The baptism of Jesus is the first Christian baptism.
Jesus identifies with sinners as he undergoes a ritual designed for sinners. He publicly declares his faith in God and joins the story of God’s people in the anticipation of restoration. He anticipates and foreshadows his own death and resurrection in a ritual through which future believers will participate in his death and resurrection. He is anointed with the Holy Spirit and encounters the voice of God in this sacramental moment.
The baptism of Jesus is a profoundly rich theological resource. The early centuries of the church recognized its importance though adoptionistic controversies in the West undermined its paradigmatic import there while it remained the pattern of Christian initiation in the East. Liturgically, the baptism of Jesus as an ecclesial festival was more highly prized than Christmas till later centuries. Artistically, it was the most depicted event in the life of Jesus in the ancient church.
Unfortunately, the baptism of Jesus has been relegated to the status of a mere example for believers at best and as a unique unrepeatable moment in history at worst.
Alternatively, I advocate for a restoration of the significance of this moment for Christian theology. While there are many theological directions to which it points–and all of them deserve careful attention (as my second paragraph above indicates), in this post I want to focus on two points that are important for Christian discipleship.
As disciples of Jesus, we follow Jesus into the water. But what is the meaning of this in the light of Jesus’ own baptism?
At one level, Jesus owned the divine mission (missio dei) as his own in this act of surrender. Immersed by John, he surrendered his life to the purposes of God. He pursued those purposes in his ministry. Luke, in fact, correlates the baptism of Jesus and the ministry of Jesus–Jesus is baptized and then he begins his ministry (Luke 3:21-23). At his baptism, Jesus becomes–in a significant sense–a disciple of God as he embraced the mission and ministry of the kingdom. He became a God-follower with a public ministry in the kingdom of God.
At another level, Jesus encountered God in this baptismal moment. Not only was he anointed with power by the Holy Spirit which enabled his ministry, but he heard the voice of God. What he heard is important–he is a beloved son in whom God delights. It is unfortunate that some seemingly reduce this divine pronouncement to “Good boy, Jesus!” Rather, it is a profound declaration rooted in Psalm 2:7 and Isaiah 42:1, 62:4 of deep joy and love. It is a celebrative word from God as God rejoices in his son. Moreover, it is the inauguration of a renewed community–restored Israel. Jesus is the first member, the firstfruits, of that community.
This baptism is our baptism.
When we are baptized we own the divine mission as well. We surrender our will to the divine agenda, to the kingdom of God. We embody the prayer, “Your kingdom come; your will be done.” We follow Jesus into the water to become disciples of Jesus. Baptism is a discipleship maker–both in the life of Jesus and in our own lives.
Also we encounter God in this sacramental moment. The words Jesus heard are not simply for him. They are about us as well. Arising out of the water we have become part of the community that God names “Hephzibah”–the one in whom God delights. That is our name. We, too, are beloved children of God. The divine blessing voiced at the Jordan River is heard at every faith-engendered baptism.
As I recall my own baptism at eleven years of age, I know it was not perfect. I was baptized to be saved from hell; I didn’t want to go there. But I also know that my baptism arose out of faith, even if it was as small as a mustard seed. But I don’t have to know everything about baptism to experience God’s grace through baptism. It was simply enough that I acted in faith.
But as I remember my baptism, I remember the baptism of Jesus as well. His baptism is my baptism just as his death is my death and his resurrection is my resurrection.
I remember that I committed myself to the way of the cross, the mission of God and to the ministry of the kingdom.
And…I remember that God sang over me in that moment. God announced that I was his child, a beloved child. Even now I hear the voice of God say–despite all my failures and faults–“I am delighted with you!”
God, even with my sins, celebrated me then and he continues to rejoice over me. I am his delight!