River of Return: The New-Covenant Theology of John’s Baptism


ABSTRACT: When John the Baptist appears in the wilderness, baptizing and “proclaiming a baptism of repentance” (Mark 1:4), his ministry may seem novel — and in some ways, it is. At the same time, however, almost every aspect of John’s ministry fulfills Old Testament expectations. His mission fulfills Malachi’s promise of a new Elijah. His call to repentance reaches back to the prophecy and new-covenant promise of Deuteronomy 30. And even his meeting place comes freighted with prophetic significance: by calling Israelites into the wilderness across the Jordan, he calls them to follow a new Joshua through the waters of a new exodus into a new covenant. Since John, baptism has marked a spiritual crossing of the Jordan River, as God’s people pass from the wilderness of exile into the promised land, now citizens of a new kingdom and a new King.

When John the Baptist appears in the wilderness, baptizing and “proclaiming a baptism of repentance” (Mark 1:4), what is he doing? From where did John’s baptism come (Matthew 21:25)? And what does its origin mean for Christians today?

The thesis of this essay is that the meaning of John’s baptism relates to its inspired novelty: namely, John’s baptism prepares a new-covenant people of God for a new exodus and conquest — albeit with escalated and spiritualized aims. Through John’s baptism, a new-covenant people are prepared to follow a new Joshua, or Yeshua, across the River Jordan — very much like the people of Israel when they entered the promised land — as citizens of a new kingdom under a new King, a Son of David. Moreover, because Jesus, the Christ, receives John’s baptism at the inauguration of his ministry and continues the practice throughout his earthly ministry and beyond (John 3:22; 4:2; Matthew 28:19), the meaning of John’s baptism has implications for Christian baptism.

We will explore three aspects of John’s baptism under three headings: the message, the meeting place, and the meaning. Once we sound the meaning of John’s baptism, we will be prepared to comment on the meaning of New Testament baptism.

The Message of John’s Baptism

In the three Synoptic Gospels, John’s ministry of baptism is clearly tied to his proclamation of repentance and the nearness of the kingdom of God. Matthew directly quotes John the Baptist’s message in Matthew 3:2, where he says, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Matthew ties this message explicitly to Isaiah’s new-covenant prophecy by quoting from Isaiah 40:3: John is “the voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord’” (Matthew 3:3). Matthew, a student of Scripture, knows John’s redemptive role. Isaiah 40 is a hinge that marks a turning from the former things under the old covenant to the new things under the new covenant. By hyperlinking, as it were, John’s ministry and message to Isaiah 40, Matthew announces for his readers that the new things have arrived with the arrival of John.

Instead of quoting John’s message, Mark summarizes it in Mark 1:4: “John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” Repentance is central to John the Baptist’s message — a message that, as we will see, is central to the prophetic literature surrounding the “return” or “turn” from exile that initiates the new covenant. Significantly, Jesus himself takes up this message of repentance in his own preaching ministry in Mark 1:15: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel” (cf. Matthew 4:17).

Repentance and “returning” or “turning” are related concepts in the Old and New Testaments. For example, the word translated “repent” in John’s and Jesus’s message is metanoeō, which is used in LXX Isaiah 46:8 to translate the Hebrew word shuv, or “turn” — a word that we will see is extremely significant.

In Luke’s Gospel, we are given further background details to John the Baptist’s ministry, as Luke begins his Gospel with details surrounding John’s conception and birth. An angel is sent to John’s father, Zechariah, with a message about his unborn son’s ministry in Luke 1:16: “He will turn [epistrephō] many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God.” The word translated “turn” here in Luke 1:16 is used 298 times by the LXX to translate the Hebrew word shuv, “turn” or “return.”

John’s baptism is further substantiated as a message of “turning” and “repentance” when Luke summarizes John’s baptism as a “baptism of repentance” in Luke 3:3 and again in Acts 19:4. Luke goes on to connect John’s ministry to Isaiah with a quote from Isaiah 40 (Luke 3:4–6), just as the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and John do.

Message of Return in Deuteronomy 30

From these passages, it is clear that “repentance” or “turning” is a significant element to John’s message and ministry of baptism. What can we conclude from this? Significantly, this same language of “turning” and “return” is used in a prominent place in the book of Deuteronomy, in arguably the Torah’s most explicit new-covenant passage. In fact, the angel’s words to Zechariah in Luke 1:16 almost certainly echo Deuteronomy 30:2.

Luke 1:16: “He will turn [epistrepho + epi] many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God.”
Deuteronomy 30:2: “Return [epistrepho + epi] to the Lord your God, you and your children.”

In Deuteronomy 30:1–10, the Hebrew word shuv — which the Brown-Driver-Briggs lexicon glosses as “turn back, return” — occurs seven times.1 In context, Deuteronomy 30 is a record of Moses’s words to a new generation that has replaced the faithless wilderness generation. The book of Deuteronomy is a covenant renewal. But Moses predicts the dire future of this covenant in Deuteronomy 28–29: the people will enter the land, they will disobey the covenant, and they will be exiled.

Deuteronomy 28–29 becomes programmatic for the history of Israel in the land. All that Moses says will happen in these chapters comes true as Israel’s history unfolds. But Moses does not leave them without hope. In Deuteronomy 30, Moses says that “when all these things come upon you,” and the people call (shuv) these words to mind (verse 1), and the people and their children return (shuv) to the Lord (verse 2), then the Lord will restore (shuv) them and gather them again (shuv) from exile (verse 3). Then the people will again (shuv) obey the Lord and keep his commands (verse 8), and the Lord will again (shuv) delight in them (verse 9), when they turn (shuv) to the Lord with all their heart and soul (verse 10).

“John’s baptism prepares a new-covenant people of God for a new exodus and conquest.”

Significantly, it is in Deuteronomy 30:6, the heart of this passage, where we find the theme of heart renovation, or heart circumcision, which is a significant component of the new covenant: “The Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live.” The prophet Jeremiah picks up this theme of heart renovation in his new-covenant prophecy in Jeremiah 31:33, which builds on Moses’s prophecy in Deuteronomy 30.

Message of Return in the Prophets

As I argue in my book In Your Mouth and In Your Heart,2 Deuteronomy 30 is a wellspring that later biblical authors return to again and again in their Spirit-inspired expositions and developments of new-covenant promises and messianic hopes. A few examples of this will have to suffice.

In the first chapter of the book of Isaiah, the prophet announces coming judgment against Israel because of their continual disobedience to the covenant. But as in Deuteronomy, this note of judgment comes with a promise of redemption. Though God will turn his hand against them, “Zion shall be redeemed by justice, and those in her who repent [shuv], by righteousness” (Isaiah 1:27). Who will announce this coming righteousness? The one who, according to Isaiah 40:3, cries out “in the wilderness” — or perhaps, according to some interpretations, “prepares a way in the wilderness” — for the Lord. And the Lord comes with a promise: “I have blotted out your transgressions like a cloud and your sins like mist; return [shuv] to me, for I have redeemed you” (Isaiah 44:22).

The theme of “turning” and “returning” is a major thread through the Minor Prophets, or the Book of the Twelve (see Hosea 6:1–2 as one example), which includes the following expectant words of Malachi the prophet before God’s special revelation goes dark for centuries — until, that is, the world sees a great Light:

Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. And he will turn [shuv] the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction. (Malachi 4:5–6)

It is no coincidence, then, that the first word of John the Baptist’s message is “Repent!” “Turn!” And his baptism is a baptism of repentance. Why? For the new covenant has arrived; the kingdom of heaven is at hand — the King is here.

The Meeting Place of John’s Baptism

Almost as significant as John the Baptist’s message is his chosen meeting place. Where does John the Baptist choose to proclaim his message of repentance for the forgiveness of sins and the announcement of the coming kingdom and King? He could have gone many places to find water. He could have stayed in the land of Israel, perhaps at the Sea of Galilee. But instead, John goes across the Jordan, outside the historical boundaries of the promised land, to the wilderness, much like some of the messianic pretenders of his day were doing.3

Why is John in the wilderness, baptizing in the Jordan River? The prophets are replete with possible reasons. Considered together, I believe these texts form a formidable rationale and theological explanation for John’s wilderness ministry of baptism. As we will see, they also have implications for Christian baptism.

The most obvious prophetic background to John the Baptist’s ministry comes from Isaiah 40, which, as we have already seen, every one of the Gospel writers notes. But the book of Isaiah contains several other textual backdrops to John’s baptismal ministry in the wilderness.

Right before Jesus preaches his message of repentance in Matthew 4:17, Matthew quotes Isaiah 9:1–2, saying, “The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles — the people dwelling in darkness have seen a great light” (Matthew 4:15–16). This phrase in Isaiah 9:1, “the land beyond the Jordan,” is cited in relation to the land of Israel, which means it is the land opposite the promised land, in the wilderness, that “he has made glorious.” Significantly, John 1:28 uses the same language to describe where John was baptizing, “across the Jordan,” in the wilderness.

From the Wilderness to the Jordan

In fact, Isaiah’s entire new-covenant program seems predicated around a wilderness sojourn. We will pick up this thread in Isaiah 43. Many scholars have noted the new-covenant turn that Isaiah 40 and following takes — what Brevard Childs refers to as the “new things,” in contrast to the “old things” of chapters 1 through 39 — and chapter 43 is no exception.4

The whole chapter deserves quotation, but we must be selective. Isaiah 43 begins with a promise of God’s redemption in verse 1, and then a promise of God’s protection in verse 2: “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you.” Here we have latent baptismal language (cf. 1 Peter 3:21): God promises to be with his people when they are in the midst of the waters and to see them safely to the other side. Isaiah is clearly invoking exodus imagery, which itself is an echo of the waters of the salvation through judgment in Noah’s flood.5 God promises to be with his people just as he was when they passed through the midst of the Red Sea (Exodus 14). But the mention of rivers in Isaiah 43:2 suggests also Israel’s crossing the Jordan River (Joshua 3), a reference Isaiah amplifies a few verses later.

In Isaiah 43:5–7, God promises to bring his people from the east, the west, the north, and the end of the earth — “everyone who is called by my name.” In these verses, Isaiah describes Israel’s redemption as a return from exile, an ingathering from the nations, using the cardinal directions much as Psalm 107 does, which opens book 5 of the Psalter — the book sometimes called the “Book of Redemption.” The new covenant involves a new (re)turn.

Isaiah 43:16–17 picks up the exodus imagery and develops the theme of passing through the waters on the way of redemption or return. Then comes an explicit mention of the “new thing” God promises to do:

Remember not the former things,
     nor consider the things of old.
Behold, I am doing a new thing;
     now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness
     and rivers in the desert.
The wild beasts will honor me,
     the jackals and the ostriches,
for I give water in the wilderness,
     rivers in the desert,
to give drink to my chosen people,
     the people whom I formed for myself
that they might declare my praise. (verses 18–21)

The wilderness theme in Isaiah 43 is invoked in part due to the exilic imagery and the return journey of the people of God, through the deserts, on the way to the promised land. But the journey intentionally channels the one God’s people took in their exodus out of Egypt — a journey that brought them through the midst of the Red Sea into the wilderness, only to camp on the “other side of the Jordan” and await another crossing, another passing through the midst of waters, on their way to inherit the promised land.

Importantly, the Law and the Prophets are negative in their assessment of this first journey and inheritance: the people became undeserving and the land spit them out (cf. Leviticus 18:28; Deuteronomy 28:15–68; Jeremiah 25:11–12). But the Prophets also tell of a day when the people will once again inherit the land — a new kingdom — after a wilderness exile (Jeremiah 29:10–14; Isaiah 40:1–11; Daniel 9:24–27).

Is it not reasonable, then, to expect this new “return” to come with yet another crossing of the River Jordan from the wilderness?

New Exodus, New Return

This new wilderness sojourn as part of the beginning of a “return” to the promised land is reinforced in polyphonic harmony when we bring in other prophetic witnesses. In Ezekiel 20, the prophet speaks of the “return” or “restoration” of Israel that God has promised, even in spite of their current exilic judgment. In verses 33–35, Ezekiel says that this program will include a going out from their current dwelling places, a wilderness gathering, and a coronation with God as King:

As I live, declares the Lord God, surely with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm and with wrath poured out I will be king over you. I will bring you out from the peoples and gather you out of the countries where you are scattered, with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, and with wrath poured out. And I will bring you into the wilderness of the peoples, and there I will enter into judgment with you face to face.

This wilderness gathering is compared to the wilderness gathering of the exodus generation in verse 36, and it precedes a promise of a new covenant, “I will make you pass under the rod, and I will bring you into the bond of the covenant” (verse 37), and a new entrance into the land, “You shall know that I am the Lord, when I bring you into the land of Israel, the country that I swore to give to your fathers” (verse 42).

Historically speaking, the Scriptures do not record a covenant renewal or covenant establishment “in the wilderness” in the generations that returned to the land during the ministries of Ezra and Nehemiah and after. Instead, the New Testament authors appear to assume that the foundation of this covenant promise is inaugurated with the new-covenant ministry of Jesus, whose way is prepared by the baptism of John “in the wilderness.”

A final prophetic witness provides one more reason to pay attention to the meeting place of John’s baptism in order to grasp its theological meaning. Hosea speaks of the Lord’s tenderness toward his unfaithful people in Hosea 2:14: “Behold, I will allure her, and bring her into the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her.” Later in the book, in Hosea 6:1–2, the prophet issues a clear call to God’s people to “turn” that they might be healed in the midst of their sinfulness.

The meeting place of the Jordan River becomes especially intriguing when we consider the New Testament’s testimony that John the Baptist is the Elijah to come, as promised by the prophet Malachi (Malachi 4:5–6). Where in the Scriptures do we see Elijah at the Jordan River? In 2 Kings 2:6–8, Elijah “prepares the way” for Elisha by parting the waters of the Jordan to cross to the other side — something Elisha himself does on the way back, entering into the land of promise through the waters of the Jordan (2 Kings 2:13–14).

It would seem, then, that John’s baptismal ministry and message of “repentance” or “return” is not just an individual call — although it most certainly is that — but also a programmatic call that initiates a new exodus and new return under a new Joshua who is King of a new kingdom.

The Meaning of John’s Baptism

If the several canonical threads regarding the message and meeting place of John’s baptismal ministry have been sufficiently established, then we are ready to explore a few biblical-theological possibilities for the meaning of John’s baptism, which have implications for Christian baptism.

The apostle Paul clearly connects baptism to the exodus crossing of the Red Sea:

I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. (1 Corinthians 10:1–4)

But John comes baptizing not in the Red Sea, but in the River Jordan, proclaiming his preparatory prophetic message of repentance to God’s people, the same message given to Hosea and the other prophets: “Return to the Lord.” How are the people supposed to respond to John’s message? By leaving the promised land and joining him in the wilderness, they acted out a confession of their covenantal disobedience and unworthiness to be in the land — Ezekiel said God would enter into covenant with them in the wilderness — so that God’s people might return again to the land as citizens of the kingdom of God under a new and rightful king.

This is what John is doing, baptizing across the Jordan in the wilderness. He is preparing a people for a new exodus, or return, to the promised land under a new Joshua, crying out in the Spirit of Elijah, “Repent! (Return! Turn!) For the kingdom of God is at hand!” Where is this kingdom? Who is this king? He is the one called Yeshua, Salvation, who bears the name of another who parted the waters of the Jordan ahead of the people entering the promised land.

How does all of the foregoing relate to Christian baptism, especially the explicit teaching in Romans 6 that baptism symbolizes the Christian’s union with Christ? Romans 6:3–11 makes clear that Christian baptism has at its theological center our blessed union with Christ by faith in his death, burial, and resurrection. The very act of water immersion signifies a burial in the waters of God’s judgment, having died to sin and put to death the old man in Christ — these waters that are typified by the great flood and the Red Sea and even the Jordan River. And when the baptized emerges from these waters, this signifies his resurrection to new life — life as a new man, a new creation, in Christ by faith (2 Corinthians 5:17).

But when Jesus received John’s baptism at the Jordan River, it became Christian baptism, and he and his disciples continued the practice during Jesus’s earthly ministry and beyond (John 3:22; 4:2; Matthew 28:19; Acts 2:38). Those who did not receive this baptism as Christian baptism, but only as John’s baptism, had to receive the true sign of which the Holy Spirit is the seal (Acts 19:1–7).

In fact, when Paul encounters some disciples who had not heard of the Holy Spirit, he seems to fault them for not understanding John’s baptism, which they had received. In Acts 19:3, Paul asks them, “Into what then were you baptized?” They answer, “Into John’s baptism.” Paul’s response is instructive: “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, Jesus” (Acts 19:4). In other words, if John’s baptism is received as Christian baptism — baptism into Christ — then it is true baptism.

In this way, it seems proper to understand New Testament baptism as a continuation of what John began and Jesus received in the wilderness, beyond the Jordan River. I do not think it is a coincidence, then, that John 1:28 says, “These things took place in Bethany across the Jordan, where John was baptizing.” Perhaps John chose this site intentionally, as the place where Israel would have camped and even crossed into Canaan as they prepared to enter the land, first coming to the city of Jericho, not far across the way from where John began his baptismal ministry.

With John in the Jordan

It has been tradition for many Baptist churches to have a mural of the River Jordan painted over their baptismal. If the texts and implications in this exploration hold together, this imagery rightly offers at least a partial understanding of the meaning and origins of both John’s baptism and Christian baptism.

We too have crossed the River Jordan, being put under the waters of judgment, following the new Joshua in a new exodus under a new covenant, and by faith in him we have at least begun to enter the promised land as citizens of a new kingdom and a new King. God has caused us to return, to repent, for the kingdom of God is near — indeed, it is at hand, and though we are sojourners, we are no longer in the wilderness. We are citizens of the kingdom of heaven.

Scroll to top