Today the Church asks us to remember the Baptism of Christ.
So I take this opportunity to reflect on what Jesus’s baptism means, both to those at the time, and to you and me 2000 years later.
But first I invite you to picture again, in your minds eye, the moments after John baptised Jesus, as described by Matthew in his gospel (3:13-17).
Here is Jesus, a man in the prime of his life, about 30 years old. He is glistening wet from receiving John’s baptism of repentance, as he walks up out of the river Jordan. Then, suddenly, the heavens burst open. The Spirit of God descends like a dove to alight on him. And the voice of God declares from heaven, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased’.
What a strikingly vivid and dramatic scene – it’s easy to imagine being there, isn’t it?
Matthew describes an epiphany, in which God reveals himself to be the Father of Jesus and sends Jesus his Spirit.
The same epiphany, bringing together Jesus at his baptism, the dove and a voice from heaven, is also described by Mark, Luke and John. It must have been part of the common tradition of the earliest Christians on which Matthew and the other evangelists drew when writing their gospels.
For Christians by the 4th Century these baptism passages came to be seen as supporting and illustrating the doctrine of the Trinity, the idea that the one God consists of three persons, Father, Son and Spirit. They are the only passages in the NT where we encounter all three persons together at the same time, in the same place.
Matthew would have known the book of Isaiah well, like all educated Jews of his time. He would have seen the parallels with today’s OT reading (Isaiah 42:1-9), in which God declares, ‘Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him’. But there is this crucial difference between Isaiah and Matthew: for Isaiah, God identifies his chosen one as just a servant; whereas for Matthew, God identifies Jesus as his beloved Son.
What did John the Baptist make of Jesus’s baptism?
John recognised Jesus when he came to ask for baptism, not surprisingly since they were cousins close in age. John says to Jesus, ‘I need to be baptised by you, and do you come to me?’ What’s going on here?
John proclaimed ‘a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins’ (Mark 1:4). He called people to repent, and baptised them as a sign that God forgave their sins. John knew that he needed baptism, repentance and forgiveness himself. But I think he must have believed that Jesus was such a good and holy man that he had no need of them.
John would also have recalled Isaiah’s description of God’s chosen servant in today’s reading, ‘He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth.’ Perhaps John recognised the Jesus he knew in Isaiah’s description - softly spoken, filled with compassion for the damaged and the weak, yet determined and passionate for justice.
Despite John’s reluctance to baptise him, Jesus insisted, and John consented. And we know John then experienced the epiphany described by Matthew, since John’s Gospel records him saying: “I saw the spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptise with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptises with the Holy Spirit.’” Only then does John realise the full truth, that his cousin Jesus is the promised Messiah, the incarnate Son of God, not just a remarkably holy man.
I wonder what his baptism meant for Jesus himself.
Jesus very deliberately chose to ask John for baptism, and insisted on it – it must have been of great significance to him.
Matthew gives us a clue when he records Jesus saying to John, ‘it is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness’. For Jews, righteousness meant obeying God’s law and doing God’s will. Jesus clearly believed God wished him to be baptised by John. But for what purpose?
Perhaps God wanted Jesus to seek John’s baptism at the very start of his ministry in order to demonstrate that Jesus was God’s incarnate Son, not just a good man like Isaiah’s servant. This was certainly the effect on John. But perhaps Jesus himself needed to be certain who he was before beginning his ministry. Is it possible this is also the very moment when Jesus finally understood that he was Christ the Messiah, the Son of God?
Whatever the truth of this, Jesus clearly associated himself quite deliberately with John’s proclamation, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near’ (Matt 3:2) - he went on to proclaim it in his own ministry (Matt 4:17). And I like to think that Jesus chose to be baptised by John because he wanted to show his solidarity with sinful people like you and me, who desperately need to repent and be forgiven, even if he had no such need himself.
So to finish, what does Jesus’s baptism mean to you and me, 2000 years on?
Well, no doubt there are many answers. But this one strikes me.
The epiphany at the baptism of Jesus marks a great new insight into the nature of God as the Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. As God says through Isaiah, ‘See the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare’.
Before it Jewish religious thinkers could only conceive of the relationship between God and a human being as that between a remote master and a terrified servant. After it Christians could begin to see the relationship as one in which God is incarnate in a human being like you or me.
Everything is changed and made new. God ceases to be a remote figure and we are no longer afraid. God comes near to us, as close to us as our own skin. We feel his presence to be like our loving Father, to be like Jesus, his Son, our friend and brother, to be like the Spirit which inspires all that is good and true in us.
Let us thank God for Jesus’s baptism, most particularly for the insight it gives us into God’s intimate and loving nature as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.