At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”
As our summer winds down, we look to all sorts of new beginnings- new school year, new classes, new projects, new accounts, new deals, new steps forward. Sometimes we have a good idea of what we are moving toward, but sometimes the way ahead may seem much like the wilderness land of the Bible, a place that feels mysterious, wild, or maybe even dangerous. What is the best model for stepping out into the future when the way ahead seems a bit uncertain? Our Scripture today provides the answer in the baptism of Jesus. After Jesus was baptized, the Spirit drove him into the wilderness to the place where he would be challenged by temptation. Let us look at the baptism of Jesus and let its theological overtones apply meaning for us today.
Since the Markan account is very short, we can easily see the three parts of the baptism that give it significance on a cosmic level: the heavens are opened, the Spirit descends, and a voice from heaven proclaims. These three things give the scene eschatological power. That means that these things point towards God’s power bringing the old things of the world to an end and letting the new things come into being. It is the end of the old order, and God’s new day of peace and salvation. Someone reading this passage in New Testament times would know that these things point toward the Messiah, the One who would bring God’s new order to come to pass.
Philip Yancey writes in his book The Jesus I Never Knew: “Every Hebrew prophet had taught that someday God would install his kingdom on earth, and that is why rumors about the Son of David so inflamed Jewish hopes. God would prove in person that he had not forsaken them. He would, as Isaiah had cried, “rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains would tremble before you! . . . Come down to cause the nations to quake before you.”
We identify Jesus as the Messiah as he is being baptized, which has sometimes created a problem for early church. If John the Baptist was baptizing people with repentance, did Jesus need to repent? John Polkinghorne, a scientist who writes about how science and religion depend upon one another, states in his book, Living With Hope:
“The problem is this: John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance. Those whom he plunged beneath the waters of the Jordan were seeking, in this symbolic way, to gain the washing away of their past sins. It was the belief of the earliest Christians, and it has been the faith of the church ever since, that Jesus led a sinless life. He, alone of all people, seemed to be the one for whom John’s baptism would be quite inappropriate. In the account in Matthew, we see the Baptist himself aware of the incongruity. ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’ Jesus somewhat enigmatic reply is, ‘It is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.’ What exactly is going on? Although Jesus’ close alignment with the will of his heavenly father protected him from sinning, his solidarity with humanity did not at all protect him from temptation. The salvific effect of Jesus’ life and death and resurrection derives from the power and presence of God that was in Him, but its relevance for us derives from the fact of the full humanity he shares with us. ‘Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people.’ (Hebrews 2:17). An early Christian thinker, Gregory Nazianzus, put it very well when he said that all had to be assumed so that all could be redeemed. Jesus’ faithful obedience never fails, so that he does not fall into sin, but nevertheless he is subjected to all the trials that are the common human lot. His baptism is the symbol of the solidarity with us, not in sin but in the contradictions of life in this fallen world.”
Jesus was going forward in the desert to face the unknown, to resist temptation as a way for us to model how to resist temptation, and for us to realize that we are participating in God’s new kingdom. Jesus remained in relationship with God, and the baptism was a clear sign that we were to follow his lead, which goes way back to the beginning of the church and what we are supposed to be about as Christians- more than good deeds, bringing the new kingdom of God into reality. Dr. Martin Luther King preached a sermon entitled, “A Time to Break the Silence” that included this quote, ‘We are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside…but one day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not constantly be beaten and robbed. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that the system that produces beggars needs to be repaved. We are called to be the Good Samaritan, but after you lift so many people out of the ditch you start to ask, maybe the whole road to Jericho needs to be repaved.’
So the importance of this baptism and its Messianic overtones gives our day to day Christian walk a special meaning. When the heavens opened, the Spirit descended, and God spoke, Jesus began the ministry that we follow, and it leads not just to good deeds and overcoming temptation, but to the coming of the kingdom of God itself. Our work in Stephen Ministry, or Outreach, or serving in the Night Ministry, or helping others in multiple ways in the church is part of the new world that God is calling into being through the person of Jesus Christ.
Eugene Peterson writes in The Jesus Way: “Our common identity as Christians is given most explicitly in baptism. If there is any need to distinguish the term Christian from its secularized usage as someone who is not a communist, not an atheist, not a Buddhist, my preference is to use ‘company of the baptized’ or ‘baptismal identity,’ or ‘baptized Christian.’ Baptism marks us as the work of the father, son, and Holy Spirit. It is not an identity that we achieve on our own or a mark of superiority to others…The spirit, like a dove, descends and lights on Jesus – a validation from heaven. The baptism is been endorsed by the voice from heaven, ‘this is my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased. Jesus’ life work as Messiah – revealing God to us, leading us to God – is launched. A glorious beginning. A great start. The baptism, the descent of the dove – spirit, the voice from heaven. Yes. Momentum is up. Jesus is on his way. And we who were ready to follow Jesus are also on his way.”
There is a reference in Acts 1:21–22 that shows how, from the earliest days of the Christian movement, this baptism was regarded as a defining and indispensable fact of Jesus’ life. When the apostles found it necessary to choose a replacement for Judas, the main criterion was finding someone who had accompanied Jesus from his baptism onward. I believe the reason why was that at that moment, the disciples knew that heaven breaks loose into the world. When Jesus is baptized, he goes out into the desert and begins his ministry. This is the beginning of the end of the old order. When the heavens are torn open for the proclamation from heaven, Jesus takes prominence from so many of the Old Testament parallels. J.R. Edwards in the Pillar Commentary writes: “Especially significant is Mark’s wording that the heavens will literally be “torn open.” Schizein is the proper rendering of the Hebrew qara (“to tear”)…Schizein…appears in Jewish literature for cataclysmic demonstrations of God’s power, such as the dividing of the Red Sea (Exod 14:21), Moses’ cleaving the rock (Isa 48:21), the splitting of the Mount of Olives on the Day of the Lord (Zech 14:4)… Mark employs the word for similar effect at the baptism. Schizein occurs only once again in Mark, when the centurion confesses at the crucifixion that Jesus is God’s Son, at which the temple curtain is “torn in two from top to bottom” (15:38).
Both rendings—the first at his baptism and the last at his crucifixion — are supernatural occurrences revealing Jesus as the Son of God. Mark’s strategic employment of this word indicates that the confession of Jesus as the Son of God does not arise from human resources but solely from divine revelation and empowerment (see 1 Cor 12:3).”… Beneath the divine declaration lies a wealth of OT imagery. One of its clearest antecedents is Isaiah 49:3, where the humble servant of the Lord, despite his feelings of utter futility, is declared to be the one in whom God displays his splendor: “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will display my splendor.” …Like the ministry of Isaiah’s mysterious Servant, that of Jesus will be fraught with opposition and seeming defeat, but his vicarious service will have revelatory (“a light for the Gentiles”) and salvific (“to bring my salvation to the ends of the earth,” Isa 49:6) effect…The baptism is the keystone in the life and ministry of Jesus. The empowerment by the Spirit to be God’s Servant, and the declaration from heaven, “ ‘You are my Son,’ ” enable Jesus not only to speak and act for God but as God. This is demonstrated by his forgiveness of sins (2:5), acceptance of sinners (2:15), calling of tax collectors into discipleship (2:13), healing of the sick (1:40) and casting out demons (1:24), recovery of the true intent of the Sabbath (2:28), and challenge to the Jewish religious establishment as represented in the oral tradition (7:1), the temple (11:12), and the Sanhedrin (14:61). It is not coincidental that when Jesus is later confronted by the Sanhedrin asking, “ ‘By what authority do you do these things?’ ” he drives his questioners back to his baptism (11:27–33). What Jesus does as God’s servant ultimately has meaning only because of who he is as God’s Son…
It is sometimes assumed that the baptism teaches adoptionism, that is, that Jesus first becomes God’s Son at the Jordan. Although this view is possible, it is not very compelling. Assuming the originality of “Son of God” in 1:1, Mark has already announced Jesus’ divine Sonship. The wording of the divine declaration, “ ‘You are my Son, whom I love,’ ” does not establish a relationship so much as presuppose a relationship. At the baptism the heavenly voice declares and confirms first of all who Jesus is: God’s Son, who as such is anointed and equipped with God’s Spirit to express his filial status in terms of servanthood—indeed, suffering servanthood. The baptism signals the confirmation of Jesus’ Sonship and the commencement of his servanthood.”
When Jesus heard God’s voice, he knew he was going into the wilderness with the blessing of God. In the same way, may we hear God’s voice that calls each of us first into significance and second into following Jesus. We may not want to admit that we are children of God, but God keeps calling out to us in many ways. C.S. Lewis, the great British writer, was uncertain about God, and fearful of giving in to the demands of God. Finally, in some way he felt God’s presence. He wrote, “That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in and admitted God was God, and knelt and prayed.” C. S. Lewis, one of the most influential Christian writers of our time, came reluctantly to God at first.
Just as the Spirit was with Jesus, know that you never go into the wilderness alone. Swiss moral philosopher Henri Frederic Amiel has written: “We dream alone, we suffer alone, we die alone, and we inhabit the last resting-place alone. But there is nothing to prevent us from opening our solitude to God. And so, what was an austere monologue becomes dialogue.”
The baptism of Jesus teaches that we are part of this ministry of Christ. We must ask ourselves if our lives are still an austere monologue, trying to do good deeds but not really knowing why, or if we are making a difference. Our lives need to be linked to the kingdom of God. We can make our lives more than just good deeds; we can make them a beautiful dialogue with God as we follow the way of the Messiah, Jesus. Heaven has broken loose and we are called to participate in its glory.