The most skeptical New Testament scholars, the ones who question the historicity of almost everything, agree on this story. The baptism of Jesus happened as certainly as any event in the gospels. This conclusion comes not because three gospels record it, but because the early church wouldn't have told this story if they didn't have to. Jesus' baptism was hard to explain and a little embarrassing. Why would the Christ, the child of God, submit to a baptism of repentance? If baptism is for the forgiveness of sins and Jesus is sinless, then what does Jesus' baptism mean? Matthew mentions that John himself was uneasy and hesitant. Luke makes as little of the event as possible, not even saying who did the baptizing. The church has always had trouble understanding this story. Jesus' baptism, not unlike our own, is hard to completely understand.
This story is discomforting in part because John the Baptist was discomforting. John stormed out of the wilderness, feeding on locusts and washing them down with wild honey, proclaiming a new kingdom, coming in water and fire, warning especially the religious people of the wrath to come. John's baptism was revolutionary. He treated Jews like Jews treated pagan converts, requiring them to be baptized, calling them to repentance.
Surprisingly, crowds flocked to John to be baptized, but John didn't allow his popularity to detract from his mission. He knew his work was preparatory and partial. After him one would come who would baptize not in water but in Spirit.
That one came to the river and into the muddy Jordan. When Jesus came up out of the water, he saw heaven split wide open and the Spirit descending. He heard the voice of God. Mark gives no indication that anyone but Jesus saw the Spirit or heard the voice. Those gathered on the shore had no idea what it all meant. They probably assumed that Jesus was now one of John's disciples. Without the rest of Jesus' life his baptism is incomprehensible.
The purpose of Jesus' baptism is seen in the days and years that followed that afternoon in the Jordan. It's when we see Jesus taking his place with hurting people that his baptism starts to make sense. Jesus' baptism in the Jordan foreshadowed his baptism on the cross. Baptism was Jesus' commissioning for ministry.
During the week before his death, Jesus was challenged by the leaders of the temple; "By what authority do you do these things?" Jesus answers with a reference to his baptism: "Was the baptism of John from heaven or not? I was baptized. That's how all this started." It was in the waters of baptism that Jesus heard the Spirit calling him to speak the truth and to live with grace.
Paul Tillich said that Jesus is the only one who has been true to the voice. Jesus gave everything—his days and nights, his dreams and deeds, his labors and his life itself. Jesus gave himself to God's people—sharing, ministering, healing, listening. When Jesus cried on the cross, "It is finished," it was his baptism that was complete.
Baptisms, like all beginnings, find their meaning after the event. Starting, by itself, is often of little consequence. Beginning is usually easy. Finishing is usually hard. Bobby Knight, the basketball coach at Indiana University, was asked about a player who was doing a great job coming off the bench, "When will he get to start?" The coach responded, "You don't understand the game. It doesn't matter who starts. It matters who finishes."
A month before the wedding glassy-eyed couples tell the minister that they are the perfect couple. One of the joys of ministry is getting to tell them. "You get no points for getting this far. On their wedding day almost every couple is capable of creating a life together filled with faith, hope and joy and almost every couple is capable of creating something worse than their worst nightmare." Marriages can't be judged on the wedding day. In ten years you can start to see what they have done with it. What does it mean to get married? Sometimes the meaning is found in pictures of strangely attired bridesmaids and ill at ease groomsmen. More often it will be discovered each evening as you sit around the dinner table.
Beginning is usually easier than finishing. Any husband can stand in the delivery room give his wife ice chips and say, "You're doing great, honey." Every father looks good holding a newborn. Fathers can't be judged in the delivery room. In twenty years you can start to see how hard they've worked at it. What does it mean when a child is born? Sometimes the importance will be glimpsed by looking in a baby book. More often it will be discovered in conversations that take place on the way to school.
Beginning is usually easier than finishing. Depending on which study you read, the average tenure for a minister in the United States is about three to four years. That's embarrassing for the churches and the ministers. In many of those situations, the congregation and/or the staff too quickly decide that they need a new start when they have never lived out the promise of the old start.
The significance of any decision takes a while. It doesn't take as much to decide to be a friend as it takes to be a good friend. The moments of initiation take on meaning when we are true to the promise of that beginning.
We too often think that what we need is a new start. Our culture has an insatiable appetite for new things. Rollo May writes, "The chief problem of our time is emptiness. Not only that many people do not know what they want; they often do not have any idea of what they feel. As one person put it, `I'm just a collection of mirrors reflecting what everyone else expects of me.'" People are uncomfortable being empty, and so they start looking for something new. But we can add a thousand new things without it meaning anything. "What's new?" is not a bad question. But if we constantly pursue only what's new the result is an endless parade of trivia. We ought to be consumed with the question, "What's best?" Too many lives are spent looking for the new without ever exploring the old. We don't need new beginnings nearly so much as we need to make sense of the old beginnings.
Some of the people who think they need a new job need to fulfill the promise of their old job. What did it mean when you took your job? The job description you were handed before you began may not mean much. The real significance is found every Monday morning. We may not need new starts. We may need to fulfill the old ones.
Baptism is a beginning, the prologue to a book waiting to be written. Beginnings by themselves lack meaning. Baptism waits for fulfillment.
Every once in a while someone will ask to be re-baptized. They say something like, "I was sincere when I was baptized, but then I drifted away. I knew what it meant, but I didn't act like it." Most of the time the best response is, "The problem is not with your baptism. Your beginning was fine. You need to live out what you've already started."
Baptism is the beginning of a journey. We're handed a map, but we have to take the trip. It takes our whole life to finish our baptisms. All of our days are commentary on our baptisms. Repentance, conversion, and growth are a lifelong process. Just as Jesus' life gave meaning to his baptism, so our baptisms wait to be given meaning.
When Martin Luther was tempted to give up on following Christ, he would sit in his study and recite, almost as a mantra, "I am baptized. I am baptized. I am baptized." What did it mean when you were baptized? It may be helpful to remember what you thought and felt and did on that day, but the meaning of your baptism is also seen in what you think and feel and do this day. Are you grateful today for the grace of God? Have you done anything today that you wouldn't have done if you had not been baptized? We are forever answering the question, "Why were we baptized?"
Brett Younger Lake Shore Baptist Church Waco, TX