The Kings Anointing — New Beginnings at the Jordan River
Editor’s Note — Part 2 of Jesus, Kingdom Builder, a 13-part study of St. Matthew’s Gospel by Dr. Sri. The series will run every other Friday.
The first time I visited the Jordan River — the place where John the Baptist began his ministry — I couldn’t help but think that this prophet could have chosen a much better place to launch his career of preparing the Jewish people for the Messiah.
The Jordan River flows through a barren wilderness into the lowest point on the entire face of the earth, some 1200 feet below sea level. To get there, the crowds would have to trek several hours down through the rugged desert terrain with the hot, piercing sun relentlessly beating down on their backs. Who would want to go all the way down there to hear John the Baptist? It seems that the capital city of Jerusalem would have been a much better site for attracting listeners. Or maybe the densely populated region of Galilee. But the empty wilderness and the Jordan River basin?
Yet, for the ancient Jews, the Jordan River valley was much more than a desolate wilderness. It was the very place where they expected God to do great things again for Israel. And this makes all the difference for understanding the mission of John the Baptist and his fateful encounter with Jesus at that river.
Symbolism of the Jordan River
The Jews knew that great things happened at the Jordan River. This is the place where the prophet Elisha cured the Syrian King Naaman of his leprosy (2 Kings 6:1-10). This is where the prophet Elijah was taken up into heaven in a fiery chariot (2 Kings 2:1-10). But most of all, this river would bring to mind the most important event in Israel’s history — the Exodus. To this day, Jews annually recall the story of the Exodus, retelling how God freed the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, led them through the Red Sea, and guided them in the desert for 40 years. The climax of this drama comes when Joshua led the Israelites across the Jordan River and into the land God had promised them. It was then that Israel began its life anew as a nation in the land of Canaan.
As such, the Jordan River valley became a rich symbol for new beginnings and new life. It expressed Israel’s hopes for the future, hopes for a new type of exodus, when God would once again free His people from their pagan enemies as He did back in the time of Moses and Joshua. In fact, the prophets foretold how the desert would be the stage where Israel would return to God and their covenant would be renewed. For example, the prophet Hosea described how sinful Israel would be come back to Yahweh like an unfaithful wife returning to her husband. And this spousal reunion would take place in the desert:
“Therefore, behold, I will allure her, and bring her into the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her. . . . And I will make for you a covenant. . . . I will betroth you to me for ever” (Hos. 2:14, 18-19).
This is why John the Baptist called the people out into the wilderness to be baptized in the Jordan. Such an action would signal the beginning of all that the Jews had been hoping for. This was a symbolic action, ritually reenacting the Exodus. Just like their ancestors, the Jews following John the Baptist went out into the wilderness, passed through the Jordan and reentered the Promised Land. And they came out on the other side with all their hopes for a fresh start — hopes for freedom, this time not from the Egyptians but from their current oppressors, the Romans. One can imagine the great enthusiasm and anticipation surrounding John the Baptist’s movement. No wonder John had little trouble attracting so many people!
Clothes Make the Prophet?
“Now John wore a garment of camel’s hair, and a leather girdle around his waist. . .” (Mt. 3:4).
Matthew’s Gospel does not tell us much about what John the Baptist preached at the Jordan. In fact, he only quotes nine words from John’s actual preaching: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Mt. 3:2). It might seem odd that Matthew uses more words telling us about the type of clothes John the Baptist was wearing than he does telling us about the content of John’s message. However, anyone familiar with the Old Testament would find great significance in John’s being garbed in camel’s hair and a leather girdle around his waist — for this is exactly what the great prophet Elijah was known for wearing (cf. 2 Kings 1:8).
This was significant because the Jews had been waiting for Elijah’s return. To understand this, consider the very last prophetic words addressed to Israel in the Old Testament. Malachi was the last prophet sent to Israel, and in his final prophetic utterance, he said Elijah would in some way return to Israel before the time of the Messiah (cf. Mal. 4:5). For centuries after Malachi, the Jewish people waited in silence with no prophet being sent to them (cf. 1 Mac. 9:27; 14:41). These last words about Elijah’s reappearance were left echoing in their ears, as they anticipated the coming of Elijah and the Messiah who would follow after him.
Thus, when John began his ministry dressed with Elijah-styled camel’s hair and leather girdle, this signaled to the Jews that he was playing the part of the returned Elijah. Indeed, Jesus Himself later recognized this, saying “For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John; and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come” (Mt. 11:13-14). Acting as the new Elijah, John the Baptist announced that Malachi’s prophecy was coming to fulfillment and that the time of the Messiah was just around the corner!
But John and Elijah had much more in common than clothing. Both John and Elijah were great prophets. Both challenged evil kings to change their wicked ways, and both were persecuted for doing so. The most striking parallel is the fact that both John and Elijah prepared the way for prophets with even greater ministries than their own. Before Elijah was taken up to heaven, he gave his successor, Elisha, a double portion of his spirit (2 Kings 2:9, 15), which was the launching pad for Elisha’s ministry. Elisha then went on to do even greater things than his predecessor Elijah had done. For example, Elisha miraculously cleansed a leper (2 Kings 5:1-19), raised a child from the dead (2 Kings 4:32-38), and multiplied barley loaves to feed a crowd (2 Kings 4:42-44).
All this, of course, prefigures John the Baptist and Jesus. When John baptized Jesus, Jesus received the Spirit descending upon Him like a dove and this event served as the foundation for His public ministry. Jesus then went on to do even greater works than John the Baptist. Like Elisha, Jesus also cleansed lepers (Mt. 8:2-4), raised a child from the dead (Mt. 9:23-25), and multiplied barley loaves to feed the multitudes (Jn. 6:9-14; cf. Mt. 14:15-21; 15:32-38).
What is most significant is the place where Elijah passed on his prophetic mission to Elisha: the Jordan River (2 Kings 2:6-14). At the Jordan, Elijah transferred his ministry to his successor, Elisha. It was also there that the new Elijah — John the Baptist — passed the baton to Jesus, who then began His public ministry as the new Elisha.
The Messiah’s Arrival
With this background, we can appreciate why John the Baptist would attract such a large following. His baptism ministry at the Jordan instilled hope for a new type of exodus, this time bringing liberation from the Romans. And his appearing like Elijah signaled that Israel’s long-awaited messiah-king was soon to arrive on the scene to lead the people to freedom and restore the kingdom.
Nevertheless, John made it clear that he himself was not the exodus leader. He himself was not the Messiah:
“I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry; he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” (Mt. 3:11).
John viewed himself simply as a predecessor, preparing the way for the Messiah.
But then one day, it happened. The Messiah arrived. “Jesus came forth from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him” (Mt. 3:13). What an amazing encounter that must have been! For John, this meeting meant the culmination of his entire career as the prophet who prepared the people for their king. For Jesus, however, it marked the very beginning of His mission as the Messiah.
Catching the Spirit
Jesus’ baptism can be seen as His anointing as king and His inauguration as Israel’s Messiah.
The word “messiah” (“anointed one” in Hebrew) was often used in the Old Testament to describe the Davidic king who was anointed with oil as he assumed his royal office. The Jews also used the word “messiah” to designate the future anointed king who would carry out the new exodus and restore the Davidic kingdom.
When Jesus comes to the Jordan to be baptized, something happens which would signal to the careful observer that this event marks the beginning of Jesus’ ministry as the hoped-for Messiah:
[T]he heavens were opened and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and alighting on him; and lo, a voice from heaven, saying, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Mt. 3:17).
The Spirit’s descending on Jesus calls to mind how the Spirit fell upon the Jewish kings of the Old Testament when they were anointed. For example, Samuel told Saul that one of the signs that he was truly anointed king was that “the spirit of the LORD will come mightily upon you” (1 Sam. 10:6). Similarly when Samuel anointed David as king, “the Spirit of the LORD came mightily upon David from that day forward (1 Sam. 16:13).
It is not surprising that the Jewish people expected the future messiah-king to receive the Spirit in a similar way. In fact, the prophet Isaiah made this very point when he foretold how the messianic son of David would receive the Spirit upon him as a source of wisdom, understanding, counsel, and might (Is. 11:2). So the Spirit’s coming upon Jesus at the Jordan could be seen as a royal event recalling the anointing of Israel’s great kings, including the Messiah.
The voice from heaven saying, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Mt. 3:17), also has messianic overtones. These words bring to mind an important figure in the Book of Isaiah: the Servant of the Lord, who in some Jewish circles was associated with Israel’s hopes for the Messiah.
Isaiah foretold how God would send this Servant to suffer for Israel’s sins and bring about the blessings of the new covenant (Is. 40-55). God would send His Spirit upon His Servant and rejoice in Him: “Behold my servant . . . in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him” (Is. 42:1). In Matthew 3, the voice from heaven draws from this language of Isaiah, showing how Isaiah’s prophecy is fulfilled in Jesus’ baptism, when the Spirit descends upon Him and the Father declares that He is “well pleased” in Him (Mt. 3:17).
What is significant for our purposes is to see that this coming of the Spirit upon Jesus is Jesus’ anointing. Isaiah himself specifically described the Servant’s reception of the Spirit as an anointing: “The Spirit of the LORD God is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me” (Is. 61:1). And this is how Peter eventually interpreted Jesus’ baptism, saying “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power” (Acts 10:38).
Thus, when Jesus comes out of the Jordan, He comes out as Israel’s royal messiah-king anointed by the Holy Spirit. Now as the truly “anointed one,” Jesus is ready to begin His messianic mission of building the kingdom. Here we can see that the Jordan River in the wilderness certainly was a place of new beginnings!
 Some Jews seem to have interpreted the servant figure in a messianic sense. For example, Zech 3:8 describes the messianic “branch” figure (cf. Is. 11:1; Jer. 23:5; 33:15) as “my servant.” For further commentary, see N.T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996), 588-90.
Questions for Discussion:
- Read Catechism, nos. 1217-22. How was Jesus’ baptism prefigured in the Old Testament? How might this background shed light on the Baptism of Christians in the New Covenant?
- Catechism, no. 1241 describes how we are anointed by the Holy Spirit and incorporated into Christ’s royal mission through Baptism. Why would that be fitting in light of what we’ve learned about Christ’s own baptism?
- Read Catechism, nos. 1265-66. How are some of the gifts which we receive at Baptism reflected in the account of Christ’s baptism at the Jordan?
Reprinted with permission from the January/February 1999 issue of Lay Witness magazine. © 1999 Catholics United for the Faith / www.cuf.org/Laywitness/index.asp
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