The Politics of Baptism Stories—Matthew 3:13-17 (D. Mark Davis)

Lectionary, The Politics of Scripture

Biblical stories about baptism are connected to, but also at odds with, historical theology about baptism as well as the current liturgical practices of baptism. Matthew’s account of Jesus’s baptism gives us a helpful window into the reality.

13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. 14 John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’ 15 But Jesus answered him, ‘Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness.’ Then he consented. 16 And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17 And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved,* with whom I am well pleased.’

In most liturgical calendars, this Sunday will be noted as “Baptism of Jesus” Sunday, with Matthew’s version of Jesus’ baptism as the gospel reading. But, as central as the act of baptism is to Christian churches, baptismal stories are curious constructs.

The theology of baptism—according to Paul’s letters—has to do with the dying and rising of Christ. The stories of baptism in the Gospels have to do with John’s preaching and Jesus’ own baptism, both of which would be historically prior to the dying and rising of Christ, even though the stories themselves were written much later. As such, the gospel stories describe baptism as connected with repentance, not resurrection.

On Sunday, the picture gets even more complex. Over the years, the practice of baptism has come to mean a variety of things that seem very disconnected from the biblical stories. Some traditions practice “infant baptism,” seeing the practice as akin to circumcision, with the emphasis on God’s claim more than the believer’s response. This practice seems very different from baptism stories in the New Testament, except those occasional remarks that entire households were baptized, shifting the emphasis slightly from the individual to a larger community.

Some traditions practice “believer’s baptism” as a public profession of faith following one’s experience of salvation. The practice of believer’s baptism seems to follow the pattern of baptism stories in the Gospels and Acts, but even in this case a baptism in a heated pool in a sanctuary of the community gathered for worship is a far cry from “all of Jerusalem” pouring out to the Jordan River or even the Ethiopian Eunuch and Philip in a one-on-one spontaneous baptism, where the call to worship was, “Oh look, here is water.”

Biblical stories about baptism are connected to, but also at odds with, historical theology about baptism as well as the current liturgical practices of baptism.

For those who read the New Testament from beginning to end, like a book, Matthew’s account of John baptizing others and then baptizing Jesus would be the introduction to the practice. Baptism is not a practice that is clearly rooted in the Old Testament, so there is no textual precedent describing its meaning or purpose.

Yet, Matthew simply describes that people were going out to John to be baptized, without any real explanation as to what baptism is, when it began, what exactly it means, and why people would so readily queue up for it. Since Matthew’s text provides none of this information, it is reasonable to assume that Matthew’s audience already knows enough about the practice for the storyteller to skip the explanations. And, if that is the case, then it is an invitation for us not to read the New Testament like a book, starting with Matthew and concluding with Revelation.

The Gospels’ non-introductory references to baptism demonstrate that they were writing for communities of faith with established practices and theologies at work prior to the composition of the stories. The baptism stories do not introduce baptism. They presume it. In that sense, we might do well to embrace other approaches to reading the gospel stories of baptism.

Perhaps we can try to trace baptism in the Scriptures chronologically. First, John the Baptizer, as his name suggests, would be the earliest practitioner, biblically speaking. Whether John invented the practice or was following an established practice (perhaps common among Essene communities), the stories do not say.

Second, John 3:22-30 seems rather clearly to indicate that the next one who practiced baptism was Jesus. But, John 4:1-3 argues that it was not Jesus but his disciples who were actually baptizing.

Third, the apostles were practitioners of baptism. It was part of their call in Matthew’s so-called “Great Commission” and is part of their story in the book of Acts—even as soon as the Day of Pentecost. While the Apostles were certainly preaching about the death and resurrection of Jesus, the call to be baptized was typically part of the call to repentance, as in Acts 2:38.

Among those who were baptized upon conversion was Saul of Tarsus. So, we might say that Saul-turned-Paul was the fourth practitioner of baptism. But, like the conflicting stories of whether Jesus actually baptized or not, there is confusion over whether Paul practiced baptism. Acts 16:11-15 would suggest ‘yes,’ but Paul’s own account argues otherwise.

Sort of. In I Corinthians 1:14-16, Paul gives us a fairly confusing account of his practice of baptizing. In the end, trying to piece together a scriptural chronology of the practice of baptism is a path that seems to require quite a few stops for re-routing.

Another approach to the biblical stories of baptism would be to follow the polemical nature of those stories, since texts about baptism are typically some of the most worked-over texts in the New Testament.

When the Ethiopian Eunuch asks to be baptized in Acts 8:36, verses 37-38 were added later to make his baptism more formulaic with a proper profession of faith. When the Gospels tell the story of Jesus’ baptism, there are some common elements among them, but some curious differences as well.

Mark’s story sets the pattern of Jesus going to John to be baptized and afterward the Spirit descending like a dove and resting on him with the approving words booming from the heavens, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Matthew and Luke follow this storyline, but with some differences.

We’ll consider Matthew below, but for Luke the baptism of Jesus is a dependent clause, leading up to the revelatory moment: “Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened …” (Luke 3:21). In John’s baptism, Jesus is never actually baptized at all, although John does testify about the descent of the Spirit, saying “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him” (John 3:32).

The differences between the synoptic accounts and John seem more than stylistic. In fact, John has John the Baptizer saying that the whole purpose of his practice of baptism is that Jesus might be revealed to Israel (3:31). As such, John’s story shows a turn from emphasizing John the Baptist’s ministry of baptism for the repentance of sins to baptism as connected directly to Jesus. That is to say, in John, we see the story shaped in a way that serves the liturgy better.

Matthew inherits Mark’s story of Jesus’ baptism, but addresses what has to have been a deep theological tension between John the Baptist’s call to repentance and the gospel’s representation of Jesus. In Matthew’s story, John initially resists Jesus request to be baptized.

Matthew uses the imperfect tense of the verb διακωλύω (“hinder, decline”) in verse 14. While the NRSV interprets that imperfect as a conative imperfect, indicating intention (“John would have prevented him”), the typical interpretation of the imperfect voice is of an ongoing past event, as if this tussle between John the Baptizer and Jesus might have lasted a while.

Jesus assures John that the baptism is “proper” (πρέπον: “fitting, appropriate”) to fulfill all righteousness. With that simple explanation, Matthew seems to evade the whole question of why Jesus would need a baptism that is based on repentance of sin. For Matthew, Jesus is baptized in order to fulfill what is proper—a wholly different category for Jesus’ baptism than for everyone else’s baptism.

So, this Sunday, a text that addresses a first century question of how John’s baptism does or does not befit Jesus will be read to twenty-first century congregations, most of whom are not asking that question at all. Churches that practice believer’s baptism will see Jesus’ subjection to baptism as a model for all of us to follow. Churches that practice infant baptism will hear the voice from heaven as the model for declaring every baptizee as a beloved child of God.

As such, we may be missing the very pressure point behind Matthew’s way of telling the story: The appropriateness of Jesus, who knew no sin, standing in the water with us, who need repentance for sin. Jesus engages in that radical act of solidarity in order to “fulfill all righteousness.” Surely that is a promising way to engage this baptism story.


D. Mark Davis is pastor and head of staff for St. Mark Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach, California.  Ordained in 1996, he holds a PhD. in theology, ethics and culture from the University of Iowa and a D.Min. from Union Presbyterian Seminary in Virginia. He is the author of two books: Talking About Evangelism (May 2006) and Left Behind and Loving It (Fall 2011), and he blogs intensive Bible studies regularly at http://leftbehindandlovingit.blogspot.com.

One thought on “The Politics of Baptism Stories—Matthew 3:13-17 (D. Mark Davis)

  1. It seems to me that there is a dilemma for the writer(s) of MT. Jesus early on was baptized by John and most likely John’s disciple. By the time of the writing of the gospel there was some rivalry between the Disciples of Jesus and the Disciples of John, movements continuing on after the (worldly) deaths of their founders. (e.g., Acts 18:23-19:5). There is a problem if Jesus is simply baptized by John–that gives priority to John and Jesus becomes John’s disciple (as he was early on). But if John refuses, and Jesus is baptized only after Jesus insists, then John is following Jesus’ will and Jesus is in charge. John becomes Jesus disciple (somewhat retroactively). The heavens opening, the dove descending, the voice of God all reinforce that message. The Jesus Movement eventually flourishes; the Disciples of John become the relatively small gnostic Mandaean sect in Iraq. Recently wars and persecution by ISIS has forced most to become refugees in Syria and Jordan.

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