In this chapter we read about John the Baptist and his preparation for the coming Messiah and we read about Jesus coming to the river to be consecrated at the start of his ministry. From our Western, gentile perspective we see John holding his penitents and dunking them in the river to wash away their sins. It is what we have seen and our experience becomes our vision of events in the New Testament. Unfortunately, when this happens we miss out on a rich understanding of what is really occurring at this moment in the story.
If we lay aside our contemporary experience and return to the first century we find that "baptism" is not what we picture. John was a Jew, Jesus was a Jew. Their viewpoints and expression of their faith would have uniquely Jewish. Many are surprised to learn that baptism simply means immersion. It is a Greek word for something that doesn't translate well from the Hebrew--Mikvah.
Mikvah was a common ritual at the time of Christ, and for many Orthodox Jews remains so today. There is a daily mikvah practiced by some before morning prayers, a weekly mikvah before the sabbath, and a monthly mikvah for women following their time of separation. Apart from these calendar-based mikvahs were special times of consecration for individuals as well as objects. In the context of this chapter, John was calling people to repent of their sins and undergo a mikvah for consecration following repentance. According to common practice, John would never have touched those coming to the waters, but simply stood as a witness to their self-immersion as an act of renewed commitment to hear and obey God's word.
In the tradition of mikvah washing, an individual will remove everything, even dead skin and extra fingernail and toenail length so that the water will touch every part of their body. The individual is not coming for physical cleansing, in fact that is done prior to entering the mikvah. Instead it is an invitation to the divine to touch every part of a person's life. It is a surrender to the divine will and a laying down of self. It is a renewed commitment and consecration to be set apart for the purposes of God.
As Jesus comes, John naturally protests, knowing that Jesus is not in need of repentance and so says that in reality, Jesus should be the one witnessing John's mikvah, not the other way around. Jesus responds that it is necessary to fulfill all righteousness. There is another mikvah, that of priests before they serve in the temple. Jesus, by observing this tradition and consecrating himself, prepares for his earthly and eternal ministry as our High Priest. And something wonderful happens as Jesus observes this earthly ritual, God sends his Spirit as a dove and surrounds him with his presence and utters "This is my son, whom I love, with him I am well pleased." As Jesus completes his earthly mikvah, God pours out his Spirit in a heavenly mikvah.
As Friends we do not have an earthly baptism tradition to uphold. Instead we focus on the internal, spiritual washing of a person's soul. I encourage you to seek this internal mikvah. Surrender yourself to the divine will and allow him to wash over you with his Spirit. But know that those who came for physical mikvah without having first repented were called out by John to be a "brood of vipers." God is not fooled by outward signs and rituals. He sees our hearts. Come to him as a penitent, having repented of your weakness and inability to attain perfection on your own. Then you may be washed and consecrated for his purpose.
**For more information on the tradition of Mikvah, follow the link.