Who is this Jesus, whose baptism we celebrate this time of the year? Who is this Jesus by whose birth every other birth is dated? The Gospels declare that Jesus is the Son of God. Listen to the way in which Mark begins his Gospel: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (1.1) Or as the GNB puts it: “This is the Good News about Jesus Christ, the Son of God”.
Then – hey presto – Mark launches into the story of Jesus’ baptism. It is as if the story of Jesus’ baptism in the river Jordan is the key to Jesus being good news. Mark tells us that “just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him” (1.10). Then came a voice from heaven: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (1.11). In an amazing way God broke into Jesus’ experience in a very special way.
But why did God act in such a special way? Why was Jesus blessed with a vision and with the voice? As we shall see, the uniqueness of Jesus’ experience lies in the uniqueness of his baptism.
At first sight it does not make sense why Jesus was baptised. Mark tells us that the John’s baptism was “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (1.4). To all and sundry John the Baptist was calling men and women to ‘Turn away from your sins and be baptised, and God will forgive your sins” (GNB). But Jesus had no sin of which to repent. Every strand of the New Testament affirms that Jesus lived a perfect life. The writer to the Hebrews declared that Jesus was like us in every respect bar one: he was “without sin” (Heb 4.15). Jesus’ close friend, Peter, compared him to “a lamb without defect or blemish” (1 Pet 1.19). So why then was he baptised?
There is only one explanation that makes sense. Jesus in being baptised by John was identifying himself with us as we really are. In his birth he became one with us in our humanity; now in his baptism he became one with us in our sinfulness, for only so could he take away the sin of the world. As a result we can say that Jesus’ baptism marked his first step to the Cross, where he took upon his shoulders the sin of the world. The baptism of Jesus is good news indeed, for it sets in train events which lead to the salvation of the world.
Here too is found the reason for the vision and for the voice. God through this extraordinary experience confirmed that Jesus was on the right track. If you were Jesus, would you not have wanted confirmation that you were doing your heavenly Father’s will? Luke in his Gospel makes it clear that Jesus when he was only 12 years old knew that he had a special relationship with God. To his worried parents who came searching for him in Jerusalem he said: “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” (Luke 2.49). Jesus knew himself to be the Messiah: but how was he to fulfil that messianic role? What kind of Messiah was he to be? Over the years he must have wrestled with that question. As in baptism he perhaps somewhat hesitantly took his first step to the Cross, God declared: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (1.11). There God confirmed his identity – as also his love for him and his pleasure in him. How amazingly reassuring that must have been for Jesus!
Immediately following his baptism and the subsequent 40 days of temptation in the wilderness, Mark tells us that Jesus began to preach “the good news of God”. “The right time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news” (1.14,15). The good news we are called to believe is that God has come to us in the person of his Son Jesus. We are called to affirm Jesus’ true identity. We do this in baptism when we declare that Jesus Christ is the Son of God: he is good news for all, and not least good news for me.
But there is more to baptism than this. In our baptism we receive a new identity, for through faith we become children of God. Listen to Paul writing to Christians in the Roman province of Galatia: “In Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptised into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ” (Gal 3.26). As with Jesus, so too with us, baptism confirms our identity as children of God. We may hear no voice, and yet as we are baptised God says to us too: “You are my dear son, you are my dear daughter; you are my beloved; and I am well pleased with you”.
For many Christians their baptism has been a sheet-anchor in moments of doubt. For in those moments when they have been afflicted by uncertainty and have wondered whether they are truly belong to God, they have been able to look back to that day when they were baptised in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. They have been able to say: “I have been baptised” – and because I have been baptised, I am the Lord’s. I am a child of God, however distant at this moment I may feel from God”. For as we seal our faith in baptism, God in turn owns us. He says as it were: ‘I claim you, I love you, I am proud of you’. What a difference that makes to this life – and to eternity.