The lectionary passage for today is about the baptism of Jesus, which ends the Christmas story and begins his ministry. Unlike the birth narrative, three of the four gospels talk about Jesus’ baptism and John talks around it, so it must be important. Christmas is a time of promise and hope; we speak and sing about what Jesus will do. In the Bible, there are many proclamations: The angel Gabriel talks to Zechariah and Mary, other angels speak to the shepherds, Simeon and Anna proclaim in the temple, the wise men in their own way announce his birth. There is a lot of activity around Jesus. But Jesus does nothing himself. Even at age 12, he astounds by his wisdom, but that is all. The baptism changes all that. Jesus is baptized, then he is tempted, and then he goes out, calls his disciples, and starts preaching. The baptism is the boundary between promise and action.
I find the usual explanations of the baptism of Jesus to be unsatisfying. Troublesome passages should be studied and understood.
All Jesus says to John about himself being baptized is that “all righteousness must be fulfilled,” which points to baptism needing to be done and apparently then. Any explanation needs to account for this. Righteousness means doing what one is supposed to do in God’s eyes. It is doing something that is not optional or a suggestion or even above what is required.
We understand baptism to be symbolic of the washing of sins away to enter a redeemed life of service to God. It is a once-and-done ritual. We are washing the spiritual dirt away by Jesus’ blood to begin a life of ministry. John is baptizing by the Jordan river for essentially the same purpose. This is not a new ritual that John the Baptist has sprung on the Judeans, although it might have been more public than normal. In John 1:21, when the chief priests and elders came to John, they didn’t ask what he was doing, they asked for his authority: “Why are you baptizing? Are you The Prophet or Elijah?” Being public, it appears to be a public statement of past, regretted sin. In Judaism, the mikvah was, and remains, important. It is a ritual bath in which, when one immerses oneself in the water, one is ritually clean at sunset. It is a private ceremony, gender segregated. However, whatever the details, it is a physical sign of the need to remove spiritual filth and to be ceremonially clean, and ceremonially clean itself is a reminder to be spiritually clean.
This does not fit Jesus. We are told that he never sinned, many times. His act of redemption on the cross depends on him being the Lamb of God, without blemish. There was never a need for Jesus to be baptized for the remission of sins. For him to say that he needed to be washed of his sins can reasonably said to be a lie, so this is not what is going on. The “all righteousness” does not apply here. It applies to us, but not to Jesus. We need to look for another explanation.
Another explanation is that by being baptized, Jesus experienced what the rest of us experience. But, the core of baptism, as opposed to taking an ordinary bath, is the washing away of sins. To use Methodist imagery: sprinkling in front of the congregation is way different than being dripped on out in the rain. So, this too does not ring true.
To say that Jesus did this to make it look like he was an ordinary person makes Jesus an actor, and Jesus used the Greek word for actor to rebuke people who were living their lives in pretense or for show. “Hypocrite” is the Greek word. Besides, Jesus never shied away from breaking convention.
It must be said that Jesus, at his resurrection, would both feel the weight of sin (having taken it upon himself for redemption) and, when it was finished, feel the relief of it being removed. This would be something like the baptism, but not yet.
Another explanation that is floated is that Jesus shows that he was willing to be as physically and socially vulnerable as everybody else in being baptized. This is like shaving one’s hair in solidarity with a classmate or co-worker who is losing hair due to chemo. This idea has its charm. This is sympathy or compassion. These are a matter of grace, not righteousness, since sympathy, compassion, or grace are not commanded. So again “all righteousness” does not fit. Lest it be misunderstood, grace, sympathy, compassion are, among others, fruits of the spirit as Paul talks about in Galatians, but they are not law. If anything they are above law, above righteousness.
I think the passage in Exodus 40 is the key. Usually by the time we get to the last chapter of Exodus, all the instructions for setting up the tent of meeting and worship have become overwhelming in the detail and we start to miss things. This last chapter is action, and we should wake up.
In the preceding chapters, there is much instruction about how to set up the tabernacle and some detail on who did what, who has what duties, and so on. Now, in chapter 40, it comes time to launch. The priesthood has been chosen, the tabernacle has been built, the tent woven, and it is time bring sacrifices before God.
Now there is this commissioning ritual: Aaron and his sons are washed in full view of the assembled Israelites by Moses. Then they are dressed in priestly clothes and set apart for the task set out for them. Their task:
- be a conduit for the Word of God.
- represent God to the people
- intercede for the sins of the people by offering sacrifices,
If this sounds familiar, this is what Jesus did, albeit more successfully.
Now there are several things between Exodus 40:12-15 and 40:34-35 all having to do with setting up and launching the tabernacle. At the end, God affirms this launch by filling the place with his glory.
There can be the objection that Aaron and his sons are being washed of sins, although the text does not say so and there were other purification rituals. Importantly, every time washing is prescribed in Exodus or Leviticus, one is only clean at sundown, not immediately. In this ritual, they are immediately dressed in priestly clothes; sundown comes later. It is as likely that this marked the point beyond which they could no longer own land, and had to live on the tithes of the other eleven tribes.
Jesus’ baptism comes at the beginning of his ministry. Before this, he is the son of a tekton: a worker of stone and wood. Presumably Jesus, as the dutiful son, worked, and he worked the same trade. After the baptism, there is no indication that Jesus ever held a hammer or used a chisel. He first went out into the wilderness and faced temptation and, unlike Adam and Eve, he resisted the deceptions of Satan; he is the second Adam. Then he began to preach, heal, work miracles, and forgive sins.
So, back to the Jordan and John the Baptist. Jesus says he wants baptism to fulfill all righteousness. So, which righteousness is it? The elements are the same: a major prophet publicly washes the first members of an upcoming priesthood. At consecration, God responds with a very public affirmation. For Aaron’s descendants, this was a “once-and-done,” and generations of priests followed Aaron. For Jesus, he is the first and last member of this priesthood. God says, “This is My Son, the beloved,” and Jesus the Priest begins his duties.
This is the righteousness that I think Jesus spoke of: a proper ordination. For me, it has the advantage that it is fully truthful; there is no acting. It may be that John the Baptist did not understand what was happening, but he saw that there was something bigger than he understood and obeyed. When it comes to God, there is always mystery. The mystery for me is why a proper ordination was needed at all. But, that is a question for another day.
We think of Jesus as many things: Child in the Manger, Messiah, Savior, Teacher, Brother, and so on. We don’t often think of Jesus as the Priest, but we see him forgiving sins as he walked the roads of Judea and Galilee, typically with healing. Forgiving sins in the name of God with a sacrifice is what the Aaronic priests did. It is what Jesus did, and does, too.
The way we run our denomination doesn’t help us here. Roman Catholics have a priesthood. One confesses to a priest and, on the strength of repentance and Jesus’ sacrifice, sins are forgiven. I don’t know how rigidly they hold to the pattern, but it is the normal pattern, visible to outsiders, which is to say us. Agree with this idea or not (I don’t), but the image of what a priest does is very much that of forgiver of sins, teacher, and spiritual mentor. We read of failures in some of these matters, but give credit for most of the Roman Catholic priesthood for trying to do this. The Anglican tradition (out of which Methodism comes) seems to have some hybrid approach. American Methodism seems to be the same as most Protestants in that Jesus is our High Priest. We are, in effect, “low priests”: pastors teach and are mentors but don’t forgive sins. That is between us and Jesus. It is good theology, but we tend to lose sight of the fact that we have and need a priest. We really should start with good theology and practice in a way that speaks to our weaknesses.
We are in effect low priests because we (including the person standing up here and the people sitting down) proclaim the word. In doing, we mediate between people and God, proclaiming Jesus’ forgiveness to the repentant. We, as low priests, point to the High Priest.
Apart from explaining what I think is a poorly understood episode in Jesus’ life, this should remind you that we have a priest. We have a priest because we need one, and we should not be afraid to approach the throne of grace. In your prayers, confessions, meditations, and Bible study think on this. Understand the blessing that it is. And, most of all, approach the throne of grace as needed.
~~ Ron Myers, Certified Lay Speaker