In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus’s baptism is almost the start of the whole story. Brief, to the point, Jesus is baptised and he is the (only) one who sees the heavens open; he’s the one who hears the voice, ‘You are my son, the beloved’. Matthew, having done Theology 101, isn’t all that crazy about Jesus being baptised, and he depicts Jesus as virtually going through the motions ‘to fulfil all righteousness’. In Luke, again it is Jesus who hears the words addressed to him — though this time it is after his baptism, while he was praying: a sort of prayer experience. In John, it is the Baptist who attests to Jesus’s baptism.
All those differences aside, I’ve long wondered why Jesus queued up that day to be baptised. If Matthew is correct, how did he feel being the only one not repenting of anything? Or do we take the other accounts at face value? He got baptised: live with it.
Thirty years ago I wrote a brief article suggesting that Jesus could well have felt guilt for social sin, as anachronistic as it was to use that term in that context. But if he is as incarnate as we believe him to be, he would have been the product of a particular culture with all its insights and biases, some of which hurt people (Mark 7.27). He would have had to participate in an unjust socio-economic system – what other option did he have? And, without wishing to psychoanalyse him, he might naturally have felt, as a good Jew, a collective responsibility for the sin of his people. There were reasons to be in that queue.
Since then I’ve wondered if more could be said. In Mark 10.18 and in the parallel Luke 18.19, in a remarkable exchange with the rich young ruler, Jesus would not allow himself to be called good, insisting that ‘No one,’ himself included, ‘is good but God alone’. Matthew, as in his account of the baptism, is sharp enough to realise the same danger here, so he changes the story a bit: instead of calling Jesus ‘Good Teacher’, Matthew has the man ask about ‘good deeds’ instead — with Jesus responding a little less precisely, ‘There is only one who is good’.
The Greek word for good, agathos, is concerned with the moral good and perhaps could be thought of as ‘morally perfect’. Though one can understand why Jesus might instinctively have wanted to deflect praise away from him towards his Father (he was pretty consistent), and though we might appreciate how Jesus eschewed flattery to focus on good actions instead, what if Jesus had meant what he purportedly said? What if this wasn’t only humble hyperbole? Perhaps Matthew was quite right to sense the danger again. No matter how we try to wiggle out of it, Jesus was not claiming moral perfection. Quite the opposite. And though this doesn’t often feature in formal christology, as a divine person with a created finite human nature, Jesus is also morally finite like the rest of us, and would have experienced himself as such (granted, this needs some careful teasing-out).
For the sake of argument, though, let us suppose that Jesus was in that queue. He had honestly come to be baptised just like everyone else: he had wanted to be dunked in that water and he had hoped to emerge different. In response, something new did occur: he was caught up in the Spirit and discovered (whether during the event or in prayer afterwards) that God was truly delighted with him, that his Father loved him to bits. As wonderful as that was, this experience turned his life upside-down, so much so that he had felt driven by that same Spirit into the wilderness, where he struggled to figure out what it had all meant. There he faced his various demons, demons that might have duped him and undermined what had just happened, and Jesus gradually came to understand his vocation: he was called to share what he had received, realising in Isaian terms that he had been anointed by the Spirit to proclaim good news to the poor (taking Luke’s particular ordering of events).
Though others have balked at this idea, Jesus’ baptism seems to have had all the hallmarks of a powerful conversion experience, a real turning-point. Like the evangelist Matthew, some are reluctant to use such language, thinking that it implies a conversion from sin. But if we suspend our Matthean-inspired theological need to make excuses for Jesus, the basic story of Jesus’ baptism is all the more compelling and paradigmatic for Christians: if Jesus needed to experience God’s love so powerfully, do I dare ask for anything less? Should I even dream of following Jesus unless that same Spirit palpably courses through my veins? And, perhaps, should we really associate conversion with sin, with what we do, as opposed to what God is doing?
Principal, St Chad’s College, Durham