On Sunday we celebrated Jesus’s baptism by his kinsman, John the Baptist, which marked the beginning of Jesus’s world-changing ministry.
Ritual purification had been part of Jewish practice going back to the earliest books of the law. But by the time John the Baptist arrived on the scene, washing with water seems to have become ritualised to the extent that it was emptied of its meaning and divorced from day-to-day life.
John challenged this. He was preaching for repentance of sins with that being put into action, sharing food and clothing with the poor, dealing honestly with others and so on. Those who would not commit to this he condemned as broods of vipers, but those who were prepared to repent he immersed in the Jordan as a symbol of that inward change.
But if this was what baptism was about, repentance and the rejection of sin, why did Jesus need to be baptised when he was without sin? The gospel accounts give some definite indications that this was not a normal baptism. John himself says he baptises with water, but the one coming after him will baptise with the Spirit. And in the event itself, witnesses saw the Spirit descending on Jesus ‘in bodily form, like a dove’.
It seems that with Jesus something fundamental had changed in baptism. There is symbology in the dove, harking back to the story of Noah and the flood. When Noah sends the dove out, its return with a twig from an olive tree, and then its failure to return at all, indicate the flood is receding. The time of destruction is at an end and there is to be a new beginning for mankind. What is more there is to be a new covenant between God and man.
This language is also used about Jesus. He too brings a new beginning and a new covenant. But this time it is the final word because, in the words that God himself speaks, Jesus is not just another man, he is God’s own son – bringing God’s forgiveness for all who will accept it through what he does on the cross at Easter – once, for all, forever.
Rev Peter Wright