Jesus’ baptism clearly was important. All four gospels record the event in their own ways, with Jesus journeying to the Jordan River, where he steps into the water. There, his cousin John has been readying people for the coming of the promised Messiah.
Jesus’ baptism also complicates our snap responses regarding what baptism is, however. Generally, Christians think of adult baptism as an act of repentance, a symbolic washing showing God our desire to flee sin.
But Christians also acknowledge Jesus as the sinless Savior of the world, God in human flesh. His lack of sin, possible because of his inner divinity, is what makes him a worthy sacrifice on the cross, the only perfect being capable of atoning for humanity’s break with God.
So we’re left with a question: Why does a sinless God-man participate in a baptism of repentance? Complications can be a blessing, however. They often lead us to deeper truths.
Let’s consider a baptism I witnessed about seven years ago while volunteering in prison ministry in Kentucky.
While in seminary, I preached in a Sunday morning service at the federal prison near Lexington, Ky. The worship was energetic, just what you would expect from men who had done some terrible things but discovered that Christ still wanted to forgive them.
And even better, I was going to witness the baptism of a prisoner. I was a bit mystified when I arrived, though. There was no water in sight.
I did notice an unusually large wooden altar on the chapel platform, and soon I understood why it was so big. The prison trusties removed the altar’s lid and slid a set of wooden steps against the altar’s side. Inside this cross-adorned box was a tub of water.
When it came time for the baptism, the newly converted inmate walked up the steps and then, with a little help, stepped in the box and sat in the tub, which was invisible from where I was seated in the congregation. A prison chaplain named Tom stood over our new brother in Christ and lowered him into the water.
That’s when things got strange.
I expected Tom to hold this man under the water for a second or two while saying the appropriate words. Instead, the chaplain continued to bear down. He then adjusted his position, getting both hands into the downward push and really applying some weight. And then he adjusted again and pushed even harder.
I began to wonder if this friendly chaplain, this wonderful man of God, harbored some secret grudge against this prisoner. But why would he drown a man in front of this many witnesses?
Finally, Tom brought the new Christian up. I was perplexed until the end of the service.
“Uh, Tom,” I asked. “What was going on during the baptism?”
“I couldn’t get all of his face under,” Tom replied, making a circle around his nose with his fingers. “The trusties didn’t put enough water in the tub.”
That got me to thinking about the fate of unbaptized noses.
Two demons are walking along in hell. The first one notices something on the ground and asks, “What’s that?”
The second one says, “Oh, that? That’s an unbaptized nose. The rest of that guy got into heaven, but we got the nose. It never went under the water.”
It’s a ridiculous image, of course. But realizing it is ridiculous helps us understand the real meaning of baptism. The water is important, of course; in different ways, Christians use water as a common symbol when people are ready to first commit themselves to following Christ. But we also know from Scripture that we are baptized by the Holy Spirit. Jesus’ baptism seems to be more about the incredible presence of God that enters our lives.
First, Jesus’ baptism shows God’s desire for solidarity with humanity. Even though our sin is offensive, God’s love for us causes our maker to want to stand with us as we repent, even experiencing with us the pain of death as Jesus died in our place for our sins.
Second, Jesus’ baptism serves as an early sign of how God is going to continue to work in the world through Jesus’ ministry, death and resurrection, and then afterward through the body of believers who form the church.
After Jesus’ baptism, we are told the heavens were torn apart and the Spirit descended like a dove, publicly anointing the Messiah. A voice from heaven also declared Jesus as “my Son, the Beloved,” the one who had pleased the Father.
There is power in baptism, in Jesus’ baptism and in our own baptisms. We see this fact affirmed later in the early church, when people were baptized and then sensed the Spirit upon them, or vice versa, when they experienced the Spirit and then were baptized to acknowledge their new relationship with God.
And that’s why we don’t need to worry about unbaptized noses—the Spirit has them covered.