Monday, January 12, 2009

Sundry Thoughts on the Baptism of Jesus

A few random thoughts about Jesus' baptism prompted by yesterday's text & sermon:

[1] The Hebraic form of "Jesus" is, of course, "Joshua." So in Jesus' baptism, we have a second, greater Joshua entering the promised land through the Jordan.

[2] Jesus also refers to his crucifixion as a baptism (Mk 10.38-39, Lk 12.50). So we have a baptism as the beginning of Jesus' earthly ministry and, as it were, at the end of his earthly ministry.

Somewhat interestingly, on the Day of Atonement, the high priest washes himself twice -- once immediately before he puts on the holy garments to do his work (Lev 16.4) and once immediately right after he takes off the holy garments after doing releasing the scape goat into the wilderness (Lev 16.24). So here, too, the high priest is twice baptized, once at the beginning of his work before God, and once the work on the Day of Atonement is completed.

[3] Jesus' baptism also represents the point at which God "anointed" him (Acts 10.38, 4.27). I'm not sure, but I think that the Spirit descending on Jesus is his anointing; I don't think that baptism is ever referred to as an anointing.

In any event, Saul and David were also anointed. That's worth noting because of what God said regarding Jesus, "This is my son, in whom I am well pleased." We often take it to be an ontological statement of Jesus' divinity. But I suspect that the Jewish hearers of the voice would more likely think of 2 Sam 7.14 -- i.e., that God's anointed son is Israel's (human) king.

Incidentally related -- I believe that all, or almost all, references to "anointing" prior to 1 Samuel are references to the anointment of priests. From 1 Samuel onward, all, or almost all, references to anointing are references to the anointment of kings. One apparent difference between "kings" and "judges" (i.e., Israel's judges in Joshua and Judges) was that the judges were not anointed, while the kings were. I'm unsure what the full upshot of that observation is.

[4] When Jesus responds to John the Baptizer's objection to baptizing him, Jesus responds that, receiving baptism should be permitted "at this time, for in this way it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness" (Mt 3.15).

My question at this point is the relationship of Jesus' statement about the purpose of his baptism, to John's statement is the purpose of his baptism (i.e., that it is a "baptism of repentance").

That is, is the purpose that Jesus identifies for his baptism -- that in this way he fulfills all righteousness -- is that purpose a different purpose than John's or is it in the context of John's purpose.

Let me first say that I don't have a problem with either answer. The idea that Jesus' baptism, as it were, is his identification with sinful humanity is just fine with me. It's just that I don't think that Jesus' language needs to be taken to mean that. It seems possible to me that in responding to John's objection to him being baptized, Jesus basically says, "You're right, it is not fitting that I undergo a baptism of repentance, nevertheless, I shall be baptized because righteousness requires that I do so."

That answer, it seems to me, would be consistent with the answer that the high priest would have made on the Day of Atonment: I am baptized in order to fulfill all righteousness -- i.e., in order to perform the work that I am doing.

I should note here, that I think that the high priest's baptisms on the Day of Atonement mark of liturgical movement, not ethical movement. To wit, there is no obvious reason for the second baptism of the priest, when he has finished his work after releasing the scapegoat. What I'd suggest is that the two baptisms liturgically represent the high priest's movement through the water barrier that separates heaven from earth (Gn 1.6-7).

I'll try to post more comprehensively on this idea at some point. While there is a fair amount in the Bible on this point, in point of fact, almost all of us are already intimately familiar with this theme from the words of the old spiritual, "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot." Recall the words, "I looked over Jordan and what did I see, coming for to carry me home, A band of angels coming after me, coming for to carry me home." The reference to "Jordan" obvious refers to the blue expanse between heaven and earth.

In any event, I don't have a problem with Jesus' baptism being, as it were, a union or identification with fallen humanity, but I do wonder about alternative ways of taking his first baptism.


Blogger Wayne said...

As I'm nearing the end of my sermon series on Ezra-Nehemiah, I find myself wondering about the relationship between Jesus' statement about fulfilling all righteousness (and John the Baptist's call to repentance) and what appears to be something of a ratcheting up of holiness demands in E-N.

January 24, 2009 10:16 AM  
Blogger Jim said...


Was there a change in the priesthood at this time (a la Heb 7.12)?

January 24, 2009 4:30 PM  

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