The word “baptism,” which is transliterated directly from the Greek, actually means “dipping in a liquid.” In Mediterranean antiquity, water, fire, and wind (or spirit) were viewed as liquids that could be poured upon or into people.
Moreover, travel in antiquity was considered deviant behavior unless one had a specific reason like pilgrimage or coming out to hear a prophet.
Of course John summoned individuals to repentance, but he lumped them into groups, as we shall see.
By word and symbol, John preaches repentance, particularly group repentance, namely, the reform of Israel (Mt 3:2).
John’s garb (camel’s-hair clothing cinched with a leather belt) and food (locusts and honey) symbolically link him with Samson, Samuel, and Elijah, who represent the Old Testament tradition of resistance to injustice and the revolutionary model of renewing society.
John’s preaching challenges various groups to reform. Clearly the prophet and his sympathetic listeners are dissatisfied with the status quo.
In the life of Jesus, the transfiguration and resurrection should also be viewed as symbols of transformation calling for conversion, repentance, reform, social change, revolution, and radical transformation of the human condition.
At a very obvious level, John challenges elites to reform their lives. The basic claim to honor in a society whose core values are honor and shame is made through birth. One is born into an honorable status, whatever it may be.
Imagine the impact of John the Dipper publicly and loudly calling the “honorable” Pharisees and Sadducees “snake-bastards”! The phrase “brood of vipers” attributes their paternity to snakes rather than humans and directly challenges their basic claim to honor!
On a less obvious level, John challenges the priestly aristocracy.
While many have thought that Judean society in first century Palestine was divided between priests versus people as a whole, the division was actually more between high priesthood (the Jerusalem elite) and the people and their ordinary priests (like Zechariah, the father of John) living in the outlying villages.
The oppression worked upon the people and their ordinary priests by the Jerusalem elite and their Roman patrons was experienced in exorbitant taxes, confiscation of ancestral property, and chronic shortages of food, among other things. This contributed much to social unrest and desire for change.
John’s priestly descent from an ordinary priest gave him firsthand experience of the problem. It very likely inspired and shaped his prophetic preaching.
John the Dipper concluded his preaching with a play on the symbolism of liquids (water, fire, wind-spirit). His symbolic dipping of repentant Israelites in warm water will be replaced with a judgmental dipping by “him who is to come” in the liquid of “holy wind or spirit” and fire.
Now is the time for listeners to repent and escape the judgment.
For modern American believers, Advent often means commemorating the birth of the baby Jesus and preparing to celebrate Christmas in the grand tradition of charity to the needy and gift giving.
The intensely political coloring of the Baptist’s activity should give modern believers pause. Have we diluted his challenge?