- Isaiah 43:1-7 and Psalm 29
- Acts 8:14-17
- Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
In the introduction to An Uncommon Lectionary, John Beverley Butcher comments on the pivotal significance of this event in the life of Jesus:
The liturgical year in this lectionary begins with the primary spiritual event in the life of Jesus: his Baptism by John in the Jordan River. Mark, the earliest narrative Gospel, opens with the ministry of John the Baptizer who is “calling for baptism and a change of heart that lead to forgiveness of sins.” (Mark 1:4, SV)
According to Luke 3:23, Jesus was about thirty when he went to hear John preach. What might there have been in John’s message that prompted Jesus to ask for baptism? And what might have he experienced during his baptism and the forty days in the wilderness that reportedly followed? Might the baptism in the Jordan and the time in the desert comprise a story illustrating his enlightenment?
The evidence is clear that something profound happened within Jesus which provided direction and energy for a ministry of teaching and healing. Without Jesus’ baptism, there might have been no ministry, no getting into trouble with the authorities, no crucifixion, no resurrection experiences, no church, no Christian religion, and no church history! The course of human civilization would have gone quite differently.
The baptism of Jesus in early Christian tradition
There are nine surviving Christian texts from the first hundred years after Easter which refer to the baptism of Jesus:
(1) GHeb 2
1The whole fountain of the holy spirit comes down on him. For the Lord is the spirit and where the spirit is, there is freedom.
2And it happened that when the Lord came up out of the water, the whole fountain of the holy spirit came down on him and rested on him. 3It said to him, “My Son, I was waiting for you in all the prophets, waiting for you to come so I could rest in you. 4For you are my rest; you are my first-begotten Son who rules forever.” [Complete Gospels]
(2a) Mark 1:9-11 and Synoptic Parallels
1:9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
= Matt 3:13-17
3:13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. 14 John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” 15 But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. 16 And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17 And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
= Luke 3:21-22
3:21 Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, 22 and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
(2b) GNaz 2
1The mother of the Lord and his brothers said to him, “John the Baptist baptized for the forgiveness of sins. Let’s go and get baptized by him.” 2But he said to them, “How have I sinned? So why should I go and get baptized by him? Only if I don’t know what I’m talking about.” [Complete Gospels]
(2c) GEb 4
1When the people were baptized, Jesus also came and got baptized by John. 2As he came up out of the water, the skies opened and he saw the holy spirit in the form of a dove coming down and entering him. 3And there was a voice from the sky that said, “You are my favored son—I fully approve of you.” 4And again, “Today I have become your father.” 5And right away a bright light illuminated the place. When John saw this, he said to him, “Who are you?” 6And again a voice from the sky said to him, “This is my favored son—I fully approve of him.” 7John knelt down in front of him and said, “Please, Lord, you baptize me.” 8But he stopped him and said, “It’s all right. This is the way everything is supposed to be fulfilled.” [Complete Gospels]
(2d) John 1:(29-)32-34
1:29 The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! 30 This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ 31 I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.” 32 And John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. 33 I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ 34 And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.”
(2e) IgnSmyr 1:1c
I glorify God, even Jesus Christ, who has given you such wisdom. For I have observed that ye are perfected in an immoveable faith, as if ye were nailed to the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, both in the flesh and in the spirit, and are established in love through the blood of Christ, being fully persuaded with respect to our Lord, that He was truly of the seed of David according to the flesh, and the Son of God according to the will and power of God; that He was truly born of a virgin, was baptized by John, in order that all righteousness might be fulfilled by Him; and was truly, under Pontius Pilate and Herod the tetrarch, nailed [to the cross] for us in His flesh. Of this fruit we are by His divinely-blessed passion, that He might set up a standard s for all ages, through His resurrection, to all His holy and faithful [followers], whether among Jews or Gentiles, in the one body of His Church.
(3) IgnEph 18:2d
For our God, Jesus Christ, was, according to the appointment of God, conceived in the womb by Mary, of the seed of David, but by the Holy Ghost. He was born and baptized, that by His passion He might purify the water.
Flusser devotes chapter 3 of his book, Jesus (pp. 37-55), to the baptism of Jesus. He stresses the links between the Essene beliefs and practices at Qumran, where “baptism linked repentance with forgiveness of sins, and the latter with the Holy Spirit.”
On the probability of ecstatic phenomena, Flusser observes:
We can well imagine the holy excitement of that crowd who had listened to the words of the Baptist. Having confessed their sins and awaiting the gift of the Holy Spirit to cleanse their souls from all the filth of sin, they plunged their bodies into the cleansing water of the river. Can it be that none of them would have had a special pneumatic-ecstatic experience in that hour when the Spirit of God touched them? (p. 40)
… many scholars are right in thinking that in the original account, the heavenly voice announced to Jesus, “Behold, My servant, whom I uphold, My chosen, in whom My soul delights; I have put My Spirit upon him, he will bring forth justice to the nations” (Isaiah 42:1). This form is probably the original, for the reason that the prophetic word fits the situation. (p. 41)
The gift of the Holy Spirit assumed a significance for Jesus that was different than for others who were baptized by John. Heavenly voices were not an uncommon phenomenon among the Jews of those days, and frequently those voices were heard to utter verses from scripture. Endowment with the Holy Spirit, accompanied by an ecstatic experience, was apparently something that happened to others who were baptized in John’s presence in the Jordan. (p. 42)
If, however, the heavenly voice intoned the words of Isaiah, Jesus must have understood that he was being set apart as the servant of God, the Chosen One. For him, the gift of the Holy Spirit, which was part of John’s baptism, held another special significance that was to become decisive for his future. None of the designations Son, Servant or Chosen One were exclusively messianic titles–the last two could also denote the special status of the prophetic office. By these titles, Jesus learned that he was now called, chosen, set apart. Nothing we have learned casts any doubt upon the historicity of Jesus’ experience at his baptism in the Jordan. (p. 42)
The opinion of the Jesus Seminar Fellows about the baptism of Jesus by John was tested across a number of statements, with the average result for each statement:
- JBap baptized Jesus
- Jesus saw the heavens open and the spirit descend on him like a dove.
- Jesus heard a voice from heaven at his baptism saying, “You are my favored son.”
- Jesus had visionary experiences.
- Jesus had a visionary experience at the time of his baptism.
- Jesus had a vision at his baptism.
- Jesus had a powerful religious experience at his baptism.
- Jesus was a disciple of JBap.
Lüdemann [Jesus, 9] affirms the historicity of Jesus being baptized by John, but does not trace the theological interpretations back beyond the post-Easter community:
… Jesus did not regard his baptism as appointment to be the son of God. The underlying concept derives from the community, which believed in Jesus as the son of God (cf. Gal. 2.16; 4.4) and located his appointment within his lifetime. In the earliest period, for example, the appointment of Jesus as son of God came only after his resurrection from the dead (cf. Rom. 1.4).
John P. Meier
The second volume of A Marginal Jew devotes considerable space to a study of John as “mentor” to Jesus. The historicity of the baptism is addressed on pages 100-105, before considering the meaning of Jesus’ baptism on pages 106-116. On the basis of the criterion of embarrassment, supported by a limited proposal for multiple attestation (relying on possible echoes of a Q version in John’s Gospel and in 1 John 5:6), Meier concludes:
We may thus take the baptism of Jesus by John as the firm historical starting point for any treatment of Jesus’ public ministry. (II,105)
Having established the historicity of the baptism event, Meier is adamant that the narrative must be seen as a Christian midrash, drawing on various OT themes to assert the primacy of Jesus over John. In particular, Meier insists that the theophany must be excluded from all attempts to understand the event, since it is a later Christian invention rather than a surviving memory of some actual spiritual experience of Jesus.
Meier’s discussion of the meaning of the baptism puts great weight on the fact that accepting baptism implied Jesus’ agreement with John’s apocalyptic message, and also engages at length with the question of Jesus’ sinlessness.
- 058 Horizontal Line Synopsis
- 058 Crossan – excerpts from John Dominic Crossan, The Historical Jesus. The life of a Mediterranean Jewish peasant. (HarperCollins, 1991) Pages 232-38
Liturgies and Prayers
For liturgies and sermons each week, shaped by a progressive theology, check Rex Hunt’s web site
Other recommended sites include:
See David MacGregor’s Together to Celebrate site for recommendations from a variety of contemporary genre.