[For those interested, a video of my 2007 sermon on the baptism of Jesus at Sycamore View Church of Christ in Memphis, TN, is available here (October 21, 2007) and my 9/6/09 sermon on the baptism of Jesus at Woodmont Hills Family of God will be available here soon.]
Luke’s description of the baptism of Jesus is succinct, but filled with significant language which is played out in the whole of his narrative (Luke 3:21-22).
Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, 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.”
Given the theology of John’s baptism in Luke, it is quite surprising to read that Jesus was baptized along with “all the people.” The people and Jesus shared the same baptism—a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins (Luke 3:3). Jesus underwent the cleansing ritual that announced the coming of restored Israel. But why does Jesus need cleansing?
The baptism of Jesus has been a central aspect of Christian art and piety from the beginning. The earliest piece of Christian art, and the most frequent scene depicted in the earliest centuries, is the baptism of Jesus. The Christian festival of Epiphany, celebrating the baptism of Jesus, was practiced in the East as early as the late second century, which is well before Christmas was ever instituted. By the late fourth century, Epiphany was the most significant feast in Syria. The reason for this emphasis is that the baptism of Jesus was the “dominant model for Christian baptism.” The baptism of believers was patterned after the baptism of Jesus. Indeed, we believe Luke intended this very pattern.
The baptism of Jesus is a model for Christian baptism; it is the first Christian baptism. It participates in the reality of John’s baptism as a cleansing ritual but it also participates in the “last days” of Christian baptism as the context for the reception of the Holy Spirit.
On the one hand, Jesus identifies with sinners through the waters of John’s baptism. He undergoes a ritual designed for penitent sinners. He goes down in the river with “all the people” and identifies himself with the people. Jesus’ baptism is not the baptism of a righteous man who needed no cleansing, but is the identification with a people who needed cleansing. Jesus dives in with his people looking for the kingdom of God. This is, of course, exactly what Jesus did in his own death. Quoting Isaiah 53:12, Jesus characterizes his own death as one who was “counted among the lawless” (Luke 22:37). When Jesus went down to the river, he counted himself among the lawless as well. Not because he was himself a sinner, but that he identified with his people. He shared their corporate identity and underwent a cleansing ritual designed for sinners. Jesus was one with his people, both in his death and in his baptism.
On the other hand, Jesus experienced something that his people had not yet experienced, and would not experience in Luke’s narrative till the day of Pentecost in Acts 2. When Jesus was baptized, “the Holy Spirit descended upon him” (Luke 3:22). In this moment, as Peter later recalled in Acts, Jesus was “anointed…with the Holy Spirit and with power” (Acts 10:38). This anointing involves several ideas. First, it is the promise of divine presence. The Holy Spirit now abides with Jesus and leads him (cf. Luke 4:1). God is present with his Son. Second, God anoints his Son with his Spirit. It is a divine commission. The Son is given the Messianic task—it is the Spirit-anointed task of the Messiah to “preach good news to the poor” (Luke 4:18). This anointing involves the power to carry out that task so that the Messiah demonstrates the presence of the kingdom of God by casting out demons by the Spirit of God (Luke 11:20; cf. Matthew 12:28). Third, this anointing is a public divine declaration of God’s relationship to his Son (Luke 3:22). God owns his Son in this moment.
As a model or paradigm for Christian baptism, Jesus’ baptism is our baptism. We undergo the same repentance-baptism as John proclaimed, but we also experienced the divine blessing of the Holy Spirit. God gives his Spirit to us, anoints us with his Spirit as we are empowered for ministry and publicly declares our relationship to him as his own children. We are adopted into the family of God and God sends his Spirit into our hearts crying “Abba, Father” (Galatians 3:26-4:6).
But not only this—in this baptism, Jesus commits himself to the way of the cross. Immediately after his baptism, Jesus experiences the wilderness where he is tempted by Satan to turn from the way of the cross. But Jesus’ experience in baptismal waters is his commitment to experience the baptism of suffering (Luke 12:50). Jesus’ own baptism in water anticipated this baptism into death, just as our baptism in water is both a participation in the death of Christ and an act of discipleship that commits us to the way of the cross as well. If we follow Jesus into the water, then we must follow him to the cross also (cf. Luke 9:23-26).
Taken from Down in the River to Pray, pp. 53-54 by John Mark Hicks and Greg Taylor.