Easter Significance of the Jordan River Baptism of Jesus

The ancient stories of Jesus of Nazareth as told by the Gospels are rich with meaning and depth we often overlook in our times. 

As the Easter season for 2017 quickly approaches, I hope to post a few articles to enrich the reader’s understanding of the Gospels that are often overlooked by traditional church pulpits. 

To be sure, I’ll strive to make them brief, bold and accurate in their meaning without bogging the reader with detail. 

Today, I will start with the significance of the Jordan River, the place where Jesus of Nazareth was baptized and, perhaps, is the inagurable event of his public ministry.

Clearly, out of all the bodies of water in the ancient Palestine region, this river would be significant because this is where the founder of Christianity was baptized, a religious ritual, or sacrament, still practiced today by all those who profess to follow Jesus. 

The word, “Jordan,” is derived from several ancient Semitic words which ultimately mean, “descending one,” and “the one who judges.”

It is possible that this word is intended to have double or multiple meanings. This is not unusual for Hebrew words or Jewish authors, even in their written Greek narratives, whether you are talking about words or conceptual material such as prophecy.

Some ancient cultures had the practice of throwing merely suspected criminals into roaring rapids of water in order to “judge” the suspect of a crime. Survival would have meant acquittal.

So there is a significant meaning here in the word “Jordan,” tied to a legal process and transaction, between a criminal, or at least a suspect, the community or victim offended and “the judge.”

The very act of this brings thoughts of “purification” or a “purging” of crimes or charges. Judgement carries a negative connotation in much of Western culture even though it is played out daily in our judicial system. Judgement factors significantly in the character and nature of the biblical God and certainly the Gospels.

God reveals his heart (Exodus 34.4-7) about judgement to Moses and the ancient Israelites as they were being given the laws of God after exiting Egypt:

“Moses cut out two tablets of stone like the first; early in the morning he went up to Mount Sinai, just as the Lord had commanded him, and he took in his hand the two tablets of stone.

The Lord descended in the cloud and stood with him there and proclaimed the Lord by name.

The Lord passed by before him and proclaimed: “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, and abounding in loyal love and faithfulness, keeping loyal love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin. But he by no means leaves the guilty unpunished, responding to the transgression of fathers by dealing with children and children’s children, to the third and fourth generation.”

Next, it is important to know that the Jordan River feeds and passes through a large lake in the northern region of Israel. Today, as in Jesus’ day, it is known as the Sea of Galilee. 

In the Old Testament or Hebrew Scripture times, this lake was known as the Sea of Kinneret, which means, “harp,” as in the musical instrument. As you can see in the picture below, or on most maps, it is shaped similar to a harp. 

Galilee, or Kinneret, is the area Jesus is from and began his ministry and recruited his first disciples there.

He was baptized closer to the south end of this “sea.” It is the opposite end of Israel where the highest authorities of Judaism resided, in Jerusalem, the location of the temple.

In some ancient mythologies, the musical instrument, “harp,” was a sign for the presence of God. Today, we often see holiday cards with angels playing harps as they fly about. 

So we have another completed picture beginning to take shape in our minds as we look at the fuller context of the meaning of the word “Jordan” within the broader area of Galilee and ancient Israel. 

Specifically, the flowing, or “descending” waters of the “judgement” pass through the presence of God.

Most of us would not know by reading the Gospels that this Jordan River flows down or “descends” towards the opposite end of Israel into the “Dead Sea.”

This other small lake is called “Dead” because it’s quite challenging to keep much alive in it. It is filled with high levels of salt and minerals and, historically, did not have much water flowing out of it.

So, we have another completed image of great significance of what is taking place with the baptism of Jesus and the Jordan River. The waters of “judgement,” pass through the presence of God (“Kinneret” = harp = God’s presence), they “descend” down to “death” (the Dead Sea).

So much imagery here and I am still just scratching the surface of the meaning. Yet, we cannot pass by the Gospel writers who point out that the Spirit of God “descended” upon Jesus as a dove. 

Here’s what I believe is being conveyed on an esoteric level pointing to reality:

The constant flowing waters of judgement pass through the presence of God and they lead to death and as Jesus is submerged completely under them (literally, “baptized”) by the hands of someone else (John is foreshadowing the hands of God upon Jesus in the death and resurrection signifying the intent all along), he will be raised up by someone else’s powerful hands to new life and be awarded with God’s affirming presence and favor upon him.

In Matthew’s Gospel, we are told John the Baptist resisted at first baptizing Jesus. It seems John sensed the gravity of the situation, maybe not fully though. But Jesus did say he must be baptized in order to fulfill all righteousness. 

The baptism of Jesus is a foreshadowing of his life in the few years that follow this event. It is prophetic. It fortells what would happen that very first Easter or “resurrection” Sunday. For those that follow Jesus reflecting back on his life and commands, it is prophetic of their life at the same time.

The Apostle Paul, a Jewish legal expert and member of the Pharisees and Sanhedrin would comment years later on the life of Jesus:

“And he died for all so that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised. So then from now on we acknowledge no one from an outward human point of view. Even though we have known Christ from such a human point of view, now we do not know him in that way any longer.

So then, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; what is old has passed away—look, what is new has come! And all these things are from God who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and who has given us the ministry of reconciliation. In other words, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting people’s trespasses against them, and he has given us the message of reconciliation.

Therefore we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were making His plea through us. We plead with you on Christ’s behalf, “Be reconciled to God!” God made the one who did not know sin to be sin for us, so that in him we would become the righteousness of God.”

 

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