Why was Jesus baptised in the River Jordan?

There are more than 1,000 different places mentioned in the Bible, from Abana (2 Kings 5:12) to Zuph (1 Samuel 9:5). But we tend to skip over the places as if they’re incidental to the Bible’s story. We want to know what happened; precisely where it happened doesn’t seem that important. So apart from a few familiar places like Jerusalem and Bethlehem, most of us know very little about the places in our Bible.

That changed for me when I visited Israel and Jordan a few years ago. I began to realise that the places weren’t incidental to the story — they were a vital part of it. The places matter. For example, Jesus couldn’t have been baptised in the Jabbok river — it had to be the Jordan. Read on to find out why.

New life — but also a barrier

In biblical times, the river Jordan was both a source of life and a great barrier.

It’s a source of life in a similar way to the Nile, though on a much smaller scale. It rarely rains in the Jordan Valley — but thanks to the river, plants grow in abundance. It’s for that reason that for millennia people have chosen to live on its banks.

But the Jordan is also a great barrier. Like most great rivers, it served as a boundary. In biblical times there were no bridges over the Jordan (in fact, not a single bridge is mentioned anywhere in the Bible). The river formed the border of the promised land, and even today, the Jordan is a formidable barrier — you have to cross a minefield to use the only bridge across it!

A life returned

The life-giving properties of the Jordan are seen symbolically in the story of Naaman. This Syrian general came to Elisha to be cleansed of leprosy, and Elisha sends him to bathe in the Jordan. After some grumbling that there’s nothing special about the river, Naaman eventually consents, and his flesh is restored as if he’d been given a new life (2 Kings 5:14).

This teaches Naaman that — whatever we may think — he cannot divorce geography from theology. ‘Now I know that there is no God in all the world except in Israel’, he says (2 Kings 5:15). So when he returns to Syria, he takes several bags of Israelite dirt with him (v17), wanting to ensure that wherever he was, he had something of Israel with him.

The barrier crossed

Because Jordan was a barrier, many of its stories concern its crossing.

After forty years in the wilderness, Joshua leads Israel across the Jordan, with God miraculously stopping the flooded river, just as he had done with the Red Sea (Joshua 3–4).

Several hundred years later, Elijah and Elisha stood before the same river at almost the same point (near to Jericho, 2 Kings 2:4–6). The water parts and they both cross over on dry ground before Elijah ascends to heaven. But this time the crossing is in the opposite direction. Elijah isn’t entering the promised land — he’s leaving it.

When the Israelites first crossed the Jordan, there was one person who conspicuously stayed behind — Moses (Deuteronomy 31:2). And in many ways, Elijah has been a new Moses. Both opposed a wicked King (Pharaoh and Ahab). Both had encounters with God at Sinai while hiding in a cleft or cave and fasting for 40 days (Exodus 34:28, 1 Kings 19:8). And just as Moses left Egypt after the death of Pharaoh’s son, Elijah left Israel after the death of Ahab’s son (Ahaziah, 2 Kings 1:17). At the end of their lives, both go to be with their God within sight of the promised land. The two events occur near the Jordan, less than 10 miles apart, and both leave no marked grave behind (2 Kings 2:13, Deuteronomy 34:6). So as Elijah crosses the Jordan to ascend to heaven, it’s not that he’s leaving the promised land — he’s walking in the footsteps of Moses.

All this means that just as Elijah is the new Moses, Elisha is the new Joshua. (Even their names are similar: Elisha means ‘God is salvation’; Joshua means ‘the Lord saves’.) Elisha is following in both Elijah and Joshua’s footsteps. Both Elisha and Joshua were commissioned on the far side of the Jordan, and when Elisha re-crosses the Jordan back into the promised land, he’s relaunching Joshua’s conquest (2 Kings 9:6–10, 10:20–28). Like Joshua, he follows the crossing by visiting Jericho — Joshua to destroy it (Joshua 6:26) and Elisha to purify it (2 Kings 2:18-22). Like Joshua, Elijah will show mercy to an enemy (Rahab in Joshua 6, Naaman in 2 Kings 5), immediately after which they’ll bring God’s judgment on Israelites who steal in the aftermath of victory (Achan in Joshua 7, Gehazi in 2 Kings 5:27–28).

Greater than Moses

When we fast forward to the New Testament, we discover that all these themes come together remarkably with John’s baptism of Jesus.

John is the ‘Elijah who was to come’ (Matthew 11:14, Mark 9:9–13, Luke 1:17). Like Elijah, a bloodthirsty queen wants him dead (1 Kings 19:1-2, Mark 6:17–25). Like Elijah, he had a distinctive ‘garment of hair and… a leather belt around his waist’ (2 Kings 1:8, Matthew 3:4). Like Elijah, John is a lone voice in the wilderness.

There are also links between John the Baptist and Moses. Both were an unequalled prophet (Deuteronomy 34:10, Matthew 11:11), and both prophesied of another who would come after them (Deuteronomy 18:15, John 1:27).

As John the Baptist echoes both Elijah and Moses, John’s successor echoes both Elisha and Joshua.

Like Elisha, Jesus receives the Spirit at the Jordan (2 Kings 2:15, Matthew 3:16). He goes on to cleanse lepers (2 Kings 5, Mark 1:40–45), show kindness to enemy soldiers (Matthew 8:5-13), restore a dead son to his mother (2 Kings 4:18–37, Luke 7:11–17), and feed a multitude with a few loaves of bread (2 Kings 4:42-44, Matthew 14:13–21).

Like Joshua, Jesus spends his early years in Egypt, chooses twelve men to be at the vanguard of his conquest (Joshua 4:4, Matthew 10:1–8), and rescues outcasts and integrates them into his people (Joshua 6:22–23, Luke 5:27–31). More importantly, as Joshua defeated those who worshipped evil, Jesus defeated the evil spirits themselves.

So as Joshua and Elisha both received their commission on the far side of the Jordan before immediately embarking on their divine mission, where else could Jesus receive his commission?

Why Jordan?

When Jesus emerged from the Jordan, unlike Joshua and Elisha, he had not walked through on dry ground. God spared them — but he didn’t spare his own Son. In breaking across the barrier between the desert and the promised land, he was ‘buried’ beneath the water before being raised up; dying like Moses as punishment for sin, raised like Elijah as a vindication of his righteousness.

So as Jesus rose up from the Jordan after his baptism, he wasn’t just representing our need for cleansing from sin (although he was doing that). God was deliberately indicating that he was beginning a new conquest, following in the footsteps of Moses and Elijah, Joshua and Elisha, and completing what they started. He would deliver God’s people from the forces of evil. He would win for them the promised land.

Why was Jesus baptised in the Jordan? It’s unthinkable it could have been anywhere else.

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