Today, we’re delighted to welcome guest writer and previous ESN Associate Director Micheal Hickerson. Micheal did a great deal to grow ESN. Although he’s moved on to different career commitments, we’re always delighted to share his thoughts with Christian scholars. In this Scholar’s Compass post, he reflects on the Baptism of the Lord. Next Sunday he’ll share some further new year’s reflections. If you’d like to explore more of Mike’s work, including his extremely popular March Madness showdown posts on the Best Christian Book of All Time, click here. If you’re new to Scholar’s Compass, it’s our ongoing online devotional for academics. Launched in 2014, Scholar’s Compass has proved to be one of ESN’s most popular and enduring features. Click here to access the collection of Scholar’s Compass posts we’ve built over the past years.
On this day, we commemorate the baptism of Jesus. This chronological jump in the church calendar is jarring. Just yesterday—on Epiphany—Jesus was a small child receiving gifts from the magi. Today, he is a grown man beginning his public ministry.
Mark begins his Gospel just as abruptly. Instead of providing context with a birth narrative or a theological prologue, Mark jumps right into the main story. There is John the Baptist, preaching repentance in the wilderness. There is Jesus, coming out of the crowd to be baptized. There is the Holy Spirit, descending like a dove.
Some Christian traditions emphasize repentance so exclusively as the purpose of baptism that it becomes a mystery why Jesus submitted himself to baptism. In other Gospel accounts, John the Baptist himself questions why Jesus is coming to him, rather than vice versa. The Scripture readings for today (taken from the Common Lectionary, a great resource) suggest an answer: baptism is not only about repentance, but also about God’s work in the world.
The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters. — Genesis 1:2
The ancient Israelites were not seafaring people. To them, the vast waters of the Mediterranean represented powerful, uncontrollable chaos. God, however, exercised complete control over the waters, whether in the sea or sky, using it in his acts of Creation and in his displays of authority. Water is God’s means of judgment in the story of Noah, the path to salvation in Exodus, and the entrance to the promised land.
Psalm 29 declares God to reign over not only the whole earth, but the heavens as well.
The voice of the Lord is over the waters;
the God of glory thunders,
the Lord, over many waters. — Psalm 29:3
Echoing the psalm, the voice of the Lord speaks over the waters at the baptism of Jesus: “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” God gives authority to the Son of God, who in turn submits himself to the Father.
Participating in the life of the Trinity
While the relationship between the Father and the Son is unique, we are not bystanders or passive observers. Our baptism into the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus means that we can ourselves participate through the Holy Spirit.
And he said to them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” And they said, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” And he said, “Into what then were you baptized?” They said, “Into John’s baptism.” And Paul said, “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, Jesus.” On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. And when Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they began speaking in tongues and prophesying. There were about twelve men in all. — Acts 19:2-7
The disciples in Ephesus had already been baptized for repentance, but that wasn’t enough. They also needed to be baptized “in the name of the Lord Jesus”, which, nota bene, led to them receiving the Holy Spirit. Additionally, I don’t think that it is a coincidence that Luke counts twelve Ephesian disciples here. We are reminded of the twelve tribes of Israel and the twelve disciples of Jesus, the two central examples of God’s work in the world.
Yes, baptism is for repentance. But the baptism of Jesus also brings together:
- God’s creative power, by which he brought the cosmos into being and even now is making all things new
- The authority of God, demonstrated by his control of the waters and his declaration over Jesus
- God’s redemptive work in the world, fulfilling the Law and Prophets through Jesus and extending his blessings through the Church
Further, we see the relationship of all three members of the Trinity in this one moment: Father, Son, and Spirit, each giving glory and honor to the others.
Questions for Reflection
- In your academic or vocational calling, where do you see the creative power of God? What are the “waters of chaos” that challenge you?
- Before Jesus had performed a single act of ministry, God the Father said to him, “with you I am well pleased.” What does this suggest about God’s love? What comfort can you take from God’s words to Jesus?
- What were the disciples in Ephesus missing in their understanding of the Gospel? What did they gain when the Holy Spirit came on them?
- Spend a few minutes remembering your own baptism or baptisms that you have witnessed. What did that moment symbolize? Has it come to mean anything different to you since then?
God of grace and glory,
you call us with your voice of flame
to be your people, faithful and courageous.
As your beloved Son
embraced his mission in the waters of baptism,
inspire us with the fire of your Spirit
to join in his transforming work.
We ask this in the name of our Savior Jesus Christ,
who lives and reigns for ever and ever. Amen.
Image credit: Baptism of Christ, detail, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=54494 [retrieved January 5, 2018].