“Thou art my beloved Son, in thee I am well pleased.”
Today, our Gospel lesson is on the Baptism of Jesus. It is a powerful lesson, but it is also one in which modern man has lost its historical context.
Many people may feel that the report in the Bible of Saint John’s notoriety was exaggerated, but I can assure you, it is not. Flavius Josephus, the great ancient Jewish historian, actually referenced John the Baptist when he wrote in the first century A.D.:
“Now some of the Jews thought that the destruction of Herod’s army came from God, and that very justly, as a punishment of what he did against John, that was called the Baptist: for Herod slew him, who was a good man, and commanded the Jews to exercise virtue, both as to righteousness towards one another, and piety towards God, and so to come to baptism; for that the washing [with water] would be acceptable to him, if they made use of it, not in order to the putting away [or the remission] of some sins [only], but for the purification of the body; supposing still that the soul was thoroughly purified beforehand by righteousness. Now when [many] others came in crowds about him, for they were very greatly moved [or pleased] by hearing his words, Herod, who feared lest the great influence John had over the people might put it into his power and inclination to raise a rebellion, (for they seemed ready to do any thing he should advise,) thought it best, by putting him to death, to prevent any mischief he might cause, and not bring himself into difficulties, by sparing a man who might make him repent of it when it would be too late…”
But this begs the questions: Why did John the Baptist baptize? And why were the Jewish people so eager to be baptized?
There is a long history of ritual washing in the Jewish faith. People bathed to purify themselves. For example, they would bathe after doing something that was classified as “unclean” such as working with animals that were themselves considered unclean. Additionally, and very importantly, bathing was part of the initiation when someone converted to Judaism.
There is also a fairly recent theory that the Essenes – a Jewish sect that is most widely remembered for being those who were responsible for the Dead Sea Scrolls – used baptism for the washing away of sins. With this historical framework, it is clear why John the Baptist’s evangelism was so widely accepted and also why so many participated in the baptisms.
As to why people listened to John the Baptist in the first place, for us Christians, it is apparent. He spoke the truth in love. He was in the shoes of the prophet Isaiah and was proclaiming the Messiah’s imminent coming. But it is also true that, at this time, many Jewish people listened because they were expecting the Messiah.
It had been prophesied by Daniel that “from the going forth of the commandment to restore and to build Jerusalem unto the Messiah the Prince, shall be seven weeks, and threescore and two weeks.” [Daniel 9:25] At first, the Jewish people interpreted weeks as literally weeks, but later it was reinterpreted as years. And, given the Hebrew used, it was unclear whether Daniel meant weeks or years.
If interpreted as “years,” then the time for the Messiah’s coming according to Daniel would be precisely at the same time of Christ’s ministry. And, in fact, some theologians maintain that the exact time that Jesus entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday is the exact date that “the Messiah the Prince” was to come. Therefore, we can also understand why Saint John’s message of repentance and baptism would be widely accepted.
Last Sunday, we celebrated the Feast of the Epiphany. As I had said last year, although the Western Churches use the visit of the Magi as the lesson for the day, the Eastern Churches use the Baptism of Christ for the manifestation of Christ to the world. This may seem odd to us in the West, but actually, it is the more traditional and older reading for the Feast Day.
The Eastern Churches have had the Feast of the Epiphany longer than the West. And all during this time, the Gospel lesson for the day was the Baptism of Christ. In the Fourth Century, the West finally adopted this feast day, but they changed the lesson. We changed it to the one we are familiar with today – the one about the Magi.
So why do the Eastern Churches see Jesus’ Baptism as the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles? To answer this question, we need to look at our Gospel Lesson:
Then cometh Jesus from Galilee to Jordan unto John, to be baptized of him. But John forbad him, saying, “I have need to be baptized of thee, and comest thou to me?” And Jesus answering said unto him, “Suffer it to be so now: for thus it becometh us to fulfil all righteousness.”
The Greek word translated as “righteousness” denotes the uprightness and faithfulness of God and His people. “Fulfil” usually references the fulfillment of prophecy, and “righteousness” usually references moral conformity to God’s will. But in this passage, “righteousness” seems to mean the saving activity of God. Thus, Jesus asked Saint John to baptize Him to fulfill prophecy and to be the saving act of God.
Jesus clearly does not need to be baptized, yet He does so for two reasons. First, Jesus submits to be baptized in order to identify with us sinners. He is the Paschal lamb. He will be sacrificed for our sins. Therefore, He MUST be identified with us sinners in order to submit to God’s plan for salvation of all mankind.
Second, Jesus’ act of obedience to the Father here, as in all His acts, ratifies the New Covenant with God.
And our gift through the New Covenant IS the gift of righteousness. It is given IN Baptism and received THROUGH faith. By this gift of righteousness, our relationship to God as His sons and daughters is restored through adoption. And once given, we may grow in our righteousness through love and obedience to God’s covenant Law. And this is why Christ submits to being baptized:
“Behold my servant, whom I uphold; mine elect, in whom my soul delighteth; I have put my spirit upon him: he shall bring forth judgment to the Gentiles.’”
The season of Epiphany is a time when we celebrate God’s great mercy. We celebrate God’s intent to bring all the gentiles back into God’s fold. But we also celebrate the manifestation of God to all the world – what the Eastern Orthodox call Theophany. And this manifestation is clear in our lesson for today:
And Jesus, when he was baptized, went up straightway out of the water: and lo, the heavens were opened unto him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and lighting upon him: and lo, a voice from heaven, saying, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.”
Jesus is baptized and the heavens open. What happens next is extremely important. First, the Holy Spirit descends like a dove. We have seen this before. We have seen the Spirit of God during the creation of the universe:
In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. [Genesis 1:1-2]
As in Christ’s baptism, the Spirit of God moves upon the water. And just like in Genesis, the Holy Spirit comes to anoint Jesus as the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of God, the NEW Adam at the start of the NEW creation. It is NOT that Jesus becomes the Son of God at this moment. No, He has always been the Son of God. But now, this truth is revealed to all the world!
Then we have the voice of God, the Father, saying, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” These words were echoed centuries earlier in the Second Psalm of David:
I will declare the decree: the LORD hath said unto me, Thou art my Son; this day have I begotten thee. [Psalm 2:7]
Christ is God’s only begotten Son. This fact cannot be denied without denying everything that happened two millennia ago and that which has happened since.
But, as important as this is, the Baptism of Christ also reveals to the world, not only who Jesus is, but also God’s nature. It reveals that God is a Trinity of Persons – each distinct, yet each part of a whole that makes one God. It also reveals the nature of each Person: the Father speaks; the Holy Spirit descends; and the Incarnate Son is baptized, being one with us.
There is one more thing we can glean from what happened during Christ’s baptism. Jesus’ baptism also reveals to the world the nature of the mystery of the sacrament of Baptism. Saint Thomas Aquinas wrote that the baptism of Jesus prefigures the Christian sacrament of Baptism. He wrote that the water, the Spirit, and the divine voice signifies the effects of Baptism.
The water shows that the soul is cleansed. In the Acts of the Apostles, Saint Paul calls all of us to be baptized to wash away our sins: “And now why tarriest thou? arise, and be baptized, and wash away thy sins, calling on the name of the Lord.” [Acts 22:16]
The descent of the Holy Spirit “like a dove” demonstrates that through Baptism the grace of God is imparted to us. In his first letter to the Corinthians, Saint Paul wrote: For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free; and have been all made to drink into one Spirit. [1 Corinthians 12:13] By the Holy Spirit in Baptism, the love of God is sent to us, and we become one people – one body.
Finally, the recipient of Baptism becomes the adopted child of God. Saint Paul put it most eloquently when he wrote to the Galatians: “For ye are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus. And if ye be Christ’s, then are ye Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise. [Galatians 3:26-29] We become God’s beloved children in and through Baptism.
Christ personally instituted two sacraments, what we call the major sacraments. They are Holy Communion and Baptism. Through the Sacrament of Baptism, Christ made it possible for the gathering in of all the gentiles. Through Baptism ALL people, whether they are Jew or gentile, become part of God’s family.
And by Christ’s great act of being baptized, He made it clear that all, every one of us, must be baptized. This, in turn, is why the Eastern Churches see Jesus’ baptism as the manifestation of Christ to the World. He wanted all of us to go through this mystical act of bathing, not only to remove the sin, which is a product of our fallen nature, but also to open up the kingdom of heaven to everyone who believes.
Instead of circumcision, we have Baptism to acknowledge we are part of God’s family. This is the great act of compassion that is contained in Christ’s very simple act, where He humbled Himself to be baptized. And from this simple act comes a great act of love – our acceptance into the family of God. No wonder God the Father was heard saying: “Thou art my beloved Son, in thee I am well pleased.” Amen.