Tag Archive: baptism

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.


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…


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.

When we left our hero, John the Baptizer, he was standing in the Jordan River that runs between present-day Israel and Jordan. John and his followers immersed people in river water as a symbol of their desire to repent of past sins (see ” ‘Wash Me’  – and a Whole Lot More”). There was more to John’s ministry than dunking people in brown river water (yes, I’ve been to the region and seen the Jordan River, and it’s as brown as the land around it).

His preaching urged people not only to seek forgiveness for their past sins, but to commit themselves to living in new ways more in line with the ten rules that scripture says God gave to Moses on Mt. Sinai. Jews call these rules the Law; Christians refer to them as the Ten Commandments (the real thing, not Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 movie starring Charlton Heston, Yul Brenner and a cast of hundreds).

Repentance was not new, because Jewish priests, prophets and sages had been promoting turning away from selfish, greedy, idolatrous lifestyles among their people for centuries. By the time of Jesus, there were thousands of interpretations of the Law by priests, rabbis and other learned men (yes, they were all men, as women were not included in scholarly pursuits at that time). However, Luke 3:3-6 likens John’s mission to one foretold in the book of Isaiah:

“The voice of one crying in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.

Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low;
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’ “

Whoa! That’s some serious imagery, isn’t it? But what does it mean?

As I said at the outset of this series, it’s hard to understand the mindset of people who lived thousands of years ago. For one thing, most of us in the 21st century live very urban lives, so landscapes don’t always capture our imaginations the way they did when the world’s population was mostly rural. Back then, people who lived in villages, towns and great cities like Jerusalem knew what it was like to travel down through valleys and up over hills and mountains. No planes, trains or automobiles to keep them detached from the physical world around them.

Yet to the Jews, Isaiah’s words had enormous significance beyond a staggering visual image. The text comes from Isaiah 40:3-5, in which God tells the people of Israel that they will be saved from their enemies. “Preparing the way of the Lord” can mean to perform the literal acts described in the passage, but it also has connotations of personal repentance, improving one’s own behaviors and those of the community. In other words, the balancing of geography described in Isaiah’s poetry also has been interpreted to signify the restoration of relationships between individuals, in society and with God.

Here’s where John’s mission turned dangerous, because Luke 3:7-20 speak of the Forerunner’s explicit preaching. John wasn’t the moderate, benign preacher of most boulevard churches; he was confrontational, and he didn’t care whose feelings he might offend. Listen to John preaching to those who came to him to be baptized (Luke 3:7-9, NRSV*):

“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

 Boy, howdy, that’s some preachin’, as we say in Texas where I live. Can we understand today what he was saying? To some extent, yes, but only with a little effort. As we noted earlier, being washed clean from prior sins was only the first part of Baptism in John’s ministry. His exhortation to “bear fruits worthy of repentance” was a clear instruction that those who sought Baptism couldn’t get away with going back to their old habits. If they kept on cheating their customers and business associates, lying to their spouses, coveting their neighbors’ lands, and failing to care for the poor and helpless, then the effect of their Baptism was nullified, according to John.

What’s more, John told them, they weren’t protected from the consequences of their sins just because they were Jews, members of God’s Chosen People. As he goes on, John  gives specific instructions to certain groups of people on how to get right with their neighbors, and thus with God. He’s blunt about it: if the ritual act of Baptism didn’t affect the ways they lived as well, their effort was worthless.

Several meanings have been given to phrases such as “flee from the wrath to come” and “the ax is lying at the root of the trees.” In some cases, these predictions of a dire future have been given terrible anti-Semitic interpretations that have led to persecutions of Jews for centuries, thanks to the (horrible to say) Christian idea that Jews who rejected Jesus were collectively condemned to hell unless they converted. Recounting the millions of ways that Christians have sinned against their spiritual elder siblings, the Jews, would take another blog. Suffice it to say that, IMHO, John’s words should not be interpreted as a license for Christians to feel in any way superior to Jews (or anyone else, for that matter). Too often we forget that Jesus was a Jew, and saw his mission in a Jewish, not Christian, context.

So back to John the Baptizer. His powerful preaching had an immediate effect on his listeners. They begged him to tell them how to live, and John was quick to respond:

“Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” (Luke 3:11)

Think about this. Most of us have pretty good wardrobes, often including several sweaters, jackets and coats. Have we ever given our extras to people who have none? Have we even considered our abundance of clothing as “extra?” And what about our food? Many churches sponsor food pantries or contribute to food distribution ministries, and churchwomen for generations have taken food to sick, hungry and grieving people. Yet how often do we question why we continue to allow economic systems that force people into poverty and hunger?

Good examples of this idea are the “Occupy” demonstrations going on now around the United States and elsewhere.  Until recently, there was little evidence of faith-based support, but now that has changed. Churches and synagogues and mosques are on board with the Occupy groups because religious leaders have recognized that their primary aim, equalizing the unjust American economic system, aligns perfectly with their own religion’s teachings.

Most church members are uncomfortable with these kinds of witness because they require a personal stand. These aren’t the kinds of encounters that we can write a check for and feel we’ve done our charitable best. Knowing the needs of others, and our own responsibility for any social system that results in oppression, poverty, hunger and the like, requires that we know the people around us. We must establish relationships with people in order to know how we can serve them.

Awareness and actions such as these are the kinds of “fruits worthy of repentance” that John insisted should be the direct result of Baptism. These concepts weren’t unknown to the Jews; they can be found in several places in the Hebrew Bible that we Christians call the Old Testament. However, their practice clearly had declined by John’s lifetime; otherwise he wouldn’t have called attention to them.

John’s call for other-oriented compassionate living in community has stuck to our understanding of Baptism ever since. Today, though, it seems that we practice it as erratically as it was practiced in John’s era. What’s more, preaching this understanding of the responsibilities of Baptism to American Christians has become as dangerous these days as it became for John. We’ll find out more about that in the next post.

All Scripture quotations on this blog are taken from the New Revised Standard Version of the Holy Bible. Copyright 1989 by the Christian Education Committee of the National Council of Churches. Used by permission.

Photo Credit: Bumper Sticker from Northern Sun.

Salvation and baptism have been linked since John the Baptist started soaking people (including Jesus) in the Jordan River. There’s lots to be said about that relationship, but for today, there’s an essay on the full nature of baptism that no thinking Christian should miss.

My OSL brother, the Rev. Taylor Burton-Edwards, has posted a simply superb exposition at his Emerging UMC blog on the topic, Can We Still Talk about… Salvation? (Part 4 of the Series). I’m not going to try to summarize it here, because it’s too good to be truncated. Go, read. Now. Later we’ll talk.

Anyone who’s ever been to Sea World recognizes the title. After all, when a two-ton orca splashes out of a tank, the laws of physics require displacing some serious water. Likewise when it comes to baptism, a few humble drops of water carry some awesome spiritual power.

Baptism — the ritual act of sprinkling with, pouring on or immersing in water — is a lot like sitting in one of the first five rows at the aquatic park. There’s some water, but we don’t always appreciate the whole idea of what’s going on.

Shamu leaps. Photo courtesy Sea World-San Antonio

Like many Christians, I don’t remember being baptized. I was about six months old when it happened in a Presbyterian church in Pittsburgh, PA. (No, I won’t tell you what year it occurred). There are a couple of black and white photos of my parents and me all dressed up for church to document the day I was baptized. Somewhere in the same album is the document that my late mother said was even more important than my birth certificate — my certificate of baptism.

Many Protestant Christians who aren’t Baptists have similar stories (and right there is a rift that will take many posts to explain). That’s unfortunate, because baptism is one of the most powerful things that happens to anyone who follows Jesus. Unlike Catholic and Orthodox Christians, Protestants don’t make a fuss over baptism, so its full significance passes by unnoticed.

So here’s my deal: This blog will be devoted to exploring baptism in multiple dimensions: what it is, how it’s done, what it means, and most of all, how Christians ought to be inspired and energized by their baptism to be about God’s work of transforming in the world. In fact, our baptism ought to make us capable of seeking and seeing God at work in life through acts of kindness, courage, caring and comfort, and to shout that good news into the din of mayhem and madness that swirl about us.

Yes, we’re about to mount the log flume over the foaming waves. Get ready for a wild, wacky and wonderful ride of “living wet” as a follower of Jesus.