Recovering the Mystery
Some time ago, I came across a great comment best paraphrased as “Life is a mystery to be lived, not a problem to be solved.” Living in mystery—sounds intriguing.
What might that look like? Through our Scripture Lesson today, we are brought (in spirit) to the shores of the Jordan to contemplate in wonder of Christ’s baptism by John.
Throughout the ages, the voices of Christian wisdom testify that the Baptism of Jesus Christ is a great mystery that eludes our comprehension but demands our contemplation. When we read closely, the sparse details in Matthew seem idiosyncratic and incomplete, begging our questions and offering few answers. It seems to me that there are three mysteries regarding the baptism of Jesus that demand our attention and contemplation.
The First Mystery: Jesus Does It
The first mystery is perhaps the most obvious. It is the mystery that Jesus himself submits to baptism at all. We read that John’s baptism was “for repentance.” But yet Jesus Christ, the sinless savior of the world, submits himself to it. So if Jesus is not in need of repentance, what then is the purpose of Jesus’ baptism?
A quick scan through history reveals that Christians have struggled with this mystery for as long as there have been Christians. The fourth century Doctor of the Church, St. John Chrysostom, best known for his superb skills as a theological orator, ruminates on this mystery in one of his sermons. After struggling out loud with the mystery for some time, and after proposing several solutions that prove inadequate, St. John Chrysostom eventually asks, “For whom was He baptized, if this was done not for repentance, nor for the remission of sins, nor for receiving the gifts of the Spirit?” He ends up in the simple place where his questions started.
But our mystery goes beyond this incongruity—the idea of a sinless participant undergoing baptism of repentance. There is a greater metaphysical mystery at play as well. Through the baptism of Jesus, “we have an amazing thing before us. He who created the waters submits to being baptized in them. He who created the heavens and the earth and saw that it was good and not evil, submits to cleansing in waters. He who regenerates our flesh, Who is the Regenerator, He descends in the flesh into regenerating waters.” It is a mystery indeed.*
Of course, there have always been people who have tried to eliminate the mysteries of our faith, attempting to contain their magnitude in neat, little, bumper-sticker sized boxes. One popular answer to this mystery, especially with preachers throughout the centuries, is that Jesus was modeling behavior for us. This explanation has ticked a lot of boxes for us Baptists in particular, as we are a people whose identity is intrinsically linked to how we understand baptism. For us, as well as many other denominations, Jesus provides here the model for carrying out the command issued at the Great Commission to “baptize.”
In a variety of ways, St. John Chrysostom and many others throughout history, have come to believe that Jesus’ baptism functioned as a sort of “coming-out party” through which the people of the region might take note of his presence and upcoming ministry. As is the case in the biblical narrative, his baptism is where Jesus emerges onto the stage of history in an active manner. From here on, he will play a major speaking role.
But while this and other explanations may be logical, it seems incomplete. The mystery remains. As it will forever remain……in this world.
The Second Mystery: The Symbolism
The second mystery of Jesus’ baptism has to do with its symbolism. This seems to be the mystery that enraptures commentators and authors from the apostle Paul through those of the present day.
Paul began our infatuation by locating within the event of Jesus’ baptism a symbol of death and regenerated life. In Colossians, for instance, Paul states that we have “been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead” (2:12).
This is outlined in detail in the New Minister’s Manual, a handbook for the rituals of ministry:
Before a person becomes a Christian, he/she is dead in sin. When a person is dead, they are buried. The water represents a grave. As a person is lowered into the water it symbolizes that they are being buried.
A person who becomes a Christian receives new life from Christ. The person being lifted up out of the water symbolizes being raised to walk in newness of life.
The Book of Common Prayer prescribes similar words in a thanksgiving prayer:
We thank you, Father, for the water of Baptism. In it we are buried with Christ in his death. By it we share in his resurrection. Through it we are reborn by the Holy Spirit.
Baptism is clearly understood to be an image of death and life. The church says it over and over and over again. When we descend into the waters, we die. Our “old man,” to use Paul’s language, dies in the water with its lusts. When we ascend out of the waters, we are reborn a new creature. This is a hard thing to understand. [Just like Nicodemus,] we cannot fathom it. We do not know how a person is reborn of water and the spirit, we just know how we are told to begin the Christian life.*
But the symbolism of baptism extends beyond merely death and rebirth. The most sacred rituals—the ones that transcend time, space, geography, culture, and language—they incorporate all our senses in the experience of symbolism.
Think for a moment of communion. Our sense of hearing is involved in the ritual through the words and prayers that are spoken. We see, smell, touch, and taste the elements—the bread and the cup. We speak responses and sing songs. We use our entire bodies, our whole selves, in order to perceive the Divine.
Baptism is no different, particularly in the case of the baptismal candidate. Words of scripture are read, prayers are offered, songs are sung; we bear witness of the ritual with our eyes and ears; we incorporate our bodies as we stand, sit, and speak.
But for the candidate, there is also the sight of the water as you enter the pool. There is the heavy dampness that your sense of smell cannot ignore. There is the cold wetness that seems to seize your very heart in its icy grasp. And yes, there is even the salty taste of the water mixed with your own body as some inevitably penetrates your sinus cavity. You feel yourself go weightless as your body reaches its lowest point and time seems to stop. In that fraction of a second, there may even be an experience panic before you experience the additional g-forces of fighting the weight of the water as you are pulled back through the surface.
There are many mysteries to be found in the symbolism of baptism. Symbols are, by definition, a partial revelation of a complete truth. We cannot ever grasp the whole through its symbolic representation. But the mystery can be wrestled with, and so baptism provides ample fodder for our contemplation until the end of the age.
The Third Mystery: Acceptance
To me, the greatest mystery is that of the acceptance that comes through baptism. At Jesus’ baptism, Matthew tells us that Jesus experienced the affirmation of God in a remarkable manner: “The heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him, and behold, a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased'” (3:16-17).
I think the mystery here is perhaps best expressed in the question, Why was God pleased with Jesus?
Was God not pleased before? —I don’t think so.
But why is God expressing his pleasure now?
I don’t think it is because now Jesus was somehow more holy because of his baptism.
I don’t think God is pleased with Jesus because Jesus throughly marked off all the appropriate prophetic check-boxes on his “Messiah to-do list.”
In fact, I don’t think it has anything to do with a theoretical change in the substance or essence of Jesus.
Just as Christians of centuries past answered the first mystery by saying Jesus was baptized “for us,” so those very same Christians argue the same here. They claim that the voice was more for John or the crowd than for Jesus himself.
But I disagree. The pronouns in the baptism accounts are notoriously difficult to sort out, and one is largely left wondering whether Jesus or John alone witnessed the affirmation of Jesus as God’s son. In addition, Jesus is a human being, and all human beings—regardless of depth of spirituality or self-esteem—we all require external affirmation in some form and frequency.
I don’t think Jesus was any different. The baptism of Jesus is located at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry—it is called the Theophany (the appearance of God) by the classical authors. We, who know what is coming in the story, know that Jesus is about to be whisked away to the desert to be tempted. After surviving those trials, Jesus begins his own ministry of preaching and healing.
The words of God, “Behold my servant” are an affirmation of Jesus; at this particular point in time, they serve to motivate and empower Jesus to endure temptation and begin an uncertain ministry in Galilee. Christian author John Eldredge points this out while talking about the affirmation needed by every human. He says,
Even Jesus needed to hear those words of affirmation from his Father. After he is baptized in the Jordan, before the brutal attack on his identity in the wilderness, his Father speaks, “You are my Son, whom I love, with you I am well pleased” . . . In other words, “Jesus, I am deeply proud of you; you have what it takes.”
If Eldredge and others are correct, than this is truly a great mystery. The Son of God required affirmation to face the life ahead of him. It doesn’t really make sense to us. But then again, it is a mystery.
But one thing that is no mystery is that all of us need affirmation. We all need someone outside ourselves to recognize those good things about us. But most of us do not receive enough affirmation. From the youngest to the eldest, we are so starving for acceptance that we will try all sorts of unhealthy things in pursuit of it.
This is actually the entire point of Eldredge’s book: to live the kind of healthy, vibrant life that God designed us to live, we must pursue only the affirmation of our Designer.
When we seek validation through our occupation, we will become burnt-out shells who are alienated from everyone we once loved.
When we seek validation through our spouse, we are subject to their whims and emotions.
Seeking validation through hobbies, friends, social organizations, and any other venue is just as feeble. The fleeting impression of validation we receive from these agents is but a dim reflection of the real deal. Ultimately, pursuing validation through any of these is a tumultuous and unrewarding prospect, as each is subject to the variances of feelings, business fluctuations, economics, and dozens of influences that are outside our control.
But there is a stable and true source from which we can find validation in our lives—God. He is our anchor. His steadfast love for us endures forever. We would all be better to remember the words of the old hymn, “Be very sure, be very sure, Your anchor holds, And grips the Solid Rock.”
*Portions of this sermon were taken and adapted from a sermon delivered at the St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church, McKinney, TX