Prepared by Dr. John E. Marshall
Matt. 3:6a Holman . . .and they were baptized by him in the Jordan
River. . .
The Jordan was historic to, and celebrated by, Israel. When Joshua led God’s people, God parted it. In its waters, Naaman the leper was cured.
This was the river Elisha smote and parted with Elijah’s mantle. The river’s best use was the day John the Baptist baptized Jesus. John’s ministry at the Jordan River became one of the greatest camp meetings of all time.
John had authority because he acted like he actually believed what he said. He was heard, respected, and responded to. His preaching divided the crowd. People loved him or loathed him. No one in the crowd was yawning. Dull preaching is intolerable; it is inexcusable to make the Gospel boring.
John’s preaching was hard to forget. Paul, 25 years later, found 12 believers at Ephesus who still centered their faith on John’s teachings.
In addition to preaching, John baptized, an action that still causes misunderstanding. Baptism never has saved anyone; only Jesus saves. Baptism has never been the instrument of salvation; faith is. Baptism is a symbol of leaving an old life behind and rising to live a new, different one.
The Greek word means immerse. It is telling that the Greek Church holds immersion as the only valid mode of baptism. Not until the thirteenth century did the Pope officially sanction non-immersion for Catholics. Luther and Calvin both said the word meant only immerse, but did not press the point. Many say it is of little consequence and should not be made a big deal.
Non-immersion is practiced only by the authority of a denomination or of someone claiming equal influence with the Bible. For non-immersion, the Church of England appeals to the 39 Articles. Catholicism has the Pope.
Episcopalians appeal to Scripture, tradition, and reason. Lutherans have the Lutheran Confessions. Methodists have their Standards of Doctrine. Presbyterians have a Book of Confessions. These all allow non-immersion.
We Baptists have. . .uh oh, we have nothing to appeal to but the Bible. Thus we have to use immersion as our only sanctioned mode of baptism.
We take a lot of criticism about this, which is ironic, since we are the ones who do not believe baptism in any way contributes to salvation. I admit we sometimes take it too far. My dad baptized Ruth’s cousin, but failed to get his elbow under the water. Dad immersed him again. Even as a kid, I thought that was a little much. Dad once had a boy dive into the baptistery. He reached down and pulled him up out of the water. One time Dad’s chairman of deacons, Brother Charlie Dietiker, helped Dad baptize a very large man. Charlie positioned himself behind the man, not realizing it is harder to get a person under the water than to get them back up (trust me; everyone comes up quickly). As Dad started to put the man under the water, Charlie squatted down behind the man and started pushing up. Dad finally got on top of the man and forced him down. Charlie disappeared. For a second or two, suspense filled the air. Then in the back right part of the baptistery, Charlie popped up like a cork, much to the relief of everyone.
When putting on my baptismal robe once, I noticed something in my sleeve. I pushed it through, thinking it was a cling free sheet. Instead, my hand came out with a pair of bikini panties dangling from it. Our Chairman of Deacons, who was responsible for cleaning the robes, grabbed it, and said, “Those are my wife’s”. We never said a word to each other about it.
The stories are endless. Waders leak. Candidates are often terrorized by water; some get caught in under currents; others curse due to the shock of cold water. Pastors have been electrocuted. Immersion can be a challenge, but we gladly do it because the Bible commands us to baptize this way.
Matt. 3:6b “. . .as they confessed their sins.”
The baptismal candidates were verbally acknowledging they were guilty of sins. Before John, the Israelites were taught to justify themselves, but the Baptist said they needed to accuse themselves, to admit their lives showed little evidence of true inner repentance. Their religion, nationality, and pedigree could not save them. It was not enough to trust in a once-a-year general forgiveness for the nation. Each person had to repent individually.
Repentance must be personal. Without it, profession is only hot air, tears are only water, baptism is a bath, and the Lord’s Supper a snack.
True religion says, “Something is wrong with me. I’m going to make things right in me so I can move on to a different, better life.” We must quit blaming God and others. It’s amazing how quickly we get lockjaw when it comes to confessing our own personal sin. Vanity is speechless. Until we start casting blame on ourselves we cannot have forgiveness on ourselves.
Matt. 3:7a When he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming
to the place of his baptism,. . .
Oh my, even the religious intelligentsia came to hear John. The Pharisees, numbering over 6000, and the Sadducees, numbering about 5000, had bitterly disliked each other for over a century, but found in John the Baptist a more dangerous threat than each other. Nothing unites enemies quicker than a dreaded common foe. The religious leaders had reason to be uneasy. When you are the top dogs, as they were, you don’t want anyone tinkering with the status quo, and John was tampering with it big time.
My guess is, this group was a fact-finding committee investigating the phenomenal reports about John. Out of curiosity and concern, they were on a reconnaissance mission, gathering intelligence information on the preacher.
Speaking of information, the Pharisees versus Sadducees dispute was an intelligence frenzy: the contrasts were stark. Pharisees were legalists, obeyers of petty precepts; Sadducees were liberals, indulgers in pleasures of this world. Pharisees accepted the Old Testament, oral traditions, and rituals; Sadducees accepted only the five books of Moses. Pharisees were champions of the common people and hated Rome; Sadducees were aristocrats who loved the Romans. Pharisees were hard-core believers; Sadducees were compromisers who were deists that did not believe in the afterlife. No wonder the two groups bitterly disliked each other.
Despite their obvious differences, the Pharisees and Sadducees did share similarities. Both agreed self-generated works gained rewards.
Pharisees, based on works, looked for ultimate rewards in Heaven. Sadducees, based on works, sought rewards here and now on Earth as health and wealth advocates. Both were self-righteous, extremely “better than thou”, especially toward each other. Their hatred for Jesus let them overcome their differences temporarily in their effort to assassinate Him.
They were for sure spiritual reprobates. We might be tempted to ask, why did John acknowledge their presence, and let them hear him preach?
Because our Lord Jesus loves all types of sinners, including charlatans. Hypocrites can deceive themselves as well as deceive others. They can build imaginary havens for themselves in which they hide from God’s anger. Preaching can help them by tearing away their masks.
This is why we should encourage everybody to come when God’s people assemble. Invite one and all. Welcome them here. Even if people come only to criticize or sleep, let them come. Spurgeon slipped into a Primitive Methodist Chapel to escape a bitter winter storm, and was saved. Don’t write off anyone, including cynics, the pompous, or the self-righteous.
God likes to save sinners of all stripes. Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea became believers, as did “a large group of priests” in Acts (6:7).