Bridge over Troubled Water
One day a boy came home from church his Baptist church where he had just went forward and accepted Jesus and was baptized by the pastor. He was so excited about being baptized he felt everyone needed to have it done. In his enthusiasm he decided to baptize the family cats. There were two cats, one was young and slender, and the other was the old fat family cat. The boy fills us the bathtub with water and gets the young cat and brings him to the bathroom. With some effort and just a few scratches, he holds the cat under the water and says “I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” He then lets the cat go and it runs out of the bathroom. He then goes and gets the old cat and brings her into the bathroom. He is trying with all his might, but the big cat is scratching and hissing. Finally he gives us and sprinkles some water on it and says, “Fine, be a Methodist.”
Baptism is one of those subjects that you can bet will be a subject of controversy. Many denominations have different views about baptism and all those groups believe they can support their view by using the Bible. There are really two major areas of controversy when it comes to baptism. (1) Is Baptism essential for salvation and (2) Do you have to be at an age of accountability before being baptized?
As I have mentioned before, the Bible has been used by each one of these groups to defend each position. Infant baptism has been defended by using certain passages in Acts about the whole household being baptized and when the Jesus tells his disciples to let the children come to him. Adult only baptism has been defended by people saying that not one child is explicitly mentioned as being baptized. Baptism as must for salvation point out that Jesus commands people to be baptized and the giving of the Holy Spirit actually comes after one is baptized in Acts. People who defend Baptism as being a means of grace often site that Acts is inconsistent at times and it appears that some people actually receive the Holy Spirit before they are baptized. Paul seems to use baptism as an analogy of the Christian life. So, what are we to make of all the confusion on this issue? How can we bridge the great divide about the use of water in the church today?
I want to begin by going back and looking at the baptism of Jesus and finding out what our gospel writers want to tell us about the baptism of Jesus and why it matter for us.
Matthew’s gospel says,
"I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire."
Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John. But John tried to deter him, saying, "I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?"
Jesus replied, "Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness." Then John consented.
As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, 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, whom I love; with him I am well pleased."[ii]
As we begin exploring this passage, it is essential that we understand a bit about what John was doing off in the wilderness. He claims that he is “baptizing with water for repentance.” In the Old Testament cleanliness was of great importance. The Hebrews were commanded in the Old Testament that if they were unclean, they had to go outside the camp or community for a specific amount of time and then they could enter the community again. They would have to wash themselves or purify themselves. The Old Testament uses washing of the outside as means for showing spiritual purity.
This idea seems to have found its way into 1st century Judaism in a couple of ways. Jews began using “immersing in water as a means for non-Jewish persons converting to Judaism. The water washing would be symbolic of someone purifying themselves in order to enter the community of faith. While this is helpful, it does not fully explain what John was up to because he was baptizing Jews, not Gentiles.
Around fifty years ago some texts called the “Dead Sea Scrolls” were found in some caves. These scrolls described a group of people who believed that the only way they could really follow God was to form a separate group and flee to the wilderness areas. This group, according to the documents found in the Dead Sea Scrolls, used immersion in water as a means by which Jewish people would be purified and enters their community. They would then take on oath to be obedient to all of God’s commands.[iii]
From the descriptions of John as presented in the gospels, he may well have been a part of a similar community in which baptism by water was used as a means of forgiveness and purification. The water symbolized someone making a commitment to follow God’s law completely. This makes a great deal of sense as to why John was baptizing.
At the same time, it is somewhat odd that John was preaching and baptizing people in the open. It may be that John had broken away from this group and began offering this type of serious repentance for anyone who would listen.
Then it appears in our text that Jesus came to be baptized by John in the river. Again, remember what John was doing with baptism. He was using baptism as the outward washing that showed spiritual cleanliness. Here comes Jesus to be baptized. In Matthew’s account, John protests and says that this ought to be the other way around. If any of Matthew’s audience was under the impression that John was greater than Jesus, Matthew is laying this to rest. Jesus tells John that this is what needs to happen so John goes forward.
As Jesus is coming up out of the water, he sees the Spirit descending upon him like a dove and he hears the voice of God saying, “This is my Son, whom I love and I am well pleased.” I had never realized this until recently that this statement comes from two Old Testament texts: Psalm 2:7 says, “He said to me, “You are my Son, today I have become you Father.” Isaiah 42”1 says, “Here is my servant whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight.” The amazing thing though is what the rest of verse 42:1 says, “I will put my spirit on him and he will bring justice to the nations.” In some way I believe Jesus may have either confirmed his calling or just discovered his calling to be God’s messiah.
One of the questions we wrestle with today is: “If Jesus was perfect (because he was God) then why did he need to be baptized? Obviously the gospel writers had not wrestled with that question because they do not give us an answer. However, we may be able to deduce the answer. Jesus tells John that he is being baptized to “fulfill all righteousness.” In other words Jesus was saying he has come to make all the wrong in the world right again. It seems that Jesus by being baptized is identifying himself, not with God who judges sin, but with humanity who needs to repent from sin. Jesus is going to set the world right by teaching us how to repent.[iv] Latter Christian writers like Paul use baptism as an example of Jesus’ death and it becomes the model for surrendering our lives to the God and dying to ourselves.
Placing the Bridge over Troubled Waters.
The question then is how can we learn from the baptism of Jesus about how to bridge the great baptism divide in the church? The answer is really three-fold. (1) Baptism is the means by which we enter into the Christian journey. (2) Baptism should lead us to experience our calling (3) Most importantly, it is means by which we identify with the saving work of Jesus Christ and that leads to repentance. What this means in a nutshell is that Baptism is the vehicle in which we tell the world that we are now followers of Jesus Christ and that we will no longer live the way the world lives, but we will choose to follow our king and savoir Jesus. If Jesus came to set the nations free, then we will choose to set the nations free. We will do whatever it takes to live like Jesus lived. In order for us to this, God will give us the same instrument he gave Jesus, the Holy Spirit.
The only way we can bridge the baptism divide is to conclude that baptism is all about following Jesus. Let’s follow Jesus in living like morality matters. Let’s follow Jesus in feeding the poor and comforting the afflicted. Let’s follow Jesus in setting the world free from what binds it. Let us become Kingdom of God builders.
[i] Ben Witherington’s book Troubled Waters: Rethinking the Theology of Baptism (Baylor University Press: Waco Texas, 2007) Gave me a lot of useful reasources
[ii] TNIV Matthew 3:11-17
[iii] See Troubled Waters, chapter 1.
[iv] NT Wright, Matthew for Everyone Part One. See Matthew 3:11-17.