Monday, November 28, 2005

Jesus standing with us on the banks of the Jordan

Try and imagine the scene. A weird looking guy is hanging about the wilderness to the East of Israel calling on people to 'prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight'; that is to prepare for the Lord leading his people back from the oppression of exile to the promised land (in the verse's Isaianic context). Of course to do this they will have to go through the river Jordon, a bit like Joshua did, to symbolise that entering of the land, and also their cleansing from the sins that previously lead to the exile. However there is no point coming to visit this man and symbolically participate in this entering into blessing unless you are going to repent and produce work in keeping with repentance. Despite this high cost, and the weirdness of it all this strange leader seems to be attracting quite a following. They do not appear to be a very impressive grouping though.

The entrance of Jesus into this situation, not to sit on the sidelines but to participate, is very hard for a Christian to comprehend. While the rite clearly holds out considerable hope it is also intrinsically a self-condemnation, and a recognition that you and your people are not in the place of promise but still in the place of punishment. John the Baptist has the same dilemma as the Christian, that this is not the actions of a sinless Son of God, but of someone who did not think of himself more highly than anyone else. Jesus' answer (that it is 'to fulfil all righteousness') quite cryptic, and for me has only added to the problems I have had with this passage. However, it convinces John the Baptist!

Light was finally shone on this passage for me a few months ago when I read this passage thinking about how it must have seemed to the people attending (not just John and Jesus), and with a mind infected with a lot of stuff from Tom Wright. 'Righteousness' Wright and others (e.g Hagner on this passage) argue can have the meaning of 'God's plan for redemption'. What sparked off in my head that this may be the case here was the word 'fulfil' which usually in Matthew (which I was reading) used for the fulfilment of scriptures. Whether or not you accept this definition, it seems to me that the glorious truth is that this is a story of Jesus beginning his ministry by identifying with a motley crew of repentant sinners with a hope. Jesus condemns himself like the crowd and goes beneath the water (understood, later at least, as symbolising death, Rom 6:3). However when he comes out of the water he is, like the people around him hoped they were, seen by God as clean and pleasing. He is called by God 'Son' a title previously (slightly ill-fittingly) held by Israel (Exodus 4:22f) and Israel's representative king (Psalm 2). Except, unlike how his previous name-sakes were so often found, he is found pleasing in the eyes of God. This is not some temporary thing either, as immediately he is then tempted in the desert just like Israel, but unlike Israel in the passages he quotes at the devil he is perfect obedience.

We repentant sinners participate in baptism with the baptism of death he suffers, but because we are participating in the symbol of his death and not just our own we are also raised with him to new life, and seen by God as pleasing. Something we could never have achieved without the supremly humble Son of God par excellence.

This truth put me on such a high a few months back. A problem-scripture became for me the most brilliant picture of the Gospel. I am only sorry I took so long to share it (I was really busy at the time). Please worship God with me for the way his Son chose to begin his ministry.

PS I could never have applied it so well without the insights of Charles Moule.

PPS although this great event's interpretation does not hang on whether or not baptism was seen by Jesus himself as a symbol of death I think Mark 10:38-39 suggests he did. James the son of Zebedee being the first martyr if I remember correctly.


Post a Comment

<< Home