The name Bethabara occurs only once in our New Testament (John 1:28). Some ancient manuscripts, however, render this “Bethany,” and to distinguish it from the better known Bethany which lies about two miles from Jerusalem on the Mount of Olives the qualifying clause is added, making the name “Bethany beyond Jordan.” Many commentators and several versions, including JND and the RV, follow this latter reading, but it is generally agreed that whatever the proper name, the place where John was baptizing was situated on the banks of the river Jordan some 12 miles north of Jericho.
For the purpose of the present meditation, the name Bethabara will be used and occurring where it does in the narrative, the meaning is most significant for Bethabara means “The House of Passage or Crossing.”
It is now 30 years since the events at Bethlehem, the subject of earlier meditations. During the period intervening between Bethlehem and Bethabara, the blessed Lord was in Nazareth. So little has been recorded of those years. To us they are indeed hidden years, years of relative obscurity when the Savior lived with Joseph and Mary in the simplicity of a carpenter’s home and moved quietly among the men of Nazareth. He was ever the Son of God of course, and the eye of the Father was ever upon Him, delighting in Him. If men did not know or recognize Him, yet He grew up “before Him” as a tender plant, morally fragrant in the parched ground of an unbelieving nation (Isa 53:2). The Spirit of God has indeed hidden the details of those years from us, except for that delightful glimpse of the boy Who said, “Wist ye not that I must be about My Father’s business?” Many stories have been invented of those boyhood days but they are hypothetical, apocryphal, and imaginative, and do not deserve our credence, nor do we need them. What we do know is that every word and deed of the boy Jesus, His every thought and action, were for the Father’s glory, as events at Bethabara will now confirm.
He was now embarking upon busy years when men would throng Him and make such constant demands upon Him that He would scarce have anywhere to lay His head. By day, when the foxes were resting in their lairs, and by night, when the birds were peacefully nesting, men would seek Him (Matt 8:20).
For 30 years, while Jesus lived at Nazareth, John was living in the Judæan deserts (Luke 1:80). His aged parents, Zacharias and Elisabeth, had lived at Ein Kerem in the hill country and may soon have died, but there is a strong, and perhaps reliable tradition, that John dwelt, at least for some of those years prior to his ministry, with the ultra-orthodox Jewish community known as the Essenes. These lived at Qumran on the shores of the Dead Sea where many interesting relics of their way of life have been preserved. They lived strictly and frugally, adhering closely to the laws in their Torah. Perhaps this accounts for John’s dress (garment of camel’s hair and a leather girdle), and for his simple diet (locusts and wild honey).
But John was indeed a chosen vessel and his preaching soon caused a stir in Judæa. “John did no miracle” (John 10:41), but his preaching was so powerful and the crowds so great, that it soon came to the ears of the Jewish leaders. A delegation of priests, Levites, and Pharisees was sent to interview him (John 1:19, 24). John preached holiness and, in the strongest of language, he denounced sin. He warned of wrath to come for a generation of vipers and he demanded repentance. He then baptized the confessedly repentant ones in the waters of the Jordan and called for reality, commanding them to bring forth fruits worthy of repentance.
He had a message for all and sundry, religious and irreligious, publicans, soldiers, and common people. They all came and his message was the same for all, calling on them to prepare for the coming of Messiah. Later he would boldly confront King Herod himself and again his message would be unchanged. It would finally result in his imprisonment and death, but John was faithful even unto death. He was a loyal ambassador and would resolutely and unswervingly represent the true King.
But John’s finest hour came at Bethabara. For the Lord Jesus it was indeed the “House of Crossing.” He would now pass from the privacy of home life to the publicity of three years of a very busy ministry and to John was given the privilege of introducing Messiah to Israel. The Christ had come. Such had been the character and influence of the Baptist that many were wondering if he were the Christ or not but John’s denial of that was so very emphatic. His answers to them became shorter and shorter, ever more brief, almost as if he was impatient with them. They asked “’Who art Thou?’ And He confessed, and denied not; but confessed, ‘I am not the Christ.’ And they asked him, “What then? Art thou Elias?’ And he saith, ‘I am not.” ‘Art Thou that prophet?’ And he answered, ‘No’” (John 1:19-21). Yet again they asked “Who art thou? that we may give an answer to them that sent us. What sayest thou of Thyself?” John was not much interested in speaking of himself and declared that he was just a voice crying in the wilderness. One mightier than he was coming and they should prepare for Him. John baptized in water but the mightier One would baptize in the Holy Spirit and in fire.
They had not long to wait. “The next day John seeth Jesus coming unto him, and saith, ‘Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world. This is He of whom I said, After me cometh a Man which is preferred before me: for He was before me’” (John 1:29-30). Messiah had come and was standing among them!