John’s ministry represented a departure from the flesh/national principle (“we have Abraham for our father”) of recognizing the people of God. He announced a new principle that would mark off God’s people, namely the purifying work of the Spirit. Trees that did not bear fruit would be cut down, and the chaff would be burned. Only those who bore fruit could be considered the true children of Abraham...
Jesus himself submitted to John’s baptism to identify himself as a proponent of his message and as a fulfillment of righteousness... His baptism indicated for himself, like others, an entire consent of mind and heart to the truth of John’s message that Jesus was “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world,” and that repentance marks the covenant people of God.
There is a grain of truth in these assertions. First century Judaism had come to believe that being connected to Abraham by physical descent was important and valuable for this life and for the next. But the value given to this physical relationship did not exclude Gentiles from the community. They too could be brought into relationship with Abraham, by obedience to all that Israel had been commanded to observe in the Mosaic Law and the Traditions. This required, among other things, a ritual bath called the Mikveh.
What we see in Judaism's tradition of proselytizing the Gentiles, and it is borne out in the rest of the New Testament (cf. Romans 2-4 and Galatians 3), is that the essence of the relationship with Abraham was not a “flesh/national principle.” It was obedience to the Law. Whether one was born a Jew or a Gentile, in Judaism it was obedience that truly connected a person to Abraham. The Pharisees and Sadducees thought they had pretty good handle on this obedience thing. John’s ministry was objectionable because he was calling everyone to repentance and baptism. To the Jews repentance was for sinners, and the Mikveh was for Gentiles. John’s critics were baffled and offended. This man seems to be a prophet from God, and yet he is calling us to repentance. How can this be? Surely a prophet would know that we have no need of repentance.
Do you see how Dr. Nettles' analysis puts the emphasis on the wrong syllable? And having missed the point, he opens the back door letting his Christian readers find their way back into the same problem that plagued first century Jews. You are not saved by your works (the front door is barred), but you are saved by a work of the Holy Spirit. How do you know that you have received “the purifying work of the Spirit”? Look for the fruit of repentance in your life. Examine your works. Check your obedience. “Only those who bore fruit could be considered true children of Abraham.”
In Scripture we find two important themes in John's ministry. Which one was preeminent? The Kingdom of God is at hand. The Messiah is here. Repent. The first theme is the proclamation that the fullness of time has come. All the promises of the Old Testament are about to be fulfilled. The second theme is a consequence of the first. Repent, therefore. Receive the forgiveness of sins in this cleansing, life-giving bath.
Dr. Nettles gives primary place to the secondary theme. He stands the ministry of John the Baptist on its head, and completely misinterprets what God is doing when John baptizes Jesus.
Jesus submitted to John’s baptism to identify himself with us. Of course, he was not announcing his need for repentance. He was demonstrating his humanity, and affirming that to be human is to be dependent on God for everything, including righteousness. The state of Jesus' “mind and heart” does not enter this picture at all. That subjective reality has no significance here. Jesus is pointing us to what is objectively true. He is the only man without sin, who has come to make a Great Exchange. He will take our sin away, and give us his righteousness. Although that work will ultimately be done on the cross, it will come down to us through the ages by this washing of regeneration (Titus 3:5), the washing of water with the word (Eph. 5:26).
John distributes that cleansing grace to Israel in the Jordan River. By participating in that baptism Jesus blesses John’s ministry, and points us forward to his own. Jesus cleanses and makes disciples of “all nations.” He gives us his righteousness and makes us his own in Baptism.