If you have been following our work you may have wondered about baptism. The normal Christian understanding of baptism fails by our normal rules of textual additions. We've had trouble too, but can finally start to unpack baptism. Details follow below.
The Problem of Baptism
Though actual practice in Christian churches is quite varied, it generally follows the Jewish meaning of a ritual cleansing and the start of a new phase in life. Usually expressed as washing sins away and starting a new life of following Jesus. Baptism is also sometimes expressed as identifying with the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus, though this construction is less common.
All of these explanations have trouble. The idea of cleansing is tied to the problem of sin. In Christianity sin is covered, or cleansed, through blood sacrifice, which fails by the rules of additions expressed in Acts chapter 15. Identification with the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus does the same, as it is based on the idea that his death was an atonement for the un-inspired idea of sin guilt.
So at first glance Baptism should not be in inspired text.
But, what complicates this idea is that John the Baptist is a central figure and he is down at the Jordan baptizing ahead of Joshua's public appearance. John was not invented by editors. Though some of the text surrounding John may not be inspired, the core historical stories are sound.
So the questions we've been getting about baptism are valid. What part of baptism was inspired? What was the practice? What does baptism actually mean or signify? Let me briefly address each of these questions.
What Was Inspired?
The main quote that solves the riddle is from Luke 3:16 and quoted again in Acts 13:25...
"As John fulfilled his ministry, he said, Who do you think I am, I am not he, but there comes one after me, the strings of whose shoes I am not worthy to untie."
The reference here to shoes, or in some translations sandles, is usually taken incidentally, instead of centrally. Let me explain. John is doing something with shoes for most of the people who came to him at the river. But he would not do the same for Joshua. Joshua would need to take off his own shoes when he came to John.
The structure of the sentence means that untying shoes is all John ever did for anyone when he baptized. This was not immersion. There was no wet t-shirt contest. There was no need for towels. John was not doing what the Jews were doing in some 40 Mikvehs in and around the temple where John's dad worked. John was doing something that did not pattern what was going on at the temple.
If there is an inspired indoor version of baptism, then it is the time when Joshua washed the feet of his disciples. He is taking off their shoes, and explicitly states he is not wetting anything other than their feet.
Finally, Philip was told to go attend to an Ethiopian's chariot. In the process he helped get that man baptized, but also found himself caught away. An important clue I will address below.
There are other references to baptism, but without clues as to practice, so this is the list of episodes that matter for undertanding the practice.
What Was The Practice?
The location of John's ministry was at the 'Jordan Crossing.' This is the place where the Jordan could be forded. A ford is a place in a river that is shallow and wide, with a flat river bottom. Maybe the English translation for this place should be the 'Jordan Ford.'
This was where John was helping people take off their shoes. Why? So that those who came to him at the river could ford the river. Walk across and walk back. No dunking. No help. Cross on your own as an act of faith.
That is all. With the exception, of course that John would not even help with Joshua's shoes. This important exception likely tied to the symbolic meaning.
Fords are also places where chariots cross rivers, so the story of the Ethiopian's chariot, which eventually finds water, is likely telling us that chariot had also reached a ford. The Ethiopian official perhaps rode his chariot across or more likely got out and walked across the ford, just as people had done with John.
What Does This Signify?
Crossing the Jordan River by ford is tied to the story from Moses' day, where the descendants of Jacob crossed the Jordan. They had left Mizraim, wandered in the wilderness and then forded the Jordan into the promised land. They were headed almost directly to Shechem, where the text and practices of The Testimony would be eastablished.
John's baptism has all the same symbolic meaning as the crossing of the Jordan had 1500 years earlier. To understand the symbolic meaning of baptism, we must unpack the Jordan Crossing symbols.
Crossing the Jordan leaves behind Mizraim. Mizaraim represents the entire world. The world as it has been, the world we live in now. Pharoahs, little Pharoahs, slave systems, priesthoods, wars and many other problems of earth are all expressed in the ideas of Mizraim.
Someone who crosses the river in baptism is saying by an action they, too, want to leave the ways of Mizraim, the ways of earth, behind.
Ahead, on the other side of the forded river, is the promised land. Ahead is Canaan, is Shechem, with the testimony carved in stone as the central monument.
Shechem represents Eden. A massive city in the sky. A place Joshua has prepared for those who follow him.
In between is the river. A symbolic representation of the sky itself.
So the symbolic meaning of John's baptism, of water baptism by fording a river, is a desire to cross out of the systems of the world, across the sky, and into the systems of Joshua, expressed in his Testimony. It also represents a desire to eventually leave earth itself behind.
Philip's encounter with the Ethiopian Chariot adds another piece to the riddle.
To actually travel from Earth to Eden requires a chariot ride. The size and features of Eden are given in the Book of Revelation. It is the size of a small moon. It is facetted, with a large wall around the equator. It remains in long term but temporary orbit around one of our solar system's outer planets.
Between here and there is a massive expanse of empty sky. Impossible to cross without a chariot of some sort. Elijah's firey chariot is the text's normative story. The chariot that took Joshua to the skies on ascension day is another reference to these space faring chariots.
Eden was the destination for the firey chariot ride that Elijah took. That Enoch also took. That others have taken. Read the story of Philip's encounter with the Ethiopian chariot and you find him then going for a firey chariot ride too, but ending up elsewhere on earth. It isn't always just up and down, it can be across.
Philip was not yet done with his work here, but needed to write about how these chariots can move people around. I suspect it was also indicating he would have such a ride when it was his time to leave.
John the baptist makes the point that he is unworthy to untie Joshua's shoes. This statement suggests Joshua's participation is special.
Joshua's participation in baptism is not just symbolic. Joshua himself is judge. He determines if someone is really going to traverse the gap between Earth and Eden. Without Joshua's express agreement, nobody takes that ride.
John is being adamant about the difference between the symbolic act of water baptism and Joshua who actually arranges for these rides. John only helps in a symbolic act, while Joshua carries out the real thing. This is why John is unwilling to involve Joshua in water baptism.
Riding the Chariot
If you decide to be baptised, you will select a stream some place that you can safely walk across. Maybe a few inches of flowing water. Hopefully clear.
Depending on the current, you will need to keep you eyes focused on the far shore. Otherwise you may loose your balance looking down at turbulent water. This is also symbolic, keeping your vision on the goal, on the prize, to reach the other shore. Don't let the turbulance of life pull you in.
You should have other things going on too. You are headed for Shechem, where the text was carved in stone. Which explains the commandments and how to organize your daily life so Joshua is eventually well pleased with you. The text is full of scenarios that you can use to understand success in life and also some failures so you can try to avoid them.
If Joshua is actually pleased with you at the end of your earthly life, he will either send a chariot to pick you up, as he did with Elijah and probably Philip. Or, he will let you die, and then send a chariot for your soul. This second case is what Joshua did for Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph.
My intent here is to give the outline of Baptism. There may be more nuances that become clear as we finish work on the text. The details I've given here are sound.
If you care, you should be able to find a place and baptize yourself. You do not need anyone's help. Joshua himself will be watching.
Maybe, though, you need a little encouragement?
Go Do It!