In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’
Christians were not the first to celebrate the sacrament of baptism. Ceremonial washings were conducted throughout the Ancient Near East. The people of Israel, for instance, were commanded to perform ritual washing after becoming unclean by touching carcasses, menstruating women, and the like (see Lev. 15-16). In the first century, baptism took on a new meaning for the Jews—it was used not only for ritual purification, but as a rite of initiation into the prevailing political parties of the day. We might not think of the Pharisees and the Sadducees as political parties, but that’s precisely what they were. Each had their own idea about how to be Israel under the rule of the oppressive Roman government, (a problem to which Christianity offers a strange and refreshing answer, which was in part the topic of part one of this series).
The Sadducees thought the answer lay in the Jerusalem temple. (Jesus directly confronts this philosophy with his cleansing and condemnation of the temple, and act so politically charged that many scholars think, in at least two of the gospel accounts, it is to be read as the direct cause of his execution). The Pharisees—whose apocalyptic literature reveals how deeply displeased they were with the supervision, the size, even the ornamentation of the second temple—thought that the identity of Israel must instead be rooted in stringent observance of The Law. A third party that we hear little about in the New Testament, the Essenes, thought that there was no way for Israel to be faithful under the fist of Rome, so they practiced a politics of exclusion, drawing away into caves and practicing their piety in proto-monastic communities. What each of these groups held in common, however, was a similar recruiting process. Each party produced teachers, or Rabbis, who would disseminate their particular biblical interpretation and political philosophy. The Rabbis would in turn make disciples who, if they were deemed worthy, might be initiated into the elite inner circle of the political party represented by their rabbi, through a particular kind of ceremonial washing called baptism. Thus baptism, to the first century Jew, was primarily a way of separating people, a distinguishing ritual not unlike the role of tattooing in modern gang subculture.
For obvious reasons, each party’s rabbis would look for the best of the best. After all, if a politician is to wield his influence over the masses, he’s got a reputation to keep. Those confirmed, through baptism, into the upper echelons of the political sphere were Jews of high pedigree, with high moral standing in the community, and expensive education—the schmaltz of the matzo, so to speak. On to this scene comes John the Baptizer—a prophet with a fire in his belly, camel skin on his back, and bugs on his breath—preaching, as the gospel glibly states, “a baptism of repentance, for the forgiveness of sins.”
What?!? John’s baptizing who? You’ve got to be kidding me! We knew he was eccentric, what with the honey-roasted locusts and all—But baptizing sinners?—has he lost his mind? He’ll defile the whole practice. Baptism is reserved for the best of the best. But now, coming up out of the waters of the Jordan are gluttons and drunks, common whores, Rome-sympathizing tax collectors, and—what’s that?—even gentiles? John’s acting with complete disregard for our entire social system of how people are valued. He’s acting like some cosmic shift has taken place, and we’re all living in some kind of alternate universe you’d see on the X-files where God is not counting men’s sins against them, and where children of the devil are given the right to become children of God. What on earth has gotten into him?
Prayer. God of timeless grace, you fill us with joyful expectation. Make us ready for the message that prepares the way, that with uprightness of heart and holy joy we may eagerly await the kingdom of your Son, Jesus Christ, who reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, now and for ever. Amen.