What is baptism? It seems like every church tradition has their distinct way of understanding and performing baptisms. This diversity stems from the Bible itself, where we can find several different rituals identified as baptisms. Of course, inquiring minds want to know which one is the correct one. However, I think that this question is not very helpful. Let’s investigate what baptism means through our Lectionary texts for this Sunday (remember, every interpretation starts with and is defined by the choice of the text!)
The gospel passage refers to two or maybe even three baptisms. The first is the baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins performed by John. People confessed their sins publicly and then were baptized in the river Jordan.
The second one is described by John. He does not give us a lot of details, but makes it clear that the person baptizing is much more powerful and honored than John himself, of a higher status. Instead of water, the second type of baptism is to be performed by the Spirit.
The third baptism in the passage is of Jesus Christ by John the Baptist. It appears to be a combination of the first two – John’s baptism in Jordan and God’s baptism with the Spirit and the proclamation that of Jesus sonship (see more on sonship from my blog last week). During the baptism of Jesus we witness the ritual performed by another man involving water, as well as the appearance of God and the public affirmation of Jesus’ identity. All these elements come together into a meaningful event – called the baptism.
In Acts we read how the practice of baptism developed int he early church. Paul meets Ephesian disciples who have been baptized into John’s baptism of repentance that anticipates the arrival of Jesus Christ. Paul performs a baptism in the name of Jesus Christ. We do not know what the ritual involves at that time, except for the laying of hands that coincides with the entrance of the Holy Spirit and the receiving of the gifts of prophesy and speaking in tongues. Paul does not deny the importance of the baptism of John, but takes the baptism to the whole new level, not known previously to the disciples. Human and divine actions result in the public manifestation of God’s call for these disciples to be prophets and speak in tongues.
These two texts give us examples of four different baptisms. What are their common features that mark these rituals as baptisms? Human and divine actions occurring around the same time result in the public manifestation of God’s calling for a believer, for example to be a Son of God, or a prophet or to speak in tongues.
Although there is a human element in performing the ritual of baptism and receiving it, the focus is on divine presence and actions. Pouring water on someone could be simply a shower. It is God who defines the moment as baptism.
I personally was baptized three times – as a baby in the Russian Orthodox Church, as a teenager in the Russian Baptist church and as an adult by a group of pentecostals. During the second and third baptisms I was explained why the previous one was not valid. Reading these texts I see that it was total nonsense. God’s grace and love filled my life since I was born and my mother got me baptized as a baby calling on God to protect and guide me as I grow up. God’s Word is full of the promises that God is with us since the very beginning of our life. As a teenager I was able to understand the concepts of sin, repentance and forgiveness. I also made a conscious decision to be a believer and a follower of Christ and explore God’s calling for my life. It happened that this stage was marked by a baptism as well. As a young adult I was exploring my spirituality and searching God’s guidance, and a group of pentecostals convinced me that with laying of hands and receiving the gift of speaking in tongues I could deepen my relationship with God. I agreed, but, to my huge disappointment, the baptism “did not work,” or I thought so at the time. Shortly after it, I graduated from college speaking English and Spanish. I also discovered great passion towards linguistics and soon entered seminary and studied Biblical Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic. So far I have preached and taught in three languages. Now, in the hindsight, I wonder if I did receive a gift of speaking in tongues after all. God works in amazing ways. I share this story to illustrate that no baptism is the same for a person, but each true baptism is marked by God’s presence and call manifested publicly.
The other two texts for today elevate the immense power of God’s word. In Genesis 1:1-5 God by the power of God’s word creates the heaven and earth, the light and the darkness. What is more powerful than God’s word? Psalm 29 poetically describes the tremendous power of God’s voice and the authority that God holds over the creation. Let’s pause that realize that same God spoke during our baptism (or baptisms) to call us to live the fullness of our lives. I want to finish today’s post with Psalm 29:11. Whatever gifts, call, power, or authority we receive at the baptism ought to be put to the service of God. Unfortunately, so many baptized people today thrive on divisiveness, oppression and violence. That’s why I read this verse calling on its prophetic power and praying for all of us, the people of God:
May the Lord give strength to his people!
May the Lord bless his people with peace!
Cover image The Baptism of Christ by Andrea del Verrocchio, source