No one accidentally walks 70 miles … why was John at the baptism of Jesus?

Blog baptism photo

If you’re a systematic reader of the Bible, there’s certainly nothing unusual about coming to the passage covering the baptism of Jesus.

Ask people to name the Top Ten events of Jesus’ life, his baptism in the River Jordan is a sure bet to make the short list.

So here’s my question. Why were so many of the young men destined to become disciples there to see it?

No matter where the baptism was held, James, John, Andrew and Simon were all many miles away from home. If Jesus was baptized near Jericho – as the Gospel of John indicates[1] – then those young fishermen were roughly 70 miles from home!

The best answer? They had come to Jerusalem for one of the festivals and were returning home when they met Jesus.

This is another example of how the land can give us key insights to familiar passages of the Bible.

John the Baptizer came out of the wilderness and was calling people to repentance very near the Qumran Community. The “Essenes” who lived in Qumran were radically committed to spiritual renewal and purity of faith. Though John wasn’t part of the Essene movement, he was very much cut from the same cloth.

John was part of a movement that believed the Messiah would come if only enough of God’s people would become radically committed to repentance and purity. He even explained his reason for baptizing the masses as a way of preparing the way for the Messiah.[2] How cool is it that Jesus chose that location to announce his ministry? But that’s another story for another day.

The most logical place for where John was baptizing was very near the intersection of roads traveling pilgrims would have taken. Young men passionate enough to walk 90 miles to attend one of the festivals in Jerusalem might have very naturally been curious enough about the new prophet to have detoured a short distance to visit the river.

We know they were on their way home because the next day they returned to the Galilee with Jesus.[3] They also had met Jesus at 4 p.m., which would have given them enough time to make the 18-mile, downhill journey from Jerusalem to Jericho.

Can we be certain they had just attended one of the three primary festival seasons in Jerusalem? No, we can’t. The Text doesn’t tell us directly, so we shouldn’t pretend to have the definitive answer tucked under our theological compasses. But it’s highly unlikely they walked all that way to sell fish. On the other hand, it was extremely common for people to travel to Jerusalem for one of the festivals. Huge crowds were also visiting John the Baptizer, so we can logically deduce an even higher probability that John the disciple was on his way home from one of the festivals.

Bottom line: It’s a safe assumption to believe the future disciples who were eyewitnesses to the baptism of Jesus had just been to Jerusalem for a few days of passionate worship. And in that mood, they were also curious about the prophet at the river.

So now the more intriguing question. Which festival had they just attended? Almost certainly, Jesus had just attended the same festival! No matter which festival it was, now we’ve got some powerful symbolism to add to an already powerfully symbolic story!

Was it Passover? It could have been the Passover, which would have been in the spring. If so, there was plenty of water in the river Jordan, more so than any other time of the year. Jesus was arrested, crucified and laid in a new tomb on Passover, so the beginning of his ministry could have been book-ended by the same festival. A lamb is the literal centerpiece of every Passover meal, and John identifies Jesus as the “Lamb of God” on multiple occasions.[4] The symbolism is rich and Passover was no doubt the one Jerusalem pilgrimage attended by the most families coming from the Galilee. If you were only going to make one 180-mile round-trip visit a year, Passover was your festival.

Was it Pentecost? It could have been Shavuot, better known in Christian circles as “Pentecost.” Held just 50 days after Passover, it seems unlikely that many families would have made the return trip to Jerusalem so soon. Young men, on the other hand, might have gladly tackled the challenge. If so, the symbolism of a new, Spirit-filled covenant arriving for God’s people is rich indeed. After the resurrection and ascension of Jesus, it was this holiday that kicked off the radical movement we now know as “Christianity.”

Was it the Feast of Tabernacles? It could have been one of the fall festivals, with its great New Year’s Celebration of the trumpets, the solemn fast of Yom Kippur, or the incredible joy of Tabernacles. When John began writing his memoirs years after these events, his carefully-worded prologue included the line that, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”[5] Look it up for yourself. The Greek wording is clear. John said this Word-become-flesh tabernacled among us.” It’s a wording so strange, no English translation would think of using it. But if it was a reference to the fall festival by the same name, it’s an intriguing thought. Was John giving a clue to the time of year the ministry began? Was he trying to give us the time of year when Jesus was born?

Perhaps he was. More than likely, he was not. John’s clearly-stated purpose of writing what we know as the Gospel of John was to tell us about Jesus. As one writing from an “Eastern” mentality, he wanted us to see Jesus. As a people with a “Western” mentality, we want the details. We want the facts. We would love to know what Jesus looked like. How tall was he, John? What was the color of his eyes? What was his favorite food?

John would think us crazy. To him, those details weren’t important. Read the rest of his gospel and you’ll see a very different timeline than the one followed by Matthew, Mark and Luke. John hand-picked just seven miracles for his accounting of a story saturated with miracles. Tellingly, John called them “signs.” He didn’t want to share a Western timeline with us. He only wanted us to see Jesus.[6]

What was important for him was for us to see the Lamb of God. What was important was that we see the beginning of a new, grace-filled covenant from the God who loved us enough to dwell among us. And yes, he wanted us to know that even the God-ordained festivals of worship pointed to Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah.

Whether we could connect the beginning of Jesus’ ministry to the rich symbolism of Passover, Shavuot or Tabernacles, John simply wanted us to see Jesus.

John, James, Andrew and Simon Peter got it. By the time they got home they had heard enough from the rabbi that when he called them to follow, they left immediately. The symbolism of the festival they’d just attended was rich indeed and it helped them make the connection. But what overwhelmed them by the time they got home was Jesus himself.

[1] This all happened at Bethany on the other side of the Jordan, where John was baptizing. (John 1:28)

[2] John 1:23.

[3] John 1:43.

[4] John 1:29, 36.

[5] John 1:14.

[6] At the end of John’s gospel come two similar statements of purpose. This one comes from John 20:30-31 … “Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”