Ad Limina Apostolorum (Blog) | St. Augustine's Library
Thursday, April 14, 2011

Student's Question on Jesus' Baptism 

I was just posed a difficult question by one of my teens and was wondering if you would be able to help shed some light on the issue for me. We were reading through the story of Jesus' encounter with the Samaritan women in John's Gospel. Right before that study, there reads this interesting little verse.

John 4:1-2 "Now when Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard that Jesus was making and baptizing more disciples than John (although Jesus himself was not baptizing, just his disciples) . . . "

The two questions I was posed were, 1. "Why doesn't Jesus baptize his disciples" and 2. "If Jesus doesn't baptize his new disciples why does he let his disciples baptize them?"

Purely speculation, of course.

As for Jesus ‘delegating’ the task of baptizing converts to his apostles, there may be no profound theological reason. His primary ministry was to preach. The early apostles established the ministry of the deaconate precisely so they wouldn’t have to deal with practical matters like distribution of charity, and so ‘neglect the preaching of the word’ (Acts 6:2). St. Paul himself says that his primary ministry is to preach ‘Christ crucified’ (1 Cor. 2:2), so that he very rarely performed baptisms (1 Cor. 1:14), but left that to others. So this could be the practical reason: like Paul, Christ focused on preaching, and left practical tasks like baptism to others.

As to why Jesus never baptized His apostles, we don’t know that He didn’t. The fact that Jesus is not recorded as baptizing them does not mean that He didn’t. It could simply be not recorded. But in my opinion (and this is just my opinion), it is likely He did not, because He did not need to. In his Christ the Sacrament of the Encounter with God, Edward Schillebeeckx points out that St. Paul was the only apostle whose baptism is recorded in Scripture (Acts 9:18), and he was also the only apostle who never had a personal, physical encounter with the Incarnate Christ while on earth. Schillebeeckx calls Christ the ‘primordial sacrament’, who, after His physical departure into heaven, leaves behind the seven ‘separated sacraments’ as ‘substitutes’ for His own presence. His theory: While Christ was on earth, the ‘separated sacraments’ are not needed, because men can encounter the ‘primordial sacrament’. (E.g., why do we need the Eucharist if Christ is hanging out with us daily?) Once Christ physically departs, we need the ‘separated sacraments’ as a substitute. That is why Paul needed baptism, and the others did not.

A last consideration. There were, after all, two baptisms: John’s baptism of water for repentance (a purely symbolic baptism), and Christian, sacramental baptism. The distinction is made in Acts 19. Jesus received only John’s baptism. The first command to receive specifically Christian baptism (baptism into the Father, Son and Holy Spirit) is made in the Great Commission in Matthew 28, right before Jesus departs the earth (see the point above on ‘separated sacraments’). The question is, then, which baptism were the apostles performing during Jesus’ earthly ministry. I’m not sure there’s an easy answer to that question, much less an official one. I would propose (though I am happy to be corrected) that it was John’s baptism. After all, Christian baptism is an incorporation into Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection (Romans 6), and an infusion with the divine grace won by Christ’s Passion. This is not possible without the death, burial and resurrection having taken place. Which is why, I think, Christian baptism is inaugurated only at the Great Commission, after the Resurrection. If this is true (and again I’m happy to be corrected), it does change the significance of the passage you mention, where Jesus does not personally baptize. John claims that Jesus’ purpose is to bring a new baptism, not with water but with ‘Holy Spirit and fire’ (Matt. 3:11-12). But this could only be done after Easter. Thus, while Jesus allows John’s baptism with water for repentance to be carried on, it is not the purpose of His ministry, nor does He carry it out personally. His purpose is to die, which He calls His ‘baptism’ (Luke 12:50).

Hope those thoughts help.

# posted by Jamie : 2:24 PM


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Ad Limina Apostolorum: An ecclesiastical term meaning a pilgrimage to the sepulchres of St. Peter and St. Paul at Rome, i.e., to the Basilica of the Prince of the Apostles and to the Basilica of St. Paul "outside the walls".

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