Scandal: The Baptism of Jesus

One of the great things about being a pastor is that I get to regularly talk to people about the Bible and how it works. On Tuesday’s I publish old sermons that have been slightly reworked to become longer form blog posts. This is one of those sermons.

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When I was in university I had a friend who could solve a Rubik’s Cube. He eventually showed me how to do it and it turns out I was way off. I always thought the best way to solve a Rubik’s Cube was to come at it one side at a time. First I’d solve the red side, then once I’m done that I’d go after the blue side. If I can get those two sides solved, then I can focus on the yellow side.

Of course, what would invariably happen, is that while I’m trying to solve the yellow side, I end up messing up the red side, because it doesn’t just want to stay in its place.The pieces continue to move and change as you try to solve the rest of it.

The trick to solve a Rubik’s Cube is that you actually have to solve it top-down. You have to start with the red side, but even then all the other pieces along the top third of the sides need to be right. Then you can move on to solving the middle and eventually the bottom. Had my friend never shown me that, I would still to this day be unable to solve a Rubik’s Cube. And I would still, to this day, be trying to solve it one side at a time.

This is because I had a pre-conceived notion of how best to solve a Rubik’s Cube. I had a starting assumption about the cube that was wrong, which would always lead me to an incorrect solution.

I do this kind of stuff in life all the time. Not just with Rubik’s Cubes and puzzles. Maybe I’m trying to get to the store and ordinarily, the best way to the store is to take this one street. So now I get it in my head that in order to get to the store I have to take this one street. But then on my way to the store, I’ll realize that, because of an accident, this street is completely clogged. In my mind, I’ll immediately think, “Well I guess I can’t get to the store. It’s going to take forever to get there.” And that’s usually when Karly will pipe up and say something smart like, “Or… you could just take another street?”

Has this ever happened to you? You decide the best solution to a problem is solution A and so you work and work and work on solution A, only to run into a speed bump or a barrier of some kind. And instead of remembering that solution A was only one of many solutions, you just keep trying to figure out how to make solution A work.

This is the first post in a series called Scandal: The Offensive Gospel of Jesus. Here we’re going to look at nine different stories in the Gospels and ask the question“What was Jesus doing that was so counter-cultural, radical and offensive? Why did the religious leaders feel like they had no option but to kill him?” And as we examine the scandalous nature of the Gospel in Jesus’ day, what I hope we discover is that it’s still just as counter-cultural, radical and offensive in our day.

This week we’re going to start with a passage from the Gospel of Matthew 3.

11“I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”

13Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John. 14But John tried to deter him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”

15Jesus replied, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” Then John consented.

16As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”

Here’s what’s going on. John the Baptist is baptizing people in the Jordan river. If we back up to earlier in this chapter we’re told that “People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan.” This is more than just some small, intimate gathering of friends where one or two are being baptized. This is a radical movement where John is out in the wilderness, at the Jordan River and he’s baptizing large groups of people.

What I find interesting here is that the word “baptize” isn’t found in the Old Testament. It doesn’t appear until the Gospels, here in the New Testament. And yet, all four gospels make a similar claim about John baptizing people without ever really explaining what baptism is. There’s just this assumption from the authors that their readers would understand what’s going on. That’s because, while the words “baptism” or “baptize” don’t appear in the Old Testament, the ideas of ritual washing or cleansing with water do.

Already, back in the Torah, or the Law, we see this example in places like Leviticus 15, “When a man is cleansed from his discharge, he is to count off seven days for his ceremonial cleansing; he must wash his clothes and bathe himself with fresh water, and he will be clean.” In the Torah, we see this idea that if you want to be considered clean, not just physically clean, but ceremonially clean, after a cyst or a boil, you need to wash with fresh water.

But this idea of washing and being clean takes on a new meaning by the time of King David when he writes in Psalm 26, “I wash my hands of innocence and go about your altar.”

For David, and for other psalmists, being ritually pure and being innocent became linked and so the Jews began to view washing with water as a way to make yourself pure both internally and externally.

By the time second temple Judaism came around—the era from 515 BCE when the second temple in Jerusalem was built, to 70 CE when it was destroyed by the Romans—this ritual washing was known as Tevliah and involved full body immersion in a Mikveh or a pool designed specifically for ritual washing.

As scholar Craig Evans says in his commentary on Matthew,

“The Jewish custom of ritual immersion for purity was probably part of the background to John’s baptism. The theme of repentance is found in the most important sectarian scrolls at Qumran. Ritual immersion was also very important at Qumran, as the many immersion pools attest.”

Already in Qumran and in other places we see this connection between Tevilah, or ritual washing, and repentance. So when John comes on the scene, he’s basically doing the same thing. He’s submerging people in the water and talking about repentance. Except, with John, he’s not doing it in a Mikveh, a pool specifically constructed for this kind of ritual washing. He’s doing it in the Jordan River. Which is significant.

1,400 years before this, the people of Israel were slaves in Egypt. They were oppressed by their Egyptian masters and forced to work long hours in harsh conditions. But God, with a mighty hand, rescued his people and delivered them from their slavery in Egypt. After they spent 40 years in the desert, they were eventually lead here to the Jordan river. Some scholars believe the spot where John the Baptist was baptizing people was the exact spot where the Israelites crossed the Jordan into the land of Canaan.

Ever since the time of Abraham, God had been promising to give the land of Canaan to his descendants. And all throughout the rest of the patriarchs, through Abraham, Isaac and Jacob it never happened. But after God rescued them from Egypt, he brought them here. And so crossing the Jordan became the last, final step before entering and possessing the land God had promised them all those years ago.

Every Jew in the first century knew this. They knew their history. They knew how God had given them the land of Canaan. How after hundreds of years in the land, God allowed Assyria and Babylon to come in and conquer them because of their disobedience. They knew how the Persians eventually allowed them to reenter the land of Canaan, to live in their homeland and rebuild their temple. But things had never really been the same. Yes, the temple was rebuilt, but ever since their captivity, exile and subsequent return to Canaan, there was always some other superpower who controlled the land. The Jews were allowed to live there, but they weren’t free. They weren’t an independent kingdom ruled by God alone.

First, they were ruled by the Persians, then by the Greeks, then came the Hasmonean dynasty and finally by the time of John and Jesus, the Roman Empire and Herod the Great. During this time, there was a widespread belief that God would eventually come back and finally restore the Kingdom of Israel to its rightful place. That God would eventually destroy the enemies of Israel that kept them oppressed and in bondage once again. They compared this eventual return of God to the original Exodus from slavery in Egypt.

So when John shows up and starts baptizing people in the Jordan River, the message is obvious. God will return very soon. A new second Exodus, like the first one, is going to happen and it’s going to happen very soon. As Reformed theologian Jurgen Moltmann says,

“Everything John does is rich in symbolism and full of the remembrance of God’s age-old history with Israel. He baptizes Israel’s repentant people in the Jordan, in preparation for the new, final entry in ‘the land of God.’”

The expectation was obvious. The expectation by John and others in the first century was that the Messiah would come and immediately baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire. The expectation was that the Messiah would come and clean house of the Roman occupation, establishing a new kingdom of David in the land of Canaan, probably through force and violence.

John even hints at as much in verses 11-12.

“I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”

You can almost hear him say, “Get ready!  God is coming back and whoever isn’t on team God will be left behind. He’s going to separate the good guys from the bad guys and if you’re not good, then watch out!” But then something strange happens. In verse 13 it says, “Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John.”

Wait… that can’t be right. John says that he baptizes with water, specifically for repentance. According to Mark 1:4, John preached a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Why is Jesus getting baptized? He doesn’t need to repent. He certainly doesn’t need the forgiveness of sins. Scripture is very clear that Jesus never sinned, but nowhere more clear than in 1 John 3:5 that says, “But you know that he appeared so that he might take away our sins. And in him is no sin.” Or in 2 Corinthians 5:21, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

So, if Jesus was perfect and sinless, why is he getting baptized for repentance for the forgiveness of sin? John more or less raises the same issue in verse 14. “But John tried to deter him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’”

According to John’s understanding of the Messiah, this wasn’t supposed to happen. The Messiah is supposed to come with power and fire. The Messiah was supposed to come and judge the world and restore Israel to its rightful place. If anything, John should be getting baptized by Jesus, not the other way around. What’s going on here? In verse 15, Jesus explains, “Jesus replied, ‘Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.’ Then John consented.”

What does he mean, “It is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness”? Throughout the gospels, specifically in Matthew, we see these hints where Jesus’ life is paralleling the story of Israel. Israel goes to Egypt and comes back. Jesus, when he’s a child, goes down to Egypt and comes back. Israel wanders in the desert for 40 years. Jesus spent 40 days being tempted in the desert. Israel goes through a sort of baptism when they cross the Red Sea escaping Egypt. Jesus starts his ministry with his baptism.

According to N.T. Wright,

“Jesus is acting out the great drama of Israel’s exodus from Egypt, Israel’s journey through the wilderness into the promised land… Jesus is the Messiah, and the messiah represents his people. What is true of him is true of them.”

Jesus is the representative of all of Israel. Jesus, in a way, will embody the entire story of the people of Israel. Except where they have failed in the past, he will succeed. Where they have rebelled against God, he will remain obedient. Where Israel has been faithless, Jesus will be faithful. But it all starts here. It starts with getting baptized and repenting, asking for forgiveness of sins that he didn’t commit, but that the people he’s representing did.

John consents and we’re told in verse 16-17,

“As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending on him like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.’”

This is an interesting phrase, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” Like any good Jewish writer, the author packs a ton of information into this phrase. Chapters and verses weren’t added to the Bible until the 16th century. So when the Gospels were being written, if you wanted to make reference to the Old Testament, you had to just say whatever it is that you’re referencing. This phrase, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased,” simultaneously reference three distinct and important parts of Scripture.

The phrase references Psalm 2:7, “I will proclaim the Lord’s decree: He said to me, ‘You are my son; today I have become your father.’” Which is to say, Jesus is the rightful heir to the throne of David.

Isaiah 42:1, “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight. I will put my Spirit on him, and he will bring justice to the nations.” Which is to say, Jesus is the Messiah foretold of in Isaiah.

And finally, Genesis 22:2, “Then God said, ‘Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac—an go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you.’” Which starts to hint at the idea that this messiah/King is going to have to die.

This is a very strange way for a story about the defeat of your enemies to start out. John comes on the scene and proclaims that the Messiah will soon arrive bringing fire and judgement. But when Jesus shows up, he brings neither. Instead, he associates himself with Israel and asks to be baptized, repenting and asking for forgiveness for sins that he never committed in the first place. And then, just in case we’re getting confused about his identity, when he gets baptized, God speaks from heaven saying, “Yes, this is the rightful king of Israel, but he’s also your messiah and suffering servant.” This Scripture would have made the first readers stop and ask, “Who is this Jesus?”

I love what N.T. Wright says about the passage,

“Part of the challenge of this passage is to learn afresh to be surprised by Jesus. He comes to fulfill God’s plans, not ours, and even his prophets sometimes seem to misunderstand what he’s up to. He will not always play the music we expect. But if we learn to listen carefully to what he says, and watch carefully what he does, we will find that our real longings, the hunger beneath the surface excitement, will be richly met.”

Like a Rubik’s Cube, John and just about everyone else in Israel, including Jesus’ own disciples, had certain preconceived notions of what God was going to do when he showed up. They had one specific solution in mind and it was the conquest of their enemies by force. By choosing to be baptized “for repentance for the forgiveness of sins” Jesus is choosing to identify with the sinful, fallen people who need to repent and who need to have their sins forgiven.

From the very beginning of Jesus ministry, he shows that the kingdom he brings is the exact opposite of the kingdoms of the world. Worldly kingdoms rely on dominance and force, Jesus kingdom relies on submission. Jesus kingdom is built from the bottom up with the least of these, not from the top down with the most powerful.

This passage should make us stop and ask some questions about our own lives as well. First of all, are we willing to be surprised by Jesus? Is there room in our faith for mystery? Is there room in our faith for Jesus to do something radical and new? Or do we expect God to continue to work in the ways in which he has always worked? Obviously, God will continue to be faithful because he has always been faithful. But the ways in which God will manifest his faithfulness will continue to be new and different and exciting and creative.

In Isaiah 43, God says,

“Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland.”

Then again in Revelation 21, “He who was seated on the throne said, ‘I am making everything new!’” Our God is full of creativity and mystery. Are we willing to be surprised by Jesus?

Second, Jesus came and identified with fallen and sinful Israel. He joined them and counted himself among them. Who are we willing to associate with? Do we have friends outside the church?  Do you have friends that don’t yet know Jesus?

For a long time, we have taken the words of Jesus in John 17, “Be in the world but not of the world” to mean that we should isolate ourselves from the world. That we shouldn’t do anything that sinful people do. But one of the biggest criticisms of Jesus was that he ate and drank with sinners and tax collectors.

If you’re a Christian, being told you associate with sinners and tax collectors should be a badge of honour. Being criticized for being too friendly with those outside the church is a good thing. Because it means you’re acting like Jesus. It means you have a heart for those who need him most. Who are you associating with?

Finally, are you willing to seek new solutions to old problems? Israel had a problem. But they were stuck with a pre-conceived notion that there was only one way to fix the problem and it involved a military overthrow of the powers that be.

All of us have some areas of our lives that we need to work on. When it comes to those areas are we willing to seek solutions that may be outside our preconceived notions? Outside our comfort zones? Are we willing to seek new solutions to old problems in our lives?

Maybe in your life, you have a financial issue or a relationship issue or an issue at work. What if God wants to do something radically unexpected in your life? Are you willing to seek a new solution or will you be stuck in your preconceived notion of what God is going to do?

Jesus shocked and defied everyone’s expectations when he came, not with threats of fire and judgement, but with grace and mercy. He shocked everyone when he showed up as Immanuel, God with us. This week let’s open ourselves up to let Jesus shock and defy our expectations as well.

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