Serving the Catholic Church in Southwestern Indiana
« BACK

The Baptism Of Jesus

By Father Donald Dilger

LUKE 3:15-16. 21-22

Although the Letters of Paul say much about baptism, they never mention the baptism ad­ministered by John nor the baptism Jesus received from the Baptizer. The Acts of Apos­tles, written by Luke, and claiming to report some of the history of the early Christian community, says nothing about Jesus being baptized. The Gospel of Mark, written about the year 70 A.D. has our oldest version of the baptism of Jesus at the hands of John the Baptizer. Mark reports the story briefly and without embarrassment. Some 15 to 20 years later Matthew revises Mark's story. As in Mark, Jesus comes from Galilee to be baptized by John. But John hesitates, "I ought to be baptized by you, and you come to me?' Then Jesus commands John to baptize him.

This is how Matthew handles the problem of the lesser baptizing the greater. Behind Matthew's version lies the rivalry between Christians of Matthew's time and those who still adhered to John as Messiah. Luke tells us in today's gospel that many thought John could be the Messiah. Like Matthew, Luke has to deal with the problem of these "Baptists." He has a most peculiar way of handling the problem. In Luke's gospel the Baptizer is imprisoned by Herod Antipas before Jesus arrives for baptism. Here is Luke's evasive report, "Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus had been baptized, but by whom he was baptized is not said. The still later Gospel of John (mid nineties) avoids any mention of Jesus being baptized, but does report the descent of the Spirit upon Jesus.

More detail about Luke's version of Jesus' baptism. Luke first relegates the Baptizer to a lower status by depicting him saying, "I am baptizing you with water, but one mightier than I is coming. I am not worthy to loosen the strings of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit." Now that the Baptizer has been reduced in importance, Luke can proceed to the rest of the elements of his version of the story. Luke alone notes that while Jesus was praying (at his baptism), "the heaven was opened . . . " Luke must have been a man of prayer because he depicts Jesus praying more than do the other gospels. In this instance it is the prayer of Jesus that causes the opening of the heavens. Let a word to the wise be sufficient.

" . . . and the Holy Spirit descended upon him . . . " The one whom John proclaimed as baptizing with the Holy Spirit must be seen as having or receiving the Holy Spirit. Paul and the gospels often portray Jesus in terms of four poems found in Isaiah. These poems sing of a "servant of the Lord," of whom it is said in the first of these poems, "I have put my Spirit upon him . . ." Isaiah 42:1. In an earlier poem of Isaiah we hear similar words of this ancient rap artist, "And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him," 11:2. Because of the wide use of Isaiah as background to the formation of our four gospels, Isaiah is some­times called "the Fifth Gospel."

". . . in bodily form like a dove." Why a dove? There are many attempts to answer this question, none of them satisfying. Perhaps the best attempt at an explanation is the fact that in ancient Near Eastern religions, the dove was often associated with gods, and was regarded in some instances as a sign of divinity. Whatever its meaning, the "bodily form @font-face { font-family: "Times New Roman"; }p.MsoNormal, li.MsoNormal, div.MsoNormal { margin: 16pt 0in 0.0001pt; font-size: 12pt; font-family: "Times New Roman"; }table.MsoNormalTable { font-size: 10pt; font-family: "Times New Roman"; }div.Section1 { page: Section1; }of a dove" representing the Holy Spirit, was important enough to be noted in all four gospels. The Gospel of John adds, "And it remained on him," thus coming close to Isaiah 11:2, "The Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him."

"You are my beloved Son. With you I am well pleased." With these words the narrative of the baptism ends. The tradition of these words spoken from heaven occurs in slightly varied form in Mark, Matthew, and Luke. What is their importance? They are adopted from Psalm 2:7, a coronation psalm for the kings descended from King David. In the Annunciation to Mary, Luke had written in Gabriel's message, ". . . and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end." By attributing to the voice of God the words of this coronation psalm of Davidic kings, Luke confirms the words of Gabriel to Mary and proclaims Jesus' kingship. The body of Luke's gospel will gradually reveal what kind of king this "Son of David" will be.

In a study of the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptizer a further question is in order. Beyond what we have learned above about this Lucan baptismal scene, why did Jesus submit to baptism at all? We teach that baptism brings about the removal of original sin and, in the case of an adult, all sins committed before baptism. Our Scriptures teach us that Jesus was completely sinless. See Isaiah 53:9; John 8:46; 2 Corinthians 5:21;

Hebrews 2:14. In submitting to John's baptism for repentance Jesus already began to take upon himself the sins of the world for which he atoned by his death. Thus Jesus himself, in Luke 12:50, refers to his death as a baptism, when he says, "I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and how I am stressed until it is accomplished." His baptism in water at the beginning of his public life is completed in blood at the end of his public life.