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What at the River was John Doing?

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What at the River was John Doing?

What specifically had the Pharisees, [1] priests and Levites, [2] been watching?  They saw people coming to a man called John and, being Old Testament scholars, they identified John’s actions as baptism.  Equally important, their Old Testament frame of reference associated that baptism with the Christ (Messiah), Elijah, and the Prophet:

“Then why are you baptizing, if you are neither the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?” [3]

When we identify this association in the Old Testament, we have the foundation to understand the Jewish leaders’ preconception of baptism vis-a-vis “the Christ” (Messiah), “Elijah,” and “the Prophet.”

The Christ (Messiah)

The Ethiopian eunuch, treasurer of the queen, was reading aloud from the scroll of the prophecy of Isaiah (chapter 53) when Philip, sent by the angel of the Lord, ran up to his chariot.  The Ethiopian welcomed Philip and asked for identification of the person whose sufferings are the subject of the prophecy.  Philip, one of the Twelve, and notable for his in-depth knowledge of the Hebrew Law and the Prophets, [4] proceeded to tell him the good news about Jesus beginning with Isaiah 53:7-8.  When they came to some water along the road, the Ethiopian requested baptism. Isaiah 52:15 states: “. . . so shall he sprinkle [Hebrew=naza] many nations.”  Every other employment of the Hebrew naza in the Old Testament clearly means “sprinkle” and is so rendered in the English versions.  Philip certainly knew the meaning of that Hebrew word as he proceeded with the baptism of his new Ethiopian Christian brother before being transported away by the Spirit of the Lord. [5]

Numbers 19 repeatedly identifies “sprinkling” as the prescribed mode of ritual wash in the Old Testament.  The Greek word in Hebrews 9:10 designating those ceremonial “washings” [6] is transliterated baptismois.  Consistent with this, Hebrews 10:22 admonishes professing Christians: “. . . let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.”


1 Kings 18:33-35 describes Elijah’s baptism of the slain bull offered as a sacrifice in the contest with the prophets of Baal. [7]  Elijah ordered that four jars be filled with water and then poured on the burnt offering and on the wood three times.  Significantly, Malachi prophesied that the LORD would send Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes.” [8]   In reference to John the Baptizer, Jesus stated, “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.  He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” [9]

The Southern Baptist Encyclopedia identifies Ezekiel 36:25 as the “closest prototype of John’s meaning of baptism among the prophetic utterances.” his verse reads, “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you.”  Accordingly, it also depicts the physical action which the Pharisees and priests and Levites would have undoubtedly observed at the Jordan River at the hand of John the Baptizer.

Other Old Testament references to affusion (sprinkling or pouring) include: Proverbs 1:23; Isaiah 44:3; Joel 2:28-29; Zechariah 12:10; and Malachi 3:10.

The Prophet

The apostle Paul, who described himself as formerly a “Hebrew of Hebrews,” and “as to the law, a Pharisee,” [11] knew that, Scripturally speaking, the Red Sea crossing by Moses and the nation of Israel (which he designated by the Greek verb baptizo) was a “baptism” [12] “on dry ground.” [13]  This fact elucidates (1) the initial question of this article: “What at the river was John doing?” and (2) the reason the Pharisees, priests, and Levites suspected that John might be “the Prophet.”   For if Moses had officiated at a baptism “on dry ground,” then  (in their mind) John the Baptizer might well have been “the Prophet” who was like Moses, particularly, of course, if they saw him administering that baptism “on dry ground”!  Indeed God had promised Moses:

I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers.  And I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him.  And whoever will not listen to my words that he shall speak in my name, I myself will require it of him. [14]

John the Baptizer, however, disclaimed any identity as “the Prophet.”  We know the true identity of “the Prophet” from the book of Acts, the Transfiguration event, and many passages in John’s Gospel. [15]  The Prophet “like” Moses is none other than Jesus the Christ who himself would not baptize with water [16] but with the Holy Spirit. [17]

The New Testament & Early Christian Art

Turning to the New Testament, it is noteworthy that the baptism of the disciples with the Holy Spirit is described as an outpouring and a coming upon, just as the Spirit descended upon Jesus at his water baptism.  [18]  Though the spotless Lamb of God, Jesus of Nazareth, submitted to the baptismal water of cleansing at the River Jordan “in order to fulfill all righteousness.” [19]  Earliest Christian art, one picture dating to the life of the apostle John, depicted Jesus in a standing position as John the Baptizer poured the water upon him. [20]

How does waj the bter baptism, accordingly, identify the believer with Christ’s burial depicted in Romans 6:3-4 and Colossians 2:12?  According to standard Jewish practice, bodies were washed with water in preparation for burial. [21]

We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. [22]

That Jewish custom exemplified in the washing of Dorcas’ body is sufficient to account for Paul’s associating baptism with Jesus’ burial. An open identification with Christ in triune baptism represents the death and burial of the old nature; and vivification through a public establishment of a radical union with Christ [23] and, through Him, with the Father and the Holy Spirit.

For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.  We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. [24]



[1]. John 1:24

[2]. John 1:19

[3]. John 1:25

[4] John 1:45

[5] Acts 8:26-39

[6] English Standard Version

[7].I Kings 18:33-35

[8]. Malachi 4:5

[9]. Matt. 11:13-15

[10]. T. C. Smith, “Baptism.” Encyclopedia of Southern Baptists, 107

[11]. Phil. 3:5

[12]. 1 Cor. 10:1-2

[13]. Exod. 14:29

[14]. Deut. 18:18-19 italics mine

[15]. Acts 3:22-23; Acts 7:37; Matt. 17:1-8; John 4:25-26;8:28;12:49,50; 17:8

[16]. John 4:2

[17]. Matt. 3:11; Mark 1:7-8; Luke 3:16: John 1:32-34

[18]. Luke 3:21-22; Acts 1:5; 2:33; 10:44-45

[19]. Mat. 3:13-15

[20]. W. A. Swift, Why Baptize by Pouring and Baptize Babies; See chapter 10 “Depictions on Catacomb Walls” in David C. Brand’s Thinking About Baptism.

[21]. Acts 9:37

[22]. Rom. 6:4

[23]. Rom. 10:9-10

[24]. Rom. 6:5-6



Brand, David C. 2000. Thinking About Baptism. 2005 Revision of former published title: The Apostolic Mode of Baptism. DCB Communications, 855 Thorne Ave., Wooster, OH 44691

Holy Bible, The (English Standard Version) 2001. Wheaton, Il: Crossway Bibles.

Keil & Delitzsch n.d. Old Testament Commentaries, Grand Rapids: Associated Publishers and Authors, Inc.

Smith, T. C. 1958. “Baptism.” Encyclopedia of Southern Baptists. Managing Editor, Norman Wade Cox. Vol. 1. Nashville: Broadman Press.

Swift, W. A. n.d. Why Baptize by Pouring and Baptize Babies. Monteagle, TN: W. A. Swift.


About the Writer

David Clark Brand is a retired pastor and educator with missionary experience

in Korea and Arizona. He and his wife reside in Ohio. They have four grown children

and seven grandchildren. With a B.A. in the Liberal Arts, an M. Div., and a Th.M. in

Church History, Dave continues to enjoy study and writing. One of his books, a

contextual study of the life and thought of Jonathan Edwards, was published by the

American Academy of Religion via Scholars Press in Atlanta


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