The Homilies of St. John Chrysostom on the Gospel According to St. John
"Now there is at Jerusalem a sheep pool, called in the Hebrew tongue Bethesda, having five porches. In these lay a great multitude of impotent folk, of halt, blind, withered, waiting for the moving of the water." (John 5:2-3)
What manner of cure is this? What mystery doth it signify to us? For these things are not written carelessly, or without a purpose, but as by a figure and type they show in outline things to come, in order that what was exceedingly strange might not by coming unexpectedly harm among the many the power of faith. What then is it that they show in outline? A Baptism was about to be given, possessing much power, and the greatest of gifts, a Baptism purging all sins, and making men alive instead of dead. These things then are foreshown as in a picture by the pool, and by many other circumstances. And first is given a water which purges the stains of our bodies, and those defilements which are not, but seem to be, as those from touching the dead, those from leprosy, and other similar causes; under the old covenant one may see many things done by water on this account. However let us now proceed to the matter in hand.
On January 6th, Orthodox Christians gather together for the Feast of Theophany. This feast is the third most important feast day in the Orthodox Church (after Pascha and Pentecost). Yes, it’s even more important than Christmas! On this day, we commemorate the baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan. One question that always arises during this festal season is, “Why was Jesus, the sinless Word of God made flesh, baptized by his cousin, John the Baptist?” There are several theologically correct answers. The hymnography and prayers of the feast state that Jesus’ baptism sanctifed the nature of the waters, enlightened all creation, allowed celestials to celebrate and commune with the terrestrials, and made manifest the worship of the Trinity. However, there is another important aspect to this feast. If we look at Scripture and His baptism, we can see the promised fulfi llment of the Old Testament prophecies concerning His sacrificial death on the Cross. Thus, like the apostles, we can preach “Christ crucified” (I Corinthians 1:23) – the very heart of the Gospel – on the feast of Theophany.
First, let’s take a look at John’s baptism. It was not the same as our baptism today. In the sacrament of baptism, we were cleansed of ancestral sin, illumined, justified, given the seal of the Holy Spirit, and made complete and full members of Christ’s one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church. This is baptism’s function in the post-Resurrection and post-Pentecost Church. But John’s baptism was before all this. So, what was it? In Mark 1:4–5 we read,
John came baptizing in the wilderness and preaching a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins. Then all the land of Judea, and those from Jerusalem, went out to him and all were baptized by him in the Jordan River, confessing their sins.