If ever there were a passage that requires an understanding not only of history, but also of geography, it is this one. But before we get to that, let us ask a simple question: What images play out in our minds when we read the accounts of Jesus’ baptism?
Many movie directors have attempted to visualize this scene for us. Here are a couple of such visualizations.
If we compare these visualizations with current Christian practice we would find a lot of overlap. And one would come away with the impression that the baptism administered by John was a ritual that looked very much like Christian baptism.
But is this necessarily so? More to the point, is there evidence that this was so?
Just to make a stark contrast, would you imagine that the prayers of a devout Hindu or Muslim were similar to your prayers? The word for prayer exists in every language, but we know that Christian prayer is quite different from Hindu and Muslim prayer. Indeed, even different from Jewish prayer.
Further, a Christian fast differs from a Hindu or Muslim or Jewish fast. Just on Friday, Alice and I went to a place in Jayanagar that dishes out Maharashtrian food. And prominent on the menu were items to be eaten when one is fasting, something quite out of place within the Christian context.
My point is simply this: The context within which a word appears determines its meaning. And this is true also of the words ‘baptism’ and ‘baptize’. We cannot assume that the mode of John’s baptism was the same as that practiced by Christians. And we will see that the mode of John’s baptism is critical to understand the puzzling fact that, though John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, Jesus, whom we believe was sinless, nevertheless submitted to this baptism.
The noun form ‘baptism’ is found only in Christian writings, so it is difficult to understand from it what John was doing. However, the verb ‘to baptize’ is common in Jewish writings by the time of Jesus. In the Septuagint, it appears only once, in 2 Kings 5 to describe Namaan’s act of immersing himself in the Jordan.
This single occurrence, however, gave rise to a common Jewish use and the verb ‘to baptize’ appears in numerous Jewish writings. The main idea in these writings is that of a cleansing ritual. Like all the Jewish rituals, these were supposed to be done repeatedly, whenever one had done something that rendered a person unclean.
Moreover, as in the Namaan passage, all occurrences are in the reflexive form. One performed this baptizing on oneself.
These two aspects – repetition and self-administration – set the Jewish usage of the word apart from both John’s baptism and Christian baptism. Christian baptism and John’s baptism differed from Jewish baptism in that they were both administered only once and by someone else.
However, the New Testament writings link baptism with cleansing, something that John does not do. In other words, we are talking of three different meanings for the verb ‘to baptize’ – the then common Jewish one, the one that would develop within the church, and the one meant by John. The first two – Jewish and Christian – differed from John’s in that they linked baptism with cleansing, while John linked it to the act of repentance.
Further, Jewish and Christian baptism could be performed anywhere, but John seemed to have insisted on performing his baptism near the Jordan. The Gospel of John indicates that John administered his baptism while on the Eastern bank of the Jordan. So what did this area look like?
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Click here for pictures
From these pictures, one thing is clear. The Jordan was quite a dirty river in the region around Jericho and Bethany. In other words, if John intended his baptism to be a cleansing ritual, he couldn’t have chosen a worse place! No one would have gone to the Jordan to become clean. That was precisely what Namaan objected to!
So what in the world was John the Baptist doing? The key to this lies in the location he had chosen. He did not choose just any part of the Jordan, but the region right across from Jericho as we saw in the aerial view of the Jordan valley.
This was an evocative location, filled with history and remembrance for the Jews and we dare not forget that John, his disciples, Jesus and his disciples were all Jews. What would these Jews have brought to mind?
What else but their ancestors standing at the threshold of the promised land a millennium and a half earlier!? Something was happening here under the eye of John that was intended to bring to mind the end of the desert wanderings and the entry into the Promised Land.
In a nutshell, the Exodus story was this: Israel was enslaved in a land of captivity. Under the guidance of Moses they were led out of Egypt and into the wilderness where they were tested for 40 years. At the end of the 40 years they find themselves at the Eastern bank of the Jordan, across from Jericho, waiting to enter the land God had promised Abraham.
Now let us turn our focus back on John. The Gospel accounts of his ministry place him clearly in the wilderness region. And here he is at the Eastern bank of the Jordan. He has called Israel to come out of the land of enslavement to sin and to join him on the Eastern bank of the Jordan to prepare for the Kingdom of God, the ultimate Promised Land.
This view of John’s baptism accounts for a number of things that are otherwise inexplicable.
First, it accounts for why John’s ministry is a desert ministry. There is nothing really great about being in a desert unless it were pointing to a larger truth, in this case the Exodus and desert wanderings.
Second, it account for why John located himself across from Jericho. At that time, Jericho was a village of insignificance in the first century. John could very well have located himself further North, nearer Galilee where Jesus would begin his own ministry. The only reason for choosing Jericho was once again to evoke the entrance in the Promised Land.
Third, it accounts for why the dirtiness of the Jordan did not faze John. His was not a baptism of cleansing, which would require clean water. The idea here was not that of having water poured on you or of your being immersed in the water. Rather the idea was that you cross a body of water, like the Israelites crossed the Red Sea. And then you enter the desert.
Fourth, it explains why the Gospel accounts indicate that when Jesus came through the water, he was led to the desert to be tempted for 40 days. If John’s baptism were simply like Christian baptism, this would be a mysterious thing.
However, if John were re-enacting the Exodus and desert wanderings, this makes sense. Coming out of a land of enslavement and then being in the desert for a symbolic 40 days is as close to a re-enactment as one could get. In other words, we should treat the account of Jesus’ temptation as another aspect of his baptism by John rather than a separate occasion.
Fifth, it explains why, contrary to Jewish baptism and the water rituals of every other religion, John’s baptism was not self-administered. The Israelites in Egypt needed a deliverer to take them out of Egypt and to herd them through the desert. They couldn’t do it themselves and so also John’s baptism required the hand of John.
Sixth, it explains why, contrary to Jewish baptism and the water rituals of every other religion, John’s baptism was done only once on a person. If it were cleansing, it would have to be repeated again and again, like the Christian counterpart of confessing of sins. But if it were an enactment of the Exodus and desert wanderings then it needed to be done only once. In fact, it could not be done more than once. Entrance into the Promised Land is not a repeatable event.
Seventh, it explains what is embarrassing if we pause to think of it. Which religious movement would begin with an account that its Guru was actually sanctioned by someone lesser than he? Krishna, in the Mahabharata, needs no human sanctioning. He arrives at the scene and is self-attested. The same is true of Ram in the Ramayana. And Mohammed too has no pre-cursor. But here we have Jesus coming to John right after John has declared openly that he is unworthy even to do a slaves work for Jesus.
We are now in a position to understand what John was saying and therefore what was happening when Jesus was baptized. John calls the attention of his hearers to the fact that there are two non-repeatable baptisms. On the one hand, there is his baptism of repentance in water for the forgiveness of sins. On the other hand, there is the baptism in the Holy Spirit and fire, the baptism that Jesus administers. And this is why the Gospel of John clarifies that Jesus did not baptize people with water as the medium.
Now we can understand the strange exchange between John and Jesus. This is what our passage says:
John has made a distinction between the baptism he administers and the baptism Jesus administers. And he has already said that Jesus’ baptism is the superior one. When he says, “I need to be baptized by you” he does not mean that Jesus should immerse him in water or pour water over his head. Rather, he is saying that he wants to experience that wonderful Spirit baptism that Jesus administers.
And when Jesus says, “It is proper for us to do this to fulfil all righteousness” what does he mean? The conventional view of John’s baptism that makes it like Christian baptism cannot account for this and we then have to speak of Jesus identifying with sinners. But if he was sinless, this baptism at John’s hand would have been a farce.
But if John was like Moses leading the former slaves to the border of the Promised Land, then it makes sense. For Moses did not enter the Promised Land. Rather, the one who took the Israelites into the Promised Land was the one after whom Jesus himself was named – Joshua.
What Jesus is saying is this, “You have begun a re-enactment of the Exodus and desert wanderings. You have taken on the role of Moses. But you know that you cannot enter the Promised Land. You must now hand over the mantle to the one who will complete this enactment – me. This is how you and I are related in God’s plan. You are like Moses. I am like Joshua. And while both you and I would love it if you could experience this wonderful Spirit baptism, you, like Moses, cannot experience it.”
This is why later in his ministry, Jesus would say, “The law and the prophets were until John. Since then the good news of the Kingdom of God is being preached.” What else would we expect from the one who is to complete what John began and bring his people to that Promised Land which is the life in the Spirit?