The Importance of Jesus’ Baptism

Address by David Rawlings – 10 January 2016

The first Sunday after the epiphany is the Sunday we remember the baptism of Jesus, which is the subject of the sermon today.

While we can only speculate about whether John was a problem to his parents, it is interesting to note that the baptism of Jesus by John did cause the early church some problems. The problems centred around two aspects of the baptism.  The first resulted from the fact that John baptized Jesus. This concerned some early Christians, as it appeared to indicate that John was therefore more important than Jesus; that he was the leader and Jesus one of his disciples. A second issue derived from the fact that the baptism of John was “for repentance and the forgiveness of sins”. The early church believed very early on that Jesus was perfect. But if he was perfect, why did he need to have his sins forgiven? It is known that, after their deaths, conflicts between followers of John and Jesus did occur, as a result of these sorts of unresolved questions, and well-known Christian writers, in the second century, for example, attempted answers to the questions.

In fact, some modern biblical scholars argue that certain aspects of the gospel accounts do suggest that conflict between the followers of John and Jesus concerning their relative importance may already have been an issue when the gospels were being written in the first century; John uses somewhat extreme language to describe his inferiority to Jesus. In more than one gospel we read him saying: “I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal”. This can be seen to be a genuine attempt by John the Baptist to demonstrate his rightful place as second to Jesus; OR it can be seen as the gospel writers’ exaggerating John’s words because some of John’s followers were already claiming John’s relative superiority. Another point concerns the mystery surrounding why Luke does not have John at the baptism at all in the passage we just heard from Luke; he is apparently in prison at the time in Luke’s account, whereas he is clearly present at the baptism in the other three gospels. Admittedly, the way Luke structures his story is somewhat ambiguous.

The issue is kept alive even today by the Mandaean religion, a non-Christian religion of around 50000 adherents centred in an area of modern Iraq, with several thousand members in Australia. Mandaeans claim that their religion goes back to Adam and that John the Baptist was its most recent great prophet. Its members are baptized by immersion repeatedly, symbolizing the washing away of sins. Members of this religion believe that Christians deliberately distorted the story so that Jesus would be made important at the expense of John the Baptist. If you are thinking of joining, I have bad news for you. They don’t accept converts. In fact, a member of the religion who marries an outsider has to leave the religion. These facts, combined with the recent wars in the area in which most of them settled, mean that the religion is gradually dying out.

I’ve so far looked at how the baptism of Jesus caused problems of a kind for Christianity, particularly in its early days. As modern Christians, we are more interested in what the baptism of Jesus means for us today, and I’ll now concentrate on this.

I’ll focus on the question: Would our understanding of the meaning of baptism have been different if Jesus had not been baptized? I think it would have, and I think there are a number of relevant points. I’ll mention in passing at this stage that I am discussing the principles of baptism in general, which can be applied to either infant or adult baptism; I won’t be addressing that particular issue.

I thought of six ways that the baptism of Jesus affects our understanding of the meaning of Christian baptism.

  1. My first point is that the baptism of Jesus gives authority to the idea of baptism as we know it today. It helps make the occasion of baptism more than just a ritual made up by later Christians. Baptism goes back to Jesus himself. Combined with Jesus’ statement in Matthew at the end of his ministry that we should go into the world, baptizing all nations in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the fact that Jesus had himself been baptized provides a strong reason for the sacrament. It is interesting to note that the baptism of Jesus by John was somewhat different in its emphasis to Christian baptism; the focus of John’s baptismal act was on the need for repentance and forgiveness of sins, whereas Christian baptism added two extra elements: it was “in the name of Jesus Christ”, and involved the “gift of the Holy Spirit”. Nevertheless, we can see the baptism of John as providing clear continuity with later Christian baptism.
  2. A second point which is tied in with the first one, but a bit different in emphasis, is that, as Christians, our lives should be based on following the teachings and actions of Jesus. In fact, early Christians placed considerable weight on the idea that Jesus’ life provided a model for imitation. This sometimes led to very extreme actions by some early Christians, who saw Jesus’ suffering, even unto death, as part of this model. For example, some of the motivation for the early desert pilgrims, and the strong monastic movement in the early centuries of Christianity, was linked with this. Clearly, we should not do something just because Jesus did it. Nevertheless, as his disciples and followers, we do base our lives around the life he lived and the principles he taught. The fact that ‘Jesus did it’ does provide extra meaning to the practice of baptism, just as the event of the last supper, for instance, provides extra meaning to the Lord’s Supper.
  3. I noted earlier that the fact that Jesus undertook John’s baptism of repentance and forgiveness of sins caused problems for the early church. People asked why Jesus, a perfect person, should need to undergo a baptism of repentance. One possible I answer to the question, I think, is that Jesus’ act might be seen as in some respects anticipating what he did on the cross. The Christian message is that Jesus died for the sins of humanity. Participating in a baptism of repentance, which was not really ‘deserved’, might therefore be seen as a sort of precursor to his actions on the cross. Even if Jesus was not fully aware at this point of his mission, he was, through his action, already showing the humility, and identification with and love for humanity that would lead ultimately to his death. We are reminded by his baptism, which occurred at the beginning of his ministry, of the path he would take to the cross, which for Christians gave his life ultimate significance.
  4. My next point is that the baptism of Jesus has given to the Christian doctrine of baptism overtones of a family relationship. I’ll mention a couple of verses from the writings of Paul and from John’s gospel, which illustrate this. Incidentally, as I’m sure you are aware, we are not totally sure who wrote John’s gospel, but it was clearly not John the Baptist. In John 3.5, we read the words of Jesus to Nicodemus: “Jesus answered, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit’”. It is possible to interpret this as a reference to baptism; that baptism is part of what is required to be part of God’s kingdom.In Galatians 3.26-27, Paul writes: “… for in Christ you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ”.In Romans chapter 6, Paul speaks of baptism as symbolizing our dying with Christ, and being raised in the new life of the Spirit. He continues in chapter 8, verse 14: “All that are led by the Spirit of God are children of God…. and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ.”Together, verses like those above point to Paul’s understanding of baptism as symbolizing and celebrating the family connection between us and God, which we share with Christ. The sharing with Christ in his death and resurrection, as symbolized by baptism, is manifested ultimately in the sharing of Christ’s life within the family of God. The Church is the immediate, earthly expression of this connectedness. The English theologian N.T. Wright calls the church: ‘Practicing for heaven’. Baptism symbolizes this family relationship.
  5. My fifth point seems fairly obvious, but I find it interesting none-the-less. When we baptize someone, it is in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. The point is that each one of these aspects or elements, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, were clearly identified at Jesus’ baptism. For example, in Luke’s gospel which we just heard, and in Mark and Matthew as well, the voice of God is heard saying: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased”; while the Holy Spirit is present as a dove. I am not saying that the writers had any real understanding of what later became the controversial doctrine of the Trinity, but certainly the three elements of the Trinity were there at this early stage in the Christian story. Their presence at Jesus’ own baptism makes more meaningful the statement that we baptize the person in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
  6. This leads to my final point. The appearance of the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove indicated to John, and apparently to others also, that there was something special about Jesus. In fact, the story of the dove is a little different in the four gospels. Mark and Matthew seem to indicate that only Jesus saw the dove; Luke, in the passage we just heard, notes that it appeared “in bodily form”; while John’s gospel indicates that the dove was given by God as a sign to John the Baptist to indicate who Jesus was. However, the main point I am making here is that the appearance of the Holy Spirit at the baptism directs our attention to the time when Christians would receive the Holy Spirit in its fulness. Near to the end of his life, Jesus told his disciples that he would have to leave them in order that the Holy Spirit could come. However, already at this early stage of his ministry, the baptism of Jesus points forward, to the special manifestation of the Holy Spirit that we celebrate at Pentecost.

In summary, knowing that Jesus was baptized does add something to the meaning of modern baptism. The fact that Jesus himself participated in it provides authority to the practice, indicating that it is something more than a mere ritual. Although we need to be careful how we apply the ‘imitation’ principle, the fact that we are doing something Jesus did does give extra meaning to the act of baptism. Jesus’ baptism may be seen as anticipating, in some respects at least, the humility, obedience to God, and identification with humanity that led ultimately to Jesus’ death. Writers like Paul saw our baptism as symbolizing our membership of God’s family – that is, his Church – as joint heirs with Christ. God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are identified in the biblical accounts of Jesus’ baptism, making sense of modern baptism in the name of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Finally, the presence of the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove, at Jesus baptism, pointed to the time when Christians would receive the Holy Spirit in its fullness at Pentecost.

It is not surprising, then, that all four gospel-writers describe the baptism of Jesus. It was an important event for him, and is an important event for us today, as we attempt to understand the full significance of baptism.