This mural, painted on the interior of the John the Baptist Church at the Jordan River, depicts Jesus’ baptism by the hand of John. Wikimedia Photo by David Bjorgen

When we last looked at Jesus’ Baptism, he’d just been immersed by John the Baptizer in the Jordan River, according to Scripture. What happened next varies, according to the telling.

In biblical studies, the gospels attributed to Matthew, Mark and Luke are known as the Synoptic gospels. “Synoptic” means that these three accounts give fairly consistent pictures of the events of Jesus’ life. The Gospel of John is a completely different account, written much later than the first three, and quite different in tone, style and content.

  • In Mark’s Gospel, which scholars believe to be the earliest gospel account of Jesus, the Baptism is described in a few words, including the famous appearance of God’s Holy Spirit and the announcement from heaven that Jesus is the beloved son of God (Mark 1:9-11).
  • In Matthew’s Gospel, there’s a dialogue between Jesus and John about whether John is fit to baptize Jesus. Once again, there’s a divine blessing on Jesus after his Baptism (Matthew 3:16-17).
  • In Luke’s Gospel, the Baptism itself is glossed over in favor of the divine approval.
  • In John’s Gospel there is no account of Jesus’ Baptism. Instead, John reports that Jesus’s disciples baptized people, and were gaining more followers than John had. When some question John about this, he responds with a discourse on Jesus’ divinity and John’s role as the Forerunner of the Messiah.

So what in the frilly heck is going on?

The picture we can infer is that Jesus’ Baptism was an important event in his life, according to his biographers, but that the priority of that important event differed depending upon the audience. Mark, being a pithy, straightforward account, is laconic to the point of terseness about Jesus’ Baptism. Having been written for Jews who knew more about religious observances, Matthew makes more of Jesus’ Baptism by recounting a dialogue between the Messiah and the Baptizer about the latter’s fitness to preside at a ritual of repentance for a supposedly sin-free savior. Luke, whose audience is more likely non-Jewish believers, mentions the Baptism but doesn’t make a big deal of it. Finally John barely mentions it as all, and only in the context of the Baptizer’s witness to Jesus’ divine nature and purpose.

The variations in these accounts have contributed to the widely divergent theologies about the importance of Baptism to early Christians. These differences  begin to make a little more sense if we can understand the following:

a) As an observant Jew, Jesus was following a well-known Jewish practice of being baptized, or consecrated with water, as he began his public ministry. This is one of the best explanations for why Jesus asked John to baptize him, and it holds true no matter how it’s represented in any of the gospels, including John.

b) Baptism for Jesus’s and John’s followers served a different purpose than Jesus’s Baptism. Water immersion represented a symbolic cleansing of past sins and an outward, visible sign of an inward, invisible resolve to live a more righteous life. This interpretation explains why Matthew makes such a big deal of it by reporting a dialogue between Jesus and John on whether John was “fit” to baptize Jesus. The implication, of course, was the Jesus, being the Son of God, was a divine personage without sin for whom there was no need to repentance.

What’s interesting about this major event is that Mark, Matthew and Luke all report, with almost no variation, what happened after Jesus emerged from the river water. Each gospel writer relates that the Holy Spirit shows up in both visual and auditory ways to confirm Jesus’ identity as a beloved son of God.

Talk about getting a seal of approval! Way better than anything Good Housekeeping ever came up with!

After God’s guest shot at Jesus’s Baptism, another consistently reported event took place: Jesus went into the desert for contemplation, where accounts say he was tempted by Satan. (Interestingly, the name “Satan” is believed to derive from a Hebrew name, Ha-Satan, meaning “the Adversary”). So getting “watermarked” led Jesus to some serious encounters of the spiritual kind.

It’s this deeper spiritual significance of Baptism that I find lacking in many Christian churches today. Whether their official doctrines say so or their priests and scholars preach and teach it, the importance of Baptism to following Jesus has been lost in a welter of bad theology that verges on the magical.

My late pastor, the Rev. Wil Bailey of blessed memory, often talked about how some couple, not church members, would approach him to baptize their infant. He said his response to them was usually, “So when are the grandparents arriving in town?” In other words, people often seek to get their infants baptized as a kind of magic ritual that will protect their children from harm and simultaneously please the church-going grandparents (who may be persuaded to foot the kid’s college fund).

Some of this common misunderstanding has been fueled by bad theology in the Church itself over centuries. While regrettable, this interpretation probably stems from the reality of life in earlier centuries, particularly with marauders of all kinds capable of ending someone’s life for a crust. At the same time, the Church once held absolutely authority over all of civilized life, so therefore you’d better make sure that you were in its good graces through Baptism, just in case the Unthinkable caught up with you.

Meanwhile, the practice of “believer’s baptism,” in which a person isn’t baptized until he or she is old enough to make a personal statement of faith in Jesus Christ, emerged in part as a reaction to the Church’s claim of salvation efficacy in Baptism. In plain language, you were saved spiritually if you were baptized, so you’d better get baptized as soon as possible because life can be unjust, brutish and soon over.

Fortunately, today our understandings of Baptism, particularly infant baptism, have come full circle to some of the interpretations given by the earliest Christians. We’ll look at these in depth in subsequent posts.

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Yes, it has been almost a year since I last posted on this blog. Life happens. Fortunately, I’m now in a situation where both my energy and my interest have returned to Watermarked’s mission: to explore Baptism and its critical importance to following Jesus today. Join me on the resumed journey…

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