BIBLE READINGS: Isaiah 42:1-9 Matthew 3: 13-17
It is obvious that the early Christians wondered why Jesus needed to be baptised. John’s objection mirrored their attitude: “Why do you come to me? It is I who need to be baptised by you.” Ever since that day, Christians have asked that same question, “Why did Jesus, so sincere and loving, need to be baptised?” John called people to repentance. To admit their sins and make a new start. How did Jesus fit into that picture?
What John said and did must have seemed scandalous to many righteous Jews. It was an insult. Although there was a history of baptism among the Jews, but it was not a widespread practice. Some sects used one or more baptisms as ritual cleansing prior to initiations into various levels of their religious communities. However, the most common practice of baptism was for converts from paganism to the Jewish faith. If a Greek or an Egyptian, a Samaritan or a Roman, wanted to become a Jew, baptism was the preliminary rite of purification
Remember that the Jews regarded non-Jews as defiled creatures. They were polluted, morally and spiritually. No righteous Hebrew would invite a pagan into their home or share a meal with them. They were dirty untouchables. Such creatures needed washing and cleansing before they could begin to be initiated into the Jewish community. For a man who wanted to convert, instruction in Jewish religious and moral law would be given. If then the baptised candidate seemed worthy, ritual circumcision would follow. Note the candidate had to be thought worthy.
That is the background. Against it John called on his fellow Jews to repent and be baptised. That is, he classified the chosen race as being as polluted as the pagans. They needed washing in body, mind and spirit, if they were to have a place in the coming kingdom of God. Nor did they have to be worthy before baptism, In a foreshadowing of the inclusive love of Jesus, John asked the crowds to humble themselves, repent and accept the washing away of their sins in the Jordan.
All this would have been highly offensive to good Jews. According to Luke’s Gospel, John the Baptist went so far as to invite respectable Pharisees and Sadducees to be baptised alongside hated tax-collectors, and even pagan soldiers. He classed them all in the one bag of sinners.
This brings us back to Jesus. Why did he join in that public baptism? We have been taught that Jesus lived a perfect human life. Repentance is therefore surely inappropriate? We may even have been fed the idea that Jesus was born complete: perfectly good and completely wise. Like us but not one of us. From this doctrinal platform, some deduce that Jesus, by seeking baptism was just doing the right thing in the eyes of the watching public. A valid public relations exercise. Setting a good public example.
Others suggest Jesus wanted the common people to accept him as one beside them, not standing over them. He needed to be seen to be doing the right thing. Therefore at the Jordan he went into the waters with everyone else. By doing this he made himself approachable and accessible. This baptism, then, was an act of loving identification with common humanity.
No doubt there is some truth in these interpretations, but when it comes to Jesus of Nazareth, the full truth will always elude our pitiful, small minds.
There is another possibility: Maybe Jesus did not see himself as beyond the need for repentance. Maybe he had so identified himself with our human condition, that he was indeed one of us? After all he was content to be classed along with tax collectors, pagan soldiers and other sinners. Maybe he felt an acute need to be share the baptism of repentance.
Truly good people are unaware of their own goodness. The loveliest human beings in my experience, the ones who are genuinely godly, are oblivious to their own spiritual beauty. In fact, if the true saints were called good, they would be puzzled and object. Not out of modesty, mind you; they would object in all sincerity.
Do you remember the occasions when a rich young man came up to Jesus and asked: “Good Master, What must I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus replied: “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God.” Jesus was not being modest. He simply did not see himself as good. When at the Jordan River, John protested, saying that he would rather Jesus baptise him, Jesus replied: “It is right for me to fulfil all righteousness.”
Jesus was baptised along and beside everyone else, because he was one of us and saw himself as one of us. He did not play the role of being a human being; he was one. His dipping in the river was neither setting a good example nor a public relations exercise for the best of reasons. He was wanting to do the right thing in God’s eyes. “It is right for me to do this.”
If this leaves us in a doctrinal tangle about the so called sinlessness of Jesus, too bad. Its better to have a tangle, a dilemma, a paradox, than compromise the essential humanity of our Lord Jesus. Jesus our divine Lord, is also our true brother. Jesus felt the need to repent, to have evil washed away from him in baptism. It was, as he said, the right thing to do.
Just as on the cross Jesus was content to be numbered among the ungodly, and wear the shame of human sin, so in baptism he was willing to be numbered among sinners and seek cleansing.
Jesus asking to be baptised was typical of his whole life. This is the person who never gave himself airs. He grew up as the son of a village craftsman. He became an itinerant Rabbi and chose disciples from among fishermen and tax collectors. He socialised with the low life of Galilee. The rabbi who dared to deal graciously with foreigners, and praise a Roman military man as example of true faith. The young man who was executed between two robbers.
It should not surprise us at all, that Jesus was there that day by the Jordan sharing baptism with repentant souls. In fact, if he invites people like you and me to share bread and drink at his own table (and he certainly does that!) then his baptism is wonderfully in character. Thanks be to God.