On the day when the Church celebrates John’s Baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan, we are observing the intersection of the requirement of the Old Covenant (John’s Baptism) with the promise of the New (the Baptism of the New Covenant) – into the life of Christ.
With the arrival of John The Baptist, from his time of preparation in the wilderness, the Gospel records the ritual of purification by John’s Baptism, which was instituted to enable Jews to recognise Jesus as the true Messiah from God. This was John’s primary mission and message; to proclaim the coming Messiah, as the One sent from God to baptise – not only with water (as John’s baptism was effected) but also with “The Holy Spirit and fire”. John’s Baptism was meant to enable faithful Jews to recognise the Messiah, in the person and being of Jesus, whereas the later, Christian, Baptism, would bring the gift of eternal life with God, through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus .
One might wonder; if John’s Baptism was meant to enable Jews to recognise Jesus as the Messiah, why Jesus, himself, needed to submit to it? The answer must surely be that; as the Messiah was destined to come of Jewish stock, then Jesus would need to be seen as one of them, coming from the Jewish race and needing to identify fully with the call to baptism by John in order to comply with this requirement for God’s revelation to be fulfilled in and through the person of Jesus.
What we do know, from the evidence of today’s Gospel account, in Matthew 3, verses 13 to 17, is that John’s baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan was accompanied by specific signs of Jesus’ Messiah-ship – the appearance of The Holy Spirit in the form of a dove; and the voice of The Father, saying “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased”.
Perhaps the real clue to the necessity of Jesus’ submission to the Baptism of John can be seen in the Gospel text. We are told that Jesus came from Galilee, specifically to meet up with John so that he could be baptised by him in the river Jordan. John, however, instantly recognising Jesus as The Messiah, was at first unwilling to baptise Jesus, believing that Jesus ought to be baptising him. What was it that convinced John that Jesus was the One whom he had been sent by God to proclaim as Messiah?
We have to remember that John’s mother Elizabeth, when she was six month’s pregnant with John, had been visited by Mary, the mother-to-be of Jesus, on the occasion of Mary’s receipt of the annunciation by the Archangel Gabriel. Elizabeth’s greeting confirmed to Mary that what had been told to her by the Angel was indeed the truth – that she was to become the mother of God’s Son, by the power of the Holy Spirit. “How is it”, asked Elizabeth on that occasion, “that I should receive a visit from the mother of my Lord? For the moment your greeting reached my ears, the child in my womb leapt for joy”. One can imagine the two infants ‘in utero’ greeting one another in recognition of their respective roles in the ongoing plan of redemption of the world by God.
John, called by God from his birth to be the fore-runner of Jesus, now recognised Jesus as the Messiah, acknowledging his own need to fade into the background now that the Messiah had been revealed to him. Jesus, knowing the importance of his being seen to identify with his fellow Jews, requested that John go through with the ritual of baptising him, so that John’s Jewish disciples, by now numerous, would be able to identify with Jesus when it came to the need for them to enter into the new type of baptism that Jesus and his disciples would, later on, bring to both Jew and Gentile followers in the future dispensation of a New Covenant relationship with God.
John, himself, was to later recommend Jesus as the initiator of a new baptismal ritual, that would – by virtue of Jesus’ subsequent death, resurrection and ascension- open up the Kingdom of God to all believers, whether Jew or Gentile. For the present, he was content to be the instrument of Jesus’ revelation to the world as God’s Son, the Messiah and Redeemer – if this is what was required – by baptising Jesus in the Jordan. Humbly accepting the necessity of this defining ritual; John’s reward was the outward and visible sign of God’s Presence. As Jesus rose up out of the water, the Holy Spirit hovered over him in the form of a dove, and the Father’s voice was heard to proclaim, to those who were nearby, those words of affirmation: “This is my Son, the beloved, in whom I am well pleased”. This affirmation by his Father would have helped the human Jesus to better understand the veracity of his calling.
Similar words were later to be heard on the occasion of Jesus’ Transfiguration, in the presence of his disciples, Peter, James and John; when God was heard to declare that “This is my Beloved Son, listen to him”. This ‘epiphany’, this revelation, was given to Jesus’ closest followers, so that they would be equipped to testify to Jesus’ Messiah-ship in their later communication of the truth of their experience of Jesus’ intimate relationship to God.
The immediate result of Jesus’ Baptism by John was that he was called into the desert by the Holy Spirit, where he was empowered to resist being tempted by the devil, in ways that other human beings might also be tempted. In overcoming these temptations, Jesus, in his human frame, exemplified that other human beings – filled with the Spirit of God through their Christian Baptism into Jesus’ life-giving death and resurrection – would also receive power to resist temptation, inasmuch as they were enabled to become, like Jesus, the Children of God.
The Baptism of Jesus, then, might be seen as the meeting place between His fulfilment of the Old Covenant and the opening up of a New Covenant Baptism by the Holy Spirit for all who would come to Jesus for salvation – irrespective of their former cultural or spiritual heritage. This new Baptism would give access for all humanity, to their incorporation into the life of the Triune God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Thanks be to God!
Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand
Feast of the Baptism of the Lord