A Retelling of Jesus’ Baptism

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Jesus walked slowly, picking his way through John’s disciples, many of whom stood mesmerized by the sight of so many people entering the Jordan. Andrew led him to a good spot where they could both hear, down a path to a little sandbar next to the river. Jesus saw that all eyes were focused on John, who did indeed cut a remarkable figure in the blazing sun. He looked like a wild man, with his tousled hair, his scrawny frame, and his garment of animal skins. There were reports that he had taken to eating the insects of the desert—locusts—with a little wild honey to wash them down! There could hardly be a sharper contrast between John and some of the Pharisees and Herodians on the far shore, attired as they were in their immaculate robes, even here in the wilderness. John continued staring at them for a long moment, and then began to exhort them in a loud voice.

“You children of snakes! Who warned you to escape from the angry judgment that is coming soon? Produce fruit that shows you have changed your hearts and lives. And don’t even think about saying to yourselves, ‘Abraham is our father.’ I tell you that G-d is able to raise up Abraham’s children from these stones. The ax is already at the root of the trees. Therefore, every tree that doesn’t produce good fruit will be chopped down and tossed into the fire.”

Andrew turned to Jesus. “If looks could kill . . .” Jesus, seeing the expressions on the faces of the Pharisees, nodded in agreement. Andrew sneered. “You won’t see any of that lot getting their pretty robes wet in the river with John. No, look there: it’s tax collectors and soldiers. John tells them how to change their lives. What they must do before G-d’s judgment falls on them.”

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They watched as John baptized those immediately around him, one after another. Then he addressed the crowd, speaking once more in a deep, clear voice:

“I baptize you with water, but One who is more powerful than me is coming. I’m not worthy to loosen the strap of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. The rake he uses to sift the wheat from the husks is in his hands. He will clean out his threshing area and bring the wheat into his barn. But he will burn the husks with a fire that can’t be put out.”

Andrew turned to Jesus again. “He keeps deflecting attention away from himself, keeps denying he is G-d’s Sent One. But it’s so clear that he is indeed G-d’s prophet, preparing for the great and terrible Day of the Lord. It’s all very confusing, but it’s also breathtaking, to think that we might be living on the edge of the end of days!”

Jesus was silent for a while in reflection, as John returned to baptizing. Andrew looked at Jesus but could see that he needed to be left to his own thoughts. After several more minutes, Jesus suddenly stepped into the Jordan and started wading forward. John’s back was turned, so he did not see Jesus silently and steadily moving toward him. Now standing in water up to his waist, Jesus reached out and touched the prophet, saying gently, “John.”

Hearing the voice, John jerked around abruptly. He appeared shocked, but before he could speak Jesus said, “Baptize me, John.” Looking incredulous, John protested, “It is you who should baptize me, for you have come from G-d!”

Jesus smiled at his cousin. Then Jesus’ face stilled, as if listening to an inner voice. His eyes widened and then he said, “Still, let it be so, to fulfill all righteousness.” John paused, looked deep into Jesus’ eyes, and then nodded his assent. Placing his arm on Jesus’ back, he held Jesus’ two hands with his other arm. Very slowly he lowered Jesus completely into the water and then lifted him back out again.

Time stood still.

Jesus looked up, and his eyes grew wide. A single cloud had formed in the sky, which was suddenly rent in two, and people started at the loud clap of thunder that accompanied it. But as Jesus later told his disciples, he did not hear thunder, but instead a voice from heaven that said, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” And there was more than just the voice. Jesus would tell them that he received power from on high on that day, the mighty Spirit of G-d falling upon him and remaining on him. In fact it was only after the Spirit descended that he heard the voice from heaven. The Spirit heightened all of Jesus’ senses, and he could hear the voice of G-d so much more clearly from then on. Indeed, from that day forward, he felt empowered, equipped for the task before him. Yes, this was the time. His decision to leave his family, however painful, was part of his Abba’s plan for him. The experience at the Jordan had been the confirmation he needed: not merely a confirmation of who he was, but also that it was time for him to begin to fulfill his calling, to engage in the work he had been sent to do.

But as suddenly as Jesus had come to John, he left and waded out of the Jordan on the Judaean side of the river. Once on the shore, he walked rapidly away so as not to draw any further attention to himself. It was as if he had an urgent matter to attend to, a pressing task to complete.

Andrew, who had seen the whole encounter, was left to ponder, muttering to himself as he stroked his beard: “I wonder who that man really was. And why did John say that Jesus should have baptized him?”

Did you enjoy this entry? It is an excerpt from Ben Witherington’s The Gospel of Jesus: A True Story. In this imaginative harmonization of the four Gospels, Witherington opens up the world of Jesus and helps us hear his story as one seamless narrative.

With his customary eye for cultural and historical details, and engaging commentary on what are sometimes overly-familiar stories, this New Testament scholar invites us to join those first century followers of Jesus around their fires and at their dinner tables, and hear the Gospel of Jesus for the first time all over again.

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Dr. Witherington joined the Asbury Seminary faculty in 1995. A prolific author, Dr. Witherington has written more than 40 books and six commentaries. He is a John Wesley Fellow for Life, a research fellow at Cambridge University and a member of numerous professional organizations, including the Society of Biblical Literature, Society for the Study of the New Testament and the Institute for Biblical Research. In his leisure time, Dr. Witherington appreciates both music and sports. It is hard to say which sound he prefers: the sophisticated sonance of jazz sensation Pat Metheny or the incessant tomahawk chant of the Atlanta Braves faithful. A graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill, he is a dedicated Tar Heels basketball and football fan. He and his wife, Ann, have two children.

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