I am discontent with Jesus’ baptism.
Each week during Lent, I teach a class focusing on Jesus’ life and teachings. This week, we looked at Jesus’ baptism and I made a startling (and uncomfortable) discovery!
Many faithful Christians have struggled with understanding why Jesus was baptized. Even John the Baptist struggled with it when he said, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” (Matthew 3:14)
After all, if Jesus was God–pure, blameless and without sin…why did he need to be baptized? Well, what I discovered is that he didn’t NEED to be baptized; he CHOSE to be baptized.
Many forget that baptism is not uniquely Christian. Christian baptism has its roots in the Jewish ritual washing of converts called “tevilah” in a bath called a “mikveh.” In those days, faithful Jews were deeply concerned about being “ceremonially clean,” and participated in many ritual cleansing practices. Washing of the hands was of particular importance because it was the hands that often touched “unclean” things. There were washings at meals, before worship, before and after sleeping, for diseases, and with contact with corpses. These washings purified the believer of all things unclean so that they could stand blameless before the Lord. It’s not a huge leap to see how Christian baptism has been understood as a “washing away” of one’s sins. But, unlike Christian baptism, Jewish ritual washings were repeatable.
It is with this understanding that we must look at Jesus’ baptism.
The people who were coming to John the Baptist were people seeking purification—purification from their sins. They knew that they strayed from the path of God according to the Law. They realized that they had not followed the Law. They recognized that they were sinners!
And now Jesus, pure God from pure God, comes to be “purified?” Jesus, the God-man who knew no sin, comes to the waters of repentance? This doesn’t make any sense! Why would he do such a thing?
The answer is so simple. Because Jesus came for the sinners. By choosing to be baptized in the same water as the sinners, he was identifying himself and his ministry among the unrighteous.
Don’t worry, while many of us may seem under-whelmed by this discovery, the moment was not lost on the Pharisees, Sadducees, and the other Jewish leaders. They were outraged. You see, the Jewish leaders only focused on the people who follow the Law. They only associated with the ceremonially “clean.” They had no time for sinners. They couldn’t associate with sinners; otherwise they would be “unclean.” Their understanding of the Messiah was that he was coming to save the “righteous!” So to them, clearly, Jesus couldn’t be the Messiah! He’s associating with “unrighteous.” He’s identifying himself with those that don’t measure up to the Law. He’s stating in one beautiful act that God is reaching out to the sinners and wants them to be a part of the Kingdom too! This message at the inauguration of his ministry would be at the heart of everything he would do and say all the way to the cross and the tomb.
And what was God’s reaction? “And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’” Clearly, Jesus was on the right path!
What an astounding discovery! Jesus’ baptism meant that he chose the sinners, the losers, the outcasts, the diseased, the in-firmed, the imprisoned, the lonely, the poor, the misunderstood, the tax collector, the Gentile, the homosexual, the Muslim, the Hindu, the half-hearted believer, anyone who society says is not worthy. He chose them OVER the righteous! He was saying that these are HIS PEOPLE! This is the heart of the Good News!
Are you one of HIS PEOPLE? I know I am. I know that I am not worthy. I know that I sin. I know that I am selfish. I know that I not good enough.
But why am I discontent with this Good News discovery? Simple. As Jesus identified himself with sinners…so should I—and I haven’t. I have holed myself up in a place called the church, surrounded by church people, hanging out with church people, drinking the church Kool-Aid, talking with church people, studying how to do church better, spend all my time in the church, telling others to serve the poor, and otherwise striving to be a “good church person.”
But I figure that if Jesus were to return, we wouldn’t find him in the church. Jesus hung out with those that were not worthy, who were the outcasts, who were hungry for God but felt shunned by the church. If Jesus got outside the religious walls to where the people were…then so should I.
I’ve come to realize that we have too many “churched people” (of which I am one), and not enough disciples of Jesus. We have too many church people who see “those people” as “those people who are not like us,” instead of seeing “those people” who are exactly “us”– who are His people.
They should be our people too. And they haven’t been.
Maybe we should get out of our pew, and get in the water with Him…and them.