Musings on Mark: The Baptism of Jesus (1) – Jesus the Penitent

“In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee
and was baptized by John in the Jordan.”
Mark 1:9, NRSV


The very first story we read in the Gospel of Mark isn’t about Jesus; it’s about John the Baptist. But unlike what we find in the Gospel of Luke, John has no real back story. “John the baptizer appeared,” Mark writes (1:4) in a very terse manner. All we know about John is that we wears weird clothes and he eats funny foods (at least from my Western point-of-view). And he also serves a very specific function: he baptizes. And what kind of baptism does he perform? “A baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (1:4). And what do people do as they are baptized by John? “[They] were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins” (1:5).

We know from the prophetic citation of 1:2-3 that John also serves as a “messenger…who will prepare your way.” That is, the work John performs is intended to prepare the people for the coming of the messiah. John says as much when he tells the people, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit” (1:7-8). The baptism that John performs is the prerequisite to the baptism that Jesus will perform. But not before Jesus himself is baptized by both John and by the Holy Spirit.

9   “In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.” 

Apart from the opening of the Gospel (1:1), this is the first time Jesus appears in the Markan narrative by name. Like John, we are not given any background information about him other than he was from the tiny town of Nazareth in the region of Galilee. The relationship of John to Jesus is not made explicit as it is in Luke’s Gospel where we are told that they are cousins.

That Jesus is baptized by John is a bit surprising because of the implications of such an act. Remember, John’s baptism is one of “repentance for the forgiveness of sins” and those who are baptized by John do so while “confessing their sins” (1:4, 5). For Jesus to participate in such a ritual is an indication that he too underwent “a baptism of repentance for forgiveness of sins.” So is Mark telling us that Jesus needed to be cleansed of his sins? I think so. And there is another reason to think that.

Jesus’ Baptism in Matthew

In the Gospel of Matthew we find some dialogue between John and Jesus that doesn’t appear in Mark. Matthew writes,

Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. (Matthew 3:13-15)

So Matthew’s John recognizes that if anyone should be doing the baptizing it is Jesus, not John. And if anyone should be baptized it is John, not Jesus. But Jesus insists on being baptized because doing so would “fulfill all righteousness,” a Matthean way of saying, “to fulfill God’s plan.” [1] 

What Matthew has done in inserting this otherwise unattested dialogue is to avoid the implications in the Markan narrative that Jesus was a sinner who needed to be baptized. In Matthew, both John and Jesus know that Jesus doesn’t need to be baptized but the action is performed anyway because it is part of God’s plan. Matthew has creatively side-stepped the penitent Jesus!

Jesus’ Baptism in John

Even more interesting is how the Gospel of John handles the baptism of Jesus: he doesn’t. Nowhere in the Gospel of John do we find a record of Jesus’ baptism. We know that John performs baptisms but the narrative in the Gospel of John is unlike any in the Synoptics, though it does share some elements. The priests and Levites that had been sent from Jerusalem come to John and ask him, “Who are you?” (1:19) John makes it clear that he is not the Messiah, Elijah, or a prophet (1:20-22) but is instead “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness” (1:23). So then the natural question arises from the lips of the priests and Levites – “Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?” The implication of this question is that John has no business baptizing anyone at all since he is (in their estimation) a nobody. John doesn’t disagree – “Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal” (1:26-27).

The next day John sees Jesus but does he baptize him? If he does, we aren’t told about it! Nowhere in the Gospel of John are we told that John baptizes Jesus. It is as if the question put forward by the priests and Levites is part of the narrative flow. If John is neither the Messiah, Elijah, or a prophet, then what business would he have in baptizing the one who is the Messiah? So, he doesn’t. There is no penitent Jesus, only “the Lamb of God” (1:29).

Penitent Jesus

For Jesus to be the Messiah, he must first be cleansed of his sins, and therefore he undergoes baptism by John. This isn’t surprising. As we will see in part 2, Jesus cannot be the Messiah until he is baptized by the Holy Spirit which occurs in Mark 1:10. The events of Mark 1:9-11 prepare Jesus for his activities as Israel’s Messiah. In fact, I will argue that it is at his baptism in Mark’s Gospel that Jesus is made to be the Messiah.

ENDNOTES

[1] Donald Hagner writes, “Righteousness is a key concept in Matthew (seven occurrences). It is preeminently the goal of discipleship (5:20; 6:1, 33), that is, the accomplishing of God’s will in its fullness. (Matthew 1-13, WBC vol. 33a [Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1993), 56.

 

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