Don't Follow the Red Herring


A red herring is one that's smoke cured and salt brined so much that the flesh turns red. In popular usage it's anything that diverts a person from the real issue. Jesus' baptism can be a red herring. Follow it the wrong way and you'll miss what the 16th century painter, El Greco, saw. His 1568 painting of the event has "flame like brushstrokes" filling the "moment of Christ's baptism with a shudder that reverberates through all creation" (Oxford History of Worship, 823).

There are several red herrings in regard to Jesus' baptism, and every one of them is an old argument. If you've been around Christians that think only believers or adults are to be baptized, then you've heard them. One is that since Jesus was baptized as an adult you should be too. Well, they got us on that one, don't they? Luke 3 tells us that Jesus was about 30 years-old when He was baptized. He was no child let alone infant. The second red herring is, "The Bible says. Jesus was coming up out of the water' that means He was immersed under the water." Therefore, the only valid mode of Baptism is immersion.

These are red herrings. They aren't worth following. You will miss the big picture if you do. It would be like debating the nature of the star the Magi followed. Was the cross of Christ a capital T or a lower case one? What age was the Virgin Mary? Even if you find the answers to these what have you really found? But you won't be satisfied unless I address the red herrings in Jesus' baptism.

If you must be baptized as an adult because Jesus was baptized as one, then you must be baptized in the Jordan because He was, and you must be baptized by John because He was. Good luck with that one. To say some one came up out of water doesn't necessarily mean they were under the water. Standing on the bank of a river or lake what would you call to your child standing in the water? "Come up out of there." El Greco depicts Jesus standing in the water and John pouring water on His head. All the ancient catacomb depictions of Jesus' baptism show the same thing.

You could address all the red herring arguments at once by saying, so what if Jesus was baptized as an adult and by immersion, Jesus wasn't baptized with your baptism. How could He be? Jesus didn't send anyone out baptizing in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost till three years from now. The problem with this answer is that it almost always produces another red herring. What was the nature of John's baptism? Based on the facts in the text you can say it forgave sins because Mark says it's "for the forgiveness of sins," and you can say it gave the Holy Spirit because the Spirit descended on Jesus. And that's as far as you ought to pursue it because, once Jesus fulfilled His ministry John's baptism ended.

The problem with all red herrings is if you follow them you end up in a dead end. You follow the red herrings of the age Jesus was baptized, the way Jesus was baptized, or what does John's baptism mean today, and you will miss the New Testament. You'll miss what El Greco saw: This event is earth shaking and world altering. To show you just how big this day is, the Eastern Church celebrates the birth and the baptism of Jesus on the same day which they call the "Day of Light" (Reed, Lutheran Liturgy, 479).

Do you see the New Testament here? Never mind what age Jesus is. Do you see what the perfect Man who is holy God is doing in the Jordan? He's confessing sins. The text clearly says, "The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to John. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him." John only baptized those who confessed their sins. No confession, no baptism from him. So Jesus, the Holy Child of Bethlehem, the Son of the Most High, must have confessed sins.

Whose do you think they were? Not His own because He had none. Unlike you He was born with none. He was not the Seed of Adam so the sin of Adam was not passed down to Him. He committed none because though tempted in all ways just like we are He was without sin. Whose sins did He confess then? Yours! That sin you can't bear to think about let alone say, Jesus spoke out loud before God and men. That sin you always return to in your thoughts and nightmares, Jesus said, "I did it." Don't you think this is worth focusing on? Don't you think this is worth rolling around in your head and heart? Jesus already confessed the sins I'm afraid are going to find me out. For almost 2,000 years God has known all about them.

You want to debate the significance of Jesus' age or the amount of water poured on Him? Go right ahead; stand there and ignore the fact that at Jesus' Baptism heaven was torn open. Matthew and Luke put it in the passive and they put it weakly compared to Mark. They say, "Being opened." Mark doesn't emphasize the passive nature, but the actual tearing. El Greco's painting captures that. It's like a scene from a science fiction movie. Roiling orange, yellow, and black clouds and an open heaven, but what's this? A Dove comes out! Wouldn't you expect a lightening bolt or one of the plagues of Revelation? Wouldn't you expect some form of judgment? The last time heaven was said to open, in Genesis 7, out came water to flood the world and destroy all life.

Luther in preaching on this emphasized that once the heavens were opened at the Baptism of Jesus they stay open until the last day. "Heaven was opened back then [and] it will not close until the Last Day" (LW, 58, 73). You know all those jokes about heaven and St. Peter's gate? No St. Peter, no gate, but as we sing in the Te Deum, "Jesus opened the kingdom of heaven to all believers."

It's because of the Baptism of Jesus that I want to baptize you, preach to you, administer the Sacrament to you, and absolve you. Least that's what Luther said: "If heaven were closed, who would want to baptize, preach, administer the Sacrament, absolve" (Ibid.) He goes on to say where Christ is, there heaven stands open (Ibid. 74). Christ is in Baptism, in Absolution, in Communion, in preaching and teaching His Word. In these, heaven stands wide open to sinners.

Why? Because Jesus is in them and the Father says in our text that He is well-pleased not just with Him but literally in Him. Jesus as the perfect Child always pleased the Father in thought, word, and deed. He never did anything to displease Him in any way. Wherever the Father sees Jesus, He is pleased. The Father is pleased in Jesus because Jesus carried away any reason He had to be angry. Jesus carried all sins away and all judgment against sins. All those sins Jesus confessed while standing in the Jordan, He paid for by a life of suffering and a hellish death. Wherever Jesus is the Father doesn't see wrath or judgment, but His only beloved Son. He's as happy with Him, and those in Him, as you are with your child on his very best day.

Following the red herrings of Jesus' Baptism we miss the New Testament and we little fishes are left high and dry. Second century church father, Tertullian, says, "We little fishes are born in water, nor have we safety in any other way than by permanently abiding in water" (On Baptism, ANF, III, 669). You're being taken out of your baptismal water when you follow the red herring of whether you got baptized at the same age Jesus did. The important point is that you got the same water He did. As we sang in that 1500 year old hymn, "Within the Jordan's crystal flood/ In meekness stands the Lamb of God/ And, sinless sanctifies the wave,/ Mankind from sin to cleanse and save" (TLH, 131, 3). The same waters of Baptism that gave Jesus His sins takes ours away.

Follow the red herring of how far under the water Jesus went, and you will be pulled out of the waters of Baptism. Fish can only live in water. From water they get their food and draw their breath. When Jesus hands on Baptism to His church, He doesn't mention the amount of water. He says, "Baptize all nations into the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit." The word "baptize" means apply water, and yes immersion is a way to apply water, so is dipping, pouring, and sprinkling. But Jesus doesn't emphasize that in Baptism you enter water but the Triune God. He doesn't say as we translate, "Baptize in the name, etc." but "Baptize into the name."

By Baptism you entered into the Triune God. You entered the opened gates of heaven. You act differently depending on where you are, don't you? Do you act the same way in church as you do in a bar? The same way at a fancy restaurant as you do at Burger King? Little fishes in water act as the saved, redeemed, holy people they are; to act otherwise is do deny what and where they really are; it's too jump out of the water. Quick jump back in. That's what we do every morning and evening when we make the sign of the cross on ourselves in remembrance of our Baptism. We jump back into the waters of Baptism to drown that landlubber old Adam and to rebirth the fish that gets its life and food from Water.

Don't follow the red herring that pits John's baptism against Jesus' baptism. Luther tied the two together saying that in Baptism "our eyes and hearts should always be directed to the manifest appearance in the Jordan, where the voice of the Father is heard from heaven, the flesh of the Son is seen, and the Holy Spirit appears in the form of a dove" (LW, 8, 145). The Baptism of Jesus makes visible what happens in our Baptism. We are to hear the Father saying He is well-pleased with us. We are to see that the Flesh of Jesus is on earth for us. We are to see that the Spirit of all good gifts has descended and landed on us.

El Greco's painting shows how the world is impacted by the Baptism of Jesus. It's not a red herring to follow that event to your Baptism whether you were baptized as an adult, an infant, or somewhere in between. Amen

Rev. Paul R. Harris

Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas

The Baptism of our Lord (20120108); Mark 1: 4-11