Imagine massive floods sweeping through the countryside. Ancient cities suddenly find themselves under several feet of water. People aren’t expecting it, and now can’t quite believe it’s happening.
If the authorities have enough warning, they do their best to get people out of their houses to stop them being trapped. They drive round parts of the city announcing that trouble is approaching and that people should leave at once. They make announcements on the local radio and television. Imminent danger needs urgent action.
That’s the kind of work John the Baptist was doing. We don’t usually think of preachers going around making that kind of announcement. Even politicians don’t usually tell us things are getting very urgent—or, if they do, we usually take no notice. But people believed John, and came to him for a different sort of flooding: baptism, being plunged into the river Jordan.
What was the emergency, and how would being plunged in the Jordan help people to avoid danger?
Luke’s introduction to the story of John the Baptist is designed to give us a fairly precise date when it all happened, but actually it gives us a lot more besides. Behind the list of names and places is a story of oppression and misery that was building up to explosion point.
Rome had ruled the area for about a hundred years, but only since AD 6 had there been a Roman governor resident in the area, living in Caesarea (on the Mediterranean coast) but also keeping a base in Jerusalem. Augustus Caesar, the first emperor, had died in AD 14, and his place had been taken by the ruthless Tiberius, who was already being worshipped as a god in the eastern parts of the empire. Two of Herod the Great’s sons, Herod Antipas and Philip, were ruling somewhat shakily, under Roman permission, in the north of the country, but Rome had taken direct control of the south, including Jerusalem itself. Most Jews didn’t regard Herod’s sons as real rulers; they were a self-made royal house, ruling, like Rome, by fear and oppression. The high priests weren’t much better. Popular movements of resistance had come and gone, in some cases being brutally put down. Everybody knew they couldn’t go on as they were. Something had to happen. But what?
Devout Jews had longed for a new word from God. Some believed that prophecy had died out but might one day be revived. Many expected that a movement would begin through which their God would renew the age-old covenant, bringing Israel out of slavery into a new freedom. The old prophets had spoken of a time of renewal, through which God himself would come back to them. They had only a sketchy idea of what this would all look like, but when a fiery young prophet appeared in the Judaean wilderness, going round the towns and villages telling people that the time had come, they were ready to listen.
Baptism, plunging into the river Jordan, was a powerful sign of this renewal. When the children of Israel had come out of Egypt—a story they all knew well because of their regular Passovers and other festivals—they were brought through the Red Sea, through the Sinai wilderness, then through the Jordan into the promised land. Now they were in slavery again—in their own land!—and wanted a new exodus to bring them to freedom. Since the old prophets had declared that this slavery was the result of Israel’s sin, worshipping idols rather than their one true God, the new exodus, when it happened, would have to deal with this. The way to escape slavery, the prophets had said, was to ‘return’ to God with heart and soul; that is, to ‘repent’. ‘Return to me, and I will return to you,’ one of the last prophets had said (Malachi 3:7).
Hence John’s agenda: ‘a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins’. John was doing what the prophet Isaiah had said: preparing a pathway for the Lord himself to return to his people. This was the time. Rescue was at hand.