The Baptism Of Jesus
The baptism that John the Baptist conducted was much different than Christian baptism. It was basically a baptism signifying two things:
1. Repentance of sin. It was an outward expression of an inward repentance. Individuals were admitting that they had transgression and desired to live according to God's law.
2. It was also an acknowledgment of the need for something more than Jewish heritage to gain God's acceptance for that repentance.
John urged people not to rely on the fact that they were "children of Abraham." he called for individual repentance.1
Christian baptism is a symbol of new life. It pictures the new identity that we, as Christians, have in Christ. John's baptism was a symbol of the need to repent of sin in one's life and renounce the idea that heritage in and of itself results in salvation. These differences should lead us to a question: Why was Jesus baptized? Was their sin in his life that needed repentance?
Scripture indicates that he was tempted in all things but did not sin.2 If he was without sin, why did he go through a baptism that symbolized repentance of sin in one's life?
Most Western commentators suggest that Jesus went through this baptism to identify with sinful humanity. There may be some truth to that. But understanding the culture of first-century Palestine can bring us more understanding than just his identifying with us, as important as that may be.
A fragment was found among the Dead Sea Scrolls that has shed some light on the baptism of Jesus.3 It gives us some thoughts on the phrase "descending as a dove" (v. 16).
Early Christians lived with expectations of being in the end-times; this was also characteristic of much of first-century Judaism. But they thought of "end-times" much differently than we do in our time. We think of the end-time as the end of time here on earth for society as we know it. They thought of end-time, not as the end of time, but as a new beginning. It would mark the time when paradise would be restored. This same thought is seen in the Book of Revelation. It mentions a new heaven, a new earth, the river of life, and so on.4
The early Jewish readers who were familiar with Jewish tradition and thought, as well as Scripture, would understand that the Gospel writers were communicating something very special in the baptism of Jesus. He was bringing a new creation, a new era in time. Immediately after the actual baptism, we are told that Jesus saw the heavens opening, and the Spirit like a dove descending upon him, and he heard a voice from heaven saying that he was the beloved Son.5
The Dead Sea Scroll fragment predicts a messianic future when the heavens and earth will obey the Messiah: "And over the Poor (the saints) will his Spirit hover and the Faithful will he support with his strength."6
The Hebrew of the first half of the line is an allusion to the Hebrew of Genesis 1:2. As in the beginning of time the Spirit hovered over the surface of the waters, so at the beginning of the end of time, the Spirit will hover over the saints. This adds evidence to the Jewish thought behind the baptism of Jesus.
What Matthew and Mark's account would have communicated to the early church readers would be this: "Something new is here." As in the beginning of time the Spirit of God was present in creation; now, in Jesus, the Spirit of God is present in a new creation.
This is very significant for us today. The Apostle Paul wrote about our new creation as Christians.7 Many Christians today feel impure because of past choices, acts, thoughts, words, etc. We confess our sins, and it seems the same things get brought up time after time. We do not really feel like a new creature. We may feel like a creature but not in the biblical sense. We remember our sins, our junk, our failures. But here is the message of the meaning of Jesus' baptism: Even though I remember, God does not. Something new is here!
To love conditionally is against God's nature. God does not hold grudges: God does not keep score. Something new is here.
Lee G. Pattison Jerusalem Center for Biblical Studies
Lee G. Pattison, Ph.D., is a professor of Biblical Archaeology and Biblical Studies at the Jerusalem Center for Biblical Studies in Jerusalem. For more information about study programs at the Center, call 1-800-929-5327.