John Baptizing at the Jordan River

Today’s Readings

Wow! Christmas is over, and we are in Ordinary Time. This is the moment to catch your breath before Lent next month. I hope you had a good Christmas season. As I’m writing this, my tree is undecorated but our other Christmas decorations are still up, since I wanted to keep them up through Epiphany (which is January 6).

I have really loved using the ideas of the seasons of the church to affect what our home life looks like. It will be interesting to see how Lent goes. But today we ease into Ordinary Time, time to examine the life and ministry of Jesus. We have white on the altar yet again today, though, because the Baptism of Jesus is a major feast day.

Until Pentecost, all the readings will relate to the Gospel lesson, so I will begin there.

Gospel:  Mark 1:4-11

We saw a portion of this reading back during Advent when we met John the Baptist. That reading went through verse 8. Remember that John was Jesus’ cousin, and he was baptizing Jews who had confessed their sins. This was not a normal practice for Jews. They were accustomed to the periodic, ritual baths of purification. Gentiles who desired to follow Yahweh had a one-time purification bath as a way of renouncing their old lives, but that was for Gentiles only.

Today, Jesus makes his first appearance in Mark by presenting Himself for baptism. John had said that someone else was coming, who would baptize with the Holy Spirit, and who was much more important than John. That makes the note in v. 9 of Jesus’ hometown interesting. Back then, Nazareth was pretty much the bottom of the totem pole. Judeans looked down on people from Galilee–they were hicks. And the people from Galilee? They thought that the people who lived in Nazareth were the WORST. (Philip even says so in the first chapter of John!) A Messiah from Hicksville is just not who the Pharisees and Sadducees would be looking for.

In the account of Jesus’ baptism in Matthew (3:14), John says that Jesus should be baptizing him. John’s baptism was for repentance–Jesus had nothing to repent of. So why in the world would Jesus need to be baptized? Jesus tells John that is it to “fulfill all righteousness.” There are several reasons why Jesus submitted to this:

  • God the Father wanted him to. In every baptism account in the Gospels we hear of God expressing his pleasure with Jesus over this act. Verse 11:  “And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Look at Psalm 2:7 to hear echoes of God’s pleasure.
  • This baptism by John is Jesus’ anointing ritual. Ancient kings were anointed with oil by someone recognized to be a priest. This baptism with water by John serves the purpose of identifying Jesus as a person of tremendous authority, blessed by God. The heavens breaking open and the Holy Spirit descending like a dove also identify the blessing and magnify it.
  • Jesus identifies with all sinners, including us, by being baptized. He asks us to follow Him–He means for us to be baptized for the forgiveness of sins.

We will discuss baptism a little more after we finish with the other texts from today.

Before we leave Mark, note the language. Verse 10, “just as.” Verse 12, “immediately.” Mark is already using bullet-like language to get everything down quickly, to make us feel the urgency of his Gospel.

Just after this reading, Jesus departs the crowds and spends forty days in the wilderness. We won’t cover this event for a while, but it’s good to know where it fits in the timeline.

Old Testament: Genesis 1:1-5

Genesis is the first book of the Bible, and the first book of the Pentateuch. It was written by Moses and contains not one but two creation stories. Here we have the first creation story, but only a part. How does this correspond to the Gospel reading?

First, Jesus’ baptism marks the beginning of His ministry. Our Genesis reading marks the beginning of God’s work in the world.

Second, consider the role of water in both readings. In Genesis God’s spirit sweeps over the water which covers the earth. In Mark the waters part as Jesus comes up from His baptism, and God’s spirit descends.

This is a really beautiful prose poem that the Bible opens up with. Take time to read the entire creation story, through 2:3, and listen to the way the language is used and repeated. There are so many things to talk about with regard to language and this passage but I’ll only bring up a couple. First, we see the verb for “create” or “made” in the very first verse. In the Bible, the only time this word (“bara” in Hebrew) is used, God is the only subject. God is the ONLY creator in the Bible! While He invites us to be creative with Him, He alone is the source of creation.

Among many others, the Hebrew words for “formless void” and “darkness” rhyme: “tohu va-vohu.” We definitely lose the poetry part of this passage by only being able to read it in English.

Finally, some translations have “In the beginning, God…” while others have “In the beginning, WHEN God…” Because of the way Hebrew works, either is a legitimate translation, but they have very different implications. The first indicates God created something out of nothing, “ex nihilo.” The second implies that God took what was already in front of him and made something new. I think I am more accustomed to thinking of God doing the first, ex nihilo, and there is support for an ex nihilo creation in other passages in the Bible. Just know that either translation is okay.

Psalm 29

Read this Psalm knowing we have already heard God speak twice already today, once over Jesus as He was baptized, and once to create the earth. This Psalm describes his powerful voice! The voice, all powerful and capable of creating the entire universe by speaking, praises Jesus.

New Testament: Acts 19:1-7

Luke wrote the book of Acts as an account of the early Apostles, and in this reading we encounter Apollos and Paul. This passage shows the importance of understanding baptism properly.

In Acts 18, we meet a man named Apollos. He is from Alexandria (Egypt) but “well-versed in Scriptures.” (18:24) That means we know he had been raised in or around a Jewish community. He has been instructed in the baptism of John, not Jesus, and while he is smart and passionate and loves God, he doesn’t fully understand what Jesus was offering. So he was preaching and teaching in Ephesus, but he was teaching an incomplete Gospel. I think it would be appropriate to think of him as a “redeemed OT believer.”

Two of Paul’s students, Priscilla and Aquila, heard him teaching. They took him aside to tell him about Jesus, and to properly instruct him about baptism. Apollos took all this to heart, and gladly learned it, and then departed Ephesus to teach in Corinth. That brings us to Chapter 19.

Paul arrives in Ephesus after Apollos has departed, and he finds some of Apollos’ students who still haven’t learned all of the Gospel. (I think it’s likely that Apollos wasn’t able to find everyone he had been teaching, to correct them.) Paul sets about correcting these disciples and he baptizes them into Jesus’ baptism.

You can see the difference that Jesus’ baptism had on these people. Being baptized into Jesus’ baptism included baptism with the Holy Spirit, outwardly manifested by the speaking in tongues and prophecies. (v. 6)

Later we learn that Paul spends two more years in Ephesus preaching and teaching the baptism of Jesus.

Baptism

This is a major feast day in our calendar, so obviously it’s an important topic. Baptizing is one of the things we were commanded to do by Jesus in the Great Commission. But what is it? Why does our Lutheran baptism look nothing like Jesus’ immersion in the Jordan River?

To be honest, I have just opened up a huge topic. I’m pretty sure that you spend at least a semester discussing it in seminary. So this is a very surface-level discussion of the theological view of baptism. I will not even be touching the history of how we evolved from the Jordan River to our current sacrament.

We know from our passages today that baptism is approved of by God and commanded by Jesus. It includes anointing with the Holy Spirit. In his Small Catechism, Martin Luther wrote this about Baptism:

Concerning Baptism, our churches teach that Baptism is necessary for salvation and that God’s grace is offered through Baptism. They teach that children are to be baptized. Being offered to God through Baptism, they are received into God’s grace.

It is a free gift of God, which is why we are able to baptize even infants. Luther’s view (and others) was that requiring waiting until adulthood transformed this free gift into an act of will, which is explicitly what baptism is not.

Luther also called baptism the “unspeakable treasure.” I love this phrase so much. Luther uses it when talking about the transformation of the water by God’s Holy Spirit. Of course he knew that the water was “just” water. It is the presence of the Holy Spirit that transforms the water into something special where we meet God. (This is from the Large Catechism.)

N.T. Wright delivered a speech on baptism to Calvin College several years ago. In spite of Dr. Wright being Anglican and speaking at a Presbyterian college, his words are incredibly powerful and informative. He talks about how baptism is a way of bringing us into God’s family, and how, like our earthly families, we can’t renounce our membership. We can wander but we will never not be marked by the Cross of Christ. To a layperson like me, I have a hard time seeing where Luther would disagree!  It is well worth your time to read his words and not mine here.

Finally, one last note. We don’t have any record of anyone Jesus baptized! So if Jesus didn’t baptized anyone, and we are supposed to follow Him, why do we baptize?

We do have a record of the disciples baptizing under Jesus’ authority (John 4:2). And then Jesus tells us to in Matthew in His closing comments to the disciples, the Great Commission. My favorite idea for why we have no record of Jesus baptizing anyone is that it would have been really easy to get caught up in WHO you were baptized by, and then maybe you wouldn’t have wanted to associate with someone baptized by a “lesser” apostle. In 1 Corinthians Paul talks about different factions arising because some were baptized by Apollos and others by Paul. So there is a good reason to think it was to combat factions. This is something I’d like to read further on, though.

I hope this lesson lets you think about your own baptism and the work that the Holy Spirit was able to begin in your life because of it.