In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.
There’s some serious ambivalence about this verse. Actually, it’s not the verse, but the event it narrates. So before getting to the specifics of the story of Jesus’ baptism, I want to spend a moment on the very fact that Jesus is baptized in the first place and the interesting confusion this created for the earliest Christians.
Most of this confusion can be summarized by a single question: why was Jesus baptized? If he is God’s son, if he is perfect and sinless, if he is the Messiah, what need did he have for ritual cleansing, for confession and repentance? Do you see what I mean? The very idea of Jesus being baptized was a bit troubling.
Further, why would Jesus go to John? Does this mean he was John’s disciple? Is the one who baptizes more important than, or at least have authority over, the one who is baptized? These questions also vexed some of Christ’s first followers.
You can see some of the solutions the early Christian communities came up with. In the Gospel According to John, for instance – the last of the four biblical gospels to be written – John the Baptist doesn’t actually baptize Jesus at all. He only reports that he saw the Holy Spirit descend on Jesus. (We might, therefore, call him John the Witness.) In Mark’s account, by contrast, John himself directs attention to Jesus’ superiority – Jesus is the one, after all, who will baptize not only with water but also with the Holy Spirit.
Why is Jesus baptized? What is the precise nature of his relationship to John? Quite honestly, we can’t say for sure. The answers to these questions are lodged, in a very real sense, behind the story we’ve been given. Whatever may have taken place between Jesus and John – conversations or discussions, a long-standing relationship or brief encounter, for instance – we don’t have access to; all that we have is Mark’s account.
But I think what Mark reports is enough, even more than enough. Because what we can say – and say with confidence – is that in and through his baptism Jesus once again identifies with us. That is, he is baptized just as we are. He receives that baptism at the hands of another, just as we do. He is in this sense dependent on a larger community to come into his own, just as we must. In all these ways, the questions that vexed the early Christians need not vex us, for as we read Mark’s account of Jesus’ baptism we learn something not simply about Jesus, but also about us and, most importantly, about the God who sent Jesus out of love for us.
Prayer: Dear God, let us read the story of your Son in confidence and hope, never fearing to ask our hardest questions and always open to receiving surprising answers. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
Post image: He Qi, The Baptism of Jesus
Additional note: for a more detailed theological exploration of Jesus’ baptism, see Clint Schnekloth’s post earlier this year.