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Epiphany: Why was Jesus baptized?

David Capes
By David Capes
January 2, 2013

Epiphany is January 6th.  It marks the end of the Christmas season.  Between Christmas day and Epiphany are the 12 days of Christmas, which most know these days through the English carol. 

The word “epiphany” comes from the Greek; it means “manifestation” or “appearance.”  It was used primarily in religious texts to describe the appearance of a god. Essentially, Epiphany as a holy-day is the celebration that God has become a human being in Jesus of Nazareth.  In the west the holiday is commonly associated with the arrival of the wise men to see the baby Jesus. In the east Christians link Epiphany to the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan by John the Immerser.  You may recall the heavenly voice said as Jesus came up from the water, “This is my Son whom I love, with him I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17).  In baptism God’s Son is revealed to the world. 

When you read the Gospels, it is clear that John’s baptism is about repentance and the forgiveness of sins.  So the question arises: Why did Jesus need to repent?  Or what sin was Jesus guilty of that he needed to be forgiven?  In Matthew ‘s account of Jesus’ baptism we are told that John finds Jesus’ request to be baptized puzzling for he demurs and says “I need to be cleansed by You.  Why do You come to me?” (Matthew 3:13-14).   But Jesus convinces John to superintend his baptism. 

So why was Jesus’ baptized?  The rest of the New Testament and Christian tradition claim that Jesus was without sin so he had no need to repent—in the traditional sense of the word—and be forgiven.

Let me suggest several reasons why Jesus went to John and insisted that the prophet dip him in the Jordan River.  First, Jesus wanted to identify with John.   When Jesus heard what John was doing in the desert—calling  people to change their ways and announcing the arrival of the kingdom of God—the Nazarene wanted to be there, to drink it all in,  for he sensed in his spirit that it may be his time.  Second, Jesus wanted to identify with the women and men who were coming to John in repentance and faith.  These were the “poor in spirit” Jesus would declared “blessed” in his Sermon on the Mount.  Put another way, Jesus wanted to identify with sinners.  Later, as controversies increase around him, he will be criticized for being a friend of sinners.  Third, Jesus’ baptism marks a turning point in his life.  The word translated “repentance” in most Bible translations means “a change of mind” (metanoia).  Now a true change of mind is always accompanied by a corresponding change of behavior.  After his baptism everything changes for Jesus.  He will leave behind the carpenter shop to become an itinerant preacher and healer.  He will leave behind his home in Nazareth to set up his headquarters in Capernaum.  He will leave behind a private life and become a most public person.  Jesus’ baptism is the turning point of his life.  Fourth, Jesus’ baptism foreshadows his coming death, burial, and resurrection.  Now I must admit that this last reason is more speculative, but it is certainly consistent with the story as it unfolds in the Gospel.  When Jesus submits to John’s baptism, because of who he is—God’s Son, the Anointed One--he gives baptism an entirely new focus.  Those who follow Jesus in baptism will do so as an act of initiation into the Christian faith; through baptism they participate in Christ’s life, death, and resurrection (Roman 6).  For Christ-believers baptism is the start of their new life; it is the turning point of their lives just as it was for Jesus.

There could be no better way to close out the Christmas season than with the baptism of new believers.  I know many churches wait until Easter to baptize, but it makes sense for churches to follow the rhythm of the Church calendar and celebrate Jesus’ baptism and his revelation to the world by participating in the events celebrated at Epiphany.  Maybe it is your time to follow Jesus in baptism.   



David Capes lives in Texas and is the Academic Dean and Professor of New Testament at Houston Graduate School of Theology. He earned his Bachelor's Degree in Religion at Mercer University in Atlanta, his Master's in Divinity and his doctorate in New Testament at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Texas. He is the author of numerous publications and is one of the top scholars and writers for The Voice.


Neil Hicks said...
January 3, 2013
David, I'm really getting a lot out of your blogs.
I'm an Australian Anglican (Episcopalian) and I love the way you are using the Church Calendar to frame your blogs. It is so helpful to me to read something as thoughful and spiritually nourishing as your bog and at the same time to be walking the journey of the church year.
So many christian devotionals are theme based that they cut across the calendar whereas your uses it and that is a great help to me. Thank you.
God Bless. Shalom
David Capes said...
January 3, 2013
I'm glad to hear the blogs have been helpful to you. I come from a tradition that hasn't--in the past--talked much about the rhythm of the church year. That seems to be changing. There is something refreshing about moving through the seasons together with other believers across the world. Easter is early this year. If you are on twitter, I point to other blogs you may find helpful. I'm at @DavidBCapes.
Henry Martin said...
January 6, 2013
Two quibbles. First you refer once in following to John the immerser before reverting back to the transliterated "baptize." A large percentage of your readership will take exception to that (me included). The very fact that Jesus and John are Jews and the discussions around the baptisms use the term "cleansing" points to pouring or sprinkling as per Old Testament law.

Also, early winter in the Jordan probably is not prime baptizing season. It is curious, though, that the Eastern Church, closer to the region historically, follows this tradition. I go with the Western Church on this one, though all the Bible indicates is that the magi came sometime before Herod died.

In Christ,
David said...
January 7, 2013
Henry, thanks for your comment. First, the post has to do with Jesus' baptism (modeled on John's baptism) not how Christians have practiced baptism since then. Historically, (in the opinion of scholars) the most likely antecedent to Jesus' baptism involves the mikvaot (immersion pools) that archaeologists have been digging up in Israel over the last 200 years. There are many good books on Jewish immersion rituals that involve cleansing around holy sites. (2) The Greek verb translated baptism is consistent with dipping or immersion in the water.(3) Mandean baptismal practices--which are modeled on John's baptism-- involve immersion. (4) The statement in the Gospels that "Jesus came up out of the water" and the Spirit came down is also consistent with Jesus being down in the water. So my conclusion and that of many scholars who study these things in some depth is that Jesus' baptism would have been by immersion. It is possible that is not the case, but the probability is high. Again this says nothing about the modality of Christian baptism. It is a historical conclusion.

Second, the Church celebrates the incarnation and Jesus' birth on December 25, but no one argues that Jesus is actually born on this date. We don't celebrate THE DAY he was born. We celebrate THE FACT that he is born. Likewise, no one argues (historically) that Jesus was baptized in the Jordan or the wise men came to visit the infant Jesus on or about this date. These are dates set aside to commemorate these events. They are driven theologically not historically.

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