Every once in awhile, I’ll try to address a theological question posed by someone. For those brave enough to read a long blog post in order to better know the Bible, venture on…
First, a disclaimer- One Church majors in the majors, not the minors. In other words, we believe that following Jesus is practical and relevant for everyday life, and we don’t split theological hairs over divisive issues. We’ll let other people argue about minor issues of faith.
We’re also convinced that intelligent, thinking people can take the Bible seriously and that the average follower of Jesus is capable of deep Bible study. So we want to be able to explore Scripture in its historical context and answer the questions people have.
Someone asked me recently why Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist (Matthew 3v13-17, Mark 1v9-11, Luke 3v21-22). The person’s question was something to the effect of, “If Jesus was sinless, and baptism is meant to wash away our sins, why was Jesus baptized?”
It’s a good question, and quite a bit of ink has been spilled trying to answer it.
Cue The History Channel
Around the time of Jesus and John the Baptist, a community of people called the Essenes lived near the end of the Jordan River where it empties into the Dead Sea, in modern day Israel. The area is called Qumran, and the Essenes wrote what are now referred to as the Dead Sea Scrolls that were discovered in 1947. History Channel, anyone?
The Essenes moved out of Jerusalem to live in this desert wilderness because they believed that the religious/political system in Jerusalem had become corrupt. They literally turned their backs on Jerusalem and worshiped God in the desert.
In their community of Qumran, the Essenes dug several small pools called ritual baths, or in Hebrew, mikvot, in which to immerse (baptize) themselves. They baptized themselves several times a day in rainwater collected in these small pools in order to make themselves pure for God.
I took this photo during my trip to Israel in January 2012, and I was surprised at how many mikvot there were in one small space.
John, You’re an Innovator
John baptized people in water, but instead of baptizing them several times a day, John’s baptism was apparently a once in a lifetime act. Which meant that it was big.
Paul saw John’s baptism was a “baptism of repentance” and as different from being baptized into Christ (Acts 19v4). So, John’s baptism was not the same thing that followers of Christ do when they are baptized. If you have been baptized as a follower of Jesus, the meaning of John’s baptism is different than the meaning of your baptism.
God was doing something unique through John the Baptist. Notice that John was baptizing people in the Jordan River which runs through the Judean wilderness.
The Gospels have Hyperlinks
Here’s a Bible study tip: The Gospels often read like they have hyperlinks embedded in them. When you’re reading something online and you see a hyperlink, you know that if you click on the link, it will open up a new window or at least take you to another page. When you click the link, the new page or new window opens, and you see all kinds of new and deeper information about what you were reading before you clicked.
The fact that John was baptizing people in the Jordan River is like a hyperlink. If you click on it, it takes you to Joshua 3v1-17. Moses had led the Israelites out of Egypt and up to the edge of the Promised Land, marked by the Jordan River. Moses passed away, and Joshua took over as the leader of the people. As the Israelites stood at the edge of the Jordan River, they consecrated themselves in order to enter the Promised Land that God had given to them.
When John baptized people in the Jordan, it was a type of reenactment of Joshua 3. By stepping into the Jordan and repenting of (“turning from”) their sins, they were consecrating themselves to God and inviting God to lead them into the Promised Land all over again.
This was not the only time that the people of Israel had crossed the Jordan into their own land. After their exile in to Babylon in 586 BC, the people returned to their own land after a time of reconsecrating themselves to God.
Tired of Corruption
Jesus, John the Baptist and lots of others believed that the religious/political system of Israel during their lifetimes had become hopelessly corrupt. They saw the only answer as inviting God Himself to come and make it all right. The temple politicians were appointed by the occupying Roman Empire and were financially benefitting from their loyalty to the Romans. The people saw that even the Temple meant to represent God was being controlled by money interests.
Have you ever seen something so messed up that you thought the best option was just to start all over again?
This is what John was doing.
Fuller Theological Seminary Professor, Colin Brown puts it this way, “In short, John waded across, and baptism was effected by heeding John’s call to leave the land and follow him in penitence into the Jordan and return as consecrated members of a renewed Israel” (Colin Brown, “What was John the Baptist Doing?”).
God is Getting Involved
By being baptized by John, Jesus said in effect, “I agree with what John is doing, and it points to what God is doing. God is invading our time in history and getting directly involved.” It’s not that Jesus was turning away from His own personal sin. Instead, He was participating in God’s plan to get involved with His people in a new way.
The early Church saw this new thing God was doing as the arrival of the Messiah and the coming of the Kingdom of God, in Jesus. In fact, after Jesus’ baptism, it is God Himself who announces that Jesus, the Son of God, has come into the world.