The baptism of Jesus. And adoption. And anointing.

by K.W. Leslie, 19 February 2016

Mark 1.9-11, Matthew 3.13-17, Luke 3.21-22, John 1.29-34.

Mark 1.9 KWL
It happened in those days Jesus came from Nazareth of the Galilee,
and was baptized by John in the Jordan.
Matthew 3.13-15 KWL
13 Then Jesus came from the Galilee to the Jordan,
to John, to be baptized by him.
14 John was preventing him, saying,
I need to be baptized by you!
And you come to me?”
15 In reply Jesus told him, “Just permit it.
It’s appropriate for us to fulfill everything that’s right.”
So John permitted him.

Okay: Baptism, i.e. ritual washing, was usually for Jews who were ritually unclean: They’d touched an animal they weren’t allowed to eat, anything they found dead, an open wound; they’d expelled bodily fluids of one sort or another; in general they needed to wash themselves and their clothes before they went to temple. John the baptist co-opted the ritual and used it on sinners who wanted to repent and get morally clean. Same practice, new idea.

So when Jesus comes south from the Galilee, goes to the Jordan, and wants to get baptized, John rightly objected. I’ll write it again: Rightly objected. His baptism was for sinners. Was Jesus a sinner? Nope. Did Jesus need to repent? Nope. So what’d he think he was doing? If a man goes through a baptism of repentance, yet he isn’t repentant at all and feels there’s nothing for him to repent of… wouldn’t we ordinarily call this hypocrisy?

Yeah, but it’s Jesus. So we give him a free pass.

Should we? If it were any other guy getting baptized for show, we’d point out the playacting and call it deceptive. Aren’t we letting the doctrines we cling to—that Jesus never sinned He 4.15 —blind us to the very real fact that Jesus didn’t need John’s baptism at all, yet went through it because it looks good?

Okay, now that I’ve dug myself into this big rhetorical hole, how’m I getting myself out of it? This way: This isn’t the only time in the gospels Jesus did something for show. When he prayed in front of Lazarus’s tomb, he said this:

John 11.41-42 KWL
41 So they lifted up the stone, and Jesus lifted up his eyes.
He said, “Father, thank you for hearing me.
42 I know; you always hear me.
But I say this because of the crowd around,
so they’d believe you sent me.”

See, Jesus put on a show—and honestly admitted he put on a show. He was doing it for the crowd so they’d believe. He wasn’t hiding the fact it’s performance.

That’s the difference between an actor and a con artist, between a mentalist and a psychic. We know an actor is playing a part; we know a mentalist is showing us a trick. Whereas a con artist tries to convince everyone around that they really are who they claim to be, and a psychic pretends they really do have spiritual powers. One is trying to entertain or demonstrate. The other is trying to defraud.

Jesus’s baptism was meant to demonstrate something that’s right—something all of us need to do and ought to do. Jesus didn’t need baptizing, but we surely do. And of course if Jesus was never baptized, there’d be those who insist we follow Jesus’s example—so we don’t need baptism either. (Same as I know Christians who reject speaking in tongues, who argue since the gospels never describe Jesus speaking in tongues, they see no point in any Christian doing likewise.)

When people really don’t wanna do something, any excuse will do to get ’em off the hook. Jesus’s example looks like a pretty decent argument in their favor. So Jesus didn’t provide them an out: He got baptized too. Even though we know he didn’t need it. Baptism’s so important for our sake, he went through with it anyway.

He didn’t need to die either. But we know how that turned out.

When Jesus got adopted.

Mark 1.10-11 KWL
10 Coming straight up out of the water, he saw the skies split apart,
and the Spirit, like a pigeon, descending upon him.
11 A sound was made, coming from the skies:
“You’re my beloved son. I approve of you.”
Matthew 3.16-17 KWL
16 Once baptized, Jesus came straight up out of the water.
Look: The skies were thrown open.
Jesus saw God’s Spirit descending like a pigeon, coming upon him.
17 Look: A sound from the skies saying,
“This is my beloved son. I approve of him.”
Luke 3.21-22 KWL
21 While baptizing all the people, as Jesus was baptized and praying,
God happened to throw open the skies,
22 to descend the Holy Spirit—
in bodily form like a pigeon—upon Jesus,
and to make a sound from the skies:
“You’re my beloved son. I approve of you.”

In calling Jesus his beloved son, the Father adopted him.

I realize I’m using the word adoption, but I don’t mean adoptionism, the popular heresy that Jesus was just an ordinary man, but the Father liked him so much he turned him into the Son of God, the Messiah, the savior of the world, and all that other jazz. Jesus was the Son already. Jn 1.1, 14 He did become Messiah by being anointed with the Spirit and power; Ac 10.38 he did become our savior by dying for our sins. But the Father didn’t promote him to sonship. Just acknowledged it.

That’s what I mean by adoption: The ancient Roman idea. Paternity wasn’t established back then by blood tests or DNA tests. It was established when a man stepped forward and declared this child was his. If it later turned out the child wasn’t biologically his, it didn’t matter: The biological father hadn’t made any declaration, so he wasn’t the legal father. The guy who claimed him, was. And that’s that.

The Jews did this at circumcision. The purported father, or his stand-in, named the boy. At Jesus’s circumcision, Joseph named him Jesus. Mt 1.25 Mary called him Jesus’s father Lk 2.48 because he was Jesus’s legal father in every sense. Not his foster father; his father.

The Romans called this adoptio/“choosing.” They put it off till the child reached adulthood—age 13, in those days—and put on adult clothing for the first time. Then the father would declare himself their father, the adoptee would acknowledge it, and the father would change the adoptee’s name (sometimes just their nomen/“family name,” sometimes their entire name) to his. Romans could, and did, adopt anyone. Usually for purposes of inheritance. In fact Romans could be adopted by multiple people: Their biological father who raised them, and later some uncle who wanted them to be his heir, and maybe even later a family friend who wanted them to be his heir. Romans could wind up with loads of “fathers.”

This is the sort of adoption Paul regularly wrote about. Ro 8.15, Ep 1.5, etc. We humans are God’s creations, not his begotten children. He made us, not fathered us. He’s like a father, but not literally. Till he adopts us. Then we become his literal children Jn 1.12 —well, in that Roman legal sense. In our culture not so much. That’s why we’re not always aware how important adoption is in the New Testament.

Jesus is the Father’s begotten son, but when the Father publicly declared Jesus “my beloved son,” and approved of him, in front of John and everyone else that day, this was a very public adoption as his son. So, Jesus has two adoptive fathers: Joseph of Nazareth, who adopted and raised him; and our heavenly Father, who sent and adopted him.

(And if you wanna get technical, three fathers, ’cause Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit. Lk 1.35 But let’s put that one aside, and save it for when you wanna blow people’s minds for fun.)

John’s version of the story.

Some Christians like to point out the baptism of Jesus is in all four gospels. Actually it’s not. The gospel of John never actually says Jesus was baptized. Not that Jesus went into the water, not that Jesus came up out of the water, not that John the baptist had baptized him. Just that John was baptizing, and saw the Spirit land on Jesus. Seriously; read it.

John 1.29-34 KWL
29 The next day John saw Jesus coming to him.
He said, “Look: God’s ram, taking up the world’s sin!
30 This is the one I spoke of!
‘The one coming after me has got in front of me’—
because he’s first over me. Jn 1.15
31 And I hadn’t seen him!
But I came baptizing in water so he’d be revealed to Israel.”
32 John testified, saying this: “I’ve seen the Spirit,
descending like a pigeon from the sky, and staying on him.
33 And I hadn’t seen him, but he who sent me to baptize in water
yes, him—told me,
“On whomever you see the Spirit come down and stay on,
that’s who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’
34 And I’ve seen. I testify: This is God’s son.”

I mean yeah, we know from the other gospels this revelation came right after Jesus’s baptism. But we didn’t get it from John. This isn’t the story of Jesus’s baptism: It’s another of John’s testimonies about who Jesus is. He’s “the one coming after me has got in front of me”—whom he spoke of earlier.

Here, John said he uk ídein aftón/“hadn’t seen him,” which the KJV renders “knew him not.” Could mean either “seen” or “known”; I lean towards “seen” because John did know him. Remember in Matthew how John said Jesus oughta be the one doing the baptizing? Remember in Luke how their moms knew one another? Jesus wasn’t an unknown quantity to John. He knew Jesus was holy, was someone important. But he didn’t fully realize he was God’s son—not till he saw the Spirit land on Jesus as was foretold.

Jesus’s “hidden life.”

As I touched upon after Jesus returned to Nazareth from temple, this is the first we’ve seen of Jesus since age 12. What’s he been up to? Christians call this private bit of his life, the history which is really none of our business, his hidden life.

Gnostics and Historical Jesus fans have tried to fill in these hidden-life years with all sorts of wild guesses: He traveled to foreign lands, learned all sorts of magic tricks, developed his psychic powers, picked up some deep and freaky secrets, and used them to teach and do miracles. That’s the stuff we’ll find in apocryphal gospels and gnostic gospels: Legends of Jesus’s childhood, in which he made birds out of clay and brought ’em to life on Sabbath, or withered the hands of schoolteachers who dared try to teach him the alphabet. Stories of Jesus’s deepest darkest mysteries. Goofy stuff.

’Cause Jesus’s teachings in the New Testament look way more like the Hebrew religion than any other religion. His healings and exorcisms looked just like other healings and exorcisms the Galileans and Judeans were familiar with. In order to claim Jesus was a gnostic magician, you have to rewrite his story entirely. As they did.

The reason for the hidden life? There are two. First of all, as I said, it’s none of our business. Jesus and his family were permitted some privacy to live normal, ordinary lives. Jesus got to experience humanity without our crazy scrutiny over every single last one of his actions. We misinterpret him enough as it is with what he intentionally taught. Imagine how much we could get wrong by hyper-analyzing all the stuff he casually did.

Second, it’s irrelevant to the purposes of the gospels. The gospels are about Messiah. And technically Jesus wasn’t Messiah till the baptism stories, when the Holy Spirit came to him. Designated successors don’t become the successor till they were anointed. Jesus was certainly destined to be Messiah, but wasn’t Messiah till the Spirit made him Messiah.

Before this point, Jesus worked as a craftsman (Greek tékton, usually translated “carpenter”) which was either his career or his day job. He might’ve already been a teacher in synagogue—but then again, maybe not yet. He might’ve concentrated his time on providing for his family. He might even have married and had kids—though since the gospels never mention any such thing, likely not. (The very idea of Jesus as a first-century husband and father bothers some Christians ’cause they think it makes him sound too human. But that comes from an old heresy called docetism—that Jesus only looked human but wasn’t really. Having kids wouldn’t mean Jesus isn’t God. But since it didn’t happen, it’s a moot point.)

With Jesus’s anointing, the hidden life ended. Now Jesus would proclaim the kingdom—in word, and with mighty deeds. As he did from then on.