We sense when there’s “a thing behind a thing.” We eye the surface, but something suggests to us a deeper reality. So what do we do? We ask some probing questions. We read between the lines. We scratch at the uppermost layer to see what lurks underneath.
In other words, we’re searching for the subsurface, “the thing behind the thing.”
My favorite word for this sort of discovery is “palimpsest.” In the old days, when scrolls were used for writing, they were expensive and hard to obtain. So, scrolls were often reused. The old ink would be scraped off and something new written on top (sort of like modern tattoo coverups, but more obvious). If you looked hard enough, however, you could still read the faint original writing underneath the new ink, still stained on the skin of the scroll (here are some examples). These recycled scrolls are called palimpsests (lit. "re-scraped" pages).
The story of the baptism of Jesus is a kind of palimpsest. There’s a “thing behind the thing” in this story. Matthew’s account is only 5 verses and about 100 Greek words long (3:13-17), but multiple Hebrew stories faintly ink its subsurface. Or, to change the metaphor, they are swimming right below the watery surface of Jesus’s baptism. The following examples are only a sampling (I develop more of them in this article).
The Jordan and Liminality
You don’t read far into the Bible before you realize God is huge on geography. He doesn’t just, willy-nilly, make things happen in random places. He’s spatially specific.
This is our first “thing behind the thing” at Jesus’s baptism: it happens at the Jordan. In fact, it is divinely imperative that it happen at this river. If Jesus were baptized in any other body of water, it would have jacked up the entire story.
Why? The Jordan is the liminal place for Israel—the location of leaving the past behind and stepping into the future. In this river the ark of the covenant, carried by priests, dams up the rushing waters (Josh. 3-4). Here, the nation leaves behind the killing wilderness with old Moses for the vivifying land with new Joshua (just as earlier they left behind slavery in Egypt and entered liberation by crossing the Red Sea). These are some of the “old texts” beneath this palimpsest, over which Matthew pens his new story.
Jesus comes to bring us out of the dry and barren past, into the future of a new and living hope. He is the ark of the covenant, the incarnate throne of God, in front of whom John the priest now ministers in his camel’s hair vestment. Jesus is the new Joshua (his Hebrew name) who brings us into the promised kingdom of his Father, flowing with the milk of mercy and the honey of life. When Jesus is baptized, all these narrative flow together to become a new story, pulsing with ancient blood.
The Prophet Team
God is not only huge on geography; he’s also deeply committed to biography. He’s very specific about who does certain doings. And the doer here is John. He must be. It’s divinely imperative that John alone baptizes Jesus, not the other way round, as John suggests. That would have altered the long-established pattern of prophetic teamwork.
How so? John is the second Elijah (Matt. 17:12). He’s about done with his life’s labor. He has been a voice in the wilderness, preparing the way for the Lord. And now his time of departure is near at hand. The first Elijah, when he was likewise done with his labor, passed on his mantle to Elisha on the banks of the Jordan River (2 Kings 2). At the Jordan three prophetic handoffs occur:
--Joshua took over after the death of Moses
--Elisha took over after the charioting away of Elijah
--Jesus will take over from John at this selfsame Jordan.
Jesus tells John it is fitting “for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Note: “us” not “me.” Both were necessary: John to baptize and Jesus to be baptized. They were, in a sense, a prophetic team—John preparing the way for him who is the Way itself.
Feathers, Arks, and Open Heavens
One more “thing behind the thing” in this story takes us all the way back to Noah—indeed to the very dawn of creation. Three images merge: a man in the water, the heavens opening, and a dove appearing. This triad occurs also in Genesis 6-9, the flood account. Noah is the man in the water, floating in the ark. He’s there because God “opened the heavens” to rain down the flood (Gen. 7:11). And the signal that the waters had begun to dry up was a dove that returned to Noah with an olive leaf in its beak. This was the sign that Noah, his family, and the animals—like a new Adam and Eve in Eden—could soon disembark upon a fresh creation.
The flood story is the creation story retold.
Now here stands Jesus, the man in the water, come to give in full what Noah’s father wrongly thought his son would give, namely, “rest” (Gen. 5:29). Over this new Noah, the heavens also open, but rather than raining down a destructive flood, the Father pours forth speech, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased” (Matt. 3:17). And a new Dove alights upon the one who is the anointed of God, the Messiah—anointed not with oil from olives but with the Spirit of God: the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, of counsel and strength, of knowledge and the fear of the Lord (Isa. 11:2). As Noah was a kind of new Adam, so Jesus is a new Noah and new Adam combo, baptized in the water of creation, over which the Spirit once hovered (Gen. 1:2), to bring about new creation for all those who are baptized into the ark of his body, the church (1 Pet. 3:21).
Conclusion: Betwixt and Between
Marching beneath the surface of those 100 Greek words about Jesus’s baptism are Adam, Noah, Moses, Joshua, Elijah, and Elisha. Flying betwixt and between the nouns and verbs are the feathered messengers of old. The text is still warm from the fires of the chariot that swooped down to pick up the prophet. And one can carry an ark of the covenant, on dry ground, between the textual lines.
There is more than one “thing behind the thing” in Jesus’s baptism: there’s a whole world. We call it the Old Testament. And all its major parts join hands in Matthew 3 to dance in circles and sing Hallelujahs around the story that fulfills them all.