The Baptism of John from a Jewish Perspective, Part 1

The Baptism of John

By Tov Rose

Why was John considered a prophet and what does this have to do with Baptism?

There are many misconceptions about Baptism of the believer. Some teach that Baptism is simply and outward expression of the internal spiritual commitment. Others teach that it is a requirement, a sacrament. While all of these may be true, there is a background story that is rarely taught, understood and mostly unknown to most pastors.

You may have heard that John’s baptism was for repentance alone, and this is true. However, what is missing from this simple description is the purpose and history of that specific form of baptism John was practicing and the authority, which he carried in Israel.

John’s Father

You might be familiar with his father’s story in Luke 1:5 “There was in the days of Herod, the king of Judaea, a certain priest named Zechariah, of the course of Abia: and his wife was of the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elisabeth.”

There are some very important points expressed in this rather short verse!

1.       The name and location of the king give us the general time period

2.       It specifically notes that Zechariah was a priest, which is an inherited office from father to son

3.       The Course of Aviah is mentioned, which tells us specifically what time of year Zechariah was required to serve as priest in the Temple and for how long.

4.       His wife is listed as also being a daughter of Aaron (Zechariah had to be a son of Aaron, or he couldn’t be a priest).

The next verse states something very unusual in scripture, “6And they were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless,” reflecting the theme of Matthew -7:17-18 that they were good trees producing good fruit at a time when the High Priesthood was literally bought and paid for, or appointed by the pagan king.

In Luke 1:8-10 it further says, “Now while he was serving as priest before God when his division was on duty, according to the custom of the priesthood, he was chosen by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense. 10 And the whole multitude of the people were praying outside at the hour of incense.

Combined with Luke 1:5, this tells us specifically which day of the year Zechariah was in the Temple: The Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur). It was the one day of the year that the High Priest of Israel entered the Holy of Holies in the Temple to offer the sin sacrifice for all of the people of Israel. Zechariah was preparing the Holy of Holies, filling it with Incense prior to the High Priest’s entering in!

Yet there is even more to the story…

In those days the High Priest was appointed as a political office. Another way of saying this is that God did not recognize the political office as being legitimate, because he was not selected in the way prescribed by God in the Bible. How can I say this? What I mean is that there was an appointed High Priest, and then there was the one who was supposed to have been God’s High Priest.

If the succession for the High Priest office was unclear it was the tradition to cast lots (throw the dice), to see whom God wanted to take the office. The disciples of Jesus followed the same tradition in Acts 1:15-26 in choosing a replacement for Judas who had betrayed Jesus to the illegitimate High Priest.

According to Luke 1:8-10 this is precisely what happened with Zechariah: He was chosen by lot. To put this another way, if the Illegitimate High Priest died in the presence of God, Zechariah was runner up to take his place and offer the sacrifice in the Holy of Holies before God. Or, to put it yet another way, Zechariah was chosen by God to be the Legitimate High Priest of Israel.This is confirmed by the simple fact of an Angel actually showing up and speaking to him about his future son, the future legitimate High Priest of Israel—John the Baptist. 

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