Context, context, context… First Steps to Understanding Baptism

What does the New Testament say about baptism and what does it mean for us today?


t sounds a straightforward question to approach: find the relevant verses, go back to the original Greek text, pour over commentaries and look at the passages the verses appear in. Then stir it all together and ‘hey presto!’, you’ve a theology of baptism to apply to our church life today.

Not so much…

When Jesus addressed his disciples telling them to “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit…” [Matt 28:19], he didn’t explain what he meant. Nor do we usually have to explain every word or concept we use in conversations. Communication is based on (in fact, is only possible because of) a shared set of understandings, concepts and experiences.

We’ll return to Jesus’ command (as an example) in a bit, but let’s tease out this communication task a little further.

The Communication Gap

I’m particularly interested in the gap between what the communicator intends to be understood (and therefore, in the case of a command, acted on) and what the receiver actually receives. That gap, I think you could argue, can come from several sources (and often more than one):

The Knowledge Gap
Talk to me about quantum physics and I have a little knowledge (from an engineering degree and Physics ‘A’ Level), but only a little. Very soon my eyes will glaze over… or (at best) I’ll be mis-understanding what you are trying to tell me. I simply don’t know enough.
The Language Gap
I spoke at a conference in Finland some years’ ago and my talks were translated (line-by-line) into Swedish (it was for youth from the 8% of Finland for whom that’s their first language). Before each session, I’d go through the talk with my translators. For one exposition, I wanted to explain the difference between “grace” & “mercy”. That was going to be a problem, they said: Swedish had only one word for the two!
The Culture Gap
Not just the culture of countries, but the shared thought world of any group can create distance for communication. If you’re not a Doctor Who fan, then a Darlek is simply a metal killing robot with a terrible voice. Within that culture, there is a history and set of assumptions whose sharing means that the scriptwriters don’t have to explain it all every episode.
The Generation Gap
Use the phrase “Big Brother” and the impact would have been very different back in 1930, or in 1970 and then in 2005. 1930 was before George Orwell’s book 1984 was published (in 1949) and the phrase would simply have meant ‘your big brother’ (if you had one!) – and carried with it whatever connotations of a male older sibling would have had in the particular country and time. By 1970, “Big Brother” had taken on Orwell’s dystopian view of a powerful ruling elite able to snoop on the ordinary person and control their lives. 2005, however, was in the midst of the fame of the Channel 4 (at the time) series “Big Brother” – a reality TV show that took Orwell’s vision sideways and turned snooping into entertainment.
The Context Gap
Countless politicians have felt hard-done-by and cried “taken out of context” when a word or phrase means something quite different (they’d say) when heard at a particular moment in time and in a particular circumstance.

Jesus wasn’t stupid.

Jesus knew perfectly well that his command “to baptise” was parachuting into already-occupied territory. It was territory contoured by what the disciples already assumed the command meant and the action would mean, by what they had (some of them) seen “John the Baptiser” do and by their wider “narrative thought world” (to borrow a phrase from Witherington’s work on Paul’s writings) which gave shape to what it meant to be a disciple, what following God looked like and how to belong to God’s People.

In other words, if we’re to understand what Jesus meant by that command, we have to see, firstly, what the disciples might have assumed about it and, secondly, in what ways (if any) Jesus has attempted to shift their assumptions.

Both these strategies are vital, it seems to me.

Whether it’s a command of Jesus or the writings of Paul, understanding the context into which they communicated and carefully seeing the ways they did (and, equally important, did not) attempt to re-shape their receivers’ assumptions are two unavoidable steps in interpreting what they meant to be heard.

So, what sorts of questions might we be asking about the territory into which Christian baptism landed?

Here are a few to get us started:

  • Jewish worldview – Jesus, in his preaching, and the writers of the NT both assume and (in other places) counter prevailing Jewish religious assumptions about God, His people and the created order. We need to ask then what these worldviews brought to their understanding of baptism (eg. How did one become a member of the People of God? What advantages / responsibilities did this bring? Could children belong? etc.) – and equally (following our scheme above) ask in what ways Jesus and the NT writers seek to change those assumptions. The Old vs New Covenant is a key area for some in the conversation over baptism and it’s for precisely this reason.
  • There’s literary background, too, in that the words related to baptism were used in Greek (Classical & Hellenistic) writings of the day. A cluster of words form on the Bapt- root (βάπτω, βαπτός, βαπτίξω and βαπτισμός) and were common enough, it seems, in the wider literature of the day to establish their meaning with some confidence (see, for example, Ferguson, 2009, p38ff).
  • Ritual washing was used in Greco-Roman pagan religions, but also in ancient Judaism. What would Jesus’ disciples and the earliest Christians have had as their backdrop to Christian baptism?
  • John the Baptiser came before Jesus and baptised Jesus himself. Jesus did not baptise anyone, so when the original disciples and wider circles of followers began to baptise converts (as we head into Acts), this must have been at least part of the backdrop for their understanding.

Some Resources

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