The Baptism of Jesus
The ministry of Jesus began with his baptism. While each gospel writer chose to introduce Jesus in a different way, they all talked about his baptism.
The baptism of Jesus was remarkably simple, taking only a few sentences to describe. He was baptized in the Jordan River by John the Baptist. John did not want to baptize the Messiah, thinking himself unworthy. But Jesus talked him into it.
Once the baptism was complete, Jesus came out of the water and the sky opened up. God’s power¹ descended “like a dove” onto him. A voice from the sky proclaimed that Jesus was God’s beloved son.²
With the power of God upon him, the ministry of Jesus could begin.
The Ritual of Baptism
The origins of baptism as a ritual are debated by scholars. Did it derive from another group, the Levitical cleansings, or some other source? It really doesn’t matter. That baptism is a ritual of cleansing, repentance, and renewal is not really debated. John’s baptism of water does not differ in any meaningful way from the practice as it is done today. John baptized those who confessed their sins (repented) and the washing was clearly a symbol of a person’s inner state.
Both the early church and the church today baptized whenever there was a confession of sins and a pledge of fealty to Jesus as the savior. The pair of baptism and repentance is the only entry ritual used when becoming a follower of Christ. Of the pair, Jesus only required repentance.
Baptism, along with the Lord’s Supper, are the only Christian rituals described by all four gospels. It is remarkable given the ritualistic nature of Judaism and most other world religions how little emphasis Jesus placed on ritual. Jesus never set up religious observances, like prayer and fasting, as rituals. This is especially true of public rituals, such as prayer, where Jesus instructed that they be private affairs between a person and God.³
The Power of God
There is no reason to understand the Spirit mentioned here as anything other than the power of God. The power of God came upon God’s own Son, giving him the power he would need to do his ministry. This is why the baptism marks the beginning of his ministry.
Jesus at all points was the loyal subject of his heavenly father. It was because of his complete submission and obedience to God that he was granted power and glory. Jesus promised that the Holy Spirit, or God’s power, would come to his followers as well. All Christians require the power of God in order to do God’s will.
Jesus as God’s Son
The identity of Jesus was wrapped around two essential points: That he was the Messiah and that he was God’s Son.
Jesus, time and again, kept his status as the Messiah private, constantly evading the question when it was raised publicly because of two things: (1) his time had not yet come to die and be raised, and (2) he was not yet ready to be king (See “Jesus as Heir” below). It is quite clear that the Jews did not expect the Messiah to come in two stages, first to die and be raised, and second to return to earth, resurrect [believers] and rule as king. So Jesus kept his status secret until such time as it was appropriate to let it be known.
Instead he was known as God’s Son. The purpose of this was to show that he was not God, but was speaking on his behalf. In Jewish custom, a son was always subordinate to the father, never greater. Fathers would, however, frequently send their sons as their legal representatives, or agents. The name was obviously vague enough that it sounded more like a Messiah rather than the Messiah. It was sufficiently different from the messianic prophecies that it was ambiguous.
That the voice from heaven calls him God’s Son and not Messiah should be enough to conclude that this title was preferred.
However, Jesus was known most commonly by the term he used for himself: Son of Man. Over the centuries there has been no consensus among biblical scholars about what was meant by this term. I will not attempt to define it here, only note that the term was used alongside Messiah and Son of God as the primary titles for Jesus.
Jesus as Heir
Why did Jesus wait until he was 30 years old to begin his ministry? The clue to this can be found in the genealogies of Jesus. Matthew opens his book with the genealogy and Luke gives the genealogy of Jesus immediately after the baptism. Both genealogies emphasize the decent from David. We get another clue in John 2 at the wedding feast where Jesus’s mother asks Jesus to solve the problem of a lack of wine.
In order for Jesus to take up his inheritance of the throne of David, he had to be heir to the throne. Legally speaking, this means his father had to be dead. He started his ministry at 30 years old because Joseph was dead. That is why only his mother is mentioned at the wedding feast and the crucifixion. When Jesus returned to his home town, the people wondered if this was the same Jesus that was the son of the carpenter. They remembered him as if a long period of time had passed. Joseph had been dead for a good number of years, and Mary, a widow, was no longer living in the same town. She would have been the responsibility of Jesus, her firstborn son.
James E Talmage wrote in 1922 that Jesus was the rightful heir to the throne of what would have been the kingdom of Judah, had the Romans not been occupying it. Bruce Charlton adds: “It would explain why Jesus was regarded as a credible political threat.” Both the Jews and Romans considered it possible that Jesus could have been “King of the Jews”.
It is for these reasons he was called the Son of David, a Messianic title of kingship.
This will be discussed more in later parts.
¹ The different terms used, “Spirit”, “Spirit of God”, and “Holy Ghost”, all mean the same thing: God’s power. These differences in terms only pose a difficulty for the doctrine of the Trinity where the “Holy Spirit” is defined as a “unique person of a triune God.” God’s power also descended on the believers in Acts 2, this time in the form of tongues of fire.
² There are a few minor word choice differences between the accounts. For example, Matthew says “This is my beloved Son”, while Mark and Luke say “You are my beloved Son”. These are merely narrative choices that pose no contradiction at all. The synoptic gospels call Jesus “God’s beloved son” while John calls him “the Son of God”. These are the same thing.
³ That the Lord’s Prayer has become a ritual is not strictly in keeping with the teachings of Jesus. Jesus was teaching how to pray, not what to pray.