Epiphany and the Baptism of Christ: Part 1

Epiphany and the Baptism of Christ: Part 1

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,

“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
    make his paths straight.’”

Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

“I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.  His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

–Matthew 3:1-17

The season of Epiphany forces us to confront the question: Who is Jesus?

Who is this person who prompts worship from foreigners, who incites murder from usurping kings, who substitutes for and represents Israel, and who confuses the boundaries of Jewish monotheism?

This question is a thread that weaves throughout Jesus’ public ministry. Who is this person who drives out demons, heals the sick, walks on water, forgives sins, feeds the hungry, eats with tax collectors and sinners, raises people from the dead, and whom even the winds and the waves obey?

The baptism of Jesus grants us an opportunity to answer this question in the light of Epiphany. For the next three weeks, we will zoom in on the baptism of Jesus to explore how this event explains to us Jesus’ identity and purpose.

A proper understanding of Jesus’ baptism has to begin with John the Baptist. What was John doing out in the desert, and why was he doing it?

The Greek word “baptizo” as used in Mark 1:4 means to immerse or plunge into water for washing. One famous use of the word is in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures (the Christian Old Testament), in 2 Kings 5:14, where the leprous Syrian general Naaman “went down and dipped (baptized) himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God, and his flesh was restored like the flesh of a little child, and he was clean.”

Although the term “baptizo” is not used to describe Israelite rituals, it likely has roots in the purification codes of the Tvilah, which in turn draw from Torah (ie, Leviticus 15:11, Leviticus 15:13-14).

Eventually, after the Babylonian Exile as Gentiles began to convert to Judaism, ritual washing became part of the conversion process. Accordingly, a male Gentile convert would not only be circumcised to join the covenant family of Abraham, but also baptized to repent for and be purified from his prior life of idol-worship.

After the Exile, the Jewish nation continued to be dominated by foreign powers. The religious group called the Pharisees began to advocate for national obedience to the Jewish Law. In particular, they believed that obedience to the purification codes for Temple service must expand to outside the Temple, which would result in the return of YHWH to the land–the nation of Israel would then drive out the pagan Romans, the Herodians, and their Jewish collaborators, and inaugurate God’s Kingdom on earth. This expanded set of rules included an elaborate system of ritual washings for purification. It is for this reason that the Pharisees criticize Jesus for his failure to wash his hands before he ate with them (Luke 11:37-41).

Similarly, the Qumran community–best known for the Dead Sea Scrolls–was an ascetic sect that practiced baptism after the Exile for ritual purity. The Qumran community was obsessed with the end of the world, or Apocalypse, which they taught would begin with the arrival of Israel’s Messiah. In their Manual of Discipline, they taught that those who wish to enter the community must put into practice Isaiah 43:10, and “In the wilderness prepare the way for the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”

Some scholars have connected John the Baptist to the Qumran community. But whatever the case, it is clear that his call to Israel to repent would have been understood in the light of these background understandings and associations: National repentance for their failure to worship Israel’s God, purification from sins, and the cleansing of the land to clear the way for God’s return, all so that He would raise up a Messiah who would drive out the oppressors and bring the Judgment of Apocalypse.

In this context, John’s act of baptizing in the Jordan River gains added significance. The Book of Joshua begins with the crossing of the Jordan River into the land promised to Israel. Once in the land, the tribes cleanse the land of pollution and idolatry through war with the Canaanite nations. Once the land has been purified by this war, Israel can then worship YHWH freely. (See Joshua 3). Israel’s crossing of the Jordan itself mirrors the original act of the Lord’s deliverance of Israel, when God baptizes the new nation by bringing the people through the waters of the Red Sea, out of slavery and into freedom. (See Exodus 14).

With this in mind, we can better appreciate and understand John’s baptism of Jesus. Jesus is the true Israelite able to fully repent for Israel’s failures with his blood, so that God can dwell fully with His people. Jesus’ blood purifies the people from their sins, so that they can truly become the kingdom of priests the Pharisees sought to be through ritual obedience. After “crossing the Jordan,” Jesus will cleanse the land of pollution and idolatry–but this time, not through a war against pagans, but through a war with the forces of evil that hold all of humankind in bondage. Jesus’ ministry of healing and reconciliation drives out pagans by drawing them in and converting them. Jesus ends humankind’s slavery to sin, and liberates us to enjoy God’s freedom forever.

The baptism of Jesus is about the fulfillment of God’s eternal plan, to reconcile all of humanity to Himself through the family of Abraham (Genesis 22:18). Jesus fully identifies with Israel’s purpose to bless the world, and God’s promise to cleanse the world of evil. In coming weeks, we will talk about how the baptism of Jesus is also the moment of his anointing as Messiah and establishes his identity as the Divine Son.

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