If John’s baptism symbolized repentance, what need could Jesus have had for it? This question troubled many in the first centuries of Christianity. All the synoptic writers use an account of this event to introduce the major themes of their Gospels. The fourth Gospel, meanwhile, leaves it out entirely, recording the encounter between Jesus and John the Baptist but omitting any mention of Jesus’ baptism.
‘He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.’ (Lk 3:16)
In what ways have you encountered the intensity of divine love?
What mission has divine love given you to continue Jesus’ work?
Luke understood the baptism that John offered to be about more than repentance. It was about making a public declaration of citizenship in God’s coming kingdom. A conversion of heart was simply the necessary first step. Life under God’s reign required a new heart and a new spirit, and such a life required a clean break with the past. In Jesus’ case, no conversion was necessary for this public declaration. Baptism revealed instead his true nature as God’s beloved Son.
Such moments of revelation are common in Luke’s Gospel. God’s kingdom comes into view gradually. It appears first to individuals who alone among their neighbors recognize that God’s power is at work in a new way. The obedience of individuals like Elizabeth, Mary and Simeon transforms those around them. Luke uses images like these to show how one transformed individual can renew the lives of countless others.
The baptism of Jesus is one such “small beginning.” It is the first demonstration of the loving relationship that all believers will come to share with God. The divine love revealed at Jesus’ baptism grows clearer at his transfiguration, and its fullness appears in his resurrection. God extended the same divine love at Pentecost to any who took up the Son’s mission, and through sacramental baptism to any who have dedicated themselves to the Son in subsequent ages.
Luke portrays Jesus’ baptism as one of the “advancements in wisdom” that he experienced throughout his life (see Lk 2:52). Luke links Jesus’ baptism closely to his promise at Nazareth to bring glad tidings to the poor and proclaim a year acceptable to God. At his baptism, Jesus experienced divine love with new intensity; he responded to that gift with such fierce passion that his subsequent life and death transformed the world.
This same “spirit and fire” is the inheritance of all Christians. When Christians announce to the world that their life is now under God’s reign, they encounter the same divine love Jesus experienced. In that encounter, Christians find a mission that perfects their own abilities and continues some aspect of Jesus’ work. St. Paul was already a skilled teacher of Jewish law when an encounter with divine love drew him to preach the new way of Christ. Hildegard of Bingen was already an expert composer when divine love inspired her to craft the “Celestial Symphony.”
This same love is available to transform us today. Any who, like Christ, confess themselves publicly to be citizens of God’s kingdom will find in that declaration a love no fear can extinguish. The divine love that renews an individual believer has, within that believer’s response, the power to bring an entire community to new life.