Jesus the baptizer: why John and Jesus baptized

The kerygma and praxis of John

  • Kerygma

The Christian gospel begins with one man’s prophetic vision. This man, known to us as John the Baptist, believed Israel’s God was about to judge his adulterous people in apocalyptic fashion by burning away the chaff and purifying the gold. The righteous Israelites who endured this national catastrophe would inherit God’s kingdom in the age to come.

In light of this impending future, John endeavored to save his fellow Jews from divine wrath by calling them to repentance. With a fiery eye, John questioned the conceited confidence of Pharisees and Sadducees. He condemned the abuses of tax collectors and soldiers. And he even called Israel’s king to submit to God’s Law.

Those who heeded John’s call by repenting of their sin were baptized into an eschatological remnant community. This purified community, John taught, would be rewarded and exalted when the day of judgement arrived.

  • Praxis

John’s apocalyptic message was complete with prophetic sign acts. Like Jeremiah and Ezekiel, John embodied the impending disaster not only in word and through baptism, but with his chosen dress, diet, and abode. He lived in a desolate place, eating and wearing only what the desert provided. Without repentance, Israel too would be driven back into the wilderness, forced to subsist on locusts and honey.

Throughout (and after) his ministry John also acquired a number of devoted disciples who furthered his apocalyptic message and praxis. These disciples, like their master, lived penitent lives, fasting and praying on behalf of a condemned people (Luke 5:33, 11:1). It is likely that these disciples assisted John in the administration of purifying water as well.

John and Jesus: “he must increase, I must decrease”

For the earliest Christians, John posed something of a problem. Though the evangelists are certain Jesus’ ministry was ignited by John’s call to repentance in preparation for the eschaton, they sometimes struggle to make sense of the relationship between the two men. There is clearly a degree of embarrassment over Jesus’ acceptance of John’s baptism, for instance. Matthew and John are particularly uncomfortable with Mark’s matter-of-fact depiction of Jesus’ submission to John’s baptism of repentance. Why would a superior be baptized by an inferior, a more righteous man baptized by a less righteous man?

There is likewise a tendency on the part of the evangelists to simplify the relationship between John and Jesus. In the Gospels John’s message is streamlined: he comes centrally to prepare Israel for the Messiah. As such, the Baptist immediately recognizes Jesus for who he is and immediately steps aside. John humbly announces that he must “decrease” once Jesus takes center stage.

Yet this depiction of the relationship is subverted by the tradition in two ways. First there is evidence that even in his final moments John was uncertain of Jesus’ status as Messiah (Matthew 11:2-3). Second, a few texts suggest John (or John’s disciples) and Jesus worked simultaneously. These are listed below.

  1. During Jesus’ ministry many of John’s disciples continue their work of prayer and fasting (Mark 2:18).
  2. John and Jesus baptized in different regions at the same time (John 3:22-24).
  3. Popular perception was that “Jesus is making and baptizing more disciples than John [is making and baptizing]” (John 4:1).

By all accounts then, Jesus’ ministry overlapped with John’s. John’s ministry did not dissolve seamlessly into Jesus’. In fact, despite John’s work as the Messiah’s precursor, the Baptist leads only two people to Jesus that we know of (John 1:35-42). Moreover, John and his disciples continued to operate independently of Jesus by in large. It appears John and his disciples came to believe in Jesus as the Messiah slowly rather than immediately. Some of John’s disciples remained skeptical of Jesus’ celebratory approach (Mark 2:18) and as late as the book of Acts we find disciples of John unaffected by the message about Jesus (Acts 18:24-19:6).

Jesus the baptizer

Taking all of this into account, how should we understand Jesus’ own baptismal ministry? Although such a ministry is only mentioned in the Gospel of John, at the historical level Jesus was almost certainly known as a baptizer. This is attested to by non-Christian groups and by the Fourth Evangelist himself.

  1. The Jew who debates with John the Baptist claims Jesus “is baptizing” (John 3:25-26).
  2. The Pharisees believe Jesus “is making and baptizing disciples” (John 4:1).
  3. Some outsiders believe Jesus is John the Baptist raised from the dead (Mark 6:14, 8:28).
  4. John himself claims the one coming after him will be a baptizer of sorts (Mark 1:8, John 1:33).
  5. The evangelist writes: “After this Jesus… spent some time there with [his disciples] and he baptized (ἐβάπτιζεν)” (John 3:22).

It is highly unlikely that the early Christians invented such claims only to correct them as the Gospel of John does in 4:2.

Now when Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard, “Jesus is making and baptizing more disciples than John”—although it was not Jesus himself but his disciples who baptized…

These echoes of Jesus’ baptismal ministry, as John 4:2 attests, are quite successfully dampened by the evangelists. Jesus’ work as a baptizer is safely relegated to post-resurrection contexts for the most part; and despite popular perception, the first three evangelists remain silent on the matter of whether Jesus and his disciples baptized. This embarrassment on the part of the early Christians may relate to developing theological constructs. It probably became increasingly difficult to harmonize a baptizing Jesus with post-resurrection the arrival of the Holy Spirit (cf. John 7:39). The “glorification” of Jesus on the cross and his exaltation to heaven were becoming integral to the Christian story about the spirit’s initial outpouring (cf. John 14:16, Acts 2:33).

Why did Jesus baptize?

johnSo why might Jesus have baptized and/or instructed his disciples to baptize? There are two reasons, I think.

First, as I have about written before, it is possible that Jesus baptized his followers with God’s spirit so that they could preach with authority, cast out demons, and heal the sick alongside their master (cf. Mark 6:7, Hebrews 2:3-4). Just as Jesus was authorized and empowered by God’s spirit through water baptism, it is likely Jesus’ followers underwent similar spiritual experiences that enabled them to replicate the deeds of their teacher. If John, full of holy spirit (cf. Luke 1:16, Mark 6:14, Matthew 11:18), had facilitated the outpouring of spirit upon Jesus through baptism, it would make sense that Jesus also allowed his disciples to share in the heavenly drink.

Second, Jesus likely administered a Johannine-type baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins because he believed John’s apocalyptic message about the Israel’s peril (cf. Mark 11:30). Although Jesus’ ministry was marked more by celebration for the coming kingdom of God than by mourning for the coming calamity (cf. Matthew 11:16-19, Mark 2:18), the message of the two prophets seems to have largely overlapped: there would soon be judgement and restoration.

If I may speculate here then, perhaps Jesus at first worked alongside John, believing repentance and renewal through baptism could save the nation from what lay ahead. Perhaps after facing continual rejection from Israel’s religious leaders Jesus eschewed John’s baptismal approach, and instead ascribed atoning significance to his death. If the leaders of the nation refused to repent, first at John’s beckoning and then at Jesus’, maybe only the voluntary death of the Messiah could bring about reconciliation.

If this is the case, the atoning power of repentance through baptism was subsumed by the stronger atoning power of repentance through faith in the crucified Messiah, the new Passover lamb. Naturally then, the early Christians came to believe that the spirit of salvation had come through the the Messiah’s passion, not through the baptism once offered by John and Jesus.

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