Why Baptism?

A central plank New Testament thought is that Christ is a perfect High Priest[1]. In order to be a perfect High Priest it was necessary that the Lord should be tempted. Yet it order to be a perfect sacrifice it was necessary that the Lord should be without sin. Both of these we are assured He achieved[2]. However, these facts leave us with a startling enigma at the beginning of Mark's Gospel. Why did the spotless, sinless lamb of God submit to a baptism of repentance? This question has taxed believers since the earliest of times; indeed John himself was surprised by the event[3]. However, I believe we shall see that this seeming problem in Scripture is not an oddity to be avoided but indeed a clue regarding the link and distinction between the Old and New testaments.

Central to the baptism of the Lord is clearly John the Baptist; the greatest man ever to have lived, up until the Lord's time[4]. We are told by our Lord that John was a prophet and was even the promised Elijah[5]. We know that the message of John was an essential precursor to the Lord Himself and that John instantly recognized who the Lord was[6]. Nonetheless we also know that John himself was not even a believer in the New Testament sense of the word[7]. In fact we know that John maintained a band of disciples long after the Lord's ministry had started[8] and that, at least in some sense, it was necessary for John's ministry to diminish for the Lord's to flourish[9].

If John himself was a seemingly complex character his ministry really wasn't. "Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand."[10] Whilst he would occasionally vary the wording; and he did refer to the one coming that was greater[11] his underlying message was plain. We have sinned, we need to repent, and we should show our repentance through the waters of baptism. He even backed his message with standard old school ascetic behavior. There was no doubt in anyone's mind that to be baptized of John was a symbol of internal repentance of sins committed.

It is therefore not surprising that John recoiled when the Lord came to be baptized. John was preparing sinners to meet their Lord; there was no ostensible reason for one that was and is sinless to go through John's baptism. However, the Lord makes quite clear[12] that it is not only ok but actually necessary for the baptism to take place; the question is clearly why.

John Wesley in his commentary[13] suggests that the Lord was showing a holy exactness in execution of divine command. The picture here is one of a perfect servant in total obedience. The ordinance of baptism is almost pictured as an arbitrary hoop and the Lord jumps through it even though he clearly doesn't need to. This is clearly mirrored in the Lord's death where the only person that ever didn't deserve to die chose to die anyway.

The Geneva Bible Notes take an altogether different slant[14] here they suggest that baptism (and eventually our baptism) is consecrated or sanctified through the fact that the Lord Jesus submitted to it. In other words baptism had been an arbitrary (or at least un-validated) hoop but that hoop had become a valid ordinance because of the Lord's action of submitting to it Himself. Again we see a mirror to the Lord's death. He passed through baptism and then death and came out the other side; we are called to do the same.

Viewed from one angle the two commentaries are entirely antithetical. In Wesley's the Lord is being brought under and ordinance; in GBN the ordinance is being brought under the Lord.

We see a similar divergence of viewpoint when the subsequent temptation of the Lord is viewed. Wesley sees the common plight of man[15] that highs are often followed by lows. Wesley even proceeds to suggest that the 'driving of the spirit' was actually an inward impulse rather than divine direction. GBN sees that the Lord resisting temptation through His virtue is the method through which we too can resist temptation through His virtue. Geneva also sees the 'spirit' as the Holy Spirit that descended in the previous verse.

Despite the seeming disparity between these two commentators I believe that the real reason for the Lord's baptism and temptation is best seen as a confluence of these two modes of thinking. In one sense I believe Wesley is right. The Lord was a Jew, obeying Jewish laws. The Lord was a man subject to the same temptations and bodily needs as us. Through his involvement in a Jewish revival and then a personal trial he comes beside His people as He was ordained to do. Yet at the same time, GBN is correct, He is God. He cannot come close to anyone or anything without leaving it forever altered. In partaking of John's baptism he made our baptism real. In being tempted he gave us access to a great High Priest that understands our infirmities.

As these two strands entwine we also see the Old Testament blend to the New. John, like many Old Testament saints, was faithful and obedient without full understanding. Their actions might have seemed and even been meaningless at the point they executed them. Yet when seen through the light and subsequent actions of the Lord Jesus they are all seen to be synthesized into His great plan. May we too, as the weeks progress, be faithful and obedient even if we don't fully understand. May we also look forward to that time when we shall see how the strands connect and lead to our head, the Lord Himself. Amen.


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