The early church must have considered Jesus’ baptism at the hands of John to be vitally important. Matthew, Mark, and Luke narrate his baptism, and the Gospel of John implies the account of Jesus’ baptism.
|The Baptism of Jesus. Arian Baptistery (ca. 5th-6th centuries)|
What was the meaning of Jesus’ baptism?
If we consider Jesus’ baptism as it appears in the earliest Gospel, Mark, we find it is this event that introduces the readers to Jesus. Mark says nothing about the birth or the childhood of Jesus. Indeed, from Mark’s Gospel, we know nothing about Jesus before his baptism. He is introduced to the readers at the baptism. What is the purpose of this?
Mark is telling us that the baptism of Jesus is the point at which Jesus is authenticated by God and at which he receives his commission and vocation as God’s Son. The purpose of his baptism was to receive God’s commission which presented Jesus with a new vocation. From that point on, Jesus will follow the ‘way of the Lord.’
The term ‘way’ is significant in Mark’s Gospel. Jesus and his disciples are often said to be on the way or the road, and while we can take this in the literal sense that they were travelling, it also serves metaphorically for the way of discipleship, which begins at baptism.
The narrative structure of Mark helps us understand this. From the point of when Jesus is baptized, he travels the road of discipleship, preaching the Gospel, teaching the ethics of the kingdom, healing the sick, confronting religious and political powers, and facing temptations and opposition all along the way, until finally he is put to death as a rebel of the state.
How does this structure apply to the disciple, the follower of Jesus who listens to Mark’s story not simply to learn about Jesus, but who are called to respond to Jesus in faithful discipleship?
The life of a disciple begins with baptism, which leads the follower into a new vocation of preaching the Gospel, healing the sick, living the ethics of the kingdom, confronting religious and political powers, facing temptations and opposition all along the way, until finally we reach the end, death.
But there is something interesting about this concept of baptism in the Gospel of Mark. The Greek word for baptism is used five times in Mark, two of which occur in chapter one referring to the baptism John was performing and Jesus’ own baptism, and one in chapter eleven when Jesus asked the religious leaders about the origin of John’s baptism.
The other two occurrences of this word are found in Mark 10, where we find the unusual exchange between Jesus and the brothers, James and John.
James and John come to Jesus seeking seats of authority on the right and left of Jesus when he comes in his glory. In response, Jesus asks them a very daunting question,
‘Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?’ (Mark 10:38)
What does Jesus mean by the use of the word baptism at this point? To get at his meaning, it might be helpful to notice that he draws a parallel between the cup and the baptism, making a connection between the two.
In Mark’s Gospel, the cup that Jesus will drink is his death. He prays in the garden that God would take away the cup of suffering that he is about to endure. Moreover, the tone of his question to the brothers implies something challenging, even feared. So, it is not the case that Jesus is specifically thinking of baptism in the sense of being washed by water.
Jesus is not simply speaking about getting sprinkled or dunked in the setting of a nice church around people who love us. No, the baptism of Jesus that he mentions in the question he puts to the brothers, like that of the cup, is his suffering and death. His death is his baptism.
|The Baptism of Christ by Giotto di Bondone (ca. 1304-06)|
hid the Holy of Holies was ripped open from top to bottom (15:38). The same Greek word,
Moreover, there is also a connection between the conversation between Jesus and James and John and Mark’s portrayal of the death of Jesus. James and John request seats on the right and left of Jesus (10:37). The only other time the right and left of Jesus is mentioned in Mark is when two other rebels are crucified with him, one on his right and one on his left (15:27).
Thus, baptism for the followers of Jesus is not just participation in his water baptism, but also in his suffering and death. Sharing in Christ’s baptism is sharing in Christ’s death.
(This post is a shorter version of a sermon preached on 1/12/14 at First Presbyterian Church, Monticello, Arkansas. You can listen to an audio version here.)