If you walk around many institutions of higher learning or hospitals, you’ll see all sorts of plaques on walls noting who gave money to help build a building. Sometimes the names are in the titles of the building. Sometimes there are brick walkways, where each brick has names engraved, names of people who gave money. It is a common practice in our world. It’s called Naming Rights. If you give a certain amount of money to that organization, you can get your name on something. Sports arenas are perhaps the most expensive buildings for which to purchase naming rights. Naming rights also occurs in Christian organizations and churches. It is a method for enticing people to give.
It reminds me of the phrase, “Make a name for yourself.” What’s behind that? What is the motivation for making a name for yourself? Do you ever think about making a name for yourself? My guess is that most of us do. We wonder if we will be remembered. But how many generations back in your family do you remember?
In our continuing study of the Gospel of John, we have arrived at John 3, verse 22. There we’ll learn a little-known story in the life of Jesus that I think relates to this practice of Naming Rights and making a name for yourself.
In verse 22, we learn that Jesus and disciples travel to the countryside. There they spent time together.
Think about that. They spent time together. At the risk of stating the obvious, this is one of many descriptions of Jesus’ relationship with his disciples which reminds us that Jesus invested in the lives of his disciples. Discipleship is only possible when people spend time together. We spend time with Jesus, and we learn how to follow him. In the same way, we spend time with people helping them become followers of Jesus. Jesus is our example. He spent time with his disciples.
Think about who invested in you. Who spent time with you, helping you know Jesus, learn the way of Jesus, so that you could better live a life in line with the way of Jesus? And who are you spending time with? Who are you investing in?
We also read in verse 22 that baptizing was happening. This is a curious reference because when we think of baptizing, we think of John the Baptist. But in John 3:22, we read that Jesus and his disciples were baptizing. Or were they? If you scan ahead to John 4:2, John clarifies that Jesus didn’t do the baptizing. Only his disciples did.
Why? Why were Jesus’ disciples baptizing people? I think there are at least two ways to answer that question.
First of all, let’s think about what the practice of baptism means. Why is baptism important? Baptizing was then and is still today an outward symbol of an inward reality. Baptism is not meant to do any actual washing or cleansing. You’re going to need a shower, soap and shampoo for that. Baptism is a symbolic washing that declares, “I have made a change in my life. I not only believe in the good news about Jesus, but also I am no longer going to live for myself and am choosing to repent and refocus, and depend on Jesus, choosing to live his way of life.”
There is one exception to that. Jesus.
John the Baptist did not want to baptize Jesus, at least in part because Jesus was the only person who was not sinful, and thus did not need to repent and change his life. When Jesus was baptized, he was symbolically proclaiming a different message. Jesus was proclaiming the message of being committed to God’s mission for him, the message of joining together with the people in their commitment to the Kingdom of God. When Jesus was baptized, he was saying, “I am in line with God’s Kingdom and mission.”
We continue to baptize to this day to declare that we have given our lives to God. As the baptismal saying goes, we go under the water to dramatize being buried with Jesus in his death, and we come up out of the water to dramatize being raised with him to new life. We are re-enacting and identifying with the death and resurrection of Jesus. When we get baptized we are proclaiming that we endeavor to live the kind of life that Jesus himself lived, the same kind of live he calls us to live. It is a sacrificial life. It involves death to ourselves, and new life, rebirth, in Christ. We are new creations because of what Jesus has done in his death and resurrection, making it possible for us to experience new life as we walk in step with the Spirit. Therefore, baptism does not save us. Baptism is a symbol that tells the story that it was Jesus who saves us.
Of course, when Jesus’ disciples were baptizing people, as we read in John 3:22, it was not a symbol of Jesus’ death and resurrection, because those important events were yet to happen in the future. Instead, people were being baptized to show that they repented of their sins, and were now committed to live according to God’s heart and way of life.
That is what baptism declares, now let’s move to the second important point about baptism in this story. Why were Jesus’ disciples baptizing people? Shouldn’t Jesus be doing the baptizing? John doesn’t tell us why Jesus had his disciples baptize. Not in 3:22, and not in 4:2. So we are left to speculate.
Here’s what I think was going on. As we heard already, Jesus is a disciplemaker. He not only calls these men to follow him, as we read about in 1:43, he mentors them. He spends time with them, as we read today in John 3:22. The disciples are his apprentices, and he gradually teaches them, giving them opportunities to serve. Jesus is slowly building into them the skills and qualities they will need when they take over for him when he is gone. His focus on helping them pursue the mission of the Kingdom of God.
I suspect he has them do baptizing to give them experiences of ministry and leadership. He could do it all if he wanted. Or maybe he couldn’t. Maybe there were so many people starting to follow him that there wasn’t enough time for him to baptize all of them. Perhaps he was delegating responsibility to manage the scale of the ministry. Again, I’m speculating, but these possible reasons for the disciples baptizing make sense to me. We can learn from this too. This is why discipleship should not just be Bible studies or Sunday school classes or small groups. Those are good things. Jesus did teach information to his disciples. But discipleship, for Jesus, went beyond teaching to giving his disciples experiences, opportunities, new ways of serving.
But let’s get real here. Were all the disciples eager to baptize people? Were all the disciples excited about getting wet? About dunking people they didn’t even know? Was it awkward in any way? I suspect there were all sort of emotions flying around in the disciples’ hearts and minds when Jesus said, “Men, I want you to do the baptizing.”
I’m guessing some were thinking, and maybe even said, “Woah…I didn’t sign up for this. I’ve never done this before. I’m not qualified for this. Let’s just go get John the Baptist to do this. Or you, Jesus, you’re the Rabbi around here. Aren’t you supposed to do this? People won’t accept me doing it. They want you, the Teacher, to baptize. I don’t have any training. This isn’t my spiritual gift. I wouldn’t know what to say. I’m not really a people person. I don’t like the water. I don’t know how to swim. I’m not really that strong. What if I drop someone, and they can’t swim either? I don’t want to be responsible for creating a scene. Don’t you have other tasks I can do? I’ll direct people to line-up. I’d rather be behind the scenes. I’m not really an upfront kind of person. Let the fishermen do the baptizing. They’re used to the water.”
In case it wasn’t obvious, I made that all up based on real-life responses I’ve heard over the years when it comes to serving in the church, in ministries, etc. You can bet that the disciples gave Jesus all manner of excuses too. So this passage gives me hope. Jesus didn’t do the ministry. His disciples did. I believe there is a role for everyone single one of us to contribute in the life and ministry of the Kingdom of God.
Let’s talk about that. My guess is that your church could use volunteers in the nursery, in children’s ministry, singers, instrumentalists, I could go on and on. And that is just ways to serve in the church. There are a plethora of ways to serve God’s Kingdom outside the church, and they are just as important. What else is going on in your community where the Kingdom of God is bringing light into the darkness?
In John 3, verse 22, the disciples are helping bring light to the darkness by baptizing people. Jesus’ ministry was well underway at this point. Interestingly, we learn in the next verse that John the Baptist was still going strong too.
In the next post we’ll learn more about why there were two baptism ministries at the same time.
Photo by kaleb tapp on Unsplash
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