The Baptism of Our Lord
The Baptism of our Lord Jesus Christ is one of those events that becomes more and more profound the more closely we look at it. Every year we revisit this important marker in our Lord’s ministry. The first Sunday after Epiphany, we come to the banks of the Jordan and remember our Lord Jesus is baptized at the beginning of his public ministry. It’s his inauguration, his ordination, if you will, as the Messiah. The public recognition that this one, Jesus, is the Christ, the Son of God sent to save.
Matthew, Mark, and Luke all record this for us, and each gives a slightly different description. This year, we hear from Luke, who focuses a bit more on John the Baptist’s role. But since we’ve considered that recently in the Advent Season, we will focus more of our attention today on the last portion of this reading, the final paragraph:
21 Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heavens were opened, 22 and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form, like a dove; and a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son;3 with you I am well pleased.
Three key elements stand out:
the heavens are opened,
the Spirit descends,
and the voice comes from heaven.
The Heavens are Opened
Heaven, the place of God’s presence, as we normally think of it. We consider it as Scripture speaks of it as “up”, but not in a purely physical way. God is above us, if you will, in every way. And we are below him. The great separation between creator and creation – a distinction that is built into creation and is very good – testifies to this reality.
But there is also a sense in which that division, that separation, is intensified by sin. A healthy distinction becomes instead a disastrous alienation between God and man, creator and creature. No longer are we in right relationship with him. No longer are we fit for paradise, or even for life. The doors to Eden are shut. The seal of the grave is strong. Man cannot bridge this gap to God, cannot ascend, cannot attain to heaven. Heaven is shut, closed, the gate barred to sinful man. In sin, we are like the foolish virgins who are locked out of the great wedding feast – doomed to pine away, looking on from the outside.
But then comes Jesus. He’s already bridged the gap by his incarnation and birth. No work or effort of man brought him here. No force of human will. But he himself stooped down from heaven’s high throne to be born among us, as one of us. When the Angel Gabriel spoke the announcement to Mary, heaven was opened and the Son of God came forth. When Mary gave birth, heaven was opened, and the angelic host sang of his birth. But now, in his baptism, heaven is opened again – and in Christ – opened to us.
Access to God – a way back to our Creator – this is what Jesus brings. This is what Jesus accomplishes for us. Like the stairway to heaven in Jacob’s dream, only Jesus can get us from the here of our sins to the there of paradise the blest. And it is shown to be so, publicly, at his baptism.
Heaven would again be opened when Jesus ascended there. And it received him again not only as God but also as man. In the person of Jesus, humanity has already attained to heaven.
And in the return of Jesus, his second coming from heaven, all eyes will see him, all ledgers will be balanced, the living and the dead. We will meet him in the clouds, go home to our eternal rest, paradise will be restored, and his kingdom will have no end.
All of this is hinted at, in his baptism, with the words, “the heavens were opened”.
The Spirit Descends
Next we see the descent of the Spirit. And Luke mentions the detail, “in bodily form”. Luke’s extra detail here shows that it wasn’t just a spiritual vision but a physical reality – and one that could be seen. There’s a part of this event that is meant for us to see – to show us the true reality of what is happening!
Why does Jesus need the Spirit? Doesn’t he already have the Holy Spirit? (Surely, yes!) But now the Spirit comes upon him with a special purpose – to empower him for his public ministry. And not just the preaching and healing and miracles he is about to accomplish. The Spirit will be with Jesus every step of the way to the cross. And the Spirit will begin that process soon as he drives Jesus into the wilderness, where he will do battle with Satan (and win).
The same Spirit who empowered Jesus is the Spirit who calls us to faith in Jesus by the good news of the Gospel. The same Spirit who descended on Jesus in his baptism, we receive in our baptism. The same Spirit who empowered Jesus for his work, empowers us for our good works that he has prepared for us to do. Of course we need that Spirit even more than Jesus does. But Jesus freely and abundantly sends us his Spirit, who calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies all Christians.
Interesting that the Spirit appears as a dove. Recall the other dove of note in Scripture – the one that Noah sent forth, and that came back with the olive branch. That’s a sign of peace today even among the biblically illiterate. How much more does the Spirit of Peace bring us peace with God through the baptism and saving work of Jesus, himself the Prince of Peace?
The Voice of the Father
And then finally we have the voice of the Father declaring, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” This declaration forms the first half of a divine set of bookends – as we hear the voice from heaven again at Mt. Transfiguration. There the message echoes, “This is my son” and the command is then added, “Listen to him.”
But for now it’s enough to know the Father is pleased with his Son. This Christ, this chosen one, is up to the task. He is an acceptable champion, a fully capable representative who will accomplish salvation on behalf of all people. He was appointed to this task, even from the foundation of the world, but now in his baptism, Christ is made know publicly as such. The tearing of the heavens, the descent of the Spirit and this booming voice from heaven agree and declare it. A Trinitarian testimony of the Christ as he is set forth on his great mission.
Many have said, and it’s true of course, that the declaration of the Father applies equally to all who are in Christ. That through Christ, the Father accepts us as beloved sons and daughters. That through Christ, and only through Christ, is the Father pleased with us.
This is true, because Christ has another baptism to be baptized with. It is the baptism of the cross. There, the Son cries out to the Father – “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” But the voice from heaven does not answer. He is not pleased. Because God made him, Jesus, who knew no sin, to become sin for us. And there on Calvary’s cross, that sin was put to death in his body. There, all the warfare and violence of sin raged to its fullest in the suffering of Christ, until only by his death did he bring peace. There, the heavens scowled and the sun was darkened as the Son of Righteousness died for the sins of the world. And only when “it is finished” does Jesus peacefully commit his spirit to the Father once again.
All of this is running in the background at Jesus’ baptism. The entirety of Christ’s messianic work and the mystery of his two natures. The identification of Christ with sinful humans, so that sinful humans may be pleasing to God in Christ. The great exchange of our sin for his righteousness.
Ponder today, Christian, the Jesus who was born for you, baptized for you, died and rose for you. The Christ Jesus into whom you are baptized! Give thanks that in him, heaven is opened to you. That his Spirit is also upon you. And that in him, the Father makes you his own dear child, and with you he is well pleased.