Question: "What is the significance of John baptizing in Bethabara (John 1:28)?"
Answer: John’s baptizing ministry is certainly a significant focus toward the beginning of each of the four gospels. The Gospel of John is the only gospel that specifies a location for where John was baptizing at the time of Jesus’ baptism. Many of the earliest manuscripts identify the location as “Bethany beyond the Jordan” (John 1:28). Other manuscripts have the place as “Bethabara.”
The detail “beyond the Jordan” most likely refers to the area east of the Jordan River, which would have been opposite the location of the majority of John’s ministry. The difficulty then with identifying “Bethany beyond the Jordan” is that there aren’t any known locations on the east side of the Jordan named Bethany. An early church father named Origen noted this and suggested that the place of Jesus’ baptism was actually called Bethabara (“House of the Ford”), which some English translations, such as the KJV and NKJV, continue to use today. This place may be the same as the ford mentioned in Judges 7:24.
Whether Bethany or Bethabara is the proper name of the location, beyond the Jordan may have significance. As the nation of Israel was located west of the Jordan, to perform baptisms on the other side of the Jordan may foreshadow a significant ministry to the Gentiles. This ministry can be seen throughout the gospels (cf. Matthew 8:28–34; John 4:7–38).
The main event that makes John’s ministry of baptism at Bethabara or Bethany significant is Jesus’ baptism. John was a prophet of God who was meant to prepare the way for the coming Messiah (Isaiah 40:3–5; John 1:23). A major part of this ministry was preaching repentance, preparing the minds of the people to meet the Messiah (John 1:31).
In Matthew 3:13–17, the events surrounding Jesus’ baptism are recorded. John tries to refuse to baptize Jesus, as John understood the significance of Jesus’ identity. Jesus, John argued, should baptize him. However, Jesus responds by stating the reason for the baptism; namely, to fulfill all righteousness (Matthew 3:15). In John 1:31, we are told that John was baptizing by water to make manifest, or reveal, Jesus as the Son of God. John then confirms this took place when the Spirit descended like a dove and alighted on Jesus.
The place called Bethabara, or Bethany, is where Jesus was revealed to Israel as the Son of God, the long-awaited Messiah. John’s ministry, prophesied in Isaiah and Malachi, was being fulfilled.
Much like water baptism is a public proclamation for the Christian today, John’s baptizing at Bethabara was a public proclamation of the identify of Jesus of Nazareth. As the passage records, Jesus is the Son of God (John 1:34). This revelation impacted John the Baptist’s society, and it still impacts ours today.