Jesus and baptism: a paradox
Jesus’s own baptism by his cousin John in the river Jordan was a turning point in his life. The skies literally opened (Matt 3.13-17) – despite John’s protest that he was the one who needed to be baptised, not Jesus. At the end of Matthew’s gospel, when Jesus proclaims his continuing mission, he gives his followers the task of going out to baptise all nations (Mt 28.19). In the story of the early Church, as recorded in the Acts of the Apostles, baptism is mentioned frequently – about twenty times. Yet we hear that Jesus himself never performed baptism, only his disciples. (Jn 4.2) Why is this so?
The meaning of baptism
Among observant Jews, rituals of cleansing and washings were very common. John the Baptist insisted that the ritual go far deeper. He demanded it be accompanied by giving up injustice and exploitation, even for soldiers. (Lk 3.10-14) For the first Christians baptism had an even deeper significance. It was a cleansing from sin, but even more, it meant being part of Jesus’s own dying, so as to be part of his resurrection (Col 2.12). Or as Paul explains, baptism is putting on Christ (Gal 3.27) – that is, being reshaped and transformed by Jesus’s values, vision and relationship with God.
A gift of life
Water has always been a precious resource, especially in arid countries such as Palestine. Our planet, nonetheless, could be called Ocean rather than Earth, as water covers 70% of its surface. Water also makes up 60% of our body weight. It is the gift of which we take little notice but without it we die. The Christian sense of baptism echoes this; it brings us vitality, life and energy; it is Christ; it is life; without it we become the living dead. It is Jesus’s way of reaching out to us.