It is not clear when the practice of baptism began. We know that other cultures had washing rites as initiation rituals at the time of Jesus. The Christian practice begins with John the Baptist. John’s baptism is described as a baptism of repentance. Apparently, John would go out into the wilderness and preach and teach about repentance.
Many Christians do not understand the word repentance. To repent is not to say, “I am sorry.” It is also not a matter of asking for forgiveness. To repent is to relent or to turn the other. It means to go a different direction. Have you ever had someone say they are sorry and then do the same thing to you later? They said they were sorry, but they did not repent. John is calling Israel to turn from their ways and live differently. The implication is that they would turn back to God and be washed clean.
It is interesting that Jesus is baptized in such a way, since we emphasize so strongly that Jesus was tempted in every way that we are, but without sin. (Hebrews 4:15) What does Jesus need to repent from?
One of the theological terms that is helpful here is the vicarious humanity of Christ. In essence, it means that Jesus lives human life in our place or for us. Jesus becomes flesh, walks around, is without sin, repents, and dies the death that we deserve. But then he is risen from the dead, and the sin that should own us is defeated. And we are given, in what Luther called a magnificent exchange, the holiness and sonship of Jesus. Christ dies for us, but we rise with him.
This is a big part of the imagery of baptism. We die with Christ and are risen again with him. This image is best seen when people are immersed under the water rather than being sprinkled with water. Often people would even change their names at their baptism. This is why to this day during a baptism a pastor will ask for the Christian name of the child. Some traditions, like the Catholic church, still allow people to take on new middle names or Christian names when being baptized into the church.
Jesus is baptized and commands people to baptize, but we have no record that he himself baptized anybody. We do know from John 4 that his disciples did. There seemed to be some conflict over those who were baptized by John or Jesus. Jesus commands Baptism as part of the great commission.
I will look at baptism in Acts and the meaning of Baptism for Jesus in the next couple of blogs.