Archive for November, 2011

Why Was Jesus Baptized?

Baptism of Christ

Francesco Albani’s 17th century Baptism of Christ

One of the most significant, yet puzzling, episodes of Jesus’ earthly ministry is his Baptism by John. We’re about to wade into some deep theological waters here, friends, so strap on your life preservers and follow along while I do my best to unpack the God talk.

Jesus’ Baptism is considered one of five key events in his earthly life and ministry (the others are Transfiguration, Crucifixion, Resurrection and Ascension). Through all the ways in which the Christian Church has split down through the centuries, Jesus’ Baptism has remained a constant. However, the ways in which Baptism is practiced today have been a major source of contention through the generations, even to being one of the issues that has caused schism, or splitting, among Christians.

Just think about the ways in which we practice Baptism today. Catholics, Orthodox, Anglicans, Episcopalians, United Methodists, Presbyterians and other “liturgical” denominations practice what is known as “infant baptism,” that is, babies and children can be baptized with their parents’ consent. At the same time, the Baptist tradition in all its branches (Southern, American, Free-will and so on), practice what’s known as “believer’s baptism,” meaning that a person must be old enough to make a public profession of faith on their own through baptism. All these and more point to the singular gospel episode in which John baptizes Jesus, described in the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, and referred to in the gospel of John.

The ultimate question about Jesus’ Baptism is this: If Baptism represents repentance and the forgiveness of sins, why did Jesus, a sinless divine nature in human form, seek it out? John the Baptizer clearly had misgivings about performing Jesus’ Baptism, because John had already predicted that a messiah was coming in Matthew 3:11:

 “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire …”

 Then when Jesus presents himself for Baptism in Matthew 3:13, John at first resists:

 “John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’ But Jesus answered him, ‘Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.’  Then [John] consented.”

 So Jesus himself says his Baptism is intended “to fulfill all righteousness.” Now what does that mean?

Truthfully, nobody knows for sure. For 2,000 years, priests, theologians and scholars have tried to work out this enigmatic phrase. Their interpretations have given form to what the Church today says about the meaning of Jesus’ Baptism for his followers.

For example, a common interpretation runs like this: though sinless himself, Jesus accepted John’s Baptism as a way to identify completely with sinful humans. This was the first instance in which Jesus, although called the Son of God, stood on the side of humans in the great cosmic scheme of things. This interpretation sometimes is linked to one of Jesus’ many names, Emmanuel, which in Hebrew means “God-with-us.”

The Rev. Gregory Neal, a United Methodist clergyman and my former pastor, gives the following explanation on his website Grace Incarnate:

 One of my favorite sacramental approaches to the baptism of Jesus is articulated in line with his own reason for his baptism: “to fulfill all righteousness.” As sacramentalists we may not be far off base by affirming that Jesus may well have been baptized in order to sanctify the action as a Means of Grace. Through baptism into Christ we are entered into a life that, if lived by faith in God’s Grace, fulfills God’s righteousness in us. Jesus’ baptism affirmed that we should be baptized … but it doesn’t stop there: Jesus’ baptism actually energizes — it consecrated — the sacrament for our sanctification. In other words, he was baptized so that our baptism would have meaning as a Means of Grace.

 Another interpretation comes from Matt Slick, writing on the website Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry.

 Quite simply, Jesus was baptized so he could enter into the Melchizedek priesthood so He could be the High Priest and offer Himself as a sacrifice for our sins.

 This explanation has a strong mystical component that comes from the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament), where Exodus 29:1-7 talks about candidates for the Jewish priesthood being washed with water and then anointed with oil. The idea is that Jesus’ Baptism represented his own consecration (today we might say “ordination”) into the priesthood. In other words, it was a way to give him some credentials as a teacher, preacher and healer among the Jews.

Wayne Jackson of the Christian Courier, a website associated with the Church of Christ denomination, sees three reasons for Jesus’ baptism: as the commencement of his public ministry; as a sign of Jesus’ total dedication to God’s plan for humankind; and as a symbol of his coming death, burial and Resurrection by being immersed under water and then coming out of the water again.

See what we mean about all the different takes on Jesus’ baptism? And these are only three sample perspectives.

My good friend and colleague, the Rev. Dr. Daniel R. Gangler, suggested that we look at Jesus’ Baptism best from its Jewish perspective. Among Christians, Baptism has become a “once-and-it’s-done” act, but among Jews of Jesus’ time, the ritual washing away of sins was frequent. What’s more, there was the Exodus tradition of consecrating candidates for the priesthood with water-washing and oil anointing.

Seen in this historical context, Jesus’ Baptism by John becomes not a mysterious act but a clear sign of Jesus’ commitment to his ministry. We Christians tend to forget that Jesus was an observant Jew, and that his ministry originally was intended to bring reform to Judaism. (It’s another one of those time-and-culture things, y’know?).

Things get tricky, however, when we encounter the scriptures that describe what happened after Jesus came up out of the water. That’s what we’ll explore in the next post.

All scripture quotations are from The New Revised Standard Version, copyright 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.


John the Baptizer had a tough job. Aside from his strict lifestyle (see Part 1 and Part 2), John was filled with what we might call a dangerous vision: the idea that God wants people to live in ways that enhance, not destroy, their lives and societies. For John, this meant a return to following the Law, which we Christians call the Ten Commandments. Baptism was the symbol of this return to a more holistic way of living in which people were mindful of God’s instructions and tried their best to live accordingly.

But where did John get this idea about Baptism? It turns out that the concept was quite common in the Hellenized, or Greek-influenced, culture which surrounded the Jews of John’s and Jesus’s day. As we mentioned previously, the word “baptism” means to wash, immerse or plunge. From the period of the Greek poet Homer onward, when the Greeks conquered or colonized much of the Mediterranean world, Baptism came to refer to any ritual that involved being immersed in water. This act was found in many religions of John’s day, including Judaism, according to The Encyclopedia of Religion(McMillan, 1987, page 59).

So neither Jews, including John’s followers, nor the followers of Jesus who became known as Christians, invented Baptism. What they did was to adapt it to match specific meanings for their faith. Consequently, despite John’s rough appearance and forthright, uncompromising preaching, many people came to him to be baptized as a sign of repentance. Yet the second part of Baptism’s meaning, spiritual redemption or forgiveness, still was linked to a person’s ability to follow the Law. Today we Christians refer to this as “works righteousness,” that is, the familiar system of reward and punishment, as in one of the favorite “tragedy songs” of my rock n’ roll youth, “Last Kiss,” about a couple who suffer a car wreck in which the girl dies. The lyrics went something like this:

“She’s gone to heaven, so I’ve got to be good, so I can see my baby when I leave this world.”

Now, friends, that’s about as bad a “triage theology” as we Christians can get. And unfortunately, the idea lingers today in many churches, that we follow the Ten Commandments solely so we can make it to heaven in the afterlife. This concept of “punishment/reward” denies the assurance of God’s forgiveness that is at the heart of following Jesus. Holding onto such bad theology leaves us trapped in a paradigm that comes far short of what we understand Baptism to mean, be and do. Phooey on that!

From a distance of 2,000 years, it’s easier for us to see how John prepared the way, literally and theologically, for Jesus. And John played his part brilliantly, because by stressing what was wrong with people’s individual and communal lives, he turned their attention toward God. In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus likens John to the great Jewish prophet Elijah:

“And the disciples asked him, ‘Why, then, do the scribes say that Elijah must come first [before the Messiah appears]?‘ [Jesus] replied, ‘Elijah is indeed coming and will restore all things; but I tell you that Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but they did to him whatever they pleased. …’ Then the disciples understood that he was speaking to them about John the Baptist. (Matthew 17:10-13).

 This passage always makes me wonder about the possibility of reincarnation. After all, the Jewish concept of time was not a straight line, as our concept of time is today. My esteemed professor of Jewish mysticism, Rabbi Geoffrey Dennis, explained that Jews often viewed time as a series of great cycles. So was Jesus merely making a metaphorical reference when he said that John was Elijah, or was John Elijah reincarnated? Could it be possible that some truly great souls have such key roles in God’s cosmic scheme that they are sent back in human form many times? People such as Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and Mother Teresa certainly had qualities that we associate with prophets and saints such as John the Baptizer. I find this concept intriguing but unprovable; a lingering mystery.

Moving on to Luke 7:22-34, Jesus gives us the most complete portrait of the Baptizer and his impact:

“I tell you, among those born of women no one is greater than John; yet the least in the kingdom of God is greater than he. (And all the people who heard this, including the tax collectors, acknowledged the justice of God, because they had been baptized with John’s baptism. But by refusing to be baptized by him, the Pharisees and the lawyers rejected God’s purpose for themselves.) …”

Like many prophets not honored in their own communities (and that’s a story for another post), John ran afoul of The Powers That Be and came to a horrific end. In this case, the PTB was Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great, who married Herodias, the ex-wife of his brother Philip, which under Jewish law made her Herod’s sister as well.  Matthew, Mark and Luke all report that there was bad blood between Herodias and John. The prophet had publicly condemned their union as both incest and adultery because of Herodias’ previous marriage to Philip. Incest AND adultery? That’s, a pretty hefty double play even in our morally loose time. It’s no wonder that Herod and Herodias were ticked off at John for denouncing them.

The 19th century painter Francisco Nery created “Salome with the Head of John the Baptist,” now in a Brazilian museum. 

Herod himself had wanted to kill John, but Herod was afraid of John’s followers. Now the king faced a dilemma: he had rashly promised the dancing daughter whatever she wanted, up to half his kingdom, because of the pleasure her performance had given Herod and his banquet guests. Her request for John’s head left Herod between the proverbial rock and hard place. A king couldn’t go back on his word, so Herod ordered John beheaded and his severed head presented to the daughter before the court, to show that Herod had fulfilled his oath.

Shocking as it is, the story of John the Baptist’s execution has captured people’s imaginations for centuries. Irish playwright Oscar Wilde wrote a play (in French, no less) about it that he titled Salome, which German composer Richard Strauss turned into an opera by the same name. The opera was instantly infamous for its “Dance of the Seven Veils,” in which the title character performed the equivalent of an operatic striptease. (No wonder Herod liked the dance so much!). However, there’s no biblical basis for such a revealing dance, although both stage and screen have made it seem so. (The opera is also famous for its final scene in which Salome professes her love for John, whose severed head sings a soprano-baritone duet with her. And people say the Bible is freaky!).

The real drama in John’s death is the way in which people with perverse motives tried to silence a righteous prophet. Yes, John was killed, but his righteous practice and his witness to God’s ultimate authority lived on in his disciples. The episode certainly is a mirror of how oppressive rulers and the righteous still clash with each other today.

Matthew 14:13 records that John’s disciples claimed their master’s body and buried it. Then they brought the news to Jesus, who went off to a deserted place to grieve for the prophet, who was his distant relative as well through their mothers’ relationship. No doubt Jesus, in his grief, recalled their last face-to-face meeting, when John, despite his misgivings, baptized Jesus in the Jordan. With that act, the two men established a new understanding of Baptism for Jesus’ followers. We’ll learn that story in the next post.