Why was Jesus baptised?
Rather than narrating the back-story of John or a relating a history establishing the lineage of Jesus, the beginning of Mark’s gospel cuts straight to the chase. It is like a gurney waiting in the hospital reception, ready to whisk you to the delivery room! Okay, so not the greatest analogy, but through his words, Mark deftly communicates a sense of both urgency and expectation. It is as if he has cut everything but the bare essentials required to get you to the crux of the story as quickly as possible — a remarkable and world-changing encounter on the banks of the river Jordan — the baptism of Jesus. Why is the baptism of Jesus so important? Let us find out.
Rewinding just a little, the context was that the Jewish people were waiting for the Anointed One, the one who would vindicate them, crush their enemies, and establish the rule or kingship of God. The writings of the Old Testament prophets are literally littered with predictions about the coming of this divine King, and piecing them together like pieces of a jigsaw, built up this picture of where he was to be born, his lineage, who he would be, and what he would achieve. However, importantly, the coming of the Anointed One would be accompanied by other signs, the biggest of which, would be the preceding return of the prophet Elijah. The experts in the law and the prophets knew this. Mark quotes both the prophets Isaiah and Malachi.
“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way’ (Malachi 3:1) ‘the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight.’ (Isaiah 40:3)
And Malachi makes it expressly clear that this messenger will be the prophet Elijah:
“Look, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and terrible day of the Lord arrives.” (Malachi 4:5)
To emphasise this, the details of John’s ministry echo those of Elijah. For example, what did Elijah look like?
“‘He was a hairy man and had a leather belt tied around his waist.’ The king said, “He is Elijah the Tishbite.” (2 Kings 1:8)
And where did Elijah hang out? Answer, the wilderness.
“The word of the Lord came to him, saying, ‘Go from here and turn eastward, and hide yourself by the Wadi Cherith, which is east of the Jordan. You shall drink from the wadi, and I have commanded the ravens to feed you there.'” (1 Kings 17.2-4)
And if you are in any doubt, Jesus himself answers the question.
“Then they asked him, ‘Why do the experts in the law say that Elijah must come first?’ He said to them, ‘Elijah does indeed come first, and restores all things. And why is it written that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be despised? But I tell you that Elijah has certainly come, and they did to him whatever they wanted, just as it is written about him.'” (Mark 9:11-13)
Therefore, if we want to understand the significance of John, we need to understand the significance of Elijah. So what was the prophet Elijah all about?
- He called for repentance and renewal, warning of God’s judgment but also offering hope for forgiveness and restoration.
- He condemned social injustice and oppression of the poor and powerless, speaking out against corruption and immoral practices within the ruling class.
- He called for devotion, obedience, and worship of Yahweh as the one true God.
Sound familiar? John the Baptist called individuals and the community to embrace opportunities for repentance and renewal, practice justice and faithfulness, and acknowledge the one true God who was to come in the person of Jesus.
Before we move on it is also worth noting the massive disconnect with the expectation of the people. The one place you would expect to find God’s Anointed One would be The Temple in Jerusalem with its importance and hierarchy. Yet, importantly, it was not in the Temple where the message was proclaimed, but in the wilderness. God bypassed the The Temple and chose to work outside its organisational structure and systems. And what did wilderness signify to the people of God? Harking back to the Exodus, the wilderness was a place of judgment and refinement, a place of transformation and formation, and a place where the people were led out of slavery and into freedom. Importantly, too it was a place of consecration — a setting apart of a people to be God’s ambassadors to the world. Listen to the prophet Isaiah who, with poetic language, summed it up nicely:
“For the palace will be forsaken, t he populous city deserted; the hill and the watchtower will become dens forever, the joy of wild donkeys, a pasture for flocks; until a spirit from on high is poured out on us, and the wilderness becomes a fruitful field, and the fruitful field is deemed a forest.” (Isaiah: 32.14-15)
John, the new ‘Elijah’ prepared the way for the one who would come, and he did come. The one John said was “more powerful”, for whom he was “not worthy to stoop down and untie the strap of his sandals”, and who would “baptise with the Holy Spirit.”
Why then, did Jesus come to John to be baptised? The answer is because Jesus’ baptism was going to be a different kind of baptism. John could only baptise with water, something from the earth that humans could do, but Jesus was going to baptise people with the Holy Spirit, something from heaven, and something only God could do. Therefore, at Jesus’ baptism, he was baptised with water to fully identify with those whose sins he had come to bear, but he was not only baptised with water but from heaven itself with the Holy Spirit. Jesus would not only be a Spirit-bearer but a Spirit-baptiser. It would be through the authority of Jesus, as the Son, that he would be able to give the Holy Spirit, his Spirit, to others.
“I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses… A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you…” (Ezekiel 36:25-28)
“I will give them one heart and put a new spirit within them… Then they shall be my people, and I will be their God.” (Ezekiel 11.18-20)
“…I will pour out my Spirit on all kinds of people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy. Your elderly will have revelatory dreams your young men will see prophetic visions.” (Joel 2:28)
The baptism of Jesus was a momentous occasion and revelation of the Holy Trinity of God — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And even in the words Mark used for the baptism there are echoes back to the prophets. Isaiah said,
“If only you would tear apart the sky and come down! The mountains would tremble before you!” (Isaiah 64:1)
That same word for ‘torn apart’ was used by Mark to describe the heavens opening at Jesus’ baptism. It was the same word used for when God divided the Red Sea, Moses cleaved the rock, the splitting of the Mount of Olives on Zechariah’s great ‘Day of the Lord’, and finally, the same phrase used when, at Jesus’ crucifixion, the temple curtain was torn in two. The word used for supernatural occurrences, when the barrier between heaven and earth — between God and humans — has been removed. The people witnessing the baptism of Jesus realised, for the first time, they were standing, not in the presence of a prophet, but in the very presence of God.
So what are the faith lessons we can learn from this narrative about the baptism of Jesus? Well, I think there are three.
Firstly, where do we expect to find God at work? If I am honest, I expect God to work here in the church, and I get a little jealous when I hear of God working outside the church. Does God not know how much time and effort I put into making church happen?! Seriously, though, God has a track record of working in the wilderness, and the Spirit blowing wherever the Spirit blows. Where is the wilderness in our society? For, knowing God, that is where God will be at work, and the place to which we are called.
Secondly, what should our role be? As baptised and Spirit-filled believers we are to be like John the Baptiser, through our words and actions, pointing the way to Jesus. It is why I repeat our calling as a church, to proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and to be witnesses to God’s love. I confess that this week I was narked when a church member could not attend a church meeting because they were serving the community elsewhere. Good for them! For that is exactly where they should be. In the same way, my role is to be a pointer to Jesus, though my calling is partly to be here with you. So, when someone comes to me at the church door or posts online saying, “Nice sermon vicar”, that is all well and good, but what I would really love is if they would say, “Isn’t God [insert superlative] awesome!”
And finally, the baptism of Jesus is a reminder that when God sees us, he sees us for who we are in Jesus Christ, with those words, “You are my beloved child and I am delighted in you.” I suggest that you read those words slowly and out loud, starting it with your own name, and reflect on God saying those words to you. You are God’s beloved child and God is delighted in you.