Recently we celebrated the Feast of the Baptism of Jesus, and it’s worth taking a look at the meaning of this strange incident (surely one of several in the gospel that show the historicity of these accounts since no one would invent it.)
John the Baptist stands on the cusp of a new revelation of holiness in the life of Israel. Historically, Israel had explored different conceptions of holiness. At the inception of the Mosaic covenant and in the centuries following, the dominant conception of holiness was that of “separation from uncleanness.” And uncleanness jumbles up ideas of ritual uncleanness (what a modern might call the “ick factor”) with moral and spiritual uncleanness.
So foods considered too gross to eat (pork or shellfish for ancient Jews; brains or insect larvae for post-modern Westerners) and things too gross to touch (menstrual blood for both ancients and post-modern Westerners) become tangled with (and images of) intangibles like sin that defile in a different way. Jesus will tease apart these different forms of defilement, as Mark notes:
Do you not see that whatever goes into a man from outside cannot defile him, since it enters, not his heart but his stomach, and so passes on?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.) And he said, “What comes out of a man is what defiles a man. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, fornication, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a man.” (Mk 7:18–23)
But in John’s day, that untangling has not yet happened and, like a good Jew, he practised ablutions that symbolise cleansing from both ritual and moral impurity— and that conception of cleansing is, indeed, all about separation from uncleanness.
This is understandable for several reasons. First, Israel was itself all too prone to sin as the Golden Calf incident (Exodus 32) and the subsequent history of Israelite capitulation to pagan worship so clearly demonstrated. As any parent knows, if your child is likely to be corrupted by the naughty neighbour kid, you keep your child away from the naughty neighbour kid.
So Israel is repeatedly warned against associating with the Gentiles and against ritual impurity. But this sort of “quarantine” approach to holiness is a provisional measure, not an ideal. So when God raised up David and established a covenant with him, we begin to see a different sort of holiness being pursued. For David is “a man after God’s own heart” (1 Samuel 13:14) and is given, not a nation quarantined from the Gentiles, but a kingdom that is to bring an infectious holiness to the Gentiles.
But, of course, David’s kingdom failed due to sin and the nation was “cut off” in the Babylonian Captivity. But Israel under the tutelage of the prophets (particularly Isaiah) continues to look for the messianic “Son of David” who would sprout from the “stump of Jesse” (Isaiah 11:1) and establish his kingdom.
John the Baptist’s message is that this Messiah is now at hand and that he will establish at last the kingdom of heaven in true holiness. For John, whose mind is steeped in the Old Testament, this means a Davidic kingdom since John describes his mission through a quotation of Isaiah 40:3, which is the beginning the so-called “Book of Consolation” directed to the survivors of the Babylonian Captivity and which speaks of God’s intention to restore the nation and establish his Davidic Kingdom — a kingdom to encompass “all flesh” not merely Israel — again.
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.
And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all flesh shall see it together,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” (Is 40:3–5).
John comes (mark this) as a penitent. He wears a hair shirt and eats locust and wild honey. His whole message is one of repentance and preparation and he speaks both of a new kind of holiness which will baptise his hearers with “the Holy Spirit and with fire” and of judgement that will lay the axe to the root of the tree (Matthew 3:10-11). That is what provokes interest among both the Sadducees (who were the priestly power elite of the day) and the Pharisees (whose conception of holiness is still very much locked into the early model of “quarantine”).
John’s message threatens both the secularised power elite and the religiously self-satisfied, for he bodes the end of the Old Covenant (and thus of the basis of the politicised Sadducean priestly power) and of the Pharisaic conception of holiness. And Jesus, whom he foretold, will do so even more, for he will definitively announce a “new covenant” (Luke 22:20) that brings to an end the Old Covenant and he will ignore the Pharisaic “quarantine” mentality to touch the dead (and raise them), embrace the lepers (and heal them), and eat with sinners (and change them into saints). In other words, the Son of David is both the new Priest who sanctifies and the ultimate “man after God’s own heart” who needs not guard his holiness from contamination because his holiness now flows out to aggressively heal and change the world.
It is this Son of David who approached John for baptism. Many people have the idea that John the Baptist was administering the Christian sacrament of baptism at the River Jordan. But, in fact, both Scripture and Christian tradition make a distinction between the sacrament of Baptism and John’s baptism. In Acts 19:3, we are told that Paul came upon a group of disciples in Ephesus who knew only “John’s baptism”. Paul explained, “John baptised with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, Jesus.” On hearing this, they were baptised in the name of the Lord Jesus (Acts 19:4-5).
So John’s baptism was a “baptism of repentance” but was not, itself, the sacrament of baptism. It was a sort of “ritual ablution” symbolising repentance that only pointed forward to “he who is coming after me” (Matthew 3:11). And this fits John’s role as one who stands on the cusp of the ages. For John was himself a Levite (recall that his father was the levitical priest, Zechariah) and his task was to point to the fulfilment of the Law which that priesthood accompanied. So Jesus came from Galilee all the way to the Jordan for the specific purpose of receiving John’s baptism (3:13). Why?
Several clues are given to us in Scripture.
First, he was baptised at age thirty (Luke 3:23), the same age that a priest could begin officiating under the law of Moses.
Second, there is the dove of the Holy Spirit which appeared and alighted on him (Matthew 3:16). Why did this occur? Not for Jesus’ information. He already knew who he was. Nor was it merely for John’s information. If it were, Matthew needn’t have recorded it. Rather, the alighting of the dove of the Spirit on Jesus is for our information. We are being given revelation here that we need to know, particularly if we are Jewish disciples of John the Baptist.
In the same way, the third element of revelation, the Voice from heaven, is not for Jesus’ information, nor only for John. Rather, when the Voice speaks saying, “This is my beloved Son, with him I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3:17) we are, particularly as Jewish Christian readers, being shown a sort of baton being passed. The revelation is for us as much as for John and is, in part, intended to help us see what the disciples whom Paul found at Ephesus had missed hearing, that Jesus must increase and John must now decrease (John 3:30). Here — with the combination of water, the power of the Holy Spirit, and the proclamation of Divine Sonship — are all the elements of the fullness of sacramental baptism present for the first time. Christian baptism will not only be a ritual washing of repentance that cleans the outside, it will bring with it the fire of the Holy Spirit that cleanses us within and makes us sons and daughters of the living God who is our Father.