In Mark’s telling of Jesus being baptised (Mark 1:4-11), John told his disciples that he baptises with water but the messiah will baptise with the Holy Spirit. Baptism with water is an ancient tradition, it didn’t begin with John and it is certainly not reserved for Christianity. The practice of baptism in many pagan religions of the time of Jesus and John seems to have been based on a belief in the purifying properties of water. In ancient Babylon, according to the Tablets of Maklu, water was important as a spiritual cleansing agent in the cult of Enke, lord of Eridu. In Egypt, the Book of Going Forth by Day contains a treatise on the baptism of newborn children, which is performed to purify them of blemishes acquired in the womb.
Water, especially the Nile’s cold water, which was believed to have regenerative powers, was used to baptize the dead in a ritual based on the Osiris myth. Egyptian cults also developed the idea of regeneration through water. The bath preceding initiation into the cult of Isis seems to have been more than a simple ritual purification; it was probably intended to represent symbolically the initiate’s death to the life of this world by recalling Osiris’ drowning in the Nile.
Baptism survived from ancient times to modern times in many forms. Jews today, like in the ancient world, still practice Mikvah as a ceremonial washing when new converts join Judaism. Sikhs also inherited this tradition and practice Amrit which is another variation of baptismal initiation. Many other cultures, practice some form of ritual washing. Muslims today undergo a ritual washing before prayer and use it to represent a cleansing of their soul as well as their body before approaching God. John’s baptism was part of a long tradition which came before him and continued after him.
His baptism in water was a washing away of sins. It was a ritual act which represented the repentance his disciples were undergoing. They demonstrated their inward cleansing with a symbolic outward washing. John, as the second coming of the prophet Elijah (read my other post: Was John the Baptist Elijah?), continued in a long line of Israelite prophets who preached repentance. Who taught the importance of kindness to strangers and family alike. But the word repentance doesn’t necessarily capture the full essence of the Greek word John and Jesus both used in the New Testament. The word we so often translate as repent in the New Testament is usually the Greek word metanoia which means literally to change your mind. What John called for was not a change in behaviour so much as a change in thinking. A change in world view. A change in understanding.
Since John came to prepare the way for Jesus in the spirit of Elijah John’s baptism is the forerunner to Jesus’. It is the prerequisite if you will. Before being immersed in the Holy Spirit we must first be immersed in a change of thinking. The old way which we understand ourselves, the world, and our place in it must be washed away if we wish to be fully transformed by God’s Holy Spirit. The word baptism comes from the Greek baptizo. I would like to share with you a little excerpt I found from an article printed in Bible Study Magazine in 1989 describing The difference between the word baptizo which means to repeatedly immerse something and bapto which simply means to dip.
“The clearest example that shows the meaning of baptizo is a text from the Greek poet and physician Nicander, who lived about 200 B.C. It is a recipe for making pickles and is helpful because it uses both words. Nicander says that in order to make a pickle, the vegetable should first be ‘dipped’ or bapto into boiling water and then ‘baptised’ or baptizo in the vinegar solution. Both verbs concern the immersing of vegetables in a solution. But the first is temporary. The second, the act of baptising the vegetable, produces a permanent change. When used in the New Testament, this word more often refers to our union and identification with Christ than to our water baptism. For instance later in Mark’s gospel Jesus says ‘He that believes and is baptised shall be saved’. He is saying that mere intellectual assent is not enough. There must be a union with him, a real change, like the vegetable to the pickle.”
So, to repent is to make a full and complete change not in how we act but in who we are, not in what we do but in how we think. That sort of fundamental change is demanding of a soul. It is no small task. But it is essential to the Christian message. Every true Christian needs to be a pickle. Every Christian needs not only to have been washed in the water but fundamentally changed by the vinegar. John’s baptism washes us clean and makes us ready for Jesus’s baptism. Because baptism with the Holy Spirit changes who we are, and like the cucumber that has become the pickle, we can never go back to the way we were.
Jesus’s baptism with the Holy Spirit can come upon us in ways we never imagined. I would like to share with you a poem written by sister Carol Bieleck called Breathing Under Water. In it she describes God as the ocean, and tells us about her religious life, transitioning from the solid base of John’s baptism to the watery domain of Jesus’s. It goes like this:
I built my house by the sea.
Not on the sands, mind you;
not on the shifting sand.
And I built it of rock.
A strong house
by a strong sea.
And we got well acquainted, the sea and I.
Not that we spoke much.
We met in silences.
Respectful, keeping our distance,
but looking our thoughts across the fence of sand.
Always, the fence of sand our barrier,
always, the sand between.
And then one day,
-and I still don’t know how it happened –
the sea came.
Without welcome, even
Not sudden and swift, but a shifting across the sand like wine,
less like the flow of water than the flow of blood.
Slow, but coming.
Slow, but flowing like an open wound.
And I thought of flight and I thought of drowning and I thought of death.
And while I thought the sea crept higher, till it reached my door.
And I knew, then, there was neither flight, nor death, nor drowning.
That when the sea comes calling, you stop being neighbors,
Well acquainted, friendly-at-a-distance neighbors,
And you give your house for a coral castle,
And you learn to breathe underwater.
I just love how much she has said here, I love the images she creates. Our comfortable home with the sure foundation can remind us of the sense of identity and assurance of salvation we imagine from John’s baptism, the baptism with water we so often call a sacrament. But the true sacrament is Jesus’ baptism which comes like wine across the sand, which actually takes us away from the security of our stone house. We start with johns baptism but we leave it behind when we follow Jesus.
In the book of Acts, when Paul encountered the Christians in Ephesus (Acts 19:1-6), the baptism with water John offered was all they had known and they did not even realise there was a baptism of the Holy Spirit or that they were missing it. How much has the church today become like the Ephesians in this story? We baptise with water but I don’t think most of us realise there is a more important baptism, the baptism of the Spirit. But what, then, was this new baptism that Jesus was to offer? What does it mean to be baptised in the spirit? Johns baptism was only a symbol. A symbol of an internal repentance. A symbol of a change of mind.
But Jesus’ baptism is not a symbol. It is a true washing. It is a cleansing of the soul. It is Christ’s real and powerful action within our hearts. John’s baptism is something we choose, something we decide, something we work for. Jesus’ baptism is something that just happens, once you’re ready. You might know you’re ready, you might not. You might think you’re ready and be wrong. You don’t get to decide. Christ decides. You only accept it and embrace it. Because fighting it is like fighting the tide, you’re bound to drown. Some people say we are all on the path to salvation and there are two roads, we can take the hard road of suffering or we can take the easy road of repentance.
It’s not a matter of if we will be saved but when. When you swim against the tide the tide still wins, it just takes a little longer and hurts a little more. So do not resist the ocean when it rolls across the fence of sand between you and God. Do not struggle against it but simply trade in your nice house with its firm foundation and live in the coral with the fish, and learn to breath under water. That is the change that can’t be undone. Once you learn to breath under water, you are fundamentally transformed. You are no longer a cucumber, but you become a pickle and there is no turning back.
So my friends, I encourage you, as you go about your day, to think about your baptism:
What did it mean?
How has it changed You?
Have you received John’s baptism but not Jesus’s?
Have you had the water placed on your head but not received the Spirit in your heart?
What does it mean to repent?
Have you ever really had to change your mind about something?
John’s call for repentance, his message of metanoia, was meant to change the minds of those who heard it. To repent means to let go of what you might know, of what you hold to be true. It is a change of world view, a shift in consciousness. What good is baptism without repentance? What good is the water without the Spirit?
Don’t be satisfied with the outward symbol but seek after the inward motion. If you sit long enough by the shore, one day the tide might roll in and change your everything. When Paul laid his hands on the Christians in Ephesus they began to tell prophesies. Their religion shifted from a belonging system to a transformation system. The clear message in that passage from Acts is that the ritual washing is not enough, but that it is the Spirit who changes us.
John’s baptism with water was only the first step, repentance was only the beginning. After John’s repentance came Jesus’s baptism, the baptism of the Spirit which fundamentally changes who we are and opens us up to prophesies from Heaven. Once we have experienced this, we learn to breath under water, we give up our stone house with its sure foundation, and we live in the power of the Spirit. There is no turning back, just like a pickle can never be a cucumber, someone who has been baptised by the Spirit can no longer live as they used to. Their eyes are opened and they see the world in a whole new light. They do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with their God.
If you enjoyed this article, please share it on your favourite social media or leave a comment below. If you want to learn more about Celtic Christianity and Contemplation, check out some of the free videos from our virtual retreat: Sacred Spaces: Contemplation and the Celtic Spirit.