HIS BAPTISM – BEGINNING OF THE PUBLIC MINISTRY OF JESUS CHRIST
“For approximately thirty years the life of Jesus was passed in the obscurity of the little town of Nazareth. Of this period in the history of Jesus we can say with certainty no more than the Gospel tells us. When Jesus was twelve He went up to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover and He remained there for a few days after the celebration of the feast to listen to the doctors of the Jewish law [See this blog’s post: “Mankind’s Salvation History Through the Holy Rosary: The Joyful Mysteries ‘Presentation’ and ‘Finding the Lost Child Jesus at the Temple'”]. Apart from this incident we know only that at Nazareth Jesus grew in wisdom and age and favour before God and man.
THE KNOWLEDGE OF THE DIVINE PLAN FOR THE REDEMPTION OF MANKIND
Theologians tell us that Jesus was favoured with the vision of God from the very beginning of His human life. Through this vision Jesus would share in the knowledge of the divine plan for the redemption of mankind. But, beyond this wondrous share in the infinity of the divine knowledge, Jesus, according to St Luke, also acquired His due share of human knowledge, for He grew in wisdom before God and man.
It is proper to assume that during the hidden years of His life at Nazareth Jesus advanced in His knowledge of the Law of Moses and of the history of God’s relations with His Chosen People. No doubt He attended the local synagogue and listened to the interpretations of the Law given by the rabbis.
With a keen eye He must have observed His neighbours, the elders of the village, the young men and women, the children. With a penetrating mind and a warm heart He understood their problems, their desires and hopes, their disappointments and failures. During this period He must have learned that wealth of the warm knowledge which He was later to communicate so simply, yet so strongly to those who had the good will to listen to Him.
WHY DID JESUS WAIT FOR 30 YEARS BEFORE HE BEGAN HIS MINISTRY?
We cannot know exactly why Jesus waited for approximately thirty years before He began His public ministry to the world. We can, of course, surmise that the importance and gravity of His message to the world would come more acceptably to the world from the lips of a mature man, a man who by his age and presumed experience might be listened to more readily.
JOHN THE BAPTIST, THE FORERUNNER
Before Jesus Himself began His public work of preaching, God sent John the Baptist, the son of Zachary the priest, to prepare the way for Him. As St Luke tells us, in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar as emperor of Rome – in the year 27 or 28 A.D. – ‘the word of God came to John, the son of Zachary, in the desert’ (Luke 3:2). In response to God’s word John came out of the desert and began to preach to the people. ‘Repent,’ he said, ‘for the kingdom of heaven is at hand’ (Matthew 3:2).
THE CALL TO REPENTANCE
John appeared to the people in the region about the Jordan river. He came dressed like an ascetic, wearing only a garment of camel’s hair and a leathern girdle about his loins. For his food he ate only locusts and wild honey.
His ascetic appearance and practices, his urgent call to repentance for the forgiveness of sins made people wonder whether or not he was a prophet. Many pious Jews went out to hear him. Moved by his message they confessed their sins and were baptised by him in the Jordan.
A MESSAGE OF HOPE
In part the message of John was new and unexpected; in part it was old and familiar. The Jews, knowing their own history, realised that it was the sins of the nation which brought ill fortune to the race. It is even possible that they remembered the appeal of the great prophets of the Exile for personal repentance and personal purity of heart. They knew also that it was God’s intention to bless the world and rule it through them. To this extent the message of John probably struck a familiar chord of memory and hope in their hearts.
INDIVIDUAL VERSUS COLLECTIVE REPENTANCE
But at the moment when John was preaching repentance it must have seemed to the Jews that the nation as a group had no need for repentance. Under the Macchabees they had fought valiantly to defend their ancient faith in the one true God. Their struggle had been successful.
Even though they were now under the political domination of the Romans, their ancient faith remained intact. Jahweh was worshipped daily in the Temple at Jerusalem. To this extent the message of John was unexpected. It was clear he was calling to personal repentance. That he meant this and that they so understood him is shown by the fact that they confessed their sins when they were baptised by him in the Jordan.
WHAT EXACTLY DOES ‘THE KINGDOM OF HEAVEN IS AT HAND’ MEAN?
‘Repent,’ John told them, ‘for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ Repentance is necessary because the kingdom of heaven is approaching; it is here. To understand John’s message we must understand the significance of the phrase ‘the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ The word ‘kingdom’ as it is used here does not mean a geographical kingdom, a portion of earth ruled by a king. It means the reign of the rule of the king himself. And the word ‘heaven’ does not mean the sky, nor even the abode of the saints of God. It means God Himself, for the word ‘heaven(s)’ was a word used by pious Jews to designate God Himself. What John was announcing then was this: Repent, for God has come to rule His world; the reign of God over men is now being established.
‘THE CROOKED SHALL BECOME STRAIGHT, AND THE ROUGH WAYS PLAIN’
John presents himself to the Jews, then, as a messenger of God, as one preparing men for the coming of God Himself. The Evangelists Matthew, Mark and Luke consider John in this light, for they say that his preaching fulfils the prophecies of Malachias and Isaias.
Malachias had said that God would send a messenger to prepare the way for the Lord Whom the Jews would seek: ‘Behold I send my angel, and he shall prepare the way before my face. And presently the Lord whom you seek, and the angel of the testament whom you desire shall come to his Temple. Behold he cometh, saith the Lord of Hosts’ (Malachias [Malachi] 3:1). Isaias had written: ‘The voice of one crying in the desert: Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight in the wilderness the paths of our God. Every valley shall be exalted and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall become straight, and the rough ways plain. And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed’ (Isaias [Isaiah] 40:3-5). John himself would also apply the prophecy of Isaias to himself and to his role in history.
THE BIBLICAL EQUIVALENT OF ‘ROLLING OUT THE RED CARPET’ FOR V.I.P.s
Now it was the custom in those ancient times for men to go before a ruler when he was visiting the parts of his kingdom and level the roads for his passage, building them up where necessary and cutting them down to make his passage smooth. John, then, sees himself as one who goes before the Lord to prepare a smooth passage for Him. He is the messenger sent to announce the establishment of God’s rule over men. He makes the path of the Lord smooth by preaching repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
WHAT PRECISELY DID JOHN THE BAPTIST PREACH?
It is probable that we do not know the full content of John’s preaching. But both St Matthew and St Luke give us the impression that his call to repentance was more detailed than the general exhortation to repent.
To the publicans, that is, to the tax collectors, John said: ‘Exact no more than what has been appointed you’ (Luke 3:13). To the soldiers he said, ‘Do violence to no man, neither calumniate any man; and be content with your pay’ (Luke 3:14). To the tax collectors and soldiers he counselled the practice of justice and the forsaking of avarice and violence. To the Pharisees and to the people generally he preached humility and love of neighbour. The Pharisees he rebuked because they took pride in being sons of Abraham and acted as if God depended on them for the accomplishment of His plans. To the people he said, ‘Let him who has two tunics share with him who has none; and let him who has food do likewise’ (Luke 3:11).
JOHN’S BAPTISM WAS INTENDED TO SYMBOLISE INTERNAL CHANGE
Those who believed in John and repented of their sins were baptised by him in the Jordan. It seems clear that the rite of washing in the Jordan was intended by John to symbolise the internal change of heart which true repentance demands. As the washing of the body in the flowing waters of the Jordan purifies the body, so does true repentance of heart purify the soul of man. It is quite clear that this baptism of John is not to be confused with the baptism which Jesus will later institute. John himself tells the people that one mightier than he will baptise them, not just with water but with the Holy Spirit.
OUR LORD JESUS GETS BAPTISED BY JOHN IN THE RIVER JORDAN
While John was still preaching repentance and baptising his followers, Jesus Himself came to him one day to be baptised. St Matthew tells us that John was reluctant to do so. ‘It is I,’ he said, ‘who ought to be baptised by you, and dost thou come to me?’ (Matthew 3:14). Jesus insisted, ‘Let it be so now, for so it becomes us to fulfil all justice’ (Matthew 3:15). When Jesus had been baptised the heavens opened and the Holy Spirit descended upon Him in the form of a dove and the voice of God the Father came from heaven, ‘Thou art my beloved son, in thee I am well pleased’ (Luke 3:22).
A VERY SIGNIFICANT MOMENT
This is a significant moment in the history of Jesus. It is clear from the words of John that Jesus had no personal need to receive the baptism of John. Certainly His desire to be baptised by John could be taken as a manifestation of His intention, as a pious Israelite, to dedicate Himself wholly to the service of God even beyond the ordinary requirements of the Mosaic Law. But the aftermath of the baptism shows us that something more than this was involved in the baptism of Jesus.
THE SACRAMENT: BAPTISM IN THE NAME OF FATHER, SON, HOLY SPIRIT
Later on Jesus will command that those who believe in Him be baptised in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Now these same three mysterious personages appear here at the baptism of Jesus. The Holy Spirit appears bodily in the form of a dove. The Father speaks from heaven and He addresses Jesus as His beloved Son. It is possible that God is here instituting the Sacrament of Baptism. John has already said that Jesus will baptise men, not just with water but with the Holy Spirit. How fitting, then, that He Who is to give the Holy Spirit to men should here be seen visibly to receive the Spirit or to be filled with the Spirit.
THE BEGINNING OF JESUS’ PUBLIC MINISTRY
Moreover, this manifestation of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit at the baptism of Jesus seems to mark the beginning of the public ministry of Jesus Himself. Jesus is seen to receive or to be filled with the Holy Spirit of God. God speaks of Him as His well-beloved Son, thereby approving His subsequent ministry.
And, after this manifestation of divine approval, Jesus is led into the desert by the Spirit for forty days, there to wrestle with the devil, the enemy of God and of men. The temptation of Jesus by the devil shows that the evil spirit is already disturbed by the appearance of Jesus. He believes himself threatened by his designs to destroy men and he would try this new adversary to determine his strength. Even though the temptation of Jesus by the devil took place in secret, it seems to be a fitting symbol of the future triumph of Jesus over the devil in the struggle for the salvation of men. From that point of view it reinforces the idea that the baptism of Jesus by John and the divine manifestation following it mark the beginning of the public ministry of Jesus, the divine commission or sanction for Jesus to begin the public fulfilment of His role in the divine plan of salvation.”
– Martin J. Healy S.T.D., 1959