Jesus’ Baptism as Social Protest (Part 2 of 3)

Jesus’ Baptism as Social Protest (Part 2 of 3) January 5, 2022

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(Read this series from its beginning here.)




Jesus’ baptism has been understood in terms of a salvation that addresses only individuals’ personal or private sins rather than establishing systemic justice in place of systems that harm vulnerable and marginalized people. This creates problems with the text.

John’s baptism called people to repentance. But if that repentance was a rejection of private or personal sins then Jesus’ baptism becomes nonsensical because of the claim that Jesus had no private or personal sins to repent of. The Early Church Father Jerome, who lived in the 4th and 5th Century quotes from the Gospel of the Nazarenes in which Jesus initially rejects being baptized by John because he has never committed a sin.

Jesus’ exceptionalism also made his association with John and John’s baptism problematic for those Christians who no longer wanted be associated with Judaism or who wanted to communicate Jesus as superior to all including John.

To the best of our knowledge, the gospels were written down in this order: Mark, Matthew, Luke and then John. Reading them in that order, we see progressive attempts to distance Jesus from John, to portray Jesus as greater than John, and to declare that John and Johns movement  was only a precursor of Jesus and the movement based on his life and work. By the time of John’s gospel, John the Baptizer doesnt even baptize Jesus. And in Luke, if we take Lukes chronology seriously, John is already in prison by the time Jesus is baptized. This is unlike the early gospels of Matthew and Mark, where John baptizes Jesus.

As we’ve stated, John preached a baptism of repentance, and John was Jesus’ mentor. How are we to make sense of this?

Consider Luke 3:10-14:

And the crowds asked him, What then should we do?” In reply he said to them, Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, Teacher, what should we do?” He said to them, Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” Soldiers also asked him, And we, what should we do?” He said to them, Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”)

John’s baptism called for repentance for social, systemic sins. Repentance is a paradigm shift where you being to think about things differently, and so John’s baptism of repentance symbolized rethinking how society was structured in relation to power and privilege, who was included and benefited, and who was excluded and on whose backs the elites profited.

This brings me to this week’s point: an alternative lens for interpreting John’s baptism of Jesus.

John’s baptism invited people to denounce the present order, to cleanse the canvas so to speak for something different, societally, to be born.  We’ll consider Jesus’ baptism through this lens, next.

(Read Part 3)

About Herb Montgomery
Herb Montgomery, director of Renewed Heart Ministries, is an author and adult religious re-educator helping Christians explore the intersection of their faith with love, compassion, action, and societal justice. You can read more about the author here.

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