BY RICH LUSK
Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan to be baptized. And John tried to prevent him, saying, I need to be baptized by you, and you are coming to me?” But Jesus answered and said to him, “Permit it to be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he allowed him. When he had been baptized, Jesus came up immediately from the water; and behold, the heavens were opened to Him, and the He saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting upon him. And suddenly a voice came from heaven saying, “This is my Beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased” (Mt. 3:13-17).It came to pass in those days that Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee, and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And immediately, coming up from the water, He saw the heavens parting and the Spirit descending upon him like a dove. Then a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased” (Mk. 1:9-11).
When all the people were baptized, it came to pass that Jesus also was baptized: and while He prayed, the heaven was opened. And the Holy Spirit descended in bodily form like a dove upon Him, and a voice came from heaven which said, “You are my beloved Son; in You I am well pleased.” Now Jesus Himself began his ministry at about thirty years of ago . . . (Lk. 3:21-23).
It is not my purpose to examine every detail of these three accounts, nor seek to explain or harmonize their slight divergences. Rather, I want to provide theological reflection on the event of Jesus’ baptism, with a view to shedding light on the meaning and significance of Christian baptism more generally. At several points along the way, I hope to turn biblical theology into pastoral theology, showing the practical ramifications of our participation in the baptism of Christ. What the paper lacks in organization, I hope it will make up for by raising (and occasionally answering) probing questions about the sacrament of baptism and its role in our relationship with the Triune God. Please remember, this not really a formal paper, but a rambling set of notes, used as a basis for teaching and discussion in Sunday School class.
John Calvin views Christ’s baptism as having redemptive value. In his baptism, he became identified with us, even as we become identified with him in our baptisms.
Faith receives from baptism the advantage of its sure testimony to us that we are not only engrafted into the death and [resurrection] life of Christ, but so united to Christ himself that we become sharers in all his blessings. For he dedicated and sanctified baptism in his own body [Mt. 3:13] in order that he might have it in common with us as the firmest bond of the union and fellowship which he has deigned to form with us. Hence, Paul proves that we are children of God from the fact that we put on Christ in baptism [Gal. 3:26-27]. Thus we see the fulfillment of baptism is in Christ, whom also for this reason we call the proper object of baptism . . . For all the gifts of God proffered in baptism are found in Christ alone (Institutes 4.15.6)
It is no exaggeration to say that for Calvin, there is really only one baptism – the baptism of Jesus himself. Our baptism is simply a participation in his once-and-for-all baptism in the Jordan. The sacrament of baptism was sanctified by his submission to the rite; therefore his baptism is the paradigm for our baptisms. He was the first to receive the promised eschatological baptism of the Spirit (e.g., Ezek 37:14); but when we are baptized into his name, we share in that eschatological gift. In other words, Christian baptism rests upon the baptism of Jesus. He baptizes us with the same baptism he received.
Thus, by looking at what Jesus’ baptism effected, we can derive an understanding of what happened in our own baptisms. Three basic things happened when John baptized Jesus. Let us take each aspect of the event in turn, with the caveat that the various themes to be discussed are impossible to fully separate so some degree of overlap is inevitable.
1. Heaven opened, and the Holy Spirit came upon Jesus at his baptism.
Jesus’ baptism is a fully Trinitarian event. To paraphrase Augustine’s gloss on Ps. 45:7, in the Jordan, God anointed God with God. The Father gave the chrism of the Spirit to the Son. But we should not allow the Trinitarian subtheme in the baptismal accounts to push our understanding of the event out of the realm of history into the realm of eternity. To be sure, the Father and the Son have been exchanging the glorious gift of the Holy Spirit with one another from before time began. The Father has been speaking words of love and joy to the Son from all eternity, and the Son has been responding in kind just as long. The words from heaven and the anointing of the Spirit at Jesus’ baptism are events that no doubt have their origin in the eternal life of the Triune family.
But that’s not the whole story. While the economical Trinity (that is, what the Trinity does in history) is a revelation of the ontological Trinity (that is, what the Trinity is like from eternity), there is a distinction to be made. The Father’s baptism of the Son with the Spirit marks a real transition in the life of the incarnate God-man. At the baptism of Jesus, the one who was the eternal Word-made-flesh became something he had not been before and experienced something he had not experienced before. In a sense, the baptism of Jesus temporalized an eternal act of God. So the baptism of Jesus has to be interpreted in both Trinitarian and eschatological categories. It is a revelatory, transformative event.
The contrast John draws between his pre-eschatological baptism of preparation and the baptism Jesus will give to the new covenant community (Jn. 1:24-27) has to be understood in just these terms. This event of Jesus’ baptism, involving Father, Son, and Spirit, marks a major turning point in redemptive history, even though John’s antithesis between his baptism and the baptism Jesus will give in the future is a relative, not absolute, contrast.
The baptism of Jesus marked a new beginning in the outpouring of the Spirit, an event that would finally come to a climax a few years later at Pentecost (Acts 2). Just as for Jesus, baptism with water and Spirit are conjoined in one event, so it will be for the church. At Pentecost, those who received the Spirit were baptized with water (Acts 2:38). Later, Paul can say that the entire Corinthian community has been baptized (with water, no doubt) by the Spirit into Christ’s body (1 Cor. 12:13). While water baptism and reception of the Spirit are sometimes temporally distinct in the book of Acts (e.g., Acts 8 and 10), these events are treated as abnormalities, ordained by God to make evident the new redemptive-historical situation (primarily the inclusion of the Gentiles). The baptism of Jesus, the Pentecostal baptism of the church, and the ongoing practice of Christian baptism must all be put on a redemptive-historical continuum. They all constitute one eschatological baptism, signifying the invasion of the new age into the midst of the old world order.
John’s baptism is still an old covenant washing, rooted in the Mosaic system. John may be the greatest member of the old covenant era, but his ministry is still inferior to the kingdom age Jesus is about to inaugurate (Mt. 11:11). When John says to Jesus, “I need to be baptized by you,” (Mt. 3:14), he is speaking for the entire old covenant church. Though several saints received the Spirit in the old covenant (e.g., several judges; Saul), none received the Spirit in the same measure of fullness that Jesus did at his baptism (cf. Jn. 3:34 and the sevenfold description of the Messiah’s possession of the Spirit in Isa. 11:2).
John’s baptism could not instrumentally grant the Spirit because, before Jesus was glorified, the Spirit was not yet given in any kind of full way (Jn. 7:37). But once Jesus was resurrected and ascended, he could baptize the church with the Spirit and fire, as he did in Acts 2. Or, to put it another way, at Pentecost, Jesus shared with the church the promised Spirit he had received as a gift from the Father. With the outpouring of the Spirit, the church moves into a new age – an age of greater power and blessing (cf. Jn. 14-16). Now, when a person is baptized, he comes to share in Christ’s once and for all baptism of the church at Pentecost. In fact, we might even say that John the Baptist has been replaced by Jesus the Baptist ! He is the one who stands behind the rite of Christian baptism and makes it efficacious .
The location of John’s baptism also gives us clues as to the meaning of Jesus’ baptism. John was baptizing in the wilderness, the place of exile, testing, and judgment. Those who came to John for baptism were acknowledging that Israel was still in exile, despite the fact that she had returned to her land . Matthew’s gospel makes this point rather forcefully in his opening genealogy: The evangelist has divided Israel’s history up into three blocks of fourteen generations, from Abraham to David, from David to the exile, and from the exile to Jesus. In others words, at the time of Jesus’ birth, Israel is still in exile in some sense . The people may have returned from the Babylonian captivity after 70 years (Jer. 25:11), but the curse of exile was not entirely dealt with (cf. Dan. 9, in which it is revealed to Daniel that the exile is being lengthened 490 years ).
But if Israel is still in exile, then John’s baptism at the outer edge of the land must be regarded as a new exodus . Through his baptism, a renewed Israel is being formed. The prophetic promises connect the new exodus with the forgiveness of sin (e.g., Isa. 35; 40-55); not surprisingly, John’s baptism combines the symbolism of a river-crossing-into-the-land-of-promise with forgiveness of sins. Those who participated in John’s baptism admitted their exilic condition and became the advance guard of the community of the new exodus. John’s baptism reconstituted Israel as the priestly nation and prepared her to meet her God . In the same context that prophesied John the Forerunner’s ministry (cf. Isa. 40:3-5 and Mt. 3:3), Isaiah also promised that when water and the Spirit were poured out on the dry ground of Israel, the covenant community would be renewed (Isa. 41:17-20; 44:3-5) and the wilderness of exile transformed into a beautiful garden (Isa. 35).
When John baptized Jesus several unique things happened. This was not an ordinary Johannic baptism. After all, contrary to John’s declaration, when he administered this baptism, the Spirit was poured out from on high. Obviously, Jesus had no sin and was not in need of forgiveness (cf. Mt. 3:14), so it could not be a baptism unto remission either. Rather, by submitting to John’s baptism, Jesus identified himself as the new Moses and the new Joshua, who would lead the renewed covenant community out of Egypt (which in Matthew’s account, at least, is now identified with the religious and political leadership in the land of Israel itself; cf. 2:15) into a new and greater promised land (cf. Mt. 28:18-20).
But these aren’t the only themes resonating through the gospel accounts. The combination of the Spirit with water and voice recalls the original creation account in Gen. 1. The baptism of Jesus not only marks the formation of a new Israel via a new exodus; it inaugurates a new creation. Just as in Gen.1, where the Spirit hovers bird-like above the watery earth as the Father speaks from heaven, so it is here. The Spirit alights upon Jesus as a sign of the new world’s emergence out of the old .
The symbolism of the dove itself does the same. Just as a new creation arose out of the flood waters, signified by the dove’s return to the ark with evidence of a renewed world, so it is here. Jesus himself is a new Noah, and therefore a new Adam (cf. Gen. 8:15-19; 9:1-4 with 1:26-28). More than that, Jesus is a new ark who hides his people from the flood of God’s wrath against the world’s sin. Just as the name “Noah” promised rest, so Jesus fulfills the promise of rest by bringing in the eschatological Sabbath (Mt. 11:28).
We should also recall that the dove was used in the sacrificial system (Lev. 5:7) and signified peace between God and the sinner. The new creation Jesus inaugurates will come about through his Spirit-enabled sacrifice on the cross (Heb. 9:14). The sign of the dove alighting upon Jesus foreshadows his coming death as the anointed one on behalf of those he identified with in his baptism. Jesus referred to his crucifixion as a baptism (Mt. 12:50; Mk. 10:38-39) for just this reason — in a sense, his passion begins here in the waters with John. Calvary completes what was initiated at the Jordan . The cross makes peace between God and his people, symbolized by the dove, a glorious reality.
Mark’s account of the Spirit coming upon Jesus is terse, but dense with biblical-theological meaning. Mark provides his own slant on the significance of this event . Literally, Mark says the sky was “ripped” or “split” open at Jesus’ baptism. The door to heaven was torn wide open and the Spirit fell from above upon the Messiah. Later in Mark’s gospel, he will use the same Greek word for the “ripping” of the temple veil at Jesus’ death (Mk. 15:38). But of course the temple veil was symbolic of the barrier between heaven and earth, going back to day two in the creation week . Again we see that what Jesus began at his baptism — the opening of heaven to his people — he finished at his death. His entire career is enclosed by baptisms of water and blood . By opening the heavenly sanctuary, he made the earthly copy in Jerusalem obsolete.
We need to look at this in a little more detail to really grasp what’s going on. On day two of the creation week, God scooped up some water from earth and took it up to heaven with him. That water was spread out into a veil, or boundary, separating God’s heaven from the earth and our visible heaven, with a wide expanse (or firmament) in between (Gen. 1:6-7). These “waters above” are often contrasted with the “waters below” in Scripture. Ps. 148:4 makes reference to these waters above, indicating that these heavenly waters separate God’s realm from our universe. Frequently, when someone in the Bible is given a glimpse into God’s throne room, they see this heavenly ocean. For example, Ezekiel and John both see a crystal (that is, ice-like) sea (Ezek. 1:22; Rev. 4:6). In Rev. 15, the saints experience a new exodus as they pass through this heavenly sea into the newly opened temple of heaven, singing the song of Moses as they go. (For more on this theme, see James B. Jordan’s study in Creation in Six Days. I am making no claims here about how much the Genesis account ought to shape our view of the physical cosmos. For our purposes, it does not matter if the watery curtain is physico-symbolic, or just symbolic.)
We know that the watery curtain separating heaven and earth was not intended to be permanent. Day two is the only day of the six on which God does not call his creative work good. The barrier between heaven and earth was to be temporary, just as Adam’s singleness was only a temporary condition and just as his exclusion from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil was only to be a temporary restriction. In other words, God’s final intention has always been the full marriage of heaven and earth. God always intended to join himself to humanity in the closest possible bond. (Perhaps this is why the eschatological vision in Revelation declares “there is no more sea” — the heavenly water barrier between God’s home and man’s home has finally been removed altogether. I would speculate that the watery veil hardened into crystal-like ice at Adam’s fall, which explains why Ezekiel and John see something opaque but firm rather than aqueous [cf. the curse of the covenant in Dt. 28:23]. When Adam sinned, the entry way into the heavenly sanctuary was hardened; as a corollary, Adam was cast out of the earthly copy of the heavenly throne room. Jesus’ death undid the consequences of Adam’s sin.)
So why was heaven opened? The baptism of Jesus set in motion the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prayer: “Oh that you would rend the heavens the heavens! That you would come down!” (64:1) . Heaven was ripped open so the Spirit could proceed to earth. Thus, this event began the fulfillment of the glorious promises concerning the Spirit and water: “Until the Spirit is poured out from on high, and the wilderness [note that location!] becomes a fruitful field, and the fruitful field is counted as a forest” (Isa. 32:15). “For I will take you from among the nations, gather you out of all countries, and bring you into your own land [that is, I will restore you from the exile]. Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will take the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh” (Ezekiel 36:24-27, 30). “And it shall to come to pass afterward that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh” (Joel 2:28; cf. also Isaiah 41:17-19; 44:3-4).
We have already seen that what Jesus’ baptism initiated, the cross completed. But now we can add to that this truth: what Jesus’ baptism began, Pentecost (Acts 2) completed. At the baptism of Jesus, the Father punched a hole through the barrier between heaven and earth. Now, the Spirit may move from heaven to earth and the people of God from earth to heaven. If I may speak imaginatively, water fell from above upon Jesus, leaving an open passageway into God’s realm: a gap in heaven’s floor ! The promised eschatological reunion of the Creator and his fallen creation was finally underway. The entire package of prophetic material foretelling a blessed future for Israel was now becoming a reality.
The baptism of Jesus thus begins trajectories that are completed at the cross (his baptism of blood) and Pentecost (his baptism of the church). To these two we can add a third: the baptism of Jesus begins judgment on the temporary structures of the Mosaic covenant, particularly the system of animal sacrifices and the Jerusalem temple structure. With access to the heavenly temple now granted through Christ’s sacrifice, the earthly can, and indeed must, be destroyed. Jesus’ baptism (30 A.D.) is completed by the cross (33 A.D), Pentecost (33 A.D.), and Holocaust (70 A.D.).
All of this, then, informs our understanding of our own baptisms. We must move from Jesus’ baptism by John (and the Father) to Jesus’ baptism of the church. When we were baptized, heaven was torn open for us and the Spirit fell upon us from above. The Spirit’s descent makes way for our ascent. In baptism, we crossed over the heavenly sea into God’s presence (cf. Rev. 15), so that we are now seated with Christ in the heavenlies (Ephesians 2:6). We passed from death into life, as we were incorporated into the resurrected and exodused  community. We were granted access to the heavenly sanctuary and throne room. We received the blessings of the new exodus — including the forgiveness of sins. And we entered into the promised new creation and new Israel.
In baptism, God works extra nos and pro nobis — that is to say, outside of us and for us. In baptism, God’s promised new world comes crashing down from heaven into the old, fallen Adamic creation. The Spirit comes in the water to transform the barren wilderness into a fruitful garden. He works from the outside-in. Baptism effects a change in our spiritual geography, so that we cross over the “waters above” from earthly exile in the cursed wilderness into the promised land of the heavenly sanctuary. Thus, baptism is not a human act, strictly speaking. Not even Jesus could baptize himself, but had to receive baptism from Another. In baptism we receive God’s gifts. Ultimately, baptism is nothing less than a recreative, transformative act of God, making all things new, through his Spirit, in fulfillment of the promised hope. In baptism, God acts to give us a share in the cross, in Pentecost, and in the future resurrection.
2. At his baptism, a voice spoke from heaven, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.”
When Israel emerged from the water of the Red Sea, she received the law of Moses from Mt. Sinai. But when Jesus — the new Israel — emerged from the waters of the Jordan, he received a better word from above.
The words spoken by the Father are intertextual, meaning that they combine fragments and phrases used elsewhere in the Scriptures . In particular, the Lord’s voice has combined Psalm 2:7 with Genesis 22:2 and Isaiah 42:1. Thus, the baptism of Jesus reveals him as the one who will tie together the various strands of old covenant revelation into a beautiful knot of fulfilled hopes and expectations. Some amazing theological motifs are juxtaposed in these words from heaven. Let us look at each phrase in the Father’s declaration.
“You are my Son.” This comes from Psalm 2, and identifies Jesus as the promised Davidic king who will rule over the earth. Psalm 2 is representative of an entire genre of old covenant prophecies which identify the Messiah as a greater David (e.g., Second Samuel 7:4ff; Isaiah 9:6f; 11:1ff; etc.). David serves as a template for the Messiah’s person and work. Psalm 2 was originally part of a coronation/enthronement liturgy, used in Israel’s monarchial installations. Thus, this portion of the Father’s statement explains why Jesus had to be baptized: every king needs a coronation ceremony, and Jesus had his in the Jordan River. As king, Jesus will inherit the nations and rule them with a rod of iron. He is the one the kings of the earth must pay homage to, lest his wrath flare up against them.
While Jesus enters more fully into his kingly office at the resurrection (note the way Psalm 2:7 is used in Acts 13:33!), he begins to claim the crown that is rightfully his at his baptism. His baptism makes the future present to him, as he receives ahead of time what he shall receive more fully after the cross. Baptism promises him resurrection life in the new creation, even as he begins to take up his public ministry in the midst of the old cursed creation. In his baptism, the not yet inches towards the already; this event anticipates and makes present the promised future .
Baptism is possibly connected with sonship in another way. In a sense Jesus’ baptism is his regeneration. He becomes the first to be born of the Spirit from above (cf. John. 3). Luke clinches this point by inserting Jesus’ genealogy right after the account of his baptism. In terms of Luke’s literary structure, the baptism marks a new birth and new beginning for Jesus. While he was no doubt the incarnate Son of God from his virginal conception onwards, he entered into a radically new phase of sonship in the waters of the Jordan.
The language of “beloved Son” calls to mind Genesis 22:2. God told Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, “your beloved son.” Just as Jesus is a new David, so he is a new Isaac, the promised seed, born of the Spirit, called to be offered up on the mount — only this time the knife will not be drawn back at the last possible moment. Father YHWH will do what father Abraham did not have to do — offer his only son as a sacrifice. Thus the baptismal announcement gives us a narrative grid for understanding the entire gospel message as told by the evangelists. YHWH and Jesus will re-enact the dramatic script of the “binding of Isaac” story, climaxing with the passion narratives — though, alas, no ram will be provided as substitute and Jesus will have to die a painful, agonizing death. Jesus himself will be the one the Father sacrifices on the altar of the cross for the sins of the world. But just as Abraham received his son back from the dead, figuratively speaking (Hebrews 11:17-19), so Father YHWH will receive his Son back from the dead as well. Implicit in this echo of Genesis 22 is not only an allusion to his coming death but also a promise of resurrection. The baptismal announcement already adumbrates the happy, triumphal ending of the gospels.
Finally, “in whom I delight,” echoes Isaiah 42:1. In context, this means Jesus is the Father’s Elect One who has been given the Spirit. Isaiah 42 sketches out the trajectory of the Elect One’s career, indicating what is to happen as the gospel narratives unfold. His mission will include bringing covenant fidelity to the Gentiles, in fulfillment of the Abrahamic promises. He will be the embodiment of God’s covenant and a light to all peoples. Through his ministry, eyes will be opened, prisoners released, and idols smashed. But while his ministry will bring peace to the Gentiles, it will bring a threat of judgment to the obstinate Israelites (42:1-7).
Isa. 42 as a whole is one of the Isaianic “servant songs” about the coming one who will suffer on Israel’s behalf in order to free her from the bonds of exile . Isaiah’s new exodus prophecies hint at the fact that Israel’s restoration will be quite different from what many would have thought (e.g., Isa. 65-66), but the future will be altogether glorious for those who remain faithful through the coming ordeal. Israel will undergo a death and resurrection through the Servant, and in the process be transformed.
By applying Isaiah 42 to Jesus (and by implication the rest of the “servant song” passages, e.g., Isaiah 53) at the very beginning of each synoptic, we are given a framework for interpreting the rest of the references to Jesus as “servant” in the gospel accounts (e.g., Mk. 10:45). All of these must be understood in terms of Isaiah’s prophecies. The Father’s baptismal formula has clearly revealed the path Jesus’ career must take — it will be one of suffering, exile, and forsakenness, though there will also be vindication and glory on the other side. Jesus will be the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophesied Servant of the Lord. All the “servant songs” are about his ministry. The dance of his ministry is choreographed according to the tune the songs play.
By intertwining these three passages into one statement, we are given a revelation of Jesus’ identity. He is the Davidic King and the Suffering Servant rolled into one . The Father manifested him as the new David, the promised ruler, and the new Isaac, the sin bearer. The Father announced he was the one born of the Spirit as well as the rejected one foretold in the “servant song” of Isaiah 53. By combining these three images — king, servant, and sacrifice — we are given a full orbed picture of what Jesus has come to do. In other words, his baptism is simply the gospel in compressed form. The rest of the synoptic accounts — and the indeed, the rest of Scripture as a whole — unpack the meaning of this declaration. But it is pure gospel in and of itself.
Of course, it only becomes gospel for us if we connect Jesus’ baptism with our own. What does the Father say about us at our baptisms? The same declaration is made from heaven: “This is my beloved child, in whom I delight!” A baptized Christian need never wonder if the Father loves him or if he has been accepted into the divine family. We are baptized into the name of the Father, Son, and Spirit (Mt. 28:18-20) — which means God is now our Father because we are in union with the Son by the work of the Spirit. The Father has spoken words of love and delight over us; we need not doubt his intentions towards us. In baptism we have been born anew into his family. We have a new genealogy and new family ties.
Baptism is therefore fundamental to identity and vocation. This was true for Jesus. Whenever he struggled with his calling (e.g., as he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane; as he was insulted while hanging on the cross; etc.), he could return to his baptism . The Father had assured him of his love and his mission. Because of his baptism, there was no question he was going to go to Jerusalem to die for the sins of the world. He was the beloved Son, the one who was taking the vocation of Isaac and David upon himself. He would be the new Adam and the new Israel. He knew what he had to do and he did it.
But the same is true for us. Baptism is first an indicative, then an imperative. First it defines who we are; then it reveals how we are to live in light if that objective fact. Baptism gives us our identity. It gives us a calling. We may be untrue to that identity and reject that calling — and in so doing, forfeit the blessings of baptism. But even then we have not escaped our fundamental baptismal identity — we simply go to hell as covenant breakers and apostates rather than as unbelievers who were never in covenant. We will be judged more severely for having received the grace of baptism in vain (cf. 2 Cor. 7:1) .
Baptism means that God’s mark is upon is. We are now forgiven. We are sons of the heavenly Father. More than that, we are now royalty. We are now kings and queens in union with Jesus Christ. In light of this objective reality, we are now called to “be who we are.” In union with the crucified and risen Christ, we have died to sin and been raised to new life. Now, we are called to act consistent with that baptismal identity. In one sense, Christian faith is never anything more (or less!) than accepting what God said about you at your baptism.
This is especially important for Christian parents with baptized children. The heavenly Father did not leave Jesus to figure out who he was on his own. But some parents do not know how to treat or view their children and as a result the children grow up with a confused self-understanding. Many Christian parents consider their children covenant outsiders, or at best, “half-members” of the church family, before they have their own “conversion experience.” At worst parents leave the kids free to “make up their own minds about religion.” Some parents are more willing and determined to impose Latin, soccer, and piano lessons on their children than Christian faith. But those styles of parenting undercut the meaning of baptism altogether. Parents should teach their children who they are, echoing the Father’s declaration to the Son: “You are forgiven! You have been adopted! You are a child of the king! He loves you and delights in you!” And then they should teach their children to live accordingly, by disciplining them in line with the Christian way of life and nurturing their faith unto maturity.
Many children growing up in Christian homes are deprived of this sort of covenant nurture. They feel they have been put on a spiritual treadmill, and many finally give up in exhaustion. They are given the impression that everything in the Christian life is an attainment. But this should never be the case. The Christian life is hard — and our children need to be trained in the cost of discipleship. But they should also never be allowed to doubt for a moment the initiating grace of God, extended to them before they could do anything to win his favor. They should always know that the Christian life is a gift. In the French Reformed baptismal liturgy, the pastor declares to the newly baptized child,
Little child, for you Jesus Christ has come, he has fought, he has suffered. For you he entered into the shadows of Gethsemane and the terror of Calvary; for you he uttered the cry ‘it is finished.’ For you he rose from the dead and ascended into heaven, and there for you he intercedes. For you, even though you do not yet know it, little child, but in this way the Word of the Gospel is made true, ‘We love him because he first loved us.’
With this kind of pastoral theology undergirding our parental nurturing, the child always knows his salvation and standing before God is a matter of grace from top to bottom, front to back, and side to side. He knows that in his family and church life, he has been enveloped by the grace of God from the very beginning. He can say with David, “From the womb, you have been my God . . . You made me trust while on my mother’s breast” (Psalm 22:9-10).
Baptism not only gives us our individual identity; it also gives us our corporate identity. Baptism not only defines Christians; it defines the church as the covenant community. Far too often our questions and claims about the sacraments focus too narrowly on the individual. We look only at the one being baptized and not at the community as a whole. The Bible gives us a broader frame of reference. Baptism is an ecclesial sign. It constitutes the church, and in turn, the church grows itself by baptizing. The church as a whole baptizes through her representative, the pastor; and in turn, the one baptized is grafted into the covenant community, the people who have received forgiveness and are indwelt by the Spirit.
Baptism identified Jesus and marked out his vocation in more than an individualistic sense. In his baptism, he became the first member of a new community. He became the tip of God’s spear, invading the fallen world order — but an entire army of baptized saints was bound to follow him (cf. Revelation 19, especially if the saints’ white robes there are connected with baptism as in Galatians 3:27). Jesus became the first man to enter into the new creation and the new Israel, but he knew these new realities would be populated with redeemed sinners soon after.
Baptism’s communal and corporate dimension must not be ignored. No one ever gets baptized alone. In our baptisms, we are not just brought into a new relationship with God; we are joined to all others who have been baptized as well. In this sense, we may even say that baptism forms the body of Christ (cf. First Corinthians 12:13). The new creation of the church, like the first creation (cf. Genesis 1:2ff), is formed out of water by the Father’s Word and Spirit.
Jesus identified himself corporately with his people in baptism. He had no sins that needed forgiving, but in baptism he identified with the filthiness and sinfulness of the people he came to save. The anointing he received at his baptism now flows down to cover his entire body (the church) so that we all share in the gift of the Spirit. In a sense, when Jesus was baptized, the entire covenant family was baptized in him. We are now members of Christ, which means we are members of one another. Baptism creates a new society, centered round Jesus.
But we can approach this with an alternative image as well (though this takes a few steps away from the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ baptism). In baptism, Jesus, the groom, washes the church, his bride. Having been baptized by John (and ultimately by his Father), Jesus himself becomes the Baptizer (along with his Father and the Spirit). It is important to notice how baptism brings us into a unique relationship with each member of the Triune family (cf. Mat. 28:18-20). In baptism, the Father adopts us and regenerates us so that we become his children. He speaks words of fatherly care and favor to us. But at the same time, we are united the Son as a husband to his bride. Jesus speaks words of husbandly love and affection to us in baptism, joining his voice to the Father’s. Thus, we not only have to view baptism through father/son categories, but also through husband/wife categories. While the account of Jesus’ baptism does not take us this far (for obvious reasons), this latter theme is unpacked in the rest of the NT’s theologizing on baptism. It is unfolding of the meaning of Jesus’ baptism in a church-wards direction.
For example, Charles Hodge, with virtually the whole rest of Christendom, takes “the washing of water” in Eph. 5:26 as a reference to baptism. Paul is talking primarily about what Jesus does for his bride in forming a new family. Baptism creates a marriage bond between Jesus and his people as he cleanses them from sin. Hodge’s comments are helpful, not only because they interpret Eph. 5:26 in baptismal categories, but because they spell out what Paul’s language suggests about baptismal efficacy:
Baptism is a washing with water. It was the washing of water with which Paul’s readers as Christians were familiar, and which could not fail to occur to them as the washing intended. Besides, nothing more is here attributed to baptism than is attributed to it in many other passages. Compare particularly Acts 22:16, “Arise, be baptized, and wash away thy sins” . . .How is it that baptism washes away sin, unites us to Christ, and secures salvation? The answer again is, that this is true of baptism in the same sense that it is true of the word. God is pleased to connect the benefits of redemption with the believing reception of the truth. And he is pleased to connect these same benefits with the believing reception of baptism. That is, as the Spirit works with and by the truth, so he works with and by baptism, in communicating the blessings of the covenant of grace. Therefore, as we are said to be saved by the word, with equal propriety we are said to be saved by baptism; though baptism without faith is as of little effect as is the word of God to unbelievers . . .
The sinner coming to baptism in the exercise of repentance and faith, takes God the Father to be his Father; God the Son, to be his Saviour; and God the Holy Ghost to be his Sanctifier, and his word to be the rule of his faith and practice. The administrator then, in the name and by the authority of God, washes him with water as a sign of the cleansing from sin by the blood of Christ, and of sanctification by the Holy Spirit; and as a seal to God’s promise to grant him those blessings on the condition of repentance and faith thus publicly avowed. Whatever he may have experienced or enjoyed before, this is the public conveyance to him of the benefits of the covenant, and his inauguration into the number of the redeemed . . .
Christ purifies his church by baptism. This is the initiatory rite; which signifies, seals, and applies to believers all the benefits of the Redeemer’s death (Commentary on the Epistle to the Ephesians, 319ff).
In other words, each baptism is a mini-wedding, in which the one baptized is incorporated into the bride of Christ. Baptism identifies the church as the people who belong to Jesus. We are his bride, so he loves us as he loves his own body. We are bound to him by chains of covenant love and loyalty. He shares all that he has in common with us. When rocked by doubt or despair, we should not hesitate to recall our baptisms. In baptism, Jesus says, “I do” to us — for better or for worse . Jesus has washed us once for all in the waters of baptism; he continues to wash us as the baptismal promises are reapplied to us in confession and absolution.
Thus, baptism is thoroughly familial in its symbolism. It is both an adoption and a marriage. In baptism, the Father has publicly pledged himself to us, to be our Protector, our Guide, and our Deliverer. Jesus publicly pledges himself to us as well, as our Husband, our Friend, and our Champion. We should accept this baptismal sign in faith, allowing it to fortify our assurance of God’s love for us. We must hear the Father’s voice from heaven that tells us, “You are my dearly loved child! My heart rejoices in you!” And now we must also hear the voice of the Son, which says, “You are my beloved! I have washed you and forgiven you because you are united to me! All I have is yours!” In Christian baptism we not only receive the Father’s baptism into Sonship (as Jesus did), but the Son’s baptism into Bridehood.
3. At his baptism, Jesus was ordained into priestly service.
This aspect of Jesus’ baptism is not as obvious as the previous two. In fact, it requires some in-depth knowledge of the Old Testament and careful attention to detail in the Gospel accounts. Matthew’s version gives us one critical piece of information: Jesus overcomes John’s objections to baptizing him by saying, “Permit it to be so now; for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness” (3:15). Luke’s version gives us the other key tidbit of information we need. Right after the baptism of Jesus, Luke tells us this event became the launching pad for his public ministry “at about 30 years of age” (3:23).
John’s baptism, as has already been suggested, was an old covenant rite. John did not invent the ritual of baptism; he inherited it from the Mosaic law. The Torah refers to several ceremonial washings, all of which may be regarded as baptisms (cf. Heb. 9:10). Most of these baptisms could be self-administered. Only three of these baptisms were performed by another: washing from leprosy (Lev. 14:1-7), washing from contact with a corpse (Num. 19:1-22), and priestly consecration (Ex. 29:4-9; Lev. 8:6-7). All three of these rituals feed into our understanding of John’s baptism (and ultimately Christian baptism). While our focus will be on the third, we need to speak briefly about the first two. Understanding the Levitical background to both John’s baptism and Christian baptism is critical.
To submit to John’s washing was to admit that Israel had become leprous as a nation. Leprosy was a serious skin ailment in the old covenant. The leper was ceremonially dead, and therefore excluded from the liturgical life of the nation. Only the combination of sacrifice plus washing could restore the leper to life in the community. Thus, John’s baptism announced that Israel was in need of resurrection – and as we have already seen, the prophets promised a future resurrection for Israel (Ezek. 36-37; note that sprinkling is included as the means of national resurrection), coordinated with her return from exile (Isa. 51:9-11) and the forgiveness of sins (Isa. 40:2). John’s baptism brought these things together in anticipation of their imminent fulfillment through the “Coming One.”
Interestingly, the cleansing-from-leprosy rite involved two clean birds. The first was killed over water; the second was dipped into the blood of the bird that was killed and then released into the open field. This is obviously a picture of death (the first bird) and resurrection (the second bird). The leper was sprinkled seven times with blood and then washed himself and his clothes in water. No doubt, the connection Paul drew between baptism and participation in the death and resurrection of Christ (cf. Rom. 6:1ff) came from this Levitical ritual in which death, resurrection, and water were all combined .
Similarly, submission to John’s baptism implicitly included a confession that the nation of Israel was a defiled corpse and needed resurrection. In the old covenant, death spread to all men (cf. Rom. 5:12). In the Mosaic system, this was symbolized through the fact that when one touched a corpse, the uncleanness of the corpse spread to the living person. Cleansing from corpse defilement included a sprinkling with water and the ashes of a red heifer. Once again, the washing was a kind of symbolic resurrection. Amazingly, in the gospels, when Jesus touches those who are dead — ritually or physically — he does not contract their death symbolically; rather his life overcomes their death and restores them (cf. Lk. 7:11-17; 8:40-56; note the references to “touching” in 7:14, 8:44, and 8:54). Thus, these rituals are fulfilled (and, practically speaking, abrogated) in Christ. The multitude of old covenant baptisms has been transformed collectively into one new ritual, Christian baptism .
Now that Christ has come, the reign of death has been overthrown by the reign of grace and righteousness (Rom. 5:21). The flow of death has been stopped because a fountain of life has been opened (cf. Zech. 13:1; Jn. 7:37ff). The apostles confirmed this in their ministries as well (e.g., Acts 20:10; cf. 1 Cor. 7:14 and Ezra 9, indicating that the flow of influence from one spouse to another in a mixed marriage has been reversed). Eschatologically speaking, the tide has turned from death to life. Death no longer has the upper hand over God’s people .
By taking up the mantle of baptism in such a way that these Levitcal rituals were called to mind, John was suggesting that the official channels of priesthood and temple were corrupt and on the verge of obsolescence. Cleansing had to be found outside the existing structures. The validity of the Mosaic-based system was winding down. John was a priest (cf. Lk. 1:5-25), but he was not operating in the usual priestly manner. He was obviously pointing to a radical change that was about to come to pass in Israel’s history. The climax of the covenant story had arrived.
Thirdly, and most importantly, John’s baptism was an ordination ceremony of sorts. John’s baptism, in essence, reconstituted Israel as a priestly nation. Those who submitted to John’s baptism submitted to a new course of life, characterized by repentance (cf. Lk. 3:3-14). Only adopting this new pattern of life and bearing the fruit of obedience could keep one safe from the coming wrath (identified elsewhere as Rome; cf. Mt. 24; Lk. 21; Mk. 13) that was about to fall on the old Israel (in 70 A.D., to be exact; cf. “this generation” in Mt. 24:34). John’s baptism ordained a remnant to a new priestly service during this transitional period in Israel’s history .
But John’s baptism was not a full ordination. The Levitical ordination rite included not only a washing with water, but also an anointing with oil. This oil was symbolic of the Spirit. Because John’s baptism could not grant the Spirit, it could only include a partial and provisional ordination. A greater baptismal ordination would be needed to form the people into an eschatological, Spirit-filled priesthood. Of course, this came to pass at Pentecost. When Jesus baptized the church with the Spirit, John’s proleptic baptism with water was completed. The renewed royal priesthood was finally a reality (cf. 1 Pt. 2:5ff).
As we have already seen, the baptism of Jesus by John was not a typical Johannic baptism. In Jesus’ baptism, the ordination aspect of John’s baptism comes to fulfillment, a fulfillment which would then be shared with the church at Pentecost. Jesus received not only water, but also the oil of the Spirit . In submitting to baptism, Jesus was enrolled into the priesthood. In his case, John’s baptism was not merely a partial and provisional ordination; rather the Father himself ordained Jesus in fullness .
Here is where details of Matthew and Luke fill in our understanding. How did Jesus’ baptism by John fulfill all righteousness? Why was Jesus baptized at age thirty?
The law of the Old Testament which Jesus was obeying when he was baptized is found in Numbers 8:6-7 . . . Christ’s baptism was his ceremonial act of His ordination to the priesthood. It was the rite that set Him apart as a priest and minister of holy things.Before any man could be a priest, three things were required: first, he must be 30 years old (Num. 4:4, 47). (This is why Christ’s age at His baptism is given as 30 years in Luke 3:23); second, he must be called of God as was Aaron, the first high priest (Ex. 28:1). (Christ was thus called, Heb. 5:4-10); and, thirdly, he must be sprinkled with water (Num. 8:6-7) by one already a priest (John was a priest, inheriting the office from his father, Ex. 29:9; Num. 25:13; Lk. 1:5, 13). Christ knew his call, waited until He was 30 years old and then came to John “to fulfill all righteousness,” that is, to meet the last demand of the Old Testament Law for a priest before he began his public ministry .
Of course, Jesus’ baptism did not make him a Levitical priest. He became a Melchizedekal priest , which is a greater and superior priesthood. The book of Hebrews unpacks the nature and meaning of Christ’s priesthood in some detail. In short, it is enough for us to say here that Jesus became the ultimate high priest for his people. In his baptism by John, he became identified with them in their sin, exile, and death. Just as the old covenant high priest was a sin bearer for the people – albeit an ineffectual one – so Jesus became the substitutionary sin bearer for the covenant community. To put it another way, Jesus became the “Christ” (anointed one) in his baptism. He became the priestly (and royal) representative of his people before God the Father. He became the one through whose death the people find release from their bondage (Num. 35:28).
In the gospels, we see Jesus acting out his priestly office. For example, Jesus cleansed the temple (Mt. 21:12; Mk. 11:15; Jn. 2:13ff). This was a priestly act; he was inspecting the house for spiritual leprosy (cf. Lev. 14:33) . When challenged about his authority to do this, he appeals back to the baptism of John (Mt. 21:23ff). As a priest, he possessed precisely this kind of authority. On another occasion, Jesus cleansed ten lepers and sent them to the priests. But only one (a Samaritan!) got the real point and returned to Jesus. This man not only demonstrated a heart of gratitude; he realized that Jesus was the true priest (Lk. 17:11-19). Jesus provided cleansing plus forgiveness. Jesus fulfilled other duties of priestly service in teaching the people God’s Word (cf. Malachi 2:7) and feeding them God’s food (cf. Jesus’ feeding miracles and the last supper accounts; in the old covenant system, the priests were cooks for God and — if it was a peace offering — the worshippers). He guarded God’s holiness by condemning the hypocritical leaders within Israel and calling the nation to covenant obedience. Ultimately, of course, his priestly office is fulfilled in his death on the cross, in which he rolls priesthood, sacrifice, and temple into one.
What’s true of Jesus is now true of us (with appropriate qualification, of course). We are baptized into Christ’s baptism, we are christened into his christening, we are anointed into his anointing. In baptism, we become christs (with a small “c”) in union with the Christ . In other words, our baptisms are ordination services as well. Baptism grafts us into the royal priesthood of the new covenant. We become Melchizedekal priest-kings ourselves, under our great high priest and king. The anointing of baptism enrolls us in liturgical service in God’s house; but more than that, this anointing flows down to cover the whole of our lives, leaving nothing unconsecrated to God’s service.
There are several clues elsewhere in the New Testament that baptism is supposed to be understood in priestly categories. Perhaps the most obvious example is Hebrews 10:19-25. As the book of Hebrews unfolds the superiority of the new covenant to the old, one privilege of the new covenant it continually highlights is our greater sanctuary access (e.g., Heb. 4:16). In the old system, the covenant people only had access to an earthly copy of the heavenly sanctuary, not to heaven itself. And even then, only the high priest could enter into the Most Holy Place one time a year, the Day of Atonement. Veils with cherubim stitched into their fabric constantly reminded the people that they were still excluded from the Edenic presence of God. Levites surrounded the temple as a kind of human veil (or human host of cherubim) to kill any who encroached on God’s holy turf.
The death of Christ tore through those veils, opening a new and living way into the heavenly sanctuary (Heb. 10:20; Mk. 15:38). But how may we enter into that heavenly throne room? What qualifies us for access? Heb. 10:20 answers: “our bodies [must be] washed with pure water.” We have already seen that in order to enter God’s heavenly presence, we must pass through water. God put a sea between himself and his people. But in Christian baptism, we cross through that sea into God’s presence. Baptism ordains us to minister in God’s heavenly house. In worship, the baptized community now enters heaven itself – the place of power, authority, comfort, and joy (cf. Hebrews 12:18ff). The door to God’s house is now open.
Hebrews 10:19ff lays down the same pattern followed in Aaronic ordination to the priesthood. Before their ordination ritual, Aaron and his sons could only enter the tabernacle upon pain of death. They were not welcome in God’s house. Had they attempted to draw near before ordination, they would have repeated Adam’s transgression of sacred boundaries. But immediately after their ordination ceremony (Lev. 8), we see them drawing near to minister before God (Lev. 9). Their status and standing in the covenant has been upgraded. They have been given a new level of holiness and may now enter holier territory than before. The rite has transformed their place before God and within the covenant body. They have new privileges and responsibilities.
This ritual transition from one state to another provides a model for understanding the efficacy of new covenant baptism. In both cases, the ceremony confers access to sacred space. Of course, in the new covenant, we no longer have a sliding scale of positional holiness (high priest, priest, Levite, Israelite layperson, Gentile God-fearer) with corresponding zones of geographic access (Most Holy Place, Holy Place, courtyard). The entire system has been wrapped up in new covenant baptism. In Christ everything is ours; outside of Christ, we have nothing. Because of our baptism into Christ, we can draw near to God in the heavenly sanctuary.
Of course, baptism alone does not make us faithful priests. We can lose our sanctuary access and be excommunicated from the presence of our Father and King if we do not maintain a “true heart in full assurance of faith” (Heb. 10:22). Baptism does change our status before God and men, but that new status must be received and maintained by loyalty to the covenant. The key, of course, is faithful performance of our covenant duties in the gathered assembly (Heb. 10:25).
Other New Testament passages also connect baptism to priesthood. For example, in Galatians 3:27-29, baptism is linked to putting on Christ as a kind of priestly garment. But, of course, the old covenant ordination rite included an investiture ceremony (Exodus 29:30). Paul (very likely in light of Psalm 132:9, 16) has simply enfolded this aspect of Aaronic ordination into the meaning of Christian baptism. (This gives us good warrant for assuming all the other features of Aaronic ordination, such as anointing with oil and the laying on of hands, are swallowed up in the simple rite of Christian baptism as well. For a complete study of the conceptual connections between old covenant priestly ordination and new covenant baptism, consult Peter Leithart’s masterful dissertation, The Priesthood of the Plebs.) Just as the Old Covenant priests were given garments of glory and beauty, so we are given the garment of Christ himself. Our priesthood is found in our baptismal union with him.
The connection between baptism and ordination to the new covenant priesthood is one Christians have made from the earliest days of the church . They were very conscious of the way the new age expanded priestly prerogatives and blessings. The priesthood is no longer a subset of the larger covenant community; rather, the priesthood and the people are now identified. While it has been common to speak of the “priesthood of all believers,” it would be just as accurate to speak of the “priesthood of all the baptized.” New covenant baptism remaps the covenant community, erasing the old boundary lines between various levels of covenant membership. Now the priesthood is evenly distributed among all who are in covenant. (This does not negate a special priesthood, of sorts, functioning within the church’s general priesthood. It does mean, however, that pastors and bishops do not occupy places of spiritual privilege or holiness over and against the laity. These ordained men are gifted and set aside for the purpose of administering the means of grace and making judicial decisions which belong to the community as a whole.)
Countless theologians have drawn on the connection between baptism and priestly ordination. For example, in chapter 7 of Tertullian’s famous work On Baptism, he writes, “We come up from the washing and are anointed with the blessed unction, following the ancient practice by which, ever since Aaron anointed Moses, there was the custom of anointing them for priesthood with oil out of a horn.” Unfortunately, Tertullian, with many other patristic and medieval theologians, added a chrismation of oil to washing with water instead of seeing the old covenant oil ritual enfolded into new covenant baptism. Nevertheless, Tertullian was exactly right to link Christian initiation with ordination into the priesthood, in fulfillment of the Aaronic rite.
In The Mytsteries, Ambrose argued from Psalm 133 that the anointing oil associated with the rite of baptism is given “that you may become a ‘chosen race,’ sacerdotal, precious; for we are all anointed unto the kingdom of God and unto the priesthood with spiritual grace.” As with Tertullian, we may wish that Ambrose had held fast to the simple, unencumbered apostolic practice of baptism, without the addition of excess rituals. But once again, the basic connection made between initiation and priesthood is entirely correct.
Augustine argued that old covenant washing rituals, including priestly ordination, “conjugated” into Christian baptism. (See Peter Leithart’s analysis in “Conjugating the Rites: Old and New in Augustine’s Theory of Signs,” Calvin Theological Journal, 34 , 136-147). In Christian baptism, we share in Christ’s offices and ministries. Augustine writes, “as we call all believers Christians on account of the mystical chrism, so we call all priests because they are members of the one Priest” (City of God, 20.10; see also 17.4). Augustine works with a thoroughly Christocentric and ecclesiocentric hermeneutic . If we say that old covenant anointings and washings find their fulfillment in Jesus’ baptism, it inescapably follows that they find further fulfillment in the church’s baptism.
Thomas Aquinas centered his sacramental theology around the Eucharist. The point of baptism was to qualify one for participation in priestly service at the Lord’s table. Baptism, in essence, incorporates us into liturgical service so that we might offer Christ to the Father through the communion meal. While there are problems with Thomas’ sacramental theology, he is right to link baptismal washing with the Eucharistic meal and by implication with priestly ordination.
In Luther’s letter To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, he argued forcefully that “Through baptism, all of us are consecrated to the priesthood . . . For whoever comes out of the water of baptism can boast that he is already consecrated priest, bishop and pope, though it is not seemly that everyone should exercise the office.” Luther was a champion of priestly baptism. He understood that ministerial orders in the new covenant did not entitle pastors or bishops to special spiritual privileges since all the baptized already possess all things in Christ. The new Israel had been reconfigured so that now all have the right and responsibility of drawing near to God. Ecclesiastical offices are now purely a matter of symbolism, function, and good order. Baptism confers membership in the only true priesthood that exists under the new covenant regime.
More recently, William Willimon has explained the connection between baptism and priesthood this way:
Baptism is as much consecration as it is initiation. In other words, baptism is each Christian’s ordination into the priesthood of Christ, each Christian’s commissioning to share in Christ’s work in the world . . . At you baptism you are anointed and set apart that you may “declare the wonderful deeds of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” [1 Pt. 2:9] (Remember Who You Are, 27).
Willimon is exactly right. Baptism is a priestly consecration. It not only enrolls us in Christ’s priesthood, it impresses upon us a vocation to offer ourselves sacrificially in union with Christ for the life of the world. Through our priestly service, the light of Christ overcomes the darkness of sin and death.
What practical value is the priestly connection between Jesus’ baptism and ours? How does understanding baptism as ordination help us? There are several ways to approach this, but I will focus on Matthew’s slant on the event of Jesus’ baptism since he focuses most squarely on the connection between Jesus and Israel. In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus relives and recapitulates Israel’s story. Matthew begins his gospel with language that echoes Genesis, particularly its generational markers (Matthew 1:1 says literally, “the book of genesis” or the “book of the generation,” corresponding intertextually to Genesis 2:4; 5:1; 6:9; etc.). In Matthew’s account, Jesus has an exodus from Egypt, as a new Pharaoh (Herod) attempts to murder Jewish baby boys. Jesus is given treasures from the Gentile magi ( = plundering the Egyptians). After his baptism ( = Red Sea crossing), Jesus ascends a new mount ( = Sinai) to give a new Torah ( = law of Moses). Just as Israel has a forty year period of wilderness wandering, so Jesus was tempted in the wilderness for forty days. Jesus even quotes from the wilderness book, Deuteronomy, to answer Satan’s challenges. Before Jesus’ departure back to heaven, he ascends a mountain, commissioning his disciples to conquer the nations with the sword of the Spirit, just as Moses ascended a mountain before his death and commissioned Joshua to conquer the land with a sword of iron. (For fuller coverage of the Moses-Israel-Jesus connections, please see The New Moses: A Matthean Typology by Dale C. Allison).
If Jesus embodies a new Moses and new Israel in himself, then those in union with him do as well. The priestly typology does not stand alone, nor is it static. Rather, in baptism we are plugged into Jesus’ story, so that this whole history becomes ours. We share in the dynamic transformation of history that Jesus brought about. Our priestly calling is snugly situated in this baptismal and narratival union with Christ as the True Israel. In other words, baptism into Christ defines for us what it means to live as God’s priestly nation in the world. Our priestly calling is to pick up the story where Jesus left off, implementing his finished work and taking our cues from the script of his life and ministry.
Thus, baptism-into-priesthood is patterned on Jesus’ priesthood, which is turn is patterned on Israel’s priesthood. To be Jesus’ new priestly community means we will fulfill the vocation Israel received, but could not execute – namely, to be a light to peoples who still dwell in darkness. It means we will live as people who have been called to offer up Spiritual sacrifices – namely, sacrificial words of praise and thanksgiving, as well as sacrificial works of charity and service. It means we will be willing to suffer if need be, bearing the pain of a fallen world on our shoulders in order to extend Christ’s love and truth. It means we will live as priests towards one another in the covenant community, inspecting one another for moral “leprosy,” cleansing one another through absolution, trimming one another’s wicks so we can burn brightly with love and holiness, teaching one another from the Word of God, and feeding one another through opening our homes and pocketbooks. It means we will live as priests towards the world, calling unbelievers to repent and embrace the gospel, showing them what genuine discipleship looks like in family, work, and recreation, and performing ministries of mercy as need and opportunity arise. And ultimately it means we will live as priests towards God, entering his heavenly sanctuary to enthrone him upon our praises, guarding his holiness by faithful obedience and discipline, glorifying his grace by claiming his staggering promises, and magnifying his sovereign power by lifting up the “incense” of prayer that he would transform the world through us. In all these ways, we live out what it means to be Jesus’ priestly people. His story — which is the fulfillment of Moses’ story and Israel’s story, and in fact the entire old covenant story — more and more shapes our personal and ecclesial stories .
Peter Leithart has shown that the priestly office is one of “household service” to the king . All the various priestly responsibilities may be squeezed under the rubric “palace servant.” Leithart argues this from the fact that David and other kings had “secular” priests who did not offer animal sacrifice in the temple, but acted as advisors and helpers to the king. What, then, does it mean for us to be God’s priests in the new covenant order? It means we are to serve in God’s house. But “God’s house” has a dual sense. In a special sense, the church is God’s house. We serve as priests by engaging in worship, discipleship, and community life among the brethren. But in a more general, broader sense, the whole creation is God’s house. We are servants in this cosmic temple as well. This includes missions, evangelism, and mercy ministry, obviously. But it should be pressed much further. As priests in the King’s cosmic palace, all our work is to be offered up to the Lord. Whether we are bankers, doctors, lawyers, or ditch diggers, all we do is to be offered up as a spiritual sacrifice to the King. Cosmic priesthood obliterates any secular/sacred dichotomy. All we do is to be consecrated to the Lord’s holiness. We never serve merely human masters; we must do our work with an eye to pleasing our heavenly Lord (Col. 3:23).
Finally, baptism into priesthood means our whole lives will be permeated with sacrificial love and service. To say this now is a bit redundant, but it bears reiterating in our narcissistic, self-absorbed age. Jesus’ baptism pointed towards Calvary. On the Hill of the Skull, he would complete the sacrificial, cruciform service he began in the Jordan. But a servant is not greater than his master, so this is true for us as well. Baptism puts us on the via dolorosa. From baptism onwards, we walk the path of the cross (Lk. 9:23). Like Jesus, we live our whole lives under this sign. As priests, our lives must become more and more cross-shaped — for this is the shape of life impressed upon us in baptism. As we live out of our baptisms, we will find the grace of God remolding us into the image of Christ, our great high priest. This is the hope and goal of the baptized.
The baptism of Jesus freezes in time an event in the eternal life of God. The Father and Son have been sharing the Holy Spirit from all eternity. At Jesus’ baptism, they begin to share him as a historical reality. The baptism of Jesus is one way the life of the incarnate God-man unfolds for us the inner life of God. As Jesus is washed in the Jordan by John, the eternal love of the Father and Son for one another is revealed. The nature of the ontological Trinity is turned inside out by the economic Trinity, as God does in space and time what he has been doing from before the world began.
Just as profoundly, because we come to share in Jesus’ baptismal reception of the Spirit, we have been integrated into the circle of love and joy that constitutes the divine family (cf. Jn. 17). The Spirit has been given to us by the Father though the Son; now we pass that Spirit along to others, and ultimately back to the Father himself, completing the ring of glory and bliss (Jn. 7:38). We must not allow stubborn unbelief or selfish disobedience to break the chain.
But Jesus’ baptism is more than a Trinitarian event; it is an eschatological event. Several lines of Old Testament expectation converge upon the rite of baptism, first as John practiced it, and later as the church began to practice it, but most especially in the baptism of Jesus himself . These threads include: the creation account in which the Spirit brings order and life out of the primordial waters; the flood in which water from above washes and regenerates the earth, destroying the wicked while buoying up the righteous to salvation; circumcision in which the priestly nation was demarcated from the world; the Red Sea crossing in which Israel triumphed over Pharaoh and entered into the discipleship of Moses; ordination into priesthood and anointing into royal office; all the river imagery in which flowing water brings healing, refreshment, and renewal; all the Mosaic ceremonial washings in which death and resurrection were symbolized and enacted through water and sacrifice; and all the prophetic promises of water for cleansing, restoration, transformation, forgiveness, and fruitfulness.
All of these types and shadows, promises and prefigurations, converge on the baptism of Jesus and continue to find fulfillment in Christian baptism, which is itself an extension of Jesus’ own baptism in the Jordan. All of these Old Testament arrows hit their target when Jesus insisted that his baptism would “fulfill all righteousness” . In other words, the covenant faithfulness of God to all that been foretold was set in motion when John washed Jesus with water. The baptism of Jesus triggered the fulfillment of all that God had trained Israel to expect. The whole package of Old Testament hopes began to be unwrapped. Those expectations continue to find their realization in the church and her practice of baptism.
In baptism, we have solidarity with our Savior and King. In Jesus’ baptism he identified himself with us, just as in our baptisms we become identified with him. In fact, in our baptisms, we come to share in his baptism, and its rich, variegated connections with every other facet of his life and ministry. Jesus’ baptism was efficacious: it accomplished something. In his baptism, his identity was revealed. He officially entered into his public calling as the Royal Priest of God’s people. And his mission of rejoining and reconciling God and man, the Creator and his creation, was initiated.
We must derive our understanding of Christian baptism first and foremost from Jesus’ own baptism. Since his baptism was efficacious, ours must be as well. Christian baptism is not an empty sign. It is not a dramatized picture of things that happen apart from the rite. Rather, in baptism, we are given a new identity. We are now children of God. The Father adopts us. His heavenly voice sings and shouts over us: “You are my dearly loved and chosen child! I rejoice in you!” In baptism, we enter into our calling as members of the royal priesthood of the new covenant. We are ordained into the order of Melchizedek. Just as Jesus lived his whole life under the sign of baptism, so we are to live our whole lives under this sign as well. The anointing of baptism is to flow over every aspect of our lives, leaving nothing unconsecrated or untransformed. In baptism, heaven is opened to us, for we now have sanctuary access in Christ. We become servants in the Lord’s house, with liturgical, communal, and missional responsibilities. In baptism, we find peace between ourselves and God. The dove of the Spirit alights upon us in the water, revealing the forgiveness of sins and reconciliation with the Holy One of Israel. Finally, in baptism we find ourselves swept up into God’s glorious new creation. We are given a new name, a new status, a new family, and a new life.
Jesus’ baptism partakes of the same already/not-yet structure that is pervasive in the NT, only in his case everything is compressed. For Jesus, the “not yet” of his baptism became the “already” at his resurrection. We have to wait much longer to receive the fullness of what is promised to us in the waters of baptism. Jesus received ahead of time in the middle of history what his people will receive at the end of time on the last day of history. This is why Paul refers to him as the “firstfruits” of the new creation (cf. 1 Cor. 15:20). Ultimately, the efficacy of baptism is not complete until we are raised in glory. In baptism, we are already raised, and yet there is a future rising still to be experienced. The future is here, and yet it is still to come. Perhaps a homespun illustration will help. Think of auto manufacturers who release next year’s model early. The new cars start showing up on showroom floors even while the older models are still there. I remember as a boy visiting a Chevy dealership with my dad to see the highly anticipated 1984 Corvette as soon as it arrived, sometime in 1983. To me, that car represented the presence of the future. The dealership was still glutted with 1982 models (Chevy skipped the Corvette’s 1983 model year), so that one new model Vette stood out. In the same way, in this one resurrected man Jesus, the future has already arrived. He shows us in the here and now what we shall be in the then and there. Baptism, for us as for Jesus, has an eschatological cast. From the moment of baptism onwards, we are to begin living the life of the future in the present. We are to live, in principle, in the here and now as we shall live in the then and there.