Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Wrestling with Baptism

How many baptisms are there?

I have noticed many reference to "the baptism of John" in the New Testament. Jesus talks about it (Matthew 21:25); Peter talks about it (Acts 1:22); Paul talks about it (Acts 19:4). Somehow this baptism of John represents something different from the baptism of Jesus.

So, why does this baptism stuff matter anyway? Why did Jesus, Peter, and Paul all make a big deal of it? Here is my understanding of the various baptisms.

First, there is the baptism of ritual cleansing. This baptism is not mentioned in the New Testament, but it is a key part of the religious context of Jesus' day. Dozens of baptismal fonts graced the south side of the Temple Mount when the Lord came to Jerusalem. For Jews to worship at the Jewish feasts, they had to be ritually cleansed by immersion. Priests baptized the faithful just before they entered the Temple grounds, cleansing them before they made their sacrifices. This baptism made them outwardly acceptable for worship.

Baptismal fonts, called Mikvehs, at the south entrance to the
Temple Mount

John (the Baptist) probably baptized thousands coming to the feasts, year after year. He may also have served as the supervisor for a staff of other priests who actually baptized. He was likely known as John the Baptist while working at the Temple.

Being the prophet he was, John recognized the hypocrisy of the religious establishment. The priests schemed with the Romans to keep their place of privilege and honor, lording it over the ordinary Jews.

When John had enough of this abusive system he went rogue. He went out into the wilderness, to the Jordan river, to the place where Joshua led the Israelites into the Promised Land. There he introduced another kind of baptism.

The second kind of baptism is the baptism of repentance. For John, it was not enough to be ritually cleansed. He called people to commit to turn from their sins. The baptism indicated their determination to be obedient to God, not complicit with the corrupt religious system. He was a famous prophet, leading a kind of loyal opposition. He was loyal to God, opposing the religious establishment. No wonder thousands went out to the desert to follow him. This movement prepared the way for Jesus.

Information about baptismal fonts near the Southern Steps of the Temple
Then Jesus introduced the third kind of baptism, the baptism of resurrection. When people followed Jesus, they received more than a determination to do better. They received new life. The old sinful nature was declared dead. They were raised to walk in newness of life (Romans 6:4).

So baptism was practiced long before John and Jesus. But they gave the rite new meaning, deepening its significance. What baptism did you receive? It makes a difference.

And then, there is the baptism of the Holy Spirit...