Readings: Isaiah 43:1–7, Acts 8:14–17 & Luke 3:15–22
The Gospel of Luke tells us that John the Baptist practiced a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. It also tells us that Jesus was baptised by John. But we know that Jesus was “without sin”, so why did he need to be baptised by John?
One possible answer, which can be found in a book I started reading this week titled ‘The Baptism of Jesus from a Jewish Perspective’, is that through his baptism by John, Jesus was anointed to be an atoning sacrifice for the sins of all people. The book is written by a Jewish author and pastor, Tov Rose, whose aim is to help people better understand the nature and person of God, and the Bible, from a Jewish perspective. Before discussing the meaning behind the baptism of Jesus, Rose first provides important background information about John the Baptist.
John’s father (Zechariah) was a member of one of the priestly orders descended from Aaron. For those of you who might not know, or who might have forgotten, Aaron was the brother of Moses, and he was God’s original High Priest. At the time of Zechariah, the priesthood of Aaron was divided into 24 groups, or orders, and each of these priestly orders was responsible for serving in the Temple in Jerusalem for one week twice a year. John’s mother (Elisabeth) was also a descendant of Aaron. And the Gospel of Luke tells us that Zechariah, “was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and offer incense.” (Luke 1:9 NRSV)
Rose argues that in the time of Zechariah, the High Priest was appointed as a political office, and was not selected in the way prescribed by God in the Old Testament. He goes on to suggest that this meant there was an appointed High Priest, and then there was the one who was supposed to have been God’s High Priest; Zechariah. Rose believes that if the illegitimate High Priest died in the presence of God, Zechariah was runner up to take his place and to offer the sacrifice in the Holy of Holies before God. Or, to put it another way, Zechariah was chosen by God to be the Legitimate High Priest of Israel.”
The role of priest, was an inherited office from father to son, so according to Rose, John the Baptist had been chosen by God to be the future Legitimate High Priest of Israel. And if you remember, the High Priest was the only person who could enter the Holy of Holies in the Temple in Jerusalem, which was the place, it was believed, where the presence of God dwelt. But even the High Priest could only go in there on one day in the year, which was the Day of Atonement, when the High Priest would offer a sacrifice to God for the forgiveness of the sins of the people of Israel. We’ll come back to that point in just a moment. But for the time being, let’s ponder two questions: What was the baptism of John? And, what was it specifically that he was doing at the Jordan River?
In the Jewish religious tradition of Jesus’ day, those pagans (non-Jewish people), who wished to convert to Judaism, had to go through a very specific ritual of Baptism, which was the same ritual that John was using.
In order to understand what it was that John was doing in this this ritual, we need a bit more background. First, the place of judgment was considered to be in the direction of East. For example, when Israel was carried away captive to Babylon they went in the direction of East. When Adam & Eve sinned against God and were cast out of the Garden, it was in the direction of East.
The Baptism that John practiced was, and is still known as, the Baptism of Repentance. Most Christians think of it as the repentance from sin, but it is more than that—It is repentance from Pagan anti-God practices! Here is how this ritual of baptism worked:
If a non-Jewish person wanted to follow God, they had to prove their repentance from their pagan ways by going to the East side of the River Jordan. They would stand on the East side of the river, which represented the Pagan Side of the River, the side without God.
When they were ready, they moved to the centre of the river where a priest waited for them. Once in the middle of the river the priest asked them to proclaim all of the pagan things they were renouncing, which included their lifestyle, family, friends and their very name.
Once they completed, the previously the non-Jewish person went through a death and dying experience by being “buried.” The priest would cause them to lie down back-first into the water as a sign of dying to their old life. When they rose up out of the water again they were no longer considered a pagan! They were considered “born” into a new life—one as a member of the Commonwealth of Israel.
Now, risen from the dead, this person with their new life was proclaimed a first generation descendent of Abraham and given a new name, “So-and-so, the Son of Abraham” or “So-and-so, Daughter of Abraham.”
This last point, about being a first generation descendant of Abraham is critically important for what comes next. In the Book of Genesis we hear the story of Abraham being prepared to sacrifice his son Isaac to God at God’s request. And in response to his faith, God tells Abraham, “By myself I have sworn, says the LORD: Because you have done this, and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will indeed bless you, and I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of their enemies, and by your offspring shall all the nations of the earth gain blessing for themselves, because you have obeyed my voice.” (Gen. 22:16–18 NRSV)
Now Jesus did not need to go through this ritual of conversion from paganism to the religion of Israel, but he did so anyway. In his baptism, Jesus took on Abraham’s Calling, and was given Abraham’s inheritance as his first-born son: which specifically meant that all the nations on earth who believe on Jesus in faith will be blessed. Which brings us back to the point about the High Priest being the only person who could enter the Holy of Holies, and only on the Day of Atonement.
Through his baptism by John, the Legitimate High Priest of Israel, and his subsequent anointing when the Holy Spirit descended on him, Jesus was anointed as the sacrifice to be made to God for the atonement of the sin of all people. And now, unlike the Old Testament times, when only the High Priest alone was entitled to “approach” the sanctuary, all of us can fearlessly approach God himself.
Through his death and resurrection, Jesus has removed the veil, the Holy of Holies that separated us from God’s presence, and we are free to enter directly into a relationship with God.