The Baptism of Christ
Reading: Mark 1:4-11
Today in the Church’s calendar, we celebrate the Baptism of Christ. In Advent, as we prepared for the coming of Christmas, we thought about the role of John the Baptist as one of those who prepared the way for the coming of the Lord. As we saw then, and as we see again in our Gospel reading, John spoke of the One who would come after him who would baptize, not with water, but with the Holy Spirit (Mark 1:8). Now, this week, we think of John performing the role, which is the climax of his ministry, baptizing with water the very One whose way he came to prepare.
The Gospel writers all see Jesus’ baptism by John as the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. The first three Gospels all describe Jesus’ baptism by John, while the fourth Gospel, the Gospel of St John, describes John the Baptist’s reflection on Jesus’ baptism after it has taken place.
There are a number of points that are worth noting and thinking about. The first is the relationship between John and Jesus. At the first reading of the account of Jesus’ baptism in the Gospels, we might think that this is the first time that John and Jesus have met, but the Gospels suggest that there is more to their relationship than just this encounter, important though it is.
Firstly, St Luke tells us in his Gospel that John the Baptist’s mother, Elizabeth, and Jesus’ mother, Mary, are related (Luke 1:36). We are not told in the Gospels anything in detail about John and Jesus’ childhood, so we have no idea if there was any further contact between them, but St Luke suggests that there is at least a family connection.
Secondly, however, St John tells us that Jesus’ first disciples were originally disciples of John the Baptist. Jesus has already been baptized when John the Baptist points him out to his disciples (John 1:35-37). St John also tells us that for some time Jesus and John ran the equivalent of ‘joint missions’ both baptizing people, although Jesus delegated the task of actually doing the baptizing to his disciples (John 3:22-24; 4:1-2). It is only when John is arrested that Jesus’ ministry takes a more independent direction (Mark 1:14). It is also at this point that the first three Gospels take up the story.
So, whatever the precise link between John and Jesus, clearly there was one. This, however, doesn’t explain why Jesus himself gets baptized. It is at first sight a bit of a mystery that Jesus wants to be baptized by John. The reason, after all, why John was baptizing people was precisely to get them ready for Jesus. What is more, John’s baptism was a ‘baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins’ (Mark 1:4), whereas the New Testament insists that Jesus himself was without sin (Hebrews 4:15). St Matthew records that John was himself reluctant to baptize Jesus. St Matthew writes:
‘John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” ’ (Matthew 3:14)
Jesus, however, insists. By being baptized by John, Jesus affirms and identifies himself with John’s ministry. He also identifies with those being baptized as ‘his own’ to whom he has come (John 1:11) and with those for whom he will die as the ‘Lamb of God’ to take away their sin (John 1:29).
When Jesus is baptized two things happen: the Holy Spirit descends on him ‘like a dove’ and a Voice from heaven, which is the voice of God, says:
‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’ (Mark 1:11)
The Voice announces that Jesus is the ‘Son of God’. This phrase is central to all the Gospel writers’ understanding of who Jesus is.
Tracing your ancestry has become very popular, and there are many family history websites to help people search for their ancestors. A popular British TV programme is, ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ This programme traces the family tree and looks at the ancestors of various celebrities. A person’s predecessors are believed to tell us something about the person themselves.
It is significant that immediately after Jesus’ baptism, St Luke, in his Gospel, gives the genealogy of Jesus. In St Matthew’s version of Jesus’ genealogy, St Matthew traces Jesus’ ancestors back to Abraham, but St Luke continues further back ending his version of Jesus’ genealogy:
‘… son of Enos, son of Seth, son of Adam, son of God.’ (Luke 3:38)
St Mark makes the belief that Jesus is the Son of God central to his Gospel. St Mark begins his Gospel:
‘The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.’ (Mark 1:1)
Then, in the middle of his Gospel, immediately after St Peter has declared that Jesus is the Messiah, St Mark describes how Jesus is transfigured before three of his closest disciples on the top of a mountain (Mark 9:2-8). A Voice from heaven again announces that Jesus is his Son in the same way that the heavenly Voice announced it at his baptism. And to make sure we get the message, at the end of his Gospel, having described how Jesus dies, St Mark writes:
‘Now when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was the Son of God!” ’ (Mark 15:39)
St John could be writing for all the Gospel writers when he states his purpose in writing his Gospel:
‘Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.’ (John 20:30-31)
This phrase, Son of God, is, then, clearly central to understanding who Jesus is. But what does it mean? We need to try to put out of our mind what we have come to understand by this phrase and ask what, in the first place, it would have meant originally to John and to the first disciples.
When John the Baptist and those three disciples heard the heavenly Voice announce that Jesus is the Son of God, what would it have meant to them? And, more importantly, what did it mean to Jesus himself to be God’s Son.
1. What did the phrase, ‘Son of God’ mean to the Gospel writers and to the first disciples?
I understand that for many believers this may seem a very straightforward question to answer. After all, we say every week in the Creed:
‘We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father …’
Jesus, we believe, is the second person of the Trinity, who became incarnate of the ‘theotokos’, the Blessed Virgin Mary. And that’s absolutely true. It is, however, not how John and Jesus’ disciples would have understood the words, ‘Son of God’. Our understanding of Jesus as the Son of God, in the sense that the Creed expresses it, is based on how the Gospel writers use this phrase, but it is not the same as it. So, again, what did it mean to them and what did it mean to Jesus himself?
Firstly, in the Old Testament, the phrase is used to describe the King of Israel. God promises King David through the prophet Nathan that God will raise up David’s offspring after him to succeed him on his throne. God says:
‘I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me.’ (1 Samuel 7:14)
In the Psalms, God promises to make the King his Son and to be a father to him (see Psalm 89; Psalm 2:7). The hope at the time of Christ was for a Messiah to come who would be the ‘son of David’ and who would once again rule over his people as the King of Israel, setting her free from her enemies, and fulfilling God’s promises to Israel through the prophets.
Not only this, in the Old Testament, Israel herself is referred to as God’s Son. In Exodus, for example, God tells Moses:
‘Then you shall say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says the Lord: Israel is my firstborn son.’ (Exodus 4:22)
The prophets describe God as a father to his people. The King, as God’s Son, both represents and embodies God’s people. In declaring that Jesus is God’s Son, the Voice from heaven is announcing that Jesus is the Messiah, the promised King, who, like the King in the Old Testament, is also God’s Son, and who too will represent and embodied his people. The baptism of Jesus and his anointing with the Holy Spirt is in effect his coronation and the Voice from heaven the official announcement that he is King.
The very first words of the New Testament are:
‘An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham.’ (Matthew 1:1)
When the heavenly Voice announces that Jesus is the Son of God, it is also announcing he is the Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham, the One in whom all God’s promises to his people reach their fulfilment. After describing how the Wise Men find the Messiah, the King of the Jews and how the Holy Family have to flee to Egypt to escape Herod, St Matthew writes:
‘This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.” ’ (Matthew 2:15)
The Wise Men sought the King of the Jews, the Messiah who is the Son of God, and who will, as the Angel tells Joseph, save his people from their sins (Matthew 1:21). This is what John’s ministry is all about. As he says:
‘I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.’ (John 1:31)
2. What did the phrase mean to Jesus himself?
Jesus clearly saw himself as the Messiah. When St Peter answers Jesus’ question about who the disciples think he is by saying that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God, Jesus tells him that it is Jesus’ ‘Father in heaven’ who has revealed this to him (Matthew 16:17). Where Jesus differed from St Peter and his disciples, however, is in how he understood what it meant to be the Messiah. After Jesus has said this to St Peter, St Matthew writes:
‘Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.’ (Matthew 16:20)
That Jesus is the Messiah all are agreed. Nevertheless, Jesus silences his disciples because they aren’t agreed on what it means for him to be the Messiah. What it means to be the Messiah is something that Jesus will only be able to explain by his suffering and death.
After his resurrection, Jesus appears to two confused disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35). They can’t understand how the One they thought to be the Messiah could have suffered and died. Jesus says to them:
‘Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?”’ (Luke 24:25-26)
Now that Jesus has shown by his death what it means to be the Messiah, there is no restriction on the disciples from telling people that this is who Jesus is. So central to their preaching is their conviction that Jesus is the Messiah that they use the title so much that it becomes part of his name. Now, not only Jesus the Messiah, but Jesus Messiah, that is, Jesus Christ.
Jesus is, then, very clear about what his role is as the Son of God, but he is also clear about his relationship with God as the Son of God. The title defines both his role and his relationship. Jesus is uniquely the Son of God who has an intense and intimate relationship with God his Father. So intense and intimate is it that Jesus can say to his disciples:
‘Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me …” (John 14:11)
In St John’s Gospel, Jesus calls God ‘Father’ over 100 times. Some argue that this says more about how St John thought of Jesus, than about how Jesus thought of himself. It is certainly true that St John highlights Jesus’ relationship with God as his Father, but it is a relationship that is clear in the other Gospels as well.
For example, in the Garden of Gethsemane before the crucifixion, Jesus uses the Aramaic word, ‘Abba’, in his prayer to God (Mark 14:36). This isn’t the equivalent of ‘daddy’, as has sometimes been argued, but it is the word that children would use in a family context.
Highly significant is that St Paul records that this word was used by Greek-speaking believers in Galatia and Rome when praying to God (Galatians 4:6; Romans 8:15). The only credible reason for Greek-speaking believers using an Aramaic word in their prayers is that the Church remembered that this was the word that Jesus himself used and had taught them to use. It is probably this word that lies behind the word for ‘Father’ in the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples when they asked him to teach them to pray (Luke 11:1-4; Matthew 6:9-13).
Jesus came to fulfil a role as the Messiah of his people and the phrase, ‘Son of God’ expresses that role, but it also expresses the relationship that Jesus had with God that enabled him to fulfil that role.
So, what does all this have to say to us today?
1. We will only understand who Jesus is when we begin by seeing him as the King of the Jews.
We saw last week at Epiphany that the Wise Men came seeking him ‘who was born King of the Jews’ (Matthew 2:2). Jesus is crucified by Pilate as the King of the Jews. The One we now worship, follow, and serve is the King of the Jews, who has become the King and Lord of all, but who has not stopped being the King of the Jews.
Most of us are Gentiles. Now that the Church, sadly, is predominantly Gentile, we focus on the universality of Christ and what he means for all people. While understandable, it does mean, as a result, that we often find Jesus himself hard to understand.
Scholars for the past 300 years or so have been searching for what is known as the ‘historical Jesus’. By this is meant, not the 'Risen Christ' of the Church’s worship and creeds, but the Jesus who came from Nazareth and who died in Jerusalem. Jesus, in other words, as a historical figure. This Jesus, however, has proved to be very elusive, and it can feel that there are as many different accounts of him as there are scholars. This has led some to despair of ever finding the historical Jesus and to argue that we have to settle instead simply for the Gospel presentations of Jesus’ life whether we can make historical sense of them or not.
For many believers, this whole ‘quest for the historical Jesus’ seems a complete and unnecessary waste of time. What they want is not the Jesus who the first disciples knew, but the Jesus whom we can know today by the Holy Spirit. This can sound a very reasonable position to take. And it is true that we don’t, as believers, worship a dead teacher, but a living Lord. However, the living Lord is not a different person to the Lord who lived. Our creeds insist that the Christ we worship is the man who was born of the Virgin Mary and who was crucified under Pontius Pilate.
St John said:
‘By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God.’ (1 John 4:2-3)
St John wrote this to refute those who wanted a ‘spiritual Christ’ rather than the Jesus who could be heard, seen, looked at, and touched (1 John 1:1). Jesus did not come to us as everyman, he came as this man. More than that, he came as this particular man to this particular people as one of them. He came to ‘his own’ to fulfil a mission to his own as one of their own.
In my sermon for the First Sunday of Christmas, I said:
'The birth of Jesus was no chance happening; it was not an accident of history, something that happened at this time, but which could have happened at any other time. It had to be this time because this was the right time, God’s chosen time, ‘the fulness of time’. (Galatians 4:4)
And it had to be not only at this time, but as this person, this Jewish person. Jesus’ Jewishness is not incidental to his identity as the Son of God, but essential to it and defining of it. The only way we Gentiles will understand who it is we have been given the privilege of believing in is when we see him as the Messiah, the King of the Jews, the son of David, the son of Abraham who fulfils this role as the Son of God. Seeing and believing in him as the Messiah, the Son of God, is the key to understanding who Jesus is.
2. Jesus, the Son of God, enables us to become sons and daughters of God.
Jesus’ relationship with the Father is special and unique. He is the ‘one and only Son’ (John 1:18). The incredible message of the Gospel, however, is that through him we can become God’s adopted sons and daughters. Although Jesus came unto his own, tragically, his own received him not, however St John tells us:
‘But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.’ (John 1:12-13)
St Paul explains, in his letter to the believers in Rome, that it is because his own people did not receive him that we Gentiles have now been given the amazing opportunity to be included in the promises of God that were originally intended, not for us, but for his own people. For to them, as St Paul writes, ‘belong the promises (Romans 9:4). His own people don’t stop being his own people, ‘for the gifts and calling of God are irrevocable’ (Romans 11:29), rather we have been given the opportunity to become part of God’s own people as ‘children of the promise’ (Galatians 4:28).
St Paul tells us that the Spirit we have received is the ‘spirit of adoption’ (Romans 8:15). When we cry, 'Abba', using the word that Jesus himself used, it is God’s own Spirit confirming to us that we are children of God.
There is so much that could be said about this wonderful truth, but one thing is important to say. Contrary to what many believe, all of us are not naturally the children of God. We are not born children of God. We can only become the children of God by adoption, on the basis of what Jesus the Messiah has done for us in his suffering and death.
They are only the children of God who believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, but all those who do believe in him have life in his name and so much more besides.
St John writes:
‘See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are.’ (1 John 3:1)
Naturally, we are ‘children of wrath’ (Ephesians 2:3) and, worse still, there is absolutely nothing we can do about it. That we can become what naturally we are not is down solely to love of God in Christ. God’s love changes everything, and it can change us if we but let it.
Many refuse to accept that they need changing. They want to believe the best about themselves, not the worst. They are happy as they are. John’s baptism, however, attracted those who knew they needed changing. Some of us are not happy as we are; we long for change, for our life to be different to how it is. The Gospel is for those who long, not in the first place for the world to be changed, but for their own life to change.
And here’s the thing: because Jesus is the One who baptizes with the Holy Spirit, the change we need can happen. For it is as Jesus baptizes us in the Holy Spirit that we are born again and receive new life; that we are empowered to live as God wants us to live; and that we come to know God as our Father. The Holy Spirit, who Jesus gives to those who believe in him, makes it possible for us to enter the very relationship with God the Father that he and the Father share (John 17:22).
As, then, we celebrate the Baptism of Christ, the same Spirit who descended on Jesus the Son of God like a dove at his baptism can descend on us so that we can become sons and daughters of God as we follow Jesus the Messiah, the King of Israel and the Lord of all.