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.