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Baptism of Jesus

Feast Homilies

EPIPHANY / THE BAPTISM OF JESUS
January 6 (Matthew 3:13-17)

INTRODUCTION

In the baptism of Jesus by John, we notice the humility of Jesus and the reward for being humble. Though John’s baptism was for repentance, Jesus received it to manifest God’s glory and for confirmation to John that Jesus was the Messiah. Instead of circumcision for Jewish initiation, Jesus established baptism for Christian initiation. We, who received baptism in the name of the Most Holy Trinity, are the dwelling place of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. We must keep up God’s righteousness in our lives, so we enter God’s glory in heaven at the end of our earthly life. “By this baptism we were buried with Christ into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in a new life.” (Romans 6:4)

BIBLE TEXT

(Matthew 3:13) At that time Jesus arrived from Galilee and came to John at the Jordan to be baptized by him. (14) But John tried to prevent him, and said, “I need to be baptized by you, and yet you come to me!” (15) But Jesus answered him, “Let it be like that for now. We must do justice to God’s plan.” Then John agreed. (16) As soon as he was baptized, Jesus came up from the water. Then the heavens were opened and he saw the Spirit of God come down like a dove and rest upon him. (17) At the same time a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

INTERPRETATION

Preparations for a consecration
Unlike the first parents whom God created as adults, the incarnation of Jesus was like any other human being born from a woman as a child. Jesus humbled himself:
1) To be in the womb of a virgin for nine plus months.
2) Born in a manger among animals identifying with the homelessness of the less fortunate in the society.
3) Faced life threat like that of Moses.
4) Rescued by God’s providence by fleeing to Egypt.
5) Lived a humble life of childhood and teenage obeying human parents, and
6) As a youth helped his family by working until he was 30 years of age.

When Moses received God’s call to liberate his people in Egypt, he was 80 and he continued his mission for 40 years. Jesus was only 30 when he started his mission and took only three years and few months to complete his mission.

Jesus already received circumcision as a Jew when he was eight days old. John’s baptism was a ritual showing repentance of Jewish sinners in preparation to receive the Redeemer. Since Jesus was the Messiah and sinless, there was no need for his conversion or baptism. But in Jesus’ mind, there were reasons for subjecting himself to line up for baptism. It was like a holy person lining up among the penitents for confession. Jesus was last in the queue for baptism because, according to Luke 3:21, his was the last baptism John did that day. Though Jesus was among the sinners, his baptism was different because of a divine intervention.

In the previous verses of this Bible passage, John the Baptist had been preaching about how Jesus would baptize people with the Spirit and fire. While he was proclaiming this to the people, Jesus joined the crowd.

(Matthew 3:13) At that time Jesus arrived from Galilee and came to John at the Jordan to be baptized by him.

Date of Visit by the Magi and the Baptism of Jesus
The traditional belief is that Christ’s baptism was on January Sixth. The Magi from the East also came on the same date to adore Jesus 30 years before. So, church commemorates both the events on the same day every year.

Arrival of Jesus from Galilee to John
Jesus was living at Nazareth in Galilee. He had to travel around 80 miles to reach River Jordan where John was baptizing. So, it was a planned journey of Jesus.

River Jordan
The Israelites had crossed River Jordan when they entered the promised land under the leadership of Joshua. Every entry through water was a washing up of the old sinful life and entering a spiritual renewal. Flood during the time of Noah and crossing the Red Sea under the leadership of Moses were the previous experiences of the people giving up the old and taking up a renewed life.

The Baptism of John
John’s baptism was unlike the Christian baptism. It was not an initiation to any religion but an act of penitence to receive the Messiah. So, it was close to the Sacrament of Reconciliation before receiving Holy Communion. The Jews had never used baptism for themselves except for converts from other faith. But with the preaching of John, they received baptism as a sign of repentance and preparation to welcome the Messiah.

Jesus received baptism from John for some specific reasons:
1) Since Jesus took the form of a human, he wanted to show the humility of identifying with other humans and showing himself as a model for them.
2) Jesus wanted to fulfill the prophesies about him.
3) He wanted to honor John’s baptism.
4) Jesus wanted to upgrade John’s baptism with the descend of the Holy Spirit. Whether Jesus baptized any is not sure (John 3:22), though his disciples did that during his public ministry after John baptized him (John 4:2).
5) Jesus wanted John to have the supernatural experience that followed his baptism, so John got the certainty that Jesus was the Messiah.

(14) But John tried to prevent him, and said, “I need to be baptized by you, and yet you come to me!”

John was aware of his inferiority to Jesus. He knew Jesus’ mission from his parents and from God, “the one who sent me.” John preached that the one who was coming after him was mightier than him and that he would baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire (Matthew 3:11). John witnessed the descent of this Holy Spirit upon Jesus in the form of a dove. The same Holy Spirit descended on the apostles in the form of fire on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:1-4).

John’s objection to baptize Jesus reminds us of a comparable situation at the Last Supper. While Jesus was about to wash Peter’s feet, he objected by saying: “You will never wash my feet.” (John 13:8). However, as in his baptism, Jesus insisted on what he wanted to do.

(15) Jesus said to him in reply, “Allow it now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he allowed him.

To fulfill all righteousness
In our modern understanding, righteousness means moral or sinless living. During the Biblical times, fulfilling the righteousness meant fulfilling the terms of a covenant or a promise. In that context, Jesus meant on fulfilling the promise and prophecy concerning the Messiah. Jesus submitted to God’s redemptive plan. For that he identified himself with the sinners and represented them in his self-sacrifice. So, Jesus humbled himself like a sinner at the baptism and at his crucifixion.

The prophecy to be fulfilled
The Jewish leaders had associated baptism with the coming of the Messiah. For that reason, they sent priests and Levites to John asking him whether he was the Messiah, Elijah, or the Prophet (John 1:19-28). Only these three could baptize. When John said none of them, they questioned him for the reason of his act of baptism. John replied, quoting from Isaiah 40:3. “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’” (John 1:23). Jesus later identified John with the second coming of Prophet Elijah (Matthew 17: 12-13) as prophesied by Malachi in 4:5-6.

Moses said: “The LORD, your God, will raise up for you a prophet like myself from your midst, from among your own people, to him you shall listen.” (Deuteronomy 18:15). God fulfilled this prophecy in Jesus. In the transfiguration scene in Matthew 17:5, we read: “Peter was still speaking when a bright cloud covered them in its shadow, and a voice from the cloud said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased. Listen to him.’”

Because of the correlation between baptism and the coming of the Messiah, the baptism of Jesus and John were signs of the imminent arrival of the Messiah. John confirmed this by his proclamation that he was preparing the way for the one who was coming after him.

Fitting for us
Here “us” stands for Jesus and John. Both had to act together to fulfill the prophecy and set the stage for the Most Holy Trinity. Jesus’ response changed John’s reluctance to baptize Jesus.

(16) As soon as he was baptized, Jesus came up from the water. Then the heavens were opened and he saw the Spirit of God come down like a dove and rest upon him.

Jesus came up from the water.
The Holy Spirit came upon Jesus when he came out from the water to the dry land. According to Luke 3:21, Jesus was praying after baptism when the Holy Spirit came upon Jesus.

The heavens were opened.
There are several references in the Bible on the opening of the heavens. Here are some of them.

In the Old Testament
1) God opened the floodgates of the sky (heaven) during the flood at the time of Noah (Genesis 7:11).
2) Prophet Ezekiel, while he was by the river Chebar among the exiles, saw the heavens opened (Ezekiel 1:1).

In the New Testament
1) The first mention of the heavens opened was at Jesus’ baptism (Matthew 3:1; Mark 1:10; Luke 3:21).
2) St. Stephen, while he was on trial by the Sanhedrin, saw “the heaven opened up and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” (Acts 7:56).
3) St. Peter saw the sky opened, and an object like a great sheet coming down, lowered by four corners to the ground (Acts 10:11).
4) John the Evangelist saw the heaven opened while he was in Patmos Island based on which he authored the book of Revelation (Revelation 4:1; 19:11). 

The Heavens
Why Bible uses the plural “heavens”? The Bible says: “In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth.” (Gen. 1:1). The Bible speaks of three heavens distinguishable from the context.
1) The firmament or immediate atmosphere that surrounds the earth.
2) The outer space of sun, moon, and stars as far as it stretches.
3) The place where God, the holy angels, and the souls of the just men dwell. The Bible calls it “The heaven of heavens,” or “the third heaven” (2 Cor.12:2).

He saw the Spirit of God descending.
Only John saw the Spirit of God descending. The evangelist did not say “they” saw because it was visible only to John and not to the public.

Spirit of God descending
Isaiah 42:1 prophesied the coming of the Holy Spirit upon Jesus.

Like a dove
In Luke 3:22 we read: “the Holy Spirit came down upon him in the bodily form of a dove.” Dove is a symbol of peace and purity, which signifies the purity and peace the Holy Spirit brings.

In John 1:32, the Baptist testified saying, “I saw the Spirit come down on him like a dove from heaven and rest on him.” So, the Holy Spirit remained with Jesus as prophesied by Isaiah: “The spirit of the LORD will rest upon him.” (Isaiah 11:2).

(17) At the same time a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

The prophecy of Isaiah 42:1 was fulfilled in the voice that came from the heaven at the baptism of Jesus: “Here is my servant whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight. I have put my spirit upon him, and he will bring justice to the nations.”

The baptism of Jesus became an occasion for the empowerment of Jesus for his public ministry. Besides, it was necessary for the fulfillment of the prophecies recognizing him as the Messiah and revealing him to John and those who were present.

MESSAGE

1. The baptism of Jesus was a pre-enactment of what would happen at the end of his public ministry. The immersion of Jesus in River Jordan represented his death and burial, his rising from the water represented his resurrection, and the descend of the Holy Spirit and the opening of the heaven, and a voice from there were signs of acceptance he received from heaven.

2. Jesus instituted the Sacrament of Baptism by subjecting himself for baptism. He asked his disciples to baptize in the Trinitarian formula (Matthew 28:19). So, every Christian has accepted the Most Holy Trinity at the time of baptism.

3. Baptism is a requirement for salvation. Jesus told Nicodemus, “Truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, one cannot enter the Kingdom of God.” (John 3:5). Faith in God is not enough. We must be members of the mystical body of Christ and practice our Christian faith.

4. Just as Jesus started his public ministry with baptism, the Christian life starts with baptism. We, as Christians, are the dwelling place of God. St. Paul reminds in 1 Corinthians 3:16-17: “Do you not know that you are God’s temple, and that God’s Spirit abides within you? If anyone destroys this temple of God, God will destroy him. God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.”