Baptism has always been seen as a fresh start. In John’s day baptism was something converts to Judaism did (in addition to circumcision, if they were men) as a symbol of being washed clean. John the Baptist baptised people who weren’t converts, but were already Jews. He did so as a sign that they were making a fresh start with God; they confessed their sins (and, by implication, their unworthiness to be God’s people) and received baptism as an assurance that God was washing their sins away, making them clean and acceptable in readiness for the coming of his kingdom.
When Jesus came, John recognised that here was someone different. He knew that Jesus was more righteous, more right with God, than he himself. We don’t know whether he knew this because he was a cousin, or by reputation, or whether it was more an instinct. Anyway, John was right in his assessment – and right to question Jesus’ need to be baptised. So why did Jesus insist?
Jesus told John it was ‘to fulfil all righteousness’ (v 15). ‘Righteousness’ is not a tick list of do’s and don’ts, which the Pharisees were prone to thinking. It is more about a relationship with God – which involves obedience, but is much more than simply keeping commandments. Jesus’ relationship with God was as Son and Father, as the voice from heaven made clear. It was also as the One sent by the Father to put the world to rights. At the start of his ministry Jesus needed to identify with God’s people in their sinfulness as well as in their longing for the kingdom of God. The Son of God identified with God’s sinful people, so that he could be one with God at the same time as being one of us – thereby bringing us and the whole of fallen creation into unity with God, so that we too can have the same beloved relationship. That was the only way he could save the world. That was why he was baptised.
However, when God said, ‘With him I am well pleased,’ he was not just looking forward to the work Jesus his Son was about to do. He was also expressing his approval of all that Jesus had done up to then – the thirty years or so of his life of which we know virtually nothing. We know about the incident when he stayed behind in the temple after the Passover when he was 12 years old (Luke 2:41-50), when he obviously already had a special relationship with God. We know that he ‘grew in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and man. Since we don’t hear about Joseph any more, we assume he died and Jesus ran the business – he was known as ‘the carpenter’ (Mark 6:3). And in that ordinary phase of his life, looking after the family and running the business, Jesus pleased God. We don’t have to do anything special to be pleasing to God!
The baptism of Jesus was the start of his public ministry, which would lead to the cross and to resurrection and new life. It was a start that had the seal of God’s approval. It was full of hope, though things did not work out in the way most people would have expected – the next event in Jesus’ life would be private temptation rather than public triumph.
The start of this new year can be hopeful for all of us. Just as Jesus identified with penitent sinners, so we can identify with Jesus, both in his relationship to the Father and in his mission to the world. God the Father was Jesus’ Father; through Jesus he is our Father also. Jesus came to bring the kingdom of God; we can be co-workers with him. Though evil seems to be flourishing, its days are numbered, and even if evil seems to increase this year, we will also see good increasing. In the end, good will win!
1) What hopeful starts would you like to see?
2) His Heavenly Father’s affirmation and support must have meant a lot to Jesus. Whom can you affirm and support in their new venture?