Baptism of Christ

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Christ had to be formally inaugurated into the public discharge of his offices. For this purpose he came to John, who was the representative of the law and the prophets, that by him he might be introduced into his offices, and thus be publicly recognized as the Messiah of whose coming the prophecies and types had for many ages borne witness.

John refused at first to confer his baptism on Christ, for he understood not what he had to do with the "baptism of repentance." But Christ said, "'Suffer it to be so now,' NOW as suited to my state of humiliation, my state as a substitute in the room of sinners." His reception of baptism was not necessary on his own account. It was a voluntary act, the same as his act of becoming incarnate.

Yet if the work he had engaged to accomplish was to be completed, then it became him to take on him the likeness of a sinner, and to fulfil all righteousness (Matt. 3:15). The official duty of Christ and the sinless person of Christ are to be distinguished.

It was in his official capacity that he submitted to baptism. In coming to John our Lord virtually said, "Though sinless, and without any personal taint, yet in my public or official capacity as the Sent of God, I stand in the room of many, and bring with me the sin of the world, for which I am the propitiation." Christ was not made under the law on his own account. It was as surety of his people, a position which he spontaneously assumed. The administration of the rite of baptism was also a symbol of the baptism of suffering before him in this official capacity (Luke 12:50). In thus presenting himself he in effect dedicated or consecrated himself to the work of fulfilling all righteousness.

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Baptism of Jesus

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The baptism of Jesus at the hands of John the Baptist is recounted in some detail in Matthew (3:13-17), told more briefly in Mark (1:9-11), only mentioned in Luke (3:21-22), and unrecorded though probably presumed in John (1:29-34). In all four accounts the anointing of Jesus with the Spirit and the declaration of his sonship are directly linked to the baptism.

Mark and Luke tell us only that Jesus was baptized in the Jordan by John, but Matthew adds that John the Baptist was hesitant and felt unworthy. Jesus, however, urges compliance with the call of God to "fulfill all righteousness." Mark suggests that Jesus was baptized during the ministry of John to all the people, while the structure of the text in Luke indicates that the baptism of Jesus by John was the culmination ("after all the people had been baptized, then Jesus also was baptized") of John's ministry. The Fourth Evangelist says only that John saw Jesus coming to him and then there follow certain Christological declarations by John.

The fundamental feature of all the narratives is that on the occasion of his baptism Jesus is anointed with the Spirit (Matt. 3:16; Mark 1:10; Luke 3:22; John 1:32). It is this anointing with the Spirit that inaugurates the ministry of Jesus which is characterized in the Synoptic Gospels by the power of the Spirit of the new age (Matt. 12:18, 28; Luke 4:18; 11:20; cf. Acts 10:38).

The anointing by the Spirit is the initial act of fulfillment (Luke 4:18, citing Isa. 61:1-2) which characterizes the whole story of Jesus and the subsequent story of the early church. This fulfillment motif is seen at two points. First, in all three of the Synoptic Gospels the temptation experience in the desert immediately follows the anointing of the Spirit; indeed Jesus is led by the Spirit (Mark: driven by the Spirit; Luke: led in the Spirit) into the desert. In a paradigmatic narrative the Spirit of the new age is confronted by the spirit who dominates the present. Jesus' conquest in the desert becomes the pattern for the rest of the Gospels as they report the power of Jesus to heal the sick and cast out demons. The presence of the Spirit of the new age raises the specter of the "unpardonable sin" against the Spirit, namely the sin of ascribing to the power of this age the healing work of the Holy Spirit (Matt. 12:31; Mark 3:28; Luke 12:10).

The link between Jesus' anointing with the Spirit and the fulfillment motif is to be noted also in the fact that Jesus inaugurates his ministry immediately after his baptism and the temptation. "Time is fulfilled: the kingdom of God is before you; repent and believe the good news" (Mark 1:15; cf. Matt. 4:17). Jesus declares the demise of the old and the initial thrust of the new. The promise of prophets is offered and people are invited to enter. From this point on, the burden of the word and work of Jesus is to invite, to initiate newness, to portray the freedom created by the Spirit, as well as to speak judgment upon the old system ruled by law, whose only fruit is oppression.

This significance of Jesus' anointing by the Spirit at his baptism is further noted in the words by which Jesus confirmed John the Baptist. No one is greater than John, yet anyone in the kingdom is greater. He is the final figure who concludes the old and introduces the new. He is the forerunner (Matt. 11:11-14). The anointing of Jesus at his baptism is the specific midpoint in redemptive history; it is the beginning of fulfillment.

It should be noted that the coming of the Spirit upon Jesus is not the promised baptism in the Spirit, for Jesus himself is the one who shall baptize. Further, the baptism in the Spirit is a baptism of judgment and grace. The experience of the Spirit at the baptism of Jesus is a bestowal that establishes the messianic character of his ministry. This is noted in the voice from heaven, "You are my Son, my beloved" (or "chosen"). Jesus' self-understanding of his sonship to the Father underlies his messianic office. The OT allusion may be either Isa. 42:1 or Ps. 2:7 or perhaps both. The significance here of the sonship is service to the Father rather than any particular reference to Jesus' divine nature. The expression is teleological rather than ontological.

Special significance is to be seen in the fact that Jesus submitted to the baptism of John, which was a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. John has called a sinful and selfrighteous people to turn quickly before an impending judgment descends. "Already the ax is laid to the root of the tree." Matthew's narrative focuses of the issue, for in it the Baptist attempts to protest the inappropriateness of Jesus coming to be baptized. The baptism of Jesus marks his solidarity as the messianic servant with his people. He takes upon himself by this cultic act their condition and their predicament. He becomes their representative. Coming to them and speaking to them he takes his place with them. Incarnation is not only coming to earth but also assuming the burden of life in the flesh. He not only speaks to them but also speaks for them. The Father's Son becomes the intercessor to the Father. The significance of the baptism of Jesus is set forth in stark terms by Paul: "He who knew no sin became sin for us in order that in him we might become the righteousness of God" (II Cor. 5:21). The baptism is the formal act of "emptying himself" (Phil. 2:7), of "becoming poor" (II Cor. 8:9).

It is with reference to this act of solidarity that we see again the significance of the temptations in the desert, for there he experiences in an intense way the predicament of the human condition. He resists the fundamental temptation to use his power, a temptation thrown at him even in his last hour (Matt. 27:40, 42), in order to bring redemption from below. In his baptism he prepares himself for death, the ultimate expression of nonpower, for the people with whom he identifies, and makes the identification complete.

R W Lyon
(Elwell Evangelical Dictionary)

C. K. Barrett, The Holy Spirit and the Gospel Tradition; G. W. H. Lampe, The Sea of the Spirit; J. D. G. Dunn, Jesus and the Spirit; W. F. Flemington, The NT Doctrine of Baptism.

The individual articles presented here were generally first published in the early 1980s. This subject presentation was first placed on the Internet in December 1997.

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