The Diary of Anne Frank’, which she wrote while hiding from the Nazi regime during the Second World War.  Her flight from pursuit had begun years before she hid behind a bookcase with her family in Amsterdam.  She was originally born in 1929 to a Jewish family in Germany. Her father, Otto Frank, decided it was best to flee the country when the Nazis came to power in 1933. Consequently, Anne grew up as a foreigner in the Netherlands.

However, in 1940, the Nazis overran the Netherlands, making it no longer safe.  When the Nazis ordered Anne’s sister to report to their work camp in 1942, the family went into hiding.  They remained hidden behind a bookcase until their discovery in 1944.  During this period of hiding, Anne wrote in her diary.  Tragically, all the members of the Frank family except for Anne’s father died in the Nazi camps. But her diary remained hidden and her father published it after the war.

Other Jewish Holocaust Diarists

Other Jews also penned diaries while pursued and hiding from the Nazis. 

  • Etty Hillesum (1914 – 1943) kept a diary describing her perilous life as a Dutch Jew under Nazi rule.  She died in Auschwitz.
  • Miriam Chaszczewacki  (1924–1942) was a 15-year-old Jewish Holocaust victim, who in 1939, began writing a personal diary about her life in the Radomsko ghetto; ending just before her death in 1942.
  • Rutka Laskier (1929–1943) was a Jewish Polish diarist chronicling the three months of her life during the Holocaust in Poland. The Nazis murdered her in Auschwitz at the age of fourteen.
  • Věra Kohnová (1929 – 1942), a young Czechoslovakian Jew, wrote a diary about her feelings and events during the Nazi occupation before her deportation and murder in the Nazi extermination camps.

Pursued – an Historic Jewish Reality

Having to flee pursuers who seek their harm was not just experienced during the holocaust, but has been a part of the Jewish experience throughout history. It began in the earliest days of the nation when Jacob fled from Esau who threatened to take his life. Over the following centuries, fleeing from pursuers was an ever imminent reality for Jacob’s descendants.

Yeshua’s Childhood: Pursued & Hiding

In this regard, it is not surprising to find that in the Brit Chadasha, shortly after his birth, Yeshua (or Jesus) had to flee to another country just as Anne Frank’s family did. 

Matthew records how the Magi from the East had visited him and created consternation for Herod the Great.

12 And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.

The Escape to Egypt

13 When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.”

14 So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, 15 where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.

16 When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. 17 Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled:

18 “A voice is heard in Ramah,
    weeping and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children
    and refusing to be comforted,
    because they are no more.”

The Return to Nazareth

19 After Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt 20 and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who were trying to take the child’s life are dead.”

21 So he got up, took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel. 22 But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning in Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. Having been warned in a dream, he withdrew to the district of Galilee, 23 and he went and lived in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets, that he would be called a Nazarene.

Matthew 2: 12-23

Matthew records how King Herod, feeling threatened by Yeshua and furious that the Magi had outwitted him, orchestrated the killing of all baby boys in Bethlehem. He hoped to kill Yeshua in the bloodbath.  But his parents had fled in the middle of the night and lived in hiding in a foreign country, like Anne Frank, to escape a murderous threat. 

… From Herod the Great

Herod the Great, the brilliant, but ruthless king of Judea, ruled under the Roman Emperor from 37 – 4 BCE.  Herod’s father, Antiper, had seized the initiative when the Romans conquered Jerusalem in 63 BCE, earning Roman favour and becoming the vassal king over Judea.  Herod inherited the throne from his father and shrewdly navigated many intrigues to strengthen his position.  He sponsored magnificent building projects, many of which are now among the ruins of great tourist attractions in Israel today.  Masada and Caesarea are examples of two popular Israeli tourist attractions that survived as historical landmarks of his building activities. But, his most grandiose project was the re-building of the Second Temple in Jerusalem. He built it to rival all structures across the Roman Empire.  When the Brit Chadasha mentions a ‘Temple’, it refers to this temple built by Herod.

Herod’s ruthlessness was well documented by the Jewish historian Josephus, included the murder of several of his wives and children when he suspected their disloyalty, and he never hesitated to spill the blood of his subjects.  So though Matthew, of all who recorded Herod’s atrocities, is the only one who mentions his murder of infants in Bethlehem, these actions are entirely consistent from what we know of him.

The Audacious Hypothesis: Yeshua as Israel

Herod the Great was an Edomite, a descendant of Esau; the brother of Jacob/Israel.  Thus, Matthew records an Edomite threat against Yeshua’s life.

This opens the door for Matthew to reveal how he understood these events. He does so by setting forth the framework, or lens he uses to make sense of Yeshua.  We see this in his brief quote (underlined above) of the prophet Hosea (700 BCE).  The complete quote from Hosea is:

“When Israel was a child, I loved him, and Out of Egypt I called my son.”

Hosea 11:1

Hosea wrote this sentence to recall the Exodus of the young nation Israel that came out of Egypt under Moses.  He pictured Israel as G-d’s ‘child’ and ‘son’ since the Exodus occurred early in the nation’s history.  But Matthew sees fit to apply this to Yeshua, when he likewise came out of Egypt. In doing so, Matthew sets forth an audacious hypothesis that Yeshua in some way embodies the people of Israel.  In Matthew’s view he is the archetype, master blueprint, fulfillment, or completion of Israel.  Yeshua forms the pattern which molds the people of Israel’s experiences.

An Exhibit Supporting the Hypothesis

Matthew exhibits Yeshua’s coming out of Egypt in his youth as evidence of this since it correlates with Israel’s national exodus out of Egypt in the youth of its nationhood.  And the ever-present Jewish experience through history of having to flee and hide, exemplified in Anne Frank’s story, equates to Yeshua’s experience of flight and hiding.

The correlation goes deeper – back to the dawn of the nation.  Jacob, also called Israel, became the first of Abraham’s seed forced to flee and hide (from his brother Esau).  Yeshua had to flee from Herod the Great, an Edomite or descendant of Esau.  As Israel fled from Esau, so his Descendant had to flee Esau’s descendant.  From the point-of-view offered up by Matthew both Israels fled from Esau.

Historical Timeline

We saw that Yeshua’s miraculous birth paralleled Isaac’s miraculous birth.  Here his fleeing Herod parallels Jacob’s fleeing from Esau, and his return from Egypt to the land of Israel parallels the Exodus under Moses to the Promised Land.

Assessing Matthew’s Claim

Is Matthew on to something? The entire project known as Israel began with G-d’s promise to Abraham that

all peoples on earth
    will be blessed through you

Genesis 12:3

Since this offers you and me G-d’s blessing and since Yeshua did come through Abraham, investigating further along this line of thought might be fruitful. We continue going through Yeshua’s life with this in mind, looking next at the one who prepared the way before him – John the Baptist – through the lens of the Jewish revolutionary Simon Bar Kochba.