The Why’s of Baptism- 3 questions

"The Baptism of Christ" – Daniel Bonnell

From Lawrence in "Disclosing New Worlds"  

1. Why did Jesus get baptized in the wilderness and not the temple? 

Mark uses geography as a narrative device to set up the opposition between Jesus (and what God is doing in Jesus) and the Temple (and what the religious authorities expect God to be doing). The wilderness has immediate echoes of the Exodus story. It is a hostile place. It is a place of suffering and death. It is the place where wild animals live and which hostile spirits were believed to inhabit. Yet it is also the place to meet God – in burning bushes and on a mountain. It is the place where Israel came to know Yahweh and received the Law. It is the place of refuge for Elijah when his life is in danger. It is the place where the persecuted faithful gather to await deliverance (like the Qumran community). It is the place where Yahweh’s voice is to be heard – the place of prophets.

It has political significance, too. It is the place to which political refugees fled for safety, and also the place, in Jesus’ time, where would-be revolutionaries gathered to train and plot treason – a gathering place for freedom fighters, terrorists and wanna-be messiahs. In Roman terms, it was a place of resistance and opposition – just as it had been in Ahab’s day, when Elijah and the other prophets gathered there because of their opposition to Ahab’s regime.

In other words, locating Jesus in the wilderness emphasises what Mark has said in his opening verse: the message and ministry of Jesus is a resistance movement. Jesus is God’s one-person invasion force, because he exemplifies and personifies the Kingdom of God. It is this Kingdom that will stand forever, not Rome’s. He alone is the true Son of God, worthy of worship – not Caesar (remember: Mark has a Roman centurion declare that Jesus is the Son of God at the crucifixion). And, over against the Jewish religious authorities, the Kingdom of God that Jesus brings is not the kingdom they expect. It is not for Israel alone, but for the whole world. It is not a ‘holiness movement’, but a movement of grace that embraces the unholy. It is not for the rich and powerful but for the poor and marginalised. It is not a reinforcement or re-establishment of the Temple tradition: Jesus will pronounce judgment on the Temple and prophesy its destruction (Mark 13), but a return to the God of the Exodus and the God of the prophets – a return to the wilderness.

2. Why was Jesus baptized at all ?

In stripped back prose, Mark announces that Jesus was baptized by John in the Jordan. Just like everyone else who was there that day. The question is, why was Jesus baptized? It is clear that the baptism inaugurates his mission. It is equally clear that Jesus has no need of repentance (in the sense of being a sinner) – a fact that Matthew feels compelled to clarify when faced with Mark’s narrative (see Matthew 3: 13-15).

Yet we need to take Jesus’ baptism as a baptism of repentance seriously. Jesus’ mission is the Kingdom of God – a new world order. Jesus’ own message is summarised in Mark 1:15:

The time is fulfilled and the Kingdom of God has drawn near. Repent, and believe in the Good News!

We discover that ‘repent’ means more than ‘be sorry for your sins’. It means a complete change of life, of values, of priorities. It means a total re-orientation of life – a renouncing of the past and the embracing of the Kingdom.

In this sense, Jesus ‘repents’. For all the continuity between Jesus the child and Jesus the adult engaged in his mission that we can suppose and imagine from the other gospels, here we see Jesus undergoing a ‘baptism of repentance’. Yet for him alone it is the baptism into the Kingdom – into his mission. Here, in the Jordan’s waters, he publicly renounces his old life, old ties (eg family), old job, old priorities. His mission will require everything of him, and it begins with the renunciation of all he has been. He has been a son and brother; now his family will be defined by response to the Kingdom. He has had responsibilities as a member of the Nazareth community and economy and as part of his family; these are now renounced. He has been a carpenter; he is now an itinerant preacher, prophet, miracle-worker and Servant of the Kingdom.

Continuity, then, between Jesus and the rest. He is, in a real sense, ‘one of the crowd’ … until the moment at which he emerges from the water!

3. What are the meanings of Baptism ?

Jesus is greater than John. John will baptise with water; Jesus will baptise with the Holy Spirit. Paul discovers in Ephesus a group of disciples who have been baptized with John’s baptism for repentance, but have not received the Holy Spirit. Paul’s response is to baptise them in the name of Jesus and lay hands on them, and they receive the Holy Spirit.

What is the significance of Christian baptism? The Holy Spirit is the source of all life. It is the Spirit that moves over the waters of chaos, bringing Life. The Spirit’s presence at Jesus’ baptism is the sign that he is truly human – a human being in the image of God filled with the Life of God. Jesus fulfils God’s purposes in creating human beings.

Jesus, therefore, becomes the source of Life – but only because he walks the Way of the Cross. Jesus enters into and submits to the death-dealing forces of chaos. God raises Jesus from the dead by the Spirit. The Spirit is the agent of God’s creation and re-creation through resurrection.

Baptism is about repentance and renouncing the old life and the norms and priorities of the world. But it is more than that. It is a re-enactment of the drama of creation, death and re-creation – our own participation, in other words, in Jesus’ death and resurrection. Through the Spirit, we die. The waters do their deadly work. Through the Spirit, we are raised, so that we have died to the old life, not only repented of it. And through the Spirit we are, says Paul, ‘new creations in Christ’ because it is Jesus who came and lived among us, died, and was raised as a beloved Child of God.

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