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[John] went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 4 As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet,
“The voice of one crying in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
5 Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall become straight,
and the rough places shall become level ways,
6 and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”
7 He said therefore to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 Bear fruits in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. 9 Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” – Luke 3:3-9 [ESV]
I very vividly remember my baptism. I was eight years old, and quite serious about my faith in Jesus. In my church, you “became a Christian” when you were baptized. It was a conscious and intentional action. I was strongly influenced by my first-grade teacher, who was also the Sunday school superintendent for the elementary department. It was a very large church with as many as 900 in Sunday school on a given Sunday.
But the primary influence to my faith was my parents. I cannot remember a time that I did not believe in Jesus. He was part of my life. And before I really knew how to express it, I believed in Jesus. My baptism was outward proof – in my mind – that I was a Christian. But somehow I knew it wasn’t just something I was doing. I would not learn the fullness of that reality until years later.
Apparently baptism was a big deal for John and the people of his day. Although there is not an explicit command in the Old Testament that people ought to be baptized, it is clear that this practice was widely followed by the Jews of John’s day. Houses of that time had ceremonial mikvahs in which they would wash to attain spiritual purity. Jesus speaks of this in Mark 7 where he talks about how the Pharisees washed their hands, pots, and even their dining couches in an effort to become pure.
But John’s baptism is different from those ceremonial washings. Luke clearly tells us that this baptism was one of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And, in this context there is far-reaching significance. For baptism of gentiles was the acceptable means by which they would become a God-Fearer (as near to a Jew as one could be apart from tracing one’s blood line to Abraham). But the Jews come to be baptized, and for a Jew to submit to baptism was to say something like, “I’m as bad as a heathen Gentile.”
Or it could be something even more. It could be that they wished to embrace the blessings of baptism: the forgiveness of sins. It’s difficult to separate the two. Some would say that baptism is the outward sign of having been forgiven. But what use is that? Baptism must have been seen as a means by which forgiveness was sealed to them. It must have been something desirable.
As such this hints at Christian baptism. In Christian baptism, God puts his name on us. We are baptized not into a concept, but into a relationship with our God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We are buried with Christ into his death in baptism, and connected also with his resurrection from the dead (cf. Romans 6). We are clothed with Christ in baptism (cf. Galatians 3). We are saved by means of faith and baptism brings all those blessings to us (cf. 1 Peter 3).
Baptism was a big deal for the Jews of John’s day. God was moving people to a right relationship with himself. It is a big deal today as well, for the blessings of Jesus await us in these waters. And we who have been baptized do well to listen to John. Remembering our baptism daily in repentance we must also “bear fruits in keeping with repentance.” It’s that big a deal.