Chapter 4: John the Baptist and the Baptism of Jesus
John the Baptist played an important role in the life of Jesus: he paved the way to the Messiah through his teachings, his life and his martyrdom. He played a privileged role when he baptized Jesus: Jesus bent His head before him when he asked to be baptized. Then, the Holy Trinity was revealed, and the public life of Jesus took a fresh momentum.
Who was John the Baptist? How important was the baptism of Jesus? How can we learn about the Mystery of the Holy Trinity through Church teachings and our daily life? We will try to answer these questions in today’s meeting.
2- Reading and understanding the Gospel: The meeting of Jesus and Nicodemus (Jn 3:1-21)
1In due course John the Baptist appeared; he preached in the wilderness of Judaea and this was his message: 2“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is close at hand.” 3This was the man the prophet Isaiah spoke of when he said: A voice cries in the wilderness: prepare a way for the Lord, make his paths straight. 4This man John wore a garment made of camel hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. 5Then Jerusalem and all Judaea and the whole Jordan district made their way to him, 6and as they were baptized by him in the River Jordan they confessed their sins. 7But when he saw a number of Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, 8“Brood of vipers, who warned you to fly from the retribution that is coming? But if you are repentant, produce the appropriate fruit, 9and do not presume to tell yourselves, ‘We have Abraham for our father’, because, I tell you, God can raise children for Abraham from these stones. 10Even now the axe is laid to the roots of the trees, so that any tree which fails to produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown on the fire. 11I baptize you in water for repentance, but the one who follows me is more powerful than I am, and I am not fit to carry his sandals; he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12His winnowing fan is in his hand; he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn; but the chaff he will burn in a fire that will never go out.”
13Then Jesus appeared: he came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John. 14John tried to dissuade him. “It is I who need baptism from you,” he said, “and yet you come to me!” 15But Jesus replied, “Leave it like this for the time being; it is fitting that we should, in this way, do all that righteousness demands.” At this, John gave in to him.
16As soon as Jesus was baptized he came up from the water, and suddenly the heavens opened and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming down on him. 17And a voice spoke from heaven, “This is my Son, the Beloved; my favour rests on him.”
2. 1- Explanation
- Who was John the Baptist? (Mt 3:1-12)
The name of ‘John’ means ‘God is gracious and merciful’ and, indeed, John the Baptist was a messenger of the mercy of God: Besides being the messenger of mercy to his barren parents – Zachariah and Elizabeth – he also prepared the way to the public life of Jesus by preaching the promise of Salvation. He is the prophet of the Most High who supersedes all the other prophets; he is indeed the last of the prophets. Even before his birth, from his mother’s womb, John hailed the coming of the Messiah and was filled with the Holy Spirit during Mary’s Visitation to Elizabeth. He was overjoyed to be recognised as the ‘friend’ of the groom and told his disciples that Jesus was indeed “the lamb of God who takes way the sin of the world” (John 1: 36). John was similar to Elijah, the prophet who must come to prepare the people who will welcome the Messiah (Luke 1:17); but he is also more than a prophet; among those who are born of woman, there has not appeared a greater (Mt 11:11); John concludes the long string of prophets and proclaims the closeness of the consolation of the oppressed believers who were eagerly awaiting redemption.
John baptized in water and prepared for the coming of Christ, but his baptism did not carry the fire that would burn away the sins of the people who came to him. The water he used was a way for them to participate in the community of converts, awaiting atonement for their sins. On the other hand, the baptism Jesus handed over to His Church is a baptism in water, Spirit and fire, allowing people to experience genuine rebirth.
John the Baptist was a humble hermit. He wore camel hair clothes and fed on locusts and wild honey (Mt 3:4). His humility was revealed even more when he said about Christ: “I baptize you in water for repentance, but the one who follows me is more powerful than I am, and I am not fit to carry his sandals.” (Mt 3:11) Indeed, John the Baptist was the lantern, but Jesus was the Light. John was the voice crying in the wilderness, but Jesus was the Word. John was humble, but also dared to speak the truth. He denounced the Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism and prompted them to bear fruit which matched their repentance: “Brood of vipers, who warned you to fly from the retribution that is coming? (Mt 3:7). The snake symbolizes evil and reminds us of the serpent who tempted Eve (Gen 3:1). John the Baptist boldly spoke the truth when he denounced Herod for marrying his sister-in-law – the wife of his brother Philip, who was still alive. For this, John was imprisoned, then put to death.
- The baptism of Jesus (Mt 3:13-17)
When the Baptist hesitated to baptize Jesus, “Jesus replied – “Leave it like this for the time being; it is fitting that we should, in this way, do all that righteousness demands.” Then John consented. (Mt 3:15). Righteousness means total submission to God’s salvific call. Jesus did not need John’s baptism. He was baptized in solidarity with baptized sinners, to demonstrate that the mission of John the Baptist was to prepare directly for the Messianic times.
As Christ was baptized, the Trinity appeared in its glory: Heaven opened to Earth after centuries of darkness because of man’s sin and a new creation was acclaimed when the dove of the Holy Spirit hovered over the water (cf Gen 1:2). The voice of the Father (according to Matthew) was heard by all who were there and has been read by readers of the Bible throughout the centuries: “Take your son,” God said, “your only child Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah. There you shall offer him as a burnt offering, on a mountain I will point out to you” (Gen 22:2); and “Here is my servant whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom my soul delights” (Is 42:1). Thus, we see how the baptism of Jesus in the water of the River Jordan, was preparing for his baptism in blood on the Cross.
2. 2- Summary and Practice
John the Baptist gives a vivid example of merging humility with the courage to speak up. “Above all, never let your love for each other grow insincere, since love covers over many a sin” (1 Peter 4:8).
The coming of the Kingdom of Heaven urges us to reap the benefits of repentance. Is it enough to say “Oh, God! Dear God!”? Rather, we must realise that our deeds should match our new status. Repentance means changing our ill-directed mindset, committing ourselves fully to this new life, built on faith in God and love of our brethren. Today’s Gospel reading demands that we do not consider ourselves superior to those who share the same faith. Many believe that baptism and becoming Christian is enough for our redemption, much as the Jews baptized by John believed that merely belonging to the children of Abraham was a token of their redemption: “Do not presume to tell yourselves, ‘We have Abraham for our father’, because, I tell you, God can raise children for Abraham from these stones.” (Mt 3:9). There is NO guarantee of redemption, other than fruitful charity and acts of repentance worthy of the new life as children of God.
The story of Jesus’ baptism is an invitation to live our status as children of the Father in the power of the Holy Spirit. As Jesus was being baptized, the Father declared that he was His Beloved Son. Once baptized, we become children of the Father, brothers of Christ and living Temples of the Holy Spirit. Let us never forget our new identity: we are children of the King who has redeemed us through His Son and who loves us through His Spirit. Our dignity is His, our life is His, and we have to remember this new relationship with the Holy Trinity given to us in baptism.
3- Theological and Spiritual Teaching: The Holy Trinity
You can know God from afar, as you can know Him through entering into His Mystery. It is akin to someone walking past a church and marvelling at its construction and walls; then he decides to venture inside to discover its inner beauty. You may say that God is One, and this is true, but if you draw near to Him, you realize that God is Three. God, in His infinite love for human beings, has gradually revealed Himself to the people, addressing them in the Old Testament, after He had created them and cared for them throughout their long history. In the fullness of time, God sent His Son, born of the Virgin Mary. When Christ rose from the dead, h sent the Holy Spirit to the Church and told his apostles: “Make disciples of all nations; baptize them in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”
The Christian dogma of the Trinity is based on the revelation received by the Church. God revealed Himself gradually; the summit of this revelation came through Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit who led believers understand the whole truth. The Trinity is not an idea invented by Christians; but on the contrary, is a blessing received, and the early Christians accepted the responsibility of proclaiming it to the world, at the cost of many sacrifices.
We believe in one God. The Trinity is not a multiplicity of gods; it is the perfect and mutual love between the Father and the Son which seals their unity. This love, which is the essence of God, is the Holy Spirit. It is why God who is One, is not alone: Love leads to communion and union.
Man was created in the image and likeness of God and, as God is communion, man can only realise his calling, which is the fullness of God’s image within himself, by living in true communion with his fellow men. It is thus that married couples become “one body” and all Christians constitute “one body” in the Church – the Body of Christ.
4- Reading and Meditation: A Reading from St Cyril of Jerusalem (c313-386)
The Greatness of Baptism
Great is the Baptism that lies before you: a ransom to captives; a remission of offenses; a death of sin; a new-birth of the soul; a garment of light; a holy indissoluble seal; a chariot to heaven; the delight of Paradise; a welcome into the kingdom; the gift of adoption! But there is a serpent by the wayside watching those who pass by: beware lest he bite you with unbelief. He sees so many receiving salvation, and is seeking whom he may devour. You are coming in unto the Father of Spirits, but you are going past that serpent. How then may you pass him? Have your feet shod with the preparation of the gospel of peace; that even if he bites, he may not hurt you. Have faith in-dwelling, steadfast hope, a strong sandal, that you may pass the enemy, and enter the presence of your Lord. Prepare your own heart for reception of doctrine, for fellowship in holy mysteries. Pray more frequently, that God may make you worthy of the heavenly and immortal mysteries. Cease not day nor night: but when sleep is banished from your eyes, then let your mind be free for prayer. And if you find any shameful thought rise up in your mind, turn to meditation upon Judgment to remind you of Salvation. Give your mind wholly to study, that it may forget base things. If you find anyone saying to you, Are you then going in, to descend into the water? Has the city just now no baths? Take notice that it is the dragon of the sea who is laying these plots against you. Attend not to the lips of the talker, but to God who works in you. Guard your own soul, that thou be not ensnared, to the end that abiding in hope you may become an heir of everlasting salvation.6