Read John 1:19–28.
With lightning-fast reflexes, I sprang from my seat just in time to catch my three-year-old son, Jude, in mid-stride as he ran into the living room. He was covered in mud, a splotchy layer of brown from his curly blond hair down to his bare feet, and each step he took left us a small souvenir of his outdoor adventures. Three young boys have trained us well. If there’s a patch of dirt or a puddle of mud somewhere in the yard, they’ll find it—and play in it.
As I carried Jude back outside to shake the excess dirt from his hair and get him out of his filthy clothes, my wife, Laurin, began running a bath in the background. “I don’t want a bath!” Jude protested. A peanut butter and jelly sandwich was calling his name from the kitchen. “Well, you can’t come in like this,” I told him. “You’ll get mud everywhere. You need a bath.” Hard stop. Discussion over. Getting clean was the only way Jude was going to join us at the table for lunch.
When John the Baptizer arrives on the scene in the Judean wilderness, his ministry is focused on answering a simple yet important question: Who needs a bath?
His answer? Absolutely everyone, especially those who don’t think they do.
In the first century, faithful Jews did a lot of ritual washing. They washed their hands. They washed their feet. They washed their cups, bowls, and utensils. They even dunked themselves in a ritual bathtub called a mikveh to cleanse themselves after becoming ceremonially unclean. But this wasn’t your average, maintenance baptism John was offering. Ritual washing was also used as a rite of conversion for Gentiles, either in lieu of circumcision in certain instances or after circumcision had taken place. This baptism was a way of joining Abraham’s family, of turning away from all other gods and pledging loyalty to Yahweh. This was John’s baptism—a baptism of repentance—only He wasn’t calling Gentiles to be baptized. He was calling His fellow Israelites.
Out there in the wilderness, John was urging everyone to get right with God, to turn from their sins and give their loyalty to Yahweh alone. Only then would they become true Israelites and children of Abraham. Only then would they be ready for the Messiah who was about to reveal Himself. It was a shocking message to the Jewish elites. John was telling them that, despite all their piety and pomp and the layers of laws that they kept, their hearts were far from God—and that made them no better off than Gentiles. They needed a bath.
So when the Jewish leaders from Jerusalem came to see John, it was to find out who he thought he was exactly. They wanted to know what gave him the right to baptize people in this way. Only someone with great authority from heaven could issue such a sweeping indictment of the Jewish people. They went through the list:
“Are you the Messiah we’re waiting for?”
“Elijah returned from heaven?”
“The Prophet like Moses God promised us?”
“Not even close.”
“Well, then, who in the blazes are you?!”
John was crystal-clear about who he wasn’t. He wasn’t the Messiah, and he wasn’t Elijah (see Malachi 4:5) or the prophet like Moses (see Deuteronomy 18:15). John didn’t want the focus on who he was, but rather on why he’d come. He identified himself using the words of Isaiah the prophet: “I am the voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord’” (John 1:23; compare with Isaiah 40:3). John considered himself nothing in light of who was about to show up—not even worthy to untie His sandals (v. 27).
From the pages of Scripture, John is still calling people far and wide to come and be made clean. Every last one of us needs a bath. No one is born into God’s family naturally. We must be adopted, and that only comes through repentance.
The truth of our deep need changes us at the moment of faith and forever after. Like John before us, we will come to recognize that anything we do for our Savior is really nothing compared to what He’s done for us. As we feed on His grace, our lives will begin to whisper to everyone we meet, “More of Him, less of me.”