(Mat 3:3-6 ESV) 3 For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when he said, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight.'” 4 Now John wore a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. 5 Then Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him, 6 and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
Matthew explains that John fulfilled the prophecy of one sent by God to prepare the way for the Messiah. He also explains that John wore the same clothes as Elijah and prophesied at the Jordan River — also associated with Elijah.
To the Eastern mind, symbolic actions are often more important than spoken words. John spoke through his clothing and ministry. If he imitated Elijah, then Judea today must be much like the Israel of Elijah. Herod would be akin to Ahab. The Jews would be akin to the Israelites of Elijah’s day — nearly all of whom refused to follow God, preferring Baal. The priests must be like the priests of Baal — false prophets! Why else would a true prophet prefer the wilderness to Jerusalem? Why insist that the people go out to him? Jeremiah prophesied in Jerusalem, even the palace. Why the wilderness?
Because Exodus is never far the minds of the NT characters. The Jews in the wilderness had to either follow God into the Promised Land or die in the desert. They had to either cross the Jordan to join in the victory or else stay behind and die. The wilderness is where the faithless, unrepentant died and were buried.
But the Israelites of faith crossed the river, and so baptism symbolized faith to follow God.
Of course, proselytes were also baptized, and so baptism symbolized the need to re-enter the elect, the inadequacy of merely being a descendant of Abraham.
But proselyte baptism and the washings of the Torah were all unilateral acts. You baptized yourself. You walked down into the mitzvah and then walked out. John’s baptism was passive. It was a washing received. That is, it was a gift from God, not something done for yourself.
Notice that in Acts repentance is spoken of as something “granted” by God (Acts 5:31; 11:18). How do you give repentance? Well, by relenting from the curses of Deu 28, ending the Exile, bringing the Kingdom, and allowing Israel to come in by repentance (Acts 5:31), and then letting the Gentiles enter by the same means (Acts 11:18).
God is not required to forgive those who repent. But he has chosen this time as the time to end the Exile, bring the Kingdom, and open the doorway of repentance.
Confession of sins is likely borrowed from Lev 26. This chapter begins with curses on the Israelites should they rebel against God. For example —
(Lev 26:14-17 ESV) “But if you will not listen to me and will not do all these commandments, 15 if you spurn my statutes, and if your soul abhors my rules, so that you will not do all my commandments, but break my covenant, 16 then I will do this to you: I will visit you with panic, with wasting disease and fever that consume the eyes and make the heart ache. And you shall sow your seed in vain, for your enemies shall eat it. 17 I will set my face against you, and you shall be struck down before your enemies. Those who hate you shall rule over you, and you shall flee when none pursues you.”
But as in Deu 28-30, God provides a path to end the curses and be restored —
(Lev 26:40-42 ESV) “But if they confess their iniquity and the iniquity of their fathers in their treachery that they committed against me, and also in walking contrary to me, 41 so that I walked contrary to them and brought them into the land of their enemies — if then their uncircumcised heart is humbled and they make amends for their iniquity, 42 then I will remember my covenant with Jacob, and I will remember my covenant with Isaac and my covenant with Abraham, and I will remember the land.”
In other words, the cure for being under the curse of God — as a nation — is confession of sin.
However, we see John calling the people to confession one person at a time. Although John’s ministry is a call to the entire nation to confess — after all, the curses were visited on the entire nation — he gladly accepted confession one at a time. And in response to confession, he immerses the Jews who’ve humbled themselves recognizing the need for restoration and forgiveness, rather than relying on their inheritance from Abraham.
So baptism seems to be about, among other things, humility. Indeed, the fact that baptism is received rather than self-performed, unlike the baptisms of the Essenes, for proselytes, or OT washings, suggests that the confessing Jew must submit to the will of the prophet. Unlike the uncleanness of touching a corpse or the wrong kind of animal, the sinner cannot cleanse himself. He must request baptism. He must ask to be forgiven.
Forgiveness is, of course, freely granted, but it’s not an entitlement. There’s no right to be forgiven. Rather, it’s a gracious grant from God given those those to whom he has decided to show his favor. And John portends a change from Jews only to the entire world.