First Sunday after the Epiphany

Mark 1:4-11 (NRSV) John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
There are a handful of events in the life of Jesus that are described in all four Gospels (Matthew 3:13-17, Mark 1:4-11, Luke 3:21-22, John 1:29-34. His baptism is one such occasion. I think the two questions that leap to mind is why did Jesus need to be baptized and what does baptism mean?

What does baptism mean?

The first thing we have to remember is that this episode has its roots in Old Testament practices that was different from the baptism of Christians instituted by Jesus in Matthew 28:18-20.

Thus, what do we mean by New Testament baptism?

The baptism of Christians instituted in the Great Commission follows after “make disciples” which suggests that baptism is meant to be a public outward act of the inward reality of one's commitment to be a disciple of Jesus. In the Letters of the Apostle Paul, he amplifies this idea by highlighting that baptism identifies us with the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus (Romans 6:3-5, Colossians 2:11-13).

I know many churches perform infant baptism. I appreciate the analogy to circumcision to defend the practice. However, I think adult baptism or credo baptism is a more consistent way to apply the description of baptism in the Great Commission, the Book of Acts, and the NT letters.

From what I just wrote, it might then not surprise readers that I was baptized in a Southern Baptist church. The process involved the following steps:

  1. Writing the story of my journey of faith and submitting it to the church membership committee. 
  2. A representative from that committee interviewed me. 
  3. My written testimony was posted for anybody to read on the membership bulletin board at church. 
  4. I shared my testimony to the congregation after which a member rises and said, “Based on the testimony we have heard, I move that we accept NAME into membership upon his/her baptism.” 
  5. The members vote to approve the motion. 
  6. I was baptized on August 24, 1980. 

As you can see the emphasis is on the conscious recognition of the commitment to discipleship and the public declaration of that commitment.

However, let us get back to the passage in Mark. The practice of using water in a religious ceremonial context is obviously not unique to Christians and this episode occurred before the establishment of the church. So what was this baptism all about? From the text itself, we get, “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” Repentance is translated from the Greek word “metanoia” that means “a change of mind.” Thus, what John the Baptist was doing would be in line with similar practices in the Old Testament times. In this article, we find out that: “Jews practiced baptism as a traditional act of purification and the initiation of converts to Judaism long before the coming of the Messiah.”

Why was Jesus baptized?

We have briefly discussed baptism in the NT church and how it was utilized in OT Jewish life. So how does Jesus’ baptism fit in?

One explanation ties into the “substitution/exchange” we have with Jesus. Jesus died for our sins. There needs to be payment for sin and Jesus substitutes for us. He exchanged his death to give us life. The substitution/exchange works at another level in the question of righteousness. We have filthy rags for righteousness and so Jesus’ righteous life is exchanged for our rubbish "righteousness" so instead we can stand before God with the righteousness of Christ.

The idea of baptism for righteousness sake is hinted at in Matthew 3:15 that adds a little more detail than what we find in Mark: But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented.

In sum, Jesus participating in baptism proceeds out of his living righteously and that deed plus his lifetime of obedience to the Father can in turn be applied to our benefit upon our repentance and turning to him as our King and Lord and Savior.

Another idea for why Jesus was baptized is that Jesus lives out as a representative of the nation of Israel. In Rob Dalrymple's Understanding Eschatology – Why it matters (p. 40), he offered this explanation for the baptism of Jesus: Jesus is baptized with a baptism of repentance on behalf of the nation of because he knew that repentance must precede the restoration of Israel. So, he repents for the nation. Thus, in his repentance and baptism, the “kingdom of God is at hand” (Mark 1:15).

Thus, Jesus, through his baptism, showed himself to be the true Israel and the truly righteous man.

So what do we take home from all this?

First, I think it is important for us to delve into the life of Jesus and chew upon the richness of all he has done. We all have our favorite stories in the Gospel where we see the greatness of Jesus. And so, let's keep mulling over the Gospel stories, even beyond our favorites, and keep exploring the complexity of what Jesus did. And in this text, contemplating his baptism as yet another way for us to probe the depths of Jesus life.

This reflection here barely scratches the surface!

Haven’t discussed Mark’s including John the Baptist saying, “he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” Or taking a look at Luke that expands this by saying “baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” (Luke 3:16-17). Or meditating upon how about the Spirit descending upon Jesus like a dove and the Father saying, You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.

Second, if we have been baptized, we should reflect on that experience and renew our commitment to discipleship, to being a learner, a Jesus follower. And of course, if you haven’t been baptized, you should consider talking to the appropriate people at your church to be baptized. It’s a way of putting faith into a tangible action. God’s grace has been in your life and receiving baptism would be a tangible and visible and public statement of that grace leading to obedience.

Lord, may we yield our lives to you. We know that you are pleased when we follow your ways and publicly declare we belong to you. Amen.