John’s Baptism

This coming Sunday is the 2nd Sunday of Advent in Lectionary Cycle A. In yesterday’s post we addressed the question “Who is this wilderness preacher?” as well as exploring the relationship between Jesus and his cousin, John.  In today’s post, we consider the nature of the baptism that John offered.

John’s baptism was a symbolic act that people who had already led righteous lives, practiced justice towards their neighbors, and led pius lives – or were committed to living as such – were forming a “faithful remnant” of the covenant.  In the gospel accounts, all of John’s words (except the word against Antipas) are spoken to persons seeking this baptism. His words show that John was unreceptive to those whom he judged to have bad faith, while he was friendly to those who were truly repentant. To the former he repeated threats and warnings and perhaps added new ones, while to the latter he gave hope for further dramatic renewal of their lives as well as ethical guidance relevant to their particular vocations. The former group seems to have been made up of people whose commonality was lording power over the common people: the religious leadership, the wealthy, the tax collectors and soldiers.

It is natural for Christians to begin to interpret John’s baptism within the framework of Christian symbols, but it is perhaps better to consider John’s actions as prophetic and within the context of the OT prophets mentioned above.  A significant possibility for the meaning of John’s water baptism is purification. Purification is linked with an anticipated messenger in Mal 3:1–3: “the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming…For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fuller’s soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver …” This imagery is reflected in the words of the Judean desert Qumran community whose purification rites were connected with conversion of heart: “Like waters of purification He will sprinkle upon him the spirit of truth, to cleanse him of all the abominations of falsehood and of all pollution through the spirit of filth” (1QS 4:20, 21). Both these actions and John’s Baptism echo Ezek 36:25–26: “I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses … A new heart I will give you and a new spirit I will put within you …

That John was particularly interested in purification coheres with his own priestly background (son of Zechariah the priest) and also with his interest in religious-ascetic practices, such as fasting and prayer (Luke 5:33; 11:1; Acts 14:23). It seems reasonable to suggest that John told those he was baptizing that his baptism of repentance would be followed soon by a second, radical cleansing of them from all evil. In this regard John is in full accord with the OT prophetic emphasis on the need for radical renewal, a perspective seen, for example, in the call for a new covenant by Hosea (1–3) and Jeremiah (31).

But John also seems to see a maelstrom of coming judgment using fire as a traditional symbol of judgmental destruction. The prophet Malachi (3:18–4:1) envisions the day when God acts as “burning like an oven” and destroying the arrogant and evildoers. This is preceded by a separation of the righteous from the wicked in a metaphor of winnowing; grain is separated from chaff, which is burned with “unquenchable fire.” The analogy with purification is strong: purification involves the removal of impurity from a valued substance; so winnowing removes the impurity, the chaff, from the valued grain. This is a later eschatological purification of his repentant baptized ones.

John the Baptist’s message can be summarized thus: Now is the time of repentance in view of the imminent execution of God’s wrath on unrepentant powerful sinners. Those that do not repent will be destroyed by God’s wrath, while those who do will receive an additional second baptism greater than John’s that will bestow on them a final and perfect purification. In the meantime, they are to do ritual and moral acts that befit their repentance and that anticipate the final purification.

Image credit: Image credit: ‘The Preaching of Saint John the Baptist in the Desert’, ca. 1635,  a painting by Massimo Stanzione -1585-1656, Public Domain

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