In my last post, I suggested that Jesus’ baptism is a model for our own. We are baptized for the same reasons he was. This is not an obvious statement for most of us, since we think baptism is primarily about the forgiveness of an individual’s sins and Jesus had none. Making this case seemingly more difficult is the fact that John the Baptist was baptizing for repentance and the forgiveness of sins. So, to make my case, I have to expand both our understandings of Jesus’ baptism and our own. So, here goes.
My case hinges on which question you think the Bible is most interested in. One view sees the Bible as a response to an individual’s sin so that the pressing question becomes, “how can a sinner be forgiven?” Another view sees the Bible as a response to the loss of God’s shalom, or even glory, in creation. The question here is “how can God work in history to bring all things back under his sovereign love and care?” These two questions are not unrelated, especially if you ask the second one first. The Bible is interested in both, but they aren’t the same and it matters which one you lead with. The issue in the first is the individual. In the second, history. The object of salvation in the first is the individual. In the second, all of creation. In the first, Israel’s story is unessential, even perhaps one big false step. In the second, it is essential and the story hinges on the outcome of the promise made to Abraham.
So here’s my thesis, restated. The baptism of Jesus is related primarily to the second set of questions, not the first. And so ours should be.
Ready for another bold proposal? If I were to divide the Bible, I wouldn’t divide it between the Old and New Testaments. I would divide it before Israel’s exile and after. The first part of the Bible would end with Lamentations and the second part would begin with Isaiah 40:1, “Comfort, O comfort my people.” (I have yet to get much traction with this, but I’m sure its just an economic decision on the part of Bible sellers). I am convinced that the reality of exile falls like a shadow over most of Scripture. Because of the exile, the question of God’s identity in relation to Israel is called into question. Has God forgotten the promises he made that placed Israel at the center of his redemptive purposes for all creation? Is Israel’s sin so great that there is no hope for a future with God? Or worse, is Yahweh not sovereign over history, therefore, incapable of bringing his purposes about?
These questions linger in the New Testament. Even though many of God’s people have returned from exile and the temple has been rebuilt in Jerusalem, Israel’s place in the covenant promises of God has not been restored. So, for instance, in the opening pages of Luke’s gospel we find the aged prophet Simeon looking for the “consolation of Israel,” and his counterpart Anna praying for the “redemption of Jerusalem.” They’re looking for an end to exile.
They, like many of Israel’s theologians before them, imagined that God’s purpose for Israel existed not in an ideal past to be restored, but in a perfect future whose existence would break into the present in sudden and surprising ways–the Kingdom of God. This future age would bring with it a renewing of Israel according to the promises of God. And as NT Wright points out, forgiveness of sins would be a sign of this new age and evidence that the exile was finally coming to an end. Wright says it bluntly, “Forgiveness of sins is another way of saying ‘return from exile.'” (He lines up an impressive array of biblical texts that support this statement in Jesus and the Victory of God, 269-274).
Wright further makes the point that the baptism offered by John was not primarily for the forgiveness of individual sins. Provision was already available for the forgiveness of individual sins. Moreover, he writes, “forgiveness of sins could never simply be a private blessing, though to be sure it was that as well… Overarching the situation of the individual was the state of the nation as a whole; and, as long as Israel remained under the rule of pagans, as long as Torah was not observed perfectly, as long as the temple was not properly restored, so Israel longed for forgiveness of sins as the great, unrepeatable, eschatological and national blessing promised by her god. In light of this, the meaning which Mark and Luke both give to John’s baptism ought to be clear. It was for ‘the forgiveness of sins,’ in other words, to bring about the redemption for which Israel was longing.” (Victory of God, 271)
Getting back to our original questions, those who received John’s baptism were more concerned with “how can God work in history to bring creation back under his sovereign care?” than “what must I do to be saved?” They were responding to a summons to be a part of God’s coming kingdom.
But John’s baptism was not only about forgiveness of sins. It was also about repentance. What would become clear in Jesus’ ministry is that the coming Kingdom of God would call for a new Israel. Many of the expectations others held about the consolation of Israel or the redemption of Jerusalem would be frustrated by Jesus’ ministry. Again, as Wright puts it, Jesus was in effect saying, “give up your way of being Israel, your following of particular national and political aims and goals, and trust me for mine instead.” (Vict of God, 254).
There’s much to say about this, but for now let me say that Jesus was baptized to show that he both represented and belonged to the coming Kingdom of God. His presence announced the end of Israel’s exile and demonstrated the possibility of a renewed Israel that would serve the eschatological purposes of God. His baptism, in particular, demonstrated the shape that repentance must take in light of the coming Kingdom of God. More on that in my next post.