Lesson 2 - Life Giving Waters - Baptism
Origins: Within Judaism there are numerous mentions of washing as a process of becoming “clean” and acceptable to God. In Exodus 19:13-15 we read of Moses having the people wash their clothes so that they might stand before God at Sinai. In Exodus 29:3-5 we read of Aaron’s sons being washed before they are allowed to put on the priestly clothing (this is similar to washing various parts of sacrificial animals in order to make them clean). In addition the priests were to always wash their hands and feet before they offered sacrifices (Exodus 30:17-21)
Washing was also used in a variety of ways within the ritual system of the community. It was used as a means of ritually cleansing individuals who had skin diseases (Leviticus 13) along with all of their clothing, pots, pans and friends. Anyone who had been in contact with the infected individual had to ritually wash. What we need to remember here is that no one had any idea about washing as a means of being germ free, or healthy as we know it. This was a ritual act. Washing was also used to cleanse individuals or actions which made them ritually unclean. These actions included any discharge (from men following sex or from women following their menstrual period or child birth) or coming into contact with a dead body. These regulations are contained in Leviticus 15 where we learn that not only did the people have to wash themselves in clean water, but they had to wash everything that they had touched, including bedding and clothing.
Washing continued into the time of Jesus. There were great baths at the Temple in which would wash in order to be clean. At Qumran (the Dead Sea Scroll people) there were basins and baths which are believed to have been used for ritual cleansing.
There are other issues of ritual uncleanliness which require washing, but the point is that deep in the Hebraic tradition washing with water was essential to becoming appropriately oriented to God.
John the Baptist: With this context in mind then, the work of John the Baptist makes more sense. John appears to have understood himself to be the one who would prepare the way for the coming messiah. His task was to baptize (cleanse) the people from sin so that they would be ready to be part of the new, holy kingdom which the messiah was to bring. Just as one washed before going to the temple (regular people) or the alter (priests) the people needed to be cleansed before one entered this new holy kingdom which was on its way. People flocked to John because they desired to be part of this new vision of the kingdom; or as N.T. Wright speaks of it, to be part of the remnant of Jews returned from exile who are ready to embrace God in a new way.
Jesus’ Baptism: John the Baptism plays a role in all of the Gospels. However, each Gospel offers us a slightly differently nuanced view of the baptism. In Mark1: 9-11, there is no discussion between Jesus and John. Jesus arrives, is baptized and then the Spirit arrives and God speaks. In Matthew 4:13-17, we have John trying to prevent Jesus from being baptized but Jesus says, “Let it be so now; for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then the spirit arrives along with the voice of God. In Luke 3:21-22, does not even mention John doing the baptizing. All that we read is that “…and when Jesus had also been baptized and was praying…” This is followed by the Spirit and the voice of God. Finally in John there is no mention of the baptism at all. The only connection to the other stories is that John the Baptism mentions seeing the Holy Spirit come down on Jesus.
So what are to make of the different stories? I believe that we see the evolution of a concern over authority. What I mean by this is that traditionally the one doing the baptizing is greater than the one being baptized (an holy insider helping an outsider into the holy community or location). If John baptizes Jesus then it would appear that John is greater than Jesus. For Mark it is obviously not an issue (and this would make sense because his is the original Gospel and thus arrives before there was much discussion about this issue). Matthew and Luke, who are writing later must deal with the rising presence of the John the Baptist movement. This movement claimed that John was actually the messiah and so was great than Jesus. Thus Luke does not mention John and Matthew has Jesus force John’s hand. The last of the Gospel’s, John, does not mention it because one of the early themes of the Gospel is that John admits that he is inferior to Jesus.
The bottom line however is that there is good evidence to show that Jesus was baptized by John and that he did so for the same reason everyone else did so, to be prepared to move from the world in which they had been living into the new Kingdom which Jesus was about to bring.
Early Christian Baptism: As was noted in the lesson, early Christian baptism was usually done by immersion, which would emulate the Jewish tradition of ritual baths. People would be washed from sin and made ready to become part of the community. Hippolytus of Rome (170-235), in the earliest recorded baptismal liturgy/process required the removal of all clothing and all other foreign objects such as jewelry. The people then prayed over the water, and are baptized, children first, then adults (men then women). If children cannot go in by themselves a member of the family takes them.
Styles of Baptism: There are three basic forms of baptism; Sprinkling/Aspersion (which is what we do with infants and adults in church), partial immersion (the person stands or kneels in water while water is poured over them) and total immersion/submersion (where the person goes under the water and then comes back up). During a period of time in the 1950s-1970s there were pastors who decided that in order to “prove” that water was not necessary to baptism that they did not use it. They merely placed their hands on children’s heads.
Efficacy of Baptism: We do not believe that baptism is not medicinal. In other words we do not believe that baptism actually changes us, unlike the Roman church and some churches such as the Church of Christ, which believe that baptism literally washes away sin. Baptism is a sign (of what God has done) and a seal (a mark of God upon us). We believe that the children of believers are already part of the community and that baptism marks them as such. It is a reminder that God claims us long before we can claim God. Even so, we believe that the act of baptism impacts us by reminding us of God’s claim. This action once done, does not need to be redone. We Presbyterians believe in one baptism per believer.
1. How were you baptized? Do you remember it? How has it impacted your life?
2. What other rituals of joining an organization have you been through? How did they impact you?
3. How have you fulfilled the baptismal vows you made as a congregation member?
4. How would you explain to a Baptist why we Presbyterians baptize infants?