A man with leprosy came to him and begged him on his knees, “If you are willing, you can make me clean.” Filled with compassion, Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing.” — Mark 1:40-41
“Long before I reached her place, a putrid smell burned my nostrils. It was a smell you could almost lean on. Soon I could see an immense garbage dump by the sea, the accumulated refuse of a large city that had been stagnating and rotting for many months. The air was humming with flies. At last I could make out human figures – people covered with sores – crawling over the mounds of garbage. They had leprosy, and more than a hundred of them, banished from Karachi, had set up home in this dump. Sheets of corrugated iron marked off shelters, and a single dripping tap in the center of the dump provided their only source of water. But there, beside this awful place … I found Dr. Pfau.” — from Fearfully and Wonderfully Made
John came, baptizing in the desert region and preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River. — Mark 1:4-5
Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John. But John tried to deter him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” Jesus replied, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” Then John consented. — Matthew 3:13-15
John may have been the first, but he was certainly not the last to raise the question. Why was Jesus baptized? We can understand John’s reluctance. He was baptizing for repentance and forgiveness of sins (Matthew 3:11; Mark 1:4). For what sin did Jesus need forgiveness? What correction was required in his life?
For centuries the classic answers have proved helpful. Jesus wanted to identify with sinners. He wanted to set an example of obedience. But still, John’s question nags.
Jesus knew the aim of John’s mission. He knew the purpose of John’s baptism. He knew what kind of people came to the river. They swarmed the banks of the Jordan like lepers on the Karachi garbage dump. Wounded by greed. Diseased with lust. Infected by selfishness. Covered with the sores of human failure. All of them … except Jesus.
I have often imagined how that day at the Jordan could have gone. As the only one free of sin, the human plague, Jesus could have remained above the whole sinful scene. Imagine him, standing high in the hills surrounding the Jordan valley, separate and distinct from the human failure below. He could even have made an announcement: “You are gathered down there because you are infected with failure. I stand up here because I am free of failure. You should be like me.” Nothing would have been truer or less helpful to those infected by the human plague.
In fact, such an announcement could more easily have been made from heaven. Why stand at the edge of the lowest point on the face of the earth when you can stand at the highest place in existence? Why be born into a peasant family when your Father owns the universe? Why shield your true identity in order to grow up in obscurity? Why? Because the ultimate human plague requires the ultimate hero.
Today’s heroes commit themselves to the victims of misery. They risk their own health, but take necessary precautions. They seek a solution, but pray for personal protection. And no one expects the search for a solution to require more of them than an understandable risk.
Not so with the ultimate human plague. Jesus knew that his commitment was more than risky. He knew that the only precaution he could take was to refuse the mission. He knew that the only solution for the human plague was for him to take upon himself the sin disease of others … intentionally.
So he climbed down from his high point. He joined the mass of failure-infected people in the Jordan valley. He submitted to a rite of cleansing reserved for the terminally infected. And it shook John. It was so unusual, so unheard of, for even the greatest of heroes, that John “tried to deter him.”
John was the forerunner. He had announced Jesus’ coming. He knew of his power and his mission. But he never expected this. In fact, no one had really counted the cost of the human plague. No one had looked that far ahead … except Jesus.
Driven by love and compassion, Jesus went to the root of our disease. He aimed at the source of all misery. His baptism was a personal and public commitment, not to research and treat the human plague, but to contract it and thereby heal it.
It was a difficult and courageous choice. This is why the Father immediately affirmed Jesus’ decision: “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17). And this is also why Satan immediately attacked his decision. “If you are the Son…” (Matthew 4:1-11).
So, why was Jesus baptized? So that John could identify the Christ? Yes. So that Jesus could identify with the human race? Absolutely. To set an example of obedience? Of course. But, more than this, in a very real sense, Jesus was baptized for the forgiveness of sins … but not his own. His baptism was his decision to go to the Cross, the only permanent solution for human failure.
He began his ministry with an unavoidable baptism. He ended it with an undeserved crucifixion. It was his deliberate choice. He was moving into the heart of the human plague as the ultimate hero.
“If you are willing, you can make me clean.” Filled with compassion, Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing.”
It was built in 1482 just a few years before our own Columbus story. It is a massive stone structure on the southern coast of West Africa, one of West Africa’s oldest standing structures. They call it Elmina, Portuguese for “The Mine.” They chose this name because this was where they stored all the gold brought from the mines. They would collect the gold for months, and then the ships would come and transport it back to Europe. But this is only the beginning of Elmina’s story. Over the centuries a more valuable commodity was discovered and stored in the lower chambers of Elmina’s walls. You see, Elmina Castle became a gathering station for the slave trade.
At the height of the trade 30,000 slaves a year passed through Elmina on their way to the Americas. This continued for nearly three hundred years. Even after slavery was outlawed, Elmina was a part of the illegal trade, and the dark windowless storage rooms that once held gold, now held people. Hundreds would be crammed into one small room. They couldn’t lie down, and they would live this way for months at a time. Separated husbands and wives would never see each other again.
As they waited for the ships, most of the people would die in their rooms and would not be removed. Those who survived were taken to a final holding room. I stood in it. Even centuries later it was dark and damp and smelled of mold and mildew. This room was called “the room of no return” because from it the slaves would pass through a very small slit in the side of the castle. It was only large enough for a single person to pass through directly onto the ships.
I have toured Elmina several times and I already knew that it contained an upstairs church. But on one visit, I noticed that the church was located directly above the room of no return. I immediately thought of Jesus’ answer to the question, “What is the greatest commandment?” I thought of the position of these two rooms, the house of worship and the place of slavery. The vision statement of my own church is “Passion for God, Compassion for People,” because in addition to his answer to the first question, to love God, he volunteered a second commandment. He said it’s like the first – love people.
This is the irony of Elmina Castle. In just one small section, on the northeast side, those who managed the castle tried to obey the first commandment while grossly violating the second. What happened on the first floor, in the room of no return, nullified the offering in the chapel on the second floor. As God said in Amos 5:
“I hate, I despise your religious feasts; I cannot stand your assemblies (v. 21)
Why did God say this?
“You trample on the poor … You oppress the righteous … You deprive the poor of justice” (vs. 11-12).
Elmina is a graphic illustration of why the first and second commandments go together. They need each other. They define each other. They express each other. Jesus put them together. Passion for God fuels compassion for people. I cannot walk with God without caring for people.