The Temptations of Jesus
3 – The Baptism Of Jesus as a tempting event
There are four passages included in the Gospels that describe the baptismal event of Jesus. They are as follows:
Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people. But Herod the ruler, who had been rebuked by him because of Herodias, his brother’s wife, and because of all the evil things that Herod had done, added to them all by shutting up John in prison.
Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
“I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
Now some Pharisees who had been sent questioned him, “Why then do you baptize if you are not the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?” “I baptize with water,” John replied, “but among you stands one you do not know. He is the one who comes after me, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.” This all happened at Bethany on the other side of the Jordan, where John was baptizing.
The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! This is the one I meant when I said, `A man who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.’ I myself did not know him, but the reason I came baptizing with water was that he might be revealed to Israel.”
Then John gave this testimony: “I saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on him. I would not have known him, except that the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, `The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is he who will baptize with the Holy Spirit. ‘I have seen and I testify that this is the Son of God.”
Why was Jesus Baptized?
Over the centuries, beginning with John the Baptist, there has been a long and often confusing discussion around the question, “Why was Jesus baptized?” There have been many answers, some believable and some unbelievable. I do not want to survey all the options, but it is my premise that if we ask the wrong question, we are guaranteed in getting a very unsatisfying answer. It is like the question “Have you ever beaten your child? My answer would be a resounding and true answer, “No! Never!” But if the questioner says, “Oh, your misunderstood me. I meant, “Have you ever beaten your child at chess?” Then with a grin I respond, “Oh yes! Many times! But not so often anymore.”
The question about the baptism also needs to be fine tuned. Let me split the usual question into two parts. The questions are:
- Why did Jesus come to be baptized?
- Why did God ask Jesus to come and be baptized?
These two questions may require very different answers.
Why did Jesus come to be baptized.
One reason might be because he was not only a good man, he was also a humble man. He felt the falleness of the world, or his own humanity, his frailty, his own lifelong temptability. He did not think of himself too highly. There was no arrogance in this man that said I’m different than other people. He did not think thoughts or speak words fit only for a Pharisee: “I thank you God that I am not as other men, especially this publican.”
Fort 30 years in the Synagogue when prayers of penitence were prayed, for example Psalm 32, and 51, he would not have said, “that’s nothing to do with me, I’ve never sinned!” I’m pretty sure he would have entered whole heartedly into such moments.
A second reason he may have come to be baptized was that he heard of John’s message to Israel, and knew he wanted to side with such a movement, to be part of the kingdom that God was about to establish, perhaps hardly understanding his own role in that great event. He certainly did not want to side with the Pharisees, who refused to join with John in any way.
But another, and perhaps the primary reason that Jesus came, was that he had heard the father speaking with enough clarity saying that he should go and be baptized by John. His was not to reason why; his life long wish was to obey the voice of his father. Even as a 12 year old boy, Jesus can say to his anxious parents, “Did you not know that I would be about my Father’s business?” (KJV) Jesus came simply because God had asked him.
When John says, but “this isn’t right”, Jesus simple says, “Let’s do it – to fulfill all righteousness.” Jesus may be saying to John, “I don’t quite understand all that this involves either, but God has asked me to do it, and I will fulfill his will and obey him. And so let’s do the right thing!”
Why would God want his Son to be baptized?
But then the second question comes to the fore. What divine purpose would be met by undergoing such an event?
John’s baptism was for sinners and was a sign of repentance. It is a puzzle why God would want Jesus to be baptized. John senses this dilemma too. From its earliest days, the Christian church was puzzled by this as well.
Are the events that take place at his baptism the sounding of a bell for Jesus to begin his ministry? Is it a wake up call for the man from Nazareth? Does God use this activity of John to stimulate Jesus into action too? Is this a divine arousal, like a call to ministry, similar to that faced by Old Testament prophets? We can only guess.
It is obvious that this action pleases God, because it is at that very moment that the skies open up in dramatic fashion, the Spirit of God descends upon him in the form of a dove, and a voice from heaven speaks a word of blessing on this man.
But a question raises its head: when the heavens opened, when the Spirit descends upon Jesus, and the voice sounds, was this display for the benefit of Jesus, or the benefit of others? Or both?
- Was this demonstrative action of God to benefit Jesus?
Up until that moment Jesus may not been informed clearly by his Father what his role was to be, or even who he really was. Throughout the first 30 years of his life he may have had intimations of his nature and destiny, such as when he is 12 years of age. His mother may have told him of his unusual beginnings. His heavenly Father may have spoken to him about parts of his role.
But now God the Father is going to speak with clarity in the decisive moment of Jesus’ humble submission to a sinner’s baptism. In the Gospel of Mark and Luke the words are addressed to Jesus himself. “You are my beloved son. With you I am well pleased.”
“You are my .… Son”
These words are found also in Psalm 2:7 “I will tell you of the decree of My Lord; he said to me. “You are my Son, today I have begotten you.” This is a Coronation Psalm – a Royal Psalm. It was used when a Hebrew King was anointed as the son or agent of God in the Kingdom of Israel.
“You are my Beloved Son”
This phrase is also a reminder of the words spoken by God to Abraham in Genesis 22 in the Septuagint (Greek) version of the book of Genesis “Take now your son, your beloved son, Isaac, and take him to Mount Moriah and offer him there for a sacrifice….” The inference here may be that the Father is going to sacrifice his beloved son, as Abraham was asked to do.
“In whom I am well pleased”
This phrase is found in the ordination formula taken from Isaiah 42:1.
“Behold my servant, whom I uphold.
My chosen, in whom my soul delights
I have put my Spirit upon Him
He will bring forth justice to the nations.”
These words are spoken to the Suffering Servant in the book of Isaiah.
The question is raised: is this brief word intended to combine the dual strands of royalty and suffering? Are they intended to identify both the Sonship and the Servanthood of the Messiah? Is this a clue that the Messiah would blend these two elements, against all reason and against all tradition? Perhaps. (Peter will try to sever this connection and be called Satan for doing so.) When we look into the triple temptation, we may be able to better answer that question.
The voice of God and this event may have been to let Jesus know that now he is to leave the carpenters bench, and begin the work for which he has been born. If Jesus has felt a little useless for these past 30 years, almost treading water, instead of getting somewhere, God the Father may now be saying “I am very pleased with you, and the kind of man you have been becoming.“ The past years have not been wasted, but they have been preparing you for the next chapter of your life.
So when God says “You are my beloved Son” he is telling Jesus that he is unique among all others in his relationship with the Father. And that word may be so confirming to Jesus that it settles all doubts and questions as to who he is.
- Was this demonstrative action of God to benefit others?
It is interesting to note that in Matthew’s version of the event, the words are not spoken to Jesus but to others who attend the baptism. “This is my beloved Son with whom I am well pleased.”
It brings back to mind the time when Jesus was transfigured before the three disciples Peter, James & John, later in the Gospel accounts. As they see Jesus glorified in those moments they hear a voice from heaven: “This is my beloved Son with who I am well pleased. Listen to him.” (Mark 9:7, Matthew 17:5, Luke 9:35)
And there is a similar moment in the Gospel of John, 12:27-32, that is instructive. It is the week before the crucifixion. Jesus says “Now my soul is troubled. And what shall I say? Father save me from this hour? No. For it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it and will glorify it again.” The crowd standing there heard it and said it was thunder. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not mine. Now has come the judgment of this world. Now the ruler of this world has been driven out. And I, when I am lifted up, will draw all people to myself.” He said this to indicate what kind of death he was to die.” In John’s gospel the crowd is being informed about what awaits in the next few days. His death.
But back to the Baptism. Was the voice for the good of the crowd? Perhaps the humble poor, who had gathered for their own baptism, and to prepare themselves for the coming of the Kingdom of God that John was announcing. Were they being given the good news that what they had longed for was now being initiated? Perhaps it was God who intended to be the very first to preach the good news of the Gospel concerning Jesus, the Son of God!
Was it for the good of John the Baptist? John had been preaching about the coming one. God was saying to John, “He’s here. Your work has been done. Thank you!”
Was it for the good of all future disciples? It is obvious that the 4 gospel writers, writing to their respective audiences, believe the church, that is undergoing great trials with the attendant temptations to desert the cause of Christ, need to hear of God’s acceptance of Jesus and His declaration that Jesus was The Son of God.
But there was more than a voice on that day that announced good tidings of great joy to all people. Sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words. Two visible signs accompanied the voice.
All four gospels are quite clear that at the very moment he arose from being baptized, the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove descended and rested upon him.
The Rabbinic interpretation of the creation story told in Genesis 1:2 reads, “The Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters… like a dove which broods over her young but does not harm them.” The inference here is that the Spirit of God has returned to begin the re-creation of the world. This is a new beginning for humankind. Later on the church will proclaim the good news, “If anyone is in Christ he is a new creation,” or, “part of the new creation”.
It may also cause us to reflect upon the flood story, found in Genesis 8:10-12, When Noah sends out the dove and it returns with a fresh olive leaf in its mouth, it indicating that the flood tide of destruction was now in recession and the world is being reborn.
Did you notice how physical this event seems to be: sight & sound combined in joint witness. It was as physical and as real, as the evidence given on the day of Pentecost when the promised Holy Spirit came with a rushing mighty wind, and flames of fire, and the gift of tongues. At the baptism of Jesus the rending of the heavens, the descent of the dove, and the voice from heaven, are intended to diminish doubt in those looking for the new beginning. This was no hallucination or a flight of fantasy.
Did you notice Mark’s version of the opening skies? “He saw the heavens torn apart!” This resonates with the ancient prayer of Isaiah (64:1). “O That you would tear open the heavens and come down!”
These same words also serve to remind us of the same word used near the close of Mark’s Gospel when he writes, “And the curtain of the temple was torn apart, from top to bottom.” (Mark 15:38)
For too long God had been seen as the remote deity. No prophets had come for two or three centuries. No guidance from above had come. The people of Israel had become a people of “The Book” rather than the people of “The Spirit”. The Rabbis no longer expected the voice of God to speak directly, and were glad simply to live with old echoes from a distant past. But this rending of the heavens said loudly that God is speaking again in both John’s ministry and the revealing of Jesus as His Son.
Was the Baptism a tempting event?
The entire church is called to play “follow the leader” and the Christian church from its beginning knows that the way leads through the waters of baptism – the entry rite into the new family of God. Jesus was being asked to blaze the way for all subsequent Christians who would be called to “follow the leader even unto death.”
Jesus is called to submit to baptism and thereby becoming the first “Christian” baptized. He is “the first of many brethren”. Eugene Peterson says, “Jesus is the dictionary in which we look up the meaning of words.” And after Jesus is baptized, baptism will never again for the church mean what John the Baptist meant, but what Jesus now means it to be. (That is why in Ephesus – read Acts 19 – those baptized under John’s ministry must be re-baptized into Christ.)
But hang on. I have raised the question, was the Baptism a tempting event?
Was Jesus tempted not to be baptized, especially since John understood it to be a baptism of repentance? When John hesitates to baptize Jesus, is this a temptation being offered, that he does not have to undergo the entire human experience? Perhaps. Is this a temptation to by-pass that which will be commanded for all members of the new Kingdom? Perhaps.
Is this act of submission on the part of Jesus a prelude to the crucifixion event, where humility again will be called for? In our baptism we are crucified with Christ. (Rom. 6) In his baptism, is it also a crucifying event? There is a connection between Baptism & death. As Jesus approaches his end, he says to his followers, “I have a baptism to be baptized with”. It will be a baptism of fire.
Did you notice when you read the 4 texts of John’s expectations of the Messiah when he comes? John is expecting fire to fall in the ministry of Jesus. The falling of fire, by the way, is not the descent of a gentle dove. He believes Jesus has come with his winnowing fork to gather the grain and then burn the chaff with unquenchable fire.
John has the messiah coming in power to judge the world. He had expectations for the function of Messiah, and it may be why later he is discouraged at what is happening to him personally and is disappointed about what he is hearing about Jesus, and he sends a message to Jesus saying “Are you the one who was to come or should we look for another?” (Matthew 11:1-6) Though John was “the greatest man born of woman” he misunderstood Jesus’ role. And I wonder if it might have been tempting for Jesus to adopt John’s expectations as his way of redeeming the world. But Christ had not been sent to bring down fire on the world, but to bring peace and salvation through dying.
The order is divine.
By the way, if Jesus had been tempted first and baptized second, what would we have read into that? That he had failed? Or that being tempted is the same thing as sinning?
Baptism is followed by “confirmation” in liturgical churches. Baptism is entry, but testing and temptation is for the “firming” of faith and is confirming.
In that the temptations took place immediately after his commissioning was announced, this may indicate that the temptations have to do with how he will fulfill his calling. This brings us then to consider the details in each of the accounts that the three gospels that have left us of the triple temptation.