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A Baptism in Confusion: 3 Baptisms in Mark 1:2-13

baptism 2 sxc hu smallIn our last episode, we introduced the bare bones essence of water baptism as an ancient covenant ratification act saturated with typical death imagery and corresponding OT interests in ordeal (the divinely ordained safe passage through the maws of death, representing divine election and/or divine decrees of innocence).  Now, that was a mouthful… or an eyeful as the case may be… unless you move your lips when you read.

Baptism was a special cleansing rite used to initiate people into a new religious community, whether it is women into Judaism, or the already circumcised male into more exclusive Jewish sects under particular Jewish leaders.[1]

It is easy as a Christian to be rather ego-centric about things like covenant and baptism… meaning that it is easy to assume that things like these are specifically Christian, or Jewish, or Divine, as opposed to being employed by Christians or Jews or God to communicate important things in important ways because they are already shared concepts culturally. If we forget this, we will never really come to understand things like covenant and baptism.

When reading Mark 1:2-13, which is a natural unit of storytelling for Mark, you will notice that Baptism is mentioned 6x. Repetition is an important tool in communication. Always make special notation of repeated elements.

These 6 references to baptism, however, have three distinct contexts. Any hope of understanding these baptisms is built on recognizing the common confusion over them. So, today, I provide more questions than answers.

First, John “the Baptist”[2] is baptizing people “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”

There are a lot of questions we might ask about the relationship between John’s baptism and the forgiveness associated with it, but we are  not given enough information to draw a solid conclusion (Neither in this text or any other). We are not told the full nature of the covenant relationship John’s baptism establishes. What we do know is that the people heard John’s preaching and came to confess their sins… and, given the nature of water baptism generally, we might also assume that they were joining some kind of movement headed by John, whose disciples they were either generally or specifically becoming.

Second, we have John’s own anticipation of the one coming after him, whose baptism John declares to be of a far superior quality… a baptism in the Holy Spirit. This is a huge idea, and one that is expressed rather uniquely here in relation to all the OT statements concerning the Holy Spirit, or, alternately, The Spirit of YHWH/God.

As far as we Old Testament readers know, the phrase “baptism with the Holy Spirit” is quite new… but since there is a lot of history under the bridge between the last written book of the Old Testament and the coming of John, we might assume that it is not a new phrase to John’s audience… but you know what they say about people who assume.

Even so, there are many Scriptures that might picture this concept of baptism with the Holy Spirit even without the term. (Numbers 11:25; Isaiah 44:3; Jeremiah 31:31ff; Ezekiel 39:29; Joel 2:28)

The big question here: “Does the idea of water baptism as a covenant ratification act apply to Holy Spirit baptism as well, or does this use of “baptism” merely play upon the use of the term generally… i.e. immersion and washing?” If it does, in what way does it? If it doesn’t, why use the term in that context?”

Third, we have Jesus of Nazareth showing up in fulfillment of John’s own prediction that one was coming after him. John says one is coming in Mark 1:7 and in Mark 1:9 Jesus comes.

Jesus is baptized by John there in the Jordon River without any comment on the act. No qualifiers are given concerning Jesus, sin, or confession… at least no confession by Jesus.[3]

Unlike the others, this baptism marks Jesus out as the fulfillment of John’s predictions. (This is expressly stated in the Gospel of John, but left to be discovered by observation in Mark.) The promised Holy Spirit from Mark 1:8 descends upon Jesus in Mark 1:10.

Part of the picture concerns the divine response to Jesus’ baptism… the giving of the Holy Spirit (in the form of a dove) and the making of divine pronouncements of Jesus’ identity through OT quotation. Jesus passes through ritual ordeal (symbolic passage unharmed through the maws of death) in covenantal ratification (this is what water baptism IS!) and is greeted by the voice from heaven with declarations of acceptance and praise and identification. He is “Son of David” (Psalm 2:7), “Son of Abraham” (Genesis 22:2),[4] and “The Servant of the LORD” (Isaiah 42:1).

Jesus’ baptism is obviously not Jesus’ entrance into John’s discipleship; John, like his own disciples in Acts 18 and 19, would need to be baptized into Jesus. (Matthew 3:13-15)

Finally, what do we have? Three different kinds of baptisms none of which are our Christian water baptism. All of which need some investigation, holding secrets that will not yield themselves to the easily placated… all in 12 majestic verses.



[1] Read my post, “A Baptism in Baptism.”

[2] There is actually a text issue here. He appeared John the Baptist could be more properly rendered here, He came John baptizing, i.e. John appeared baptizing.

[3] Matthew addresses a question that would most naturally come to mind to the well versed Christian—Why would a sinless Christ be baptized with a baptism for repentance? Matthew 3:13-15 writes, “Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, 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 thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.’ Then he consented.” “Righteousness” is a covenant term by the way; it addresses one who has been faithful to a covenant’s terms. So an important question might be: “What does ‘fulfill all righteousness’ mean here?” Mark, however, makes no such statement; Jesus merely shows up and gets baptized… but what a baptism!

[4] This is the meaning of including the phrase “beloved” in the Psalm 2:7 quote, which does not include the term in any known version.

[5] Media pic is from sxc.hu

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