The Baptism of Jesus Christ

John the baptizer is one of the most interesting and significant characters of the New Testament, even though he lived his entire life under the old law and was happily resigned to his status as a transitional figure.

John was born in about 6 B.C. to the aged and very devout priest Zechariah and his wife, Elizabeth, the latter of whom was cousin to Mary. His own arrival was also the subject of both prophecy and supernatural announcement. He was a latter-day Elijah (Second Kings 1:8, Malachi 3:1, 4:5-6), sent by God to prepare the people of Israel for the messiah’s advent with a singular theme: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:2 ESV).

Like most preachers, John was rather unusual. He invaded the wilderness of Judea in a camel’s hair garment and dined on locusts and wild honey, but the force and freshness of his message appealed to the beleaguered generation before him, who came to repent of their sins and to be baptized in anticipation of the savior. First century Jews lived in hope of the restoration of a Davidic kingdom, the expulsion of the Roman occupiers, and a return to national liberty and pride. The kingdom John would preach and Jesus would found, however, treated those goals as mere metaphors for spiritual redemption and a limitless spiritual realm.

His preaching was punctuated by an invitation to be baptized – plunged beneath the surface of the Jordan River to complete their conversion. Baptism, derived perhaps from customary Old Testament washings took on new significance as John employed its drama and imagery to indicate the cleansing of the conscience.

John’s success even caught the attention of the Pharisees and Sadducees – very different Jewish sects from the city who would become the chief adversaries of Jesus. Pharisees were legalistically devoted to human, religious tradition; Sadducees cooperated more with Rome and boasted their own unique convictions about Judaism. John, however, rejected these – the most apparently religious people in Jerusalem – calling them a brood of vipers and implying that they had come to him for the wrong reasons. They pursued the ritual act of baptism, but without the requisite sense of remorse over personal sin and yearning to be forgiven.

One another baptism candidate appears in this context – Jesus himself! Humbly, John wished to switch places with his cousin, but Jesus insisted that he baptized to fulfill all righteousness, to identify himself with his disciples and to prove his complete submission to the will of his Father, who thundered forth his approval: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17).

Baptism continues to be a controversial subject in the world today, but for very different reasons than in the extended first century ministries of John and Jesus.

Arguments today focus upon the mode (immersion, sprinkling, pouring, feeling), purpose (remission of sins, denominational membership, deception), and suitable candidate (repentant believers, passive infants, the dead). In the first century, however, the initial controversy involved John’s refusal to pad his numbers by baptizing people that he perceived were insincere. Those whom he did baptize, contextually, were not innocent, sprinkled babies, but mature people who were willing to acknowledge their guilt and be immersed where there was much water.

John’s baptism was very temporary, in that it remained in effect only from the start of his ministry until Jesus went to the cross. The ritual punctuated his preaching and answered an invitation to take responsibility for moral shortcomings (Luke 3:10-14). It recognized the imminent coming of the kingdom and the urgent need to be prepared with the character of true citizenship. It put no trust in the traditional keystone of Jewish complacency, Abrahamic heritage, but required a determination to begin walking by faith.

John turned away the hypocrites among the Pharisees and Sadducees, evidently sensing that they had ulterior motives for following the crowds out to the Jordan, and that their interest in baptism was selfish. Although himself a Jew, John risked alienating his entire audience by proclaiming that Jewish blood was not the equivalent of divine approval, predicting a culling of the unfaithful from God’s nation as as the messiah swept into power.

It is Christ’s baptism, that provokes controversy today. That baptism is unto the remission of sins, and predicated upon belief and repentance, coinciding with a willingness to confess the lordship of Christ (Acts 2:36-41, Romans 10:9-10, Acts 8:35-40). It requires sufficient water to immerse the believer, and at least one personal sin to wash away (First Peter 3:18-22). Baptism, Peter would teach, saves the sinner, but only in conjunction with the shed blood of a savior. Sinners are saved by grace through faith; submission to Christ’s baptism is a part of that process (Galatians 3:27, Colossians 2:11-12, Romans 6:1-6).

Baptism itself was not John’s theme, however. Baptism was a means to an end – preparation for the imminent establishment of God’s holy kingdom. Although it seems, that generation might have settled for the restoration of an earthly nation, God had in mind a spiritual kingdom that would adopt citizens from every race and realm. Modern Premillennialism contends that the kingdom prophecy was never fulfilled, but the New Testament indicates that Jesus succeeded and reigns even  now over the universal church (Acts 2:29-33, Colossians 1:13, First Timothy 6:15, Revelation 1:6). The “kingdom come” prayer was granted on the first Pentecost after the cross as God added to the church the names of those who obeyed the gospel.