An Unconventional God– Part Eleven

An Unconventional God– Part Eleven November 21, 2020

BEN: In your second chapter (p. 31) you seem to negate the Johannine contrast between John’s baptizing with water and Jesus with the Spirit (John 1.33). You would prefer it to say ‘I baptize with water , but I am unworthy to untie his shoelaces’. But surely the text says that John said both— both that he was unworthy to untie Jesus’ sandals and that Jesus will baptize with the Spirit. Explain why you don’t want to take John 1.33 at face value especially since Mk. 1.7-8 has John make the same pronouncement. This is confusing.

JACK: The typical “not water but Spirit” that is familiar from Mark does not occur in the Gospel of John. Why? I wanted to know. The answer, I found, lay in the humility of John the Baptist, for whom even a contrast of his water baptism with Jesus’ Spirit baptism drew too much attention to himself. So the typical water-Spirit contrast does not exist in the Fourth Gospel because John the Baptist is simply too humble to connect, even by way of contrast, his water baptism with Jesus’ Spirit baptism. Would that all of us had that humility, which is perhaps more apparent in the Gospel of John than even in the Synoptic gospels. (I hope I have cleared up the confusion.)

BEN: On p. 32-33 you want to take ‘de’ to mean and, but of course the normal way to say ‘and’ is ‘kai’ in Greek. And I don’t see any reason why Jesus’ prophetic call couldn’t involve repentance (‘repent for the kingdom of God is at hand’) just as John’s call does, even though there is the contrast between John’s and Jesus’ baptisms. It’s not what accompanies the baptisms that is contrasted it’s the baptisms themselves by the use of ‘de’ in the contrast. You add “baptism in the H.S. will complete the process of purification that John’s water baptism, a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, begins.” (p. 33). There are various sayings of Jesus which suggest that this reading of continuity between the two baptisms doesn’t work. For example, Jesus says that John is the greatest of the old era, indeed of the old line of prophets, but even the least person in the kingdom is greater than him. This implies a contrast. This doesn’t in any way negate the notion that Jesus also expected repentance and turning to be his disciple and enter the Kingdom, but the contrast between Jesus and John’s ministries in various respects should not be ignored or negated.

It is interesting that in the Fourth Gospel we are told that Jesus baptized no one with water, and in no Gospel are we told that Jesus went through ritual purification rites in a mikveh, unless of course you see Jesus’ baptism that way, which I would not. Jesus in addition never reacts when an unclean person touches him, indeed Mark 7 tells us that he said it is not what enters a person or touches a person that defiles them but rather what comes out of their hearts. Hence the need for regular repentance for Jesus’ followers. Why do you feel the need to stress continuity between the ministries of John and Jesus sometimes at the expense of the discontinuity, and not simply say there are elements of continuity and discontinuity between these two ministries? Even John asked from prison whether Jesus was the one to come because Jesus’s ministry was so strikingly different from John’s in various respects.



I heartily affirm (see prior question) the contrast prompted by John the Baptist’s humility. In a sense, I see an ultra-contrast. John refuses to put himself in the same camp as Jesus when it comes to baptism in water (John) and baptism in the Spirit (Jesus). He is too humble for that, “drenched in humility but driven by hope” (page 32). I go on to say, “drenched in humility but driven by hope, [John] draws a sharp contrast between his baptism in water and Jesus’s baptism in the Holy Spirit.”


I see continuity in the need for repentance. I think this quote makes the case:

“A baptism of repentance, in other words, is not the antithesis of baptism with the Holy Spirit. It is not an act of the will as opposed to an act of grace. Repentance is the precursor to a baptism with the Holy Spirit. If there is evidence of baptism in the Holy Spirit, it is not so much, in John’s words, spiritual gifts, not even speaking in tongues. It is a life of repentance. Lifelong penitence. The discipline of constantly turning back—which, of course, is precisely what the angel said the boy would do: “He will turn back many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn back the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord” (Luke 1:16-17, modified).”

What I try to do with John the Baptist’s saying about the Holy Spirit is to glimpse contrast (water versus Spirit), prompted by John’s humility, and continuity, prompted by John’s commitment to lifelong penitence.

And now to the little matter of the de. You’ll love this story, Ben. I was in the great W. D. Davies’ final Duke seminar on Matthew’s gospel. It was a marvel, as you can imagine. I wrote a paper, in which I argued for continuity rather than contrast in the “You have said … but I say” sayings in Matthew 5:21-48. I argued that Jesus sees continuity between Torah and his own teachings: “You have heard … and I say.” I figured Davies would tear it apart in his inimitable Welsh way. He didn’t. He agreed! He said, the Greek particle, de, is like clearing your throat. Who could forget that? (He later called me into his office—uh oh, I thought—to express his agreement more personally.)

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