The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia Volume 1 tells us that, “Water is the element naturally used for cleansing the body, and its symbolical use entered into almost every cult, and into none more completely than the Jewish, whose ceremonial washings were proverbial.”
The Dead Sea Scrolls also depict different kinds of baptism ritual as something practiced by much of Jewry. To this day in Judaism, both male and female converts immerse themselves in a ritual bath – this, noted by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, in his 1991 work entitled Jewish Literacy.
References to pre-Christian forms of baptism are typologically found throughout the Hebrew Bible:
• The deliverance of Noah and his family, which is actually referenced by Peter in his first epistle as being a means of salvation
• In the Second Book of Kings Naaman, the Aramaic commander, at the instruction of the prophet Elisha (Elijah’s successor), washed himself in the Jordan seven times – cleansing him of his ailment
• Ezekiel chapter 16 refers to a washing with water and an anointing with oil, through which Jerusalem was received into a covenant of salvation
• And the Pentateuch – the five books of Moses – include several descriptions of cleansing with water. You’ll find them in many places in the books of Exodus, Numbers and Leviticus.
And, clearly, baptism pre-dates Christianity as a fully formed faith construct. As a friend of mine observed the other day, Jews certainly baptized. After all, Jesus was baptized by John and both were considered good and faithful Jews.
We, as Christians however, sometimes find ourselves subject to a kind of imperialistic thinking whereby we reach back into the Hebrew Bible and appropriate significant rituals or manners of thinking and attempt to make them really have been ours, at least in intent, all along.
And this baptism of Jesus – be it Jewish or Christian or both or neither in its origin – is depicted in all four of the canonical, or “accepted” gospels, that is Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. And each telling has individual traits.
• Matthew’s baptism is clear and specific in its details.
o Jesus comes wishing to be baptized, and a fascinating dialogue between he and Matthew (about who should be baptizing whom) is recorded
o The scene comes after Matthew’s lengthy opening genealogy
• Mark, theoretically the earlier iteration, does not include any such dialogue, but focuses on the spirit, who is “well-pleased”
• John’s gospel simply implies that the baptism occurs
o In John-the-Baptizer’s voice we hear of the dove descending upon Jesus, identifying him as the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit
Luke’s baptism differs from the others:
• It comes after the elaborate birth narratives of John and Jesus, narratives that seem deeply invested in linking the two closely (it’s the only place where they’re cousins)
o And then the baptism separates them
• This Lukan baptism, which is kind of a secondary event, and we’ll go a bit more deeply into why that is so in a moment, marks the end of John’s ministry and the beginning of Jesus’
In Mark’s baptism account, Jesus is immediately “driven” into the desert by the spirit. And in Matthew’s he is directly “led” by the spirit into the desert. The baptism, then, serves in a literary way to separate Jesus from the people. Not so in Luke. What follows in Luke’s account is his version of the genealogy. He waits until the voice from heaven says, “You are my son”. Only then does God declare Jesus to be the Son, at which point the gospel writer draws a line from Jesus, through Joseph, all the way back to Adam. Some scholars consider this moment to be the most ancient version of the creed. (NOTE: Luke’s genealogy is pretty interesting considering Judaism’s being matrilineal for starters. In addition, Joseph was not Jesus’ progenitor, per se.)
Not only do we have the Lukan baptism folding neatly into a genealogical justification of Jesus’ historical placement among his tribe, the very act of his baptism – of God being baptized by a human being – not only affirms the popularity of John’s ministry, but shows the willingness of Jesus to participate actively in the actions of the larger group.
But the most significant aspect of Luke’s perspective on the matter is perhaps this: it’s characterized almost entirely by prayer. That’s Luke’s special focus throughout the gospel. Jesus prays:
• At his baptism (3:21)
• Before calling his disciples (6:12)
• Before asking them who they think he is (9:18)
• Before he teaches them to pray (11:1)
• On the night of his arrest (22:41) and
• At his death (23:46)
And those are just some of the instances. For Luke the act of prayer will be the most important feature of the baptism, and will clearly indicate the presence of the Holy Spirit in the life of Jesus and, by extension, in the believer. The power of baptism is secondary; prayer is what matters to Luke!
And why? Yes, it signals Jesus’ deep devotion to God and it also helps identify important events. But there’s more.
Jesus was born from as well as into a world of systemic sin. This is not a way of saying we are depraved and unlovable in God’s eyes. It IS a way, however, of saying that by the nature of our free will, we have the freedom to be distracted – turned away from being in active relation with God in the world. Jesus’ baptism in Luke is a signal that he understood the full implication of becoming incarnate.
• While he was showing solidarity with a nation and with the world
o He was not merely showing solidarity
o He was also fully acknowledging the challenge that comes of being human – which includes the challenge of having free will
Can it be said that in his modeling for us Jesus shows awareness that, in this life, there really are no completely safe choices? None are innocent. None perfect or unambiguous or perfectly controllable.
This is not a means of scaring people into spiritual practice. It’s a matter of revealing the need for salvation and why Jesus is so important. If he is only a messiah who does what the people hope for and expect, then he is no use to us. But if, on the other hand, he is the Messiah who lays bare the pretenses and false expectations of the people and reveals their deep-seated need for personal and inner transformation, then he is someone surprising and filled with ultimate and eternal meaning. This is the fire with which he baptizes. This is what’s so intense!
All human choices must be made within a system that precedes and presumes upon them – therefore do we, as human beings, need ritual and prayer?
It’s hard to know for sure. But it seems Luke is giving us some clues. He doesn’t have Jesus utter a single word aloud at his baptism. But after he’s baptized, Jesus prays. He comes to God in prayer. He won’t undertake his public ministry of teaching and healing in his own – using his own powers and abilities. The source of his strength will be beyond himself. The Holy Spirit will encourage him all the way – even when the way becomes difficult.
The disciples will gradually learn this posture of prayerful and intimate relationship with God. They’ll learn patience and stamina. They’ll learn to think and behave differently – in ways that demonstrate they are being led by the Spirit. Jesus prays frequently in Luke’s gospel. But there are twice as many instances of the disciples continuing regularized prayer practice throughout the Acts of the Apostles, which was also authored by Luke. According to Luke, those who repent and are baptized come to realize they are empowered by the Spirit, not only to become part of a movement towards the new age, but to invite others to join the movement – to work the signs of the realm, and to embody the qualities of the realm in the common life of the world.
This connection is the life-line of every disciple, every congregation, every seeker and every ministry!
It’s so significant that heaven opened and the spirit descended while Jesus was at prayer. It’s an intensely spiritual gospel-moment-experience! But intense as it may be, Jesus is not the first to receive the spirit. Thirty years prior Mary was. Both modeled for us what it is to do God’s will.
Heaven’s getting ready to open again!
Our faith tells us that God knew us before we were born, and that God gave us an identity, an individuality and a name. Best of all, God gives us a dignity that no one should dare violate! Mark those words as we pray together while baptizing Elle.
Human existence, people of faith might say, has its origins not in the accidents of history or biology, but in the will and intention of the Lord God, creator of heaven and earth.
Do we come to this moment sure in such knowledge? Doubtful. Well, our certainty is rare, I suspect. But we do come in hope – wide-eyed, with great tenderness – with the most poignant and loving intention for this beautiful baby who, today, will be blessed in a way that rings through ages upon ages – with water and holy oil and a good deal of prayer!
What is your experience of prayer? What of epiphany? Can you name it?
“You are my beloved” rings through each baptism – an intensely spiritual yet real and corporeal affirmation. Baptism has the potential to strengthen our identity, our will and our ability to act.
What is begun with prayer in baptism is lived out through the practice of prayer by which one receives the Holy Spirit – rhythmically and repeatedly.
Just as Jesus is guided and empowered, so too are we his followers.