Archeology dating to the first century gives testimony to the widespread practice of proselyte baptism and ceremonial cleansing, foreshadowings of Christian baptism. Earthen baptisteries have been discovered in many places throughout Palestine, including near the Temple Mount, in the region of Galilee and near the Jordan River and Dead Sea.
When John came out of the wilderness to the Jordan River, multitudes from “all Judea, and all the vicinity of the Jordan” flocked to hear the words of the prophet “and they were baptized by him in the Jordan River, confessing their sins” (Matthew 3:5-6). John preached repentance that called the adherent to publicly demonstrate his/her confession and submission through baptism. The repentant worshipper was immersed in water, signifying a washing of the stains of sin and shame. The masses were ripe for the message of repentance, revival, and renewal.
The Elijah-look-alike also drew the attention of the religious elite. But “when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, ‘Brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Therefore produce fruit consistent with repentance. And don’t presume to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our father.” For I tell you that God is able to raise up children for Abraham from these stones. The ax is already at the root of the trees. Therefore, every tree that doesn’t produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire’ ” (Matthew 3:7-10).
It may be worth noting that Jesus used similar harsh language when He spoke to the Pharisees and Sadducees. “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which appear beautiful on the outside, but inside are full of the bones of the dead and every kind of impurity... Snakes! Brood of vipers! How can you escape being condemned to hell?” (Matthew 23:27, 33). These words must have stung like a cattle-prod, but it’s likely that John and Jesus used this harsh language hoping to draw their attention away from their self-righteousness and pious self-satisfaction.
The great evangelist stood waist-deep in the Jordan, pleading with those on the riverbank: “I baptize you with water for repentance, but the one who is coming after me is more powerful than I. I am not worthy to remove his sandals. He himself will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing shovel is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn. But the chaff he will burn with fire that never goes out”(Matthew 3:11-12). “One who is more powerful than I am is coming after me. I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the strap of his sandals. I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit” (Mark 1:7–8).
“ ‘What then should we do?’ the crowds were asking him. He replied to them, ‘The one who has two shirts must share with someone who has none, and the one who has food must do the same.’ Tax collectors also came to be baptized, and they asked him, ‘Teacher, what should we do?’ He told them, ‘Don’t collect any more than what you have been authorized.’ Some soldiers also questioned him, ‘What should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Don’t take money from anyone by force or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages’ ” (Luke 3:10-14). In other words, “be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:2). “Produce fruit consistent with repentance” (Matthew 3:8).
All Scripture quotations, except as otherwise noted, are from
Holman Bible Publishers’ Christian Standard Bible.