The baptism of more than 120 Christian believers marked the dedication of a new Baptism Center along the Jordan River in the region where most Christian scholars believe Jesus was baptized more than 2000 years ago.
The March 20 dedication in the region known as Bethany Beyond Jordan (see John 1:25–27) drew participants from the United States and Europe as well as more than 1,700 Christian believers from the Middle East.
Former Prime Minister Tony Blair of Great Britain was the keynote speaker. Blair currently serves as Quartet Representative (U.S.A., U.N., Russia and the European Union) for the Middle East and sponsors a Faith Foundation dedicated to interreligious cooperation.
Also on the program were HRH (His Royal Highness) Prince Ghazi Bin Mohammed of Jordan, Baptist World Alliance (BWA) President David Coffey and BWA General Secretary Neville Callam.
“So this is where John the Baptist, in his garment of camel’s hair, fed on locusts and wild honey, preached and worked and baptized our Lord,” Blair observed. “This baptism happened on these banks nearly 2,000 years ago — a moment in time with a consequence in eternity.”
Blair reminded the audience that John challenged people to worship God through deeds, not words, and to give up selfish desires and seek the common good rather than offering burnt sacrifices.
Jesus and John both taught that doctrine may be a support but it can never be a substitute for the essence of faith, he said, noting that the essence of faith is demonstrating God’s love, mercy and power in ways that gives meaning to daily living.
Blair said faith also demands honesty to witness to truth.
“Our Lord refused to deny His nature or His mission, preferred to lose His life when so easily He could have yielded to Pilate and kept it,” Blair said. “But He chose not to save Himself from pain but to save us for redemption.
“So here we are, 2,000 years later, in this same spot. Except today, we are in a Muslim land. And a short distance from here lies Jerusalem and sites holy to Jews, Christians and Muslims alike.”
Blair noted it took courage and leadership for Jordan to allow a site for Christian baptisms in the Jordan River. He commended the royal family for its leadership and contribution to the Baptism Center. He said the new center “is not a place of archaeology — it is a place that now, as in John’s time, is a place of renewal.”
Blair said when Moses shattered the golden calf, he removed faith from the real of superstition and planted it in the realm of belief. Likewise Jesus opened eyes to the true will of God, not in legalistic ritual but as love of God and love of neighbor.
“So in dedicating this site, let us renew our faith in our God, in our Lord and in His message that true love is not measured in receiving but giving and giving … by the infinite possibility of the love of God.”
Responding to Blair, Prince Ghazi said the royal family’s commitment to the Baptism Center demonstrates that “all Jordanians are equal. All are welcome in Jordan and in this place,” he said. “We look forward to the Baptismal Center serving as a meeting place where people can learn to know each other.”
The Jordanian government first offered the land for the Baptism Center in September 2007 during a meeting between Coffey and King Abdullah. As chairperson of the board of trustees for the baptismal site, Prince Ghazi oversaw the building project, which also was paid for by Jordan. The government has also provided land for churches from other denominations to be built near the site where it is believed John baptized Jesus.
Earlier Coffey pointed out the Baptism Center is not a church. “It is a place where Christian believers can renew their faith commitments to Jesus Christ through the act of baptism,” he said.
A plaque unveiled during the service reads, “The Commission of the Site of the Baptism of Jesus Christ welcomes here visiting pilgrims from the member churches of the Baptist World Alliance.” The site will be available for use by any Christian group that believes in baptism by immersion.
During the service Coffey read letters from former United States presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, both Baptists.
Callam described the Baptism Center as “a place where people for all parts of the world may assemble for a journey and an experience.” Callam said he prays the “waters of the Jordan (will) extinguish the crippling fires of hopelessness that burn in the hearts of those who have no knowledge of God.”
Also participating in the dedication ceremony were Fawaz Ameish, president of the Jordan Baptist Convention; Nabeeh Abbassi, former Jordan Baptist Convention president and chief organizer of the event; Toma Magda and Tony Peck, president and general secretary of the European Baptist Federation, respectively, which includes the Middle East.
Nizar Haddad, an agricultural scientist and bivocational Baptist pastor in Jordan, called the dedication of the Baptism Center “very important to evangelical Christians in Jordan.” He said “it clearly shows that as evangelical Christians we enjoy the same rights in Jordan that other historic churches enjoy even though we are a minority of the Christian faith. Every part of the big Baptist and evangelical family has the right to come and worship the Lord on this spot.”
He said the letters from the former presidents of the United States illustrate that Baptists are not a cult group but a recognized and central part of the Christian tradition.
Haddad praised the royal family for the gift of the Baptism Center and for the wise leadership and vision King Abdullah provides for the nation.
Bethany Beyond Jordan was a frequently used area for baptisms prior to the 1967 war between Israel and its Arab neighbors. It then became a military restricted area off limits to all civilians. Following the 1994 peace treaty between Jordan and Israel, archeologists again began work in the area and have uncovered numerous sites indicating the area was used by Christian pilgrims for baptismal services from the fourth century.
Tourism in the area has grown steadily since Bethany Beyond Jordan was reopened to the public. It is one of the places Pope Benedict XVI will visit during his May visit to Jordan.
The Baptist World Alliance is a fellowship of 214 Baptist conventions and unions representing more than 37 million believers and a community of more than 105 million.