Baptism through the Ages
The principle rite of Christian Initiation has been, and continues to be, that of Holy Baptism. Its prominence of use and its profound impact recurs as a theme throughout the New Testament. But where should we look first, especially if we are wondering why baptism became, and continues to be, the rite of initiation?
The early church meeting in Jerusalem at the time of the first “Christian Pentecost” isn’t a bad place to begin. It was on this Jewish festival day in Jerusalem that the apostles received the gift of the Spirit, spoke in tongues and Peter preached his first, powerful sermon. It was in response to this message that we find the people reacting in the following way: “Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and to the other apostles, ‘Brothers, what should we do?’ Peter said to them, ‘Repent, and be baptised every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2.37-38). In other words, right from the “start”, when someone wanted publicly to declare their allegiance to Jesus or their intention to follow in his “way(s)”, we find the apostles saying, “This is how you can do so...repent and be baptised.”
However, if we start there, in Jerusalem after Jesus’ resurrection, we have to ask: where did the apostles get the idea to “initiate” others through a washing with water? For indeed, those words of “Repent, and be baptised…” might sound very familiar to some of us. If we turn to the beginning of the Synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) we will hear these words similarly recorded: “I baptise you with water for repentance…” (Matt 3.11). This was the message of John the Baptiser and his motive was to prepare the way for God’s “end time” action in our history.
And then, one day, that “end time” action of God appeared at the Jordan River in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. And in that event we really see the birth of our Christian rite of initiation. For in those waters of the Jordan River Jesus submits himself to John’s baptism to “fulfil all righteousness” (Matt 3.15).
It is important to make the observation that John the Baptist was operating within a certain tradition of ritual washings. In other words, John didn’t wake up one morning with the unique idea to initiate people through the use of water.
Scholars think that there were at least two “water rites” that contributed to John’s baptism for repentance. The first was the Jewish practice of baptising proselytes, the conversion of “newcomers” to Judaism. This involved a one-time water rite administered by someone else upon the convert. The second tradition was that of the Essene community at Qumran (now famous for the discovering of “The Dead Sea Scrolls”), a community which some think John may have belonged to. These were repeatable rites for purification and not directly related to initiation.
Yet the act of Jesus’ baptism was instilled with new imagery and meaning, which took the ritual to a different level. First, in that event we see the Trinity revealed: “And when Jesus had been baptised, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him 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, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased”’ (Matt 3.16-17). Secondly, we also see that Jesus’ baptism was the vocational event in his life: it somehow sent him on his path to Jerusalem, to the cross, to the grave and out of the empty tomb. It can be said that Jesus’ face was truly set towards Jerusalem in the waters of the Jordan River.
At this point we could say that we still baptise people today not only because the apostles immediately started doing so when people wanted to follow Jesus. We could also say that we continue to baptise people today because Jesus was baptised. But, we can also add another reason which seems to fall through the cracks all too often. And this reason is: Jesus baptised those who wanted to follow him. In the fourth gospel, that of the evangelist John, we find three references to the fact that Jesus was baptising others. They are, first, “…Jesus and his disciples went into the Judean countryside, and he spent some time there with them and baptised” (Jn 3.22); second, “[John the Baptist’s disciples] came to John and said to him, ‘Rabbi, the one who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you testified, here he is baptizing, and all are going to him’” (Jn 3.26); and finally, “Now when Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard, ‘Jesus is making and baptising more disciples than John’—although it was not Jesus himself but his disciples who baptised—he left Judea and started back to Galilee” (Jn 4.1-3).
It should be acknowledged that verse 2 in John’s 4th chapter is a bit confusing when it says that it wasn’t actually Jesus doing the baptism. Most scholars think that this is an editorial edition to the gospel. They aren’t sure why it would be added—why, after saying three times that Jesus baptised people that it would be retracted—but they are almost certain it is a late addition. For that reason, and given the three times it is mentioned in John’s gospel, there is a very good chance that Jesus baptised those who wanted to follow him. And hence, we have a third, very good reason (maybe the best reason of them all) to continue to baptise those who want to follow Jesus today.
Ultimately, the rites of Christian Initiation have an interesting and deep history. It begins in pre-Christian history (and this essay only touches the tip of that iceberg) but remains central to Christian practice today (as we have just seen a new, revised Rite of Baptism approved for us in the Church of England). Yet, through all the twists and turns, it is good to know that we stand in a long and faithful tradition of saying to those who want to follow Jesus, “Repent and be baptised.”
Not only do we follow that tradition, but in so doing, we dip our toes in the Jordan River, right next to Jesus.