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The Sunrise of Christianity

It was an eerie feeling to stand in the very spot where Christianity began. It is now a dusty hole at Bethany-Beyond-The-Jordan where Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist and to make it even more unlikely place for this momenteous occcasion; it was, for a time, located in a dangerous minefield.

Pope Benedict XVI (2nd L), accompanied by Jordan’s King Abdullah (L), Jordan’s Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad bin Talal (R) and Rustom Mkhjian, director of the Baptize site (2nd R), visits Bethany-Beyond-The Jordan, on the east bank of the Jordan River May 10, 2009 (Photo: Reuters)

This unique site is where many now believe that 2000 years ago Jesus came to see John the Baptist to be baptized by him: Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan to be baptized by him (Matthew 3:13). According to the Bible, it is just beyond the Jordan (John 3:26) i.e. on the East Bank of the River Jordan in what is now the modern day Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.

The Bible says clearly: These things were done in Bethabara beyond the Jordan, where John was baptizing (John 1:28).

Because this site marks the baptism of Jesus by John, and thus the beginning of Jesus’s mission and indeed the beginning of Christianity it is considered to be one of the three holiest Christian sites in the world, together with Bethlehem (the Church of the Nativity) were Jesus was born and Jerusalem (the Church of the Holy Sepulcher) where Jesus’s terrestrial mission ended (at least until the Second Coming).

The site where it is believed that Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist

This site has been recognized as the real (and only true) site where Jesus was baptized by all the major traditional Christian Churches and has been visited by many Christian leaders including the late great Pope John Paul II. Many churches of different Christian denominations are built there or in the process of being built there, now that, after the 1994 peace treaty between Israel and Jordan, it is no longer a military border zone.

This historical site is also where a number of other important spiritual events occurred in the Bible: apart from John’s ministry and Jesus’s baptism, it is where the Israelites, led by Joshua, first crossed into the promised land, and it is where Elijah was taken into Heaven on a Chariot of fire. It is also the site where the St. Mary the Egyptian and other early Christian holy figures lived and died.

The River Jordan

I was recently at what at The Baptism Site with a group of American Christian journalists who were on a tour organized by the Jordan Tourism Board and we learned more about its extraordinary history from Rustom Mkhjian, director of the site and its most enthusiastic supporter.

This Armenian Christian began by saying, “This site belongs to you and everyone on earth. We in Jordan have the honor and pleasure to open it to everybody believing that bridges of love and peace are being built here.”

Mkhjian explained that work began on the site back in 1998; some four years after Jordan signed a peace treaty with Israel in October of 1994.

Dan Wooding interviews Rustom Mkhjian on a previous trip to the Baptism Site

“We all know that Jesus was baptized in the River Jordan, but as we began to excavate this site, we found that the area was full of mine fields,” he said. “It took us three-and-a-half years to de-mine this site close to the Jordan before we the Department of Antiquities of Jordan could do its survey and then discovered eleven archeological sites linking us with the monastic life of the place here at the site.

“Now to show the authenticity of the site, we had to, as Jesus said, ‘build our house on a solid rock.’”

He talked about the Biblical evidence, the mosaics that have been discovered and other sources that point to this being the site of Christ’s baptism.

“What do we have in the Bible?” he asked. “After Moses died on Mount Nebo which is twenty kilometers to the east behind us, we read in Joshua, chapter’s one through five, that Joshua led the twelve tribes of Israel from Jericho. From the place where we’re standing we cannot see Jericho although it is only fourteen kilometers away and we are three kilometers east of the Jordan right now.

“That’s important to know and we are ten kilometers north of the Dead Sea. Geographically, that’s exactly where we are. Now that was the first crossing from a prophet from the east and west bank. Jericho happens to be one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities we have. It’s still there, and it’s celebrating, as far as I know, it’s ten-thousandth anniversary. Jericho was first entered by Joshua but Second Kings, chapter two, clearly says how Elijah and Elisha came from Jericho when Elijah’s mantle touched Jordan it split and he ascended to heaven in a chariot and horse and fire east of the Jordan.”

He then pointed to the very hill where Elijah ascended into the heaven.

‘But then, what’s interesting and important is that after Elisha took the mantle and went back to Jericho and the last verses in the Old Testament — Malachi Chapter, four verses five and six, tell that Elijah would come back. Is there a link between the Old and New Testament? Of course, it’s a continuation. Luke, chapter one, verse seventeen, is one of the links in which we have with John the Baptist coming in the spirit of the son of Elijah so that’s the first reason why he started his ministry here. And he was asked by the villagers around Bethany-Beyond-the-Jordan, ‘Are you Elijah? Are you the Messiah’ and he says, ‘I am the one that’s preparing the way of the Lord.’”

Sign at the Baptism Site

Rustom Mkhjian went on to say, “Our site is very simple but we want people to feel the grace and enjoy the site the way that John and Jesus did. The Bible says, ‘What are you going to Bethany? To see reeds shaken by the wind? The reeds are still here. What did John eat? Locusts and honey, so everything links and forms a beautiful picture of the importance of this site. I think the last thing I can say about what we have in the bible is that John one: twenty-eight clearly says that Jesus came to Bethany-Beyond-The-Jordan where John was baptizing. John recognized Jesus through the Holy Spirit saying, “This is the lamb of God. Then John agreed and baptized Jesus.

“The Bible says that Jesus started his ministry here on earth once he was baptized.”

Mkhjian said further evidence that this is the site of the baptism of Jesus Christ was the fact that many of the early pilgrims visited it.

“So pilgrims would start here at the River Jordan and also visit Mount Nebo, Jerusalem and Bethlehem,” he stated.

“Here at this site, you find something that that gives you physical contact with what we have in the Bible. It’s beautiful honestly and I feel that although this site is still a baby but already is achieving a lot.

“Last year, we received over two-hundred-thousand pilgrims. But our view for the future is to see millions of pilgrims like the site did in the early Christian period.”

I then asked Rustom Mkhjian what did he think that God chose a wilderness to launch Christianity and also the lowest point on earth?

“This is no coincidence,” he said. “We’ve learned about Jesus being humble and this site was chosen for him to be baptized that is three-hundred-eighty-eight meters below sea level.

“My belief is that that although it is the lowest point on earth, it is the closest to heaven. This is where the Father, Son and Holy Spirit met; this is where Christianity started. So this site was chosen I believe because it’s the land of the prophets; it’s the place where the prophets crossed and it’s to give us an example of being humble.”

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Note: I would like to thank Robin Frost for transcribing this story.

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