In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the wilderness. And he went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. (Luke 3:1-3 NASB)
Baptism is one of those hotly contested activities in Scripture that has divided followers of Jesus for two millennia. So, here I am to finally put it to rest in 20 minutes and less than 1000 words… Okay, not that funny, but you may be asking why I bring it up at all? Well, for two reasons really: 1) It’s in the Bible which I study relentlessly, and 2) I believe that its significance is such that I can’t simply skip it because ‘controversial’. So I won’t. And here I go…
The word worked its way into English directly from the Ancient Greek of the Christian Scriptures. So now it’s an English word, but actually ‘transliterated’ from the Greek language. In the Greek language the word meant to wash or bathe, the idea being ‘to wash’ usually in water. The concept focused on by many Protestants is that this would require immersion. That interpretation is disputed, and isn’t what I want to focus on. If some people want to wash their dishes without immersing them in the soapy water, then I figure Darwinism will take care of it as they die off of some infectious disease still on their plates. Their choice, and not my problem to fix.
John the ‘Baptist’ and Jesus both baptized followers, and Jesus later commanded (yes, commanded) that His followers be baptized as part of the initiation into follow Him. What I want to explore is the similarities and differences between what John was accomplishing with baptism, and what Jesus meant by the same activity.
THE BAPTISM OF JOHN
John came out of the wilderness (or to the verge, or whatever) at the Jordan River and baptized people, a ‘baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins’. There has been much written on the practice of baptism by Jewish people, religious customs, requirements in the law, and practices of Jewish sects during and before John’s ministry. They are not hard to find if you are interested. But this is a ‘washing’ that either depicts repentance, or demonstrates the resolve of the repentant person, or possibly both. Washing relates to repentance in a visible sense that repentance includes the cleansing of muddy mindset so that the clean version beneath can be revealed. The clean version is the one that our Creator placed there. The mud is what we’ve done with it since.
I don’t want to miss that depiction. Washing doesn’t actually transform anything, but really removes what doesn’t belong so the true nature can be revealed. So, the proclamation of John wasn’t transformational of hearts and minds, it was cleansing. It made those hearts and minds more available to God, since nothing ‘unclean’ could be considered holy and available for His use. In this sense, and how I believe Jewish people of that day would have understood it, this was repentance that was a process of sanctification; the process whereby something common is made holy. If we look at what John was preaching in this light, then the result of preparing the way for Jesus makes a lot of sense. The hearts and minds of people would have been prepared for the message Jesus brought. It worked really well for some who eventually became of the Twelve, and even the top three.
THE BAPTISM OF JESUS
That was John, but what about Jesus? There is an oblique and vague reference to Jesus’ initial ministry including baptism in John 4:1, which includes a note that it was His disciples actually doing the baptizing, not Him. We’re not told what meaning Jesus associated with His activity though. Other oblique references essentially say the same thing, Jesus’ ministry initially included baptism, but not what meaning Jesus associated with it.
Then we have a reference Jesus makes to James and John when they ask for the seats on the right an left of His throne. In Mark 10:38, 39 Jesus asks them if they are ‘able’ to be baptized with the baptism He will endure. This is typically understood as a reference to Jesus’ suffering and death (see also Luke 12:49). So, there is something in Jesus’ understanding of the washing of a soul that includes suffering, even to the point of death. This is not ‘repentance’ as such, it strikes at something much deeper. But again, beyond this reference, we’re not told a lot of what Jesus meant through the practice of baptism. Yet I think we can all agree that suffering and death is a significant meaning.
THE BAPTISM OF THE DISCIPLES
Then Jesus commands baptism in Matthew 28, and the disciples pick this up and preach it as part of their message throughout Acts. Paul defines the meaning somewhat in Romans 6:3,4 where he ties the meaning directly to the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. In that sense, it matches very well with how Jesus uses it to refer to His coming suffering and death. Baptism accompanies the conversion accounts throughout Acts. While there are exceptions in Scripture, they are extremely rare. In fact, as Philip interprets Isaiah to the Ethiopian Eunuch, while we’re not told the exact content of what Philip said, something in what he said conveyed the need for baptism to the Eunuch enough to impress on him the immediacy of the need.
My point here is that what John came preaching, a baptism of repentance, is necessary to prepare our hearts for our Savior. But it is also insufficient. What Jesus taught, and what His disciples affirmed, was that the need is to identify with the sufferings and the death of Jesus. It is obedience to Jesus in the same sense He became obedient; as Paul describes in Philippians 2:8, obedient to the point of death, even the death of a cross. And since Paul also says that anyone who confesses Jesus is Lord and believes in their heart that God raised Him from the dead shall be saved, I think tying baptism to salvation is valid. I believe that the connection is one of demonstrated obedience, but the connection is also a very close one, perhaps just shy of dependence.
I will venture into my own interpretation here and state that I also believe that baptism is a testimony to the powers of darkness that their kingdom is at an end. Jesus conquered the enemy through His death, burial, and resurrection. To publicly declare our identity with that event is to throw their defeat in the face of our enemy. They lose, not because we’re baptized, but because Jesus defeated them. We win because we identify with Jesus and, in so doing, reject the kingdom of the enemy. If we don’t do this publicly, then we limit the effect of this declaration, minimizing its penetration into the enemy kingdom.
So, while I don’t want to make baptism a pool-party, I do want to make it a public party. And any who it offends will know that the Kingdom of God has come to them. It’s on them what do about it, but Jesus says the gates of hell won’t stop it. So here we come.
That’s my view through the knothole. What’s yours?