(Amman, Jordan) — On Friday, I had the great joy and honor to visiting The Baptism Site of Jesus.
It is located on the east bank of the Jordan River, a 45 minute drive from the capital of Amman. I spent about four hours touring the national park, guided by Rustom Mkhjian, an absolutely delightful, engaging and deeply knowledgeable Jordanian government official who oversees the site, and I was fascinated by what I saw and learned.
Most Christians — myself included — have long assumed that Jesus was baptized on the western bank of the Jordan River, on the Israel side. That seems to make sense since Jesus was Jewish, His disciples were Jewish, and He was ministering to the “lost sheep of Israel.”
But the Jordanians make an intriguing — and I must say, compelling — case that Jesus was baptized on the east bank of the River.
Are they right?
To be clear, the Jordanians are not trying to create a religious competition with Israel. Indeed, the two nations signed a peace treaty in 1994. What’s more, they are both actively working to encourage more Christians to come and visit both countries. They want Christians to come and see the Biblical and religious sites of enormous historical importance on each side of the River. But one of the fruits of peace were remarkable archaeological discoveries on the east bank.
Let me give you the short version of the case Rustom, an Armenian Christian and native Jordanian citizen, made to me with such enthusiasm and detail:
- The Bible is crystal clear that Jesus of Nazareth was baptized in the Jordan River.
- For example, Matthew 3:13-17 says, “Then Jesus arrived from Galilee at the Jordan coming to John, to be baptized by him. But John tried to prevent Him, saying, ‘I have need to be baptized by You, and do You come to me?’ But Jesus answering said to him, ‘Permit it at this time; for in this way it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.’ Then he permitted Him. After being baptized, Jesus came up immediately from the water; and behold, he saw the Spirit of God descending as a dove and lighting on Him, and behold, a voice out of the heavens said, ‘This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased.'”
- The question is: Where was John the Baptist doing his baptisms?
- The Bible actually provides the answer in John 1:28, “These things took place in Bethany beyond the Jordan, where John was baptizing.”
- It turns out John was living on the east bank of the river, baptizing people in the River but also in some springs in a little village — Bethany — on the east bank.
- Which leads to another question: Why was John on the east side of the River?
- Because the angel of the Lord told John’s father, Zacharias, that John “will go as a forerunner before Him [the Messiah] in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers back to the children, and the disobedient to the attitude of the righteous, so as to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” (Luke 1:17)
- The Lord Jesus said, “if you are willing to accept it, John himself is Elijah who was to come.” (Matthew 11:14)
- So the Scriptures state clearly that John the Baptist was operating in the spirit, power, and prophetic calling of Elijah.
- Now the question is: Where was the prophet Elijah born?
- The Bible gives the answer in I Kings 17:1, “Now Elijah the Tishbite, who was of the settlers of Gilead, said to Ahab….”
- Tishbe was a village in the region of Gilead.
- So where was Gilead located? Again, the Bible provides the answer. In 2 Kings 10:33, we learn that “from the Jordan eastward [is] all the land of Gilead.”
- So Elijah, a Hebrew prophet, was actually born and raised on the east side of the River, in what today we call the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.
- From where did Elijah return to heaven? Also on the east side of the River, witnessed by his servant (and successor), the prophet Elisha. Re-read the famous and wonderful story in 2 Kings chapter 2.
- In summary, then, John the Baptist was operating in the spirit, power and prophetic calling of Elijah. The prophet Elijah certainly ministered extensively on the west bank of the River in Israel, but he was born and raised east of the River and went home to be with the Lord on the east side, as well. So John operated primarily east of the River, according to John 1:28. So in all likelihood, when Jesus came to be baptized by John, this happened on the east side.
- But there’s more, when the peace treaty between Israel and Jordan was signed in 1994, the Jordanian government began to remove the mines that were planted all along the east bank of the River. As they did, archaeologists, historians and Christian leaders discovered the remains of five ancient churches close to the River. They found the remains of a monastery there, too. Yet this led to new questions. Why were Christians building churches close to the River, despite flooding, despite repeated earthquakes, and in the barren wilderness where there were almost no villages and no people? To commemorate something very special that happened there.
- They began to search through ancient Church history, and the writings of Christian pilgrims throughout the centuries, and what they found was an enormous amount of material indicating that early Christians venerated the area on the east side of the River because they believed that’s where Elijah escaped from King Ahab, and where John the Baptist did his ministry, and where John baptized Jesus.
My goal here is not to convince you. My goal is simply to share with you what I learned on Day #2 of my research trip to Jordan. I had never been there before, but I was intrigued by all of it, and I think you will be, too.
- You can learn more about the discovery of this site by clicking here.
- You can read letters from various Christian leaders around the region and the world authenticating the site as the place where Jesus was baptized by clicking here.
- You can watch an absolutely riveting 50 minute documentary on the subject by clicking here.
What also intrigued me was the commitment Jordan’s King Abdullah II has made to preserving the site, making it a national park, and supporting Jordanian Christians to honor the place and do baptisms there.
The King has actually granted land in the park to thirteen different historic Christian denominations to build churches and facilities for doing baptisms, both by sprinkling and immersion, several of which I had the opportunity to visit and see for myself.
Indeed, the tour I took was graciously arranged for me by His Royal Highness Prince Ghazi, the Chief Advisor to the King for Religious and Cultural Affairs, and the chairman of the commission that runs the park. It was Prince Ghazi’s personal and enthusiastic support for the work of the historians, archaeologists and Church leaders who discovered the site and helped authenticate it that persuaded His Majesty to make its development a top priority.
Since taking the throne in 199, the King has invited three Popes to visit Jordan and visit the Baptism Site of Jesus. The first who came was Pope John Paul II in 2000. Then, in 2009, Paul Benedict came. On Saturday, May 24th, Pope Francis will visit the site, as part of his trip to Jordan, the Palestinian Authority, and Israel.
Thus, the eyes of the world will once again turn to the Jordan River and the Biblical account of the baptism and ministry of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. This is a wonderful thing, for Catholics, and for Protestants, for Christians of all backgrounds, as well as for Israeli Jews and Jordanian Muslims, many of whom don’t know the story.
I’m grateful to His Majesty the King, and to his team, for honoring Christians in this way, reaching out to the Christian world to come back and rediscover our Biblical roots and heritage. It is a remarkable and encouraging example of Muslim-Christian friendship, and it is a winsome part of His Majesty’s agenda as the region’s leading Reformer.
Please join me in praying for the King, his family, his government and the people of Jordan, that the Lord may show grace and mercy to them in these difficult times. Please pray, too, for the Christian community here, that they will walk closely with the Lord Jesus Christ and serve Him faithfully in a land where Jesus walked and ministered, as did so many of His prophets and friends. Thanks so much.
On Day #3, I interviewed Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh. I hope to give you details on that tomorrow.
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