13 January 2013

Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

"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.'" (vv. 21-22)


Today the Church celebrates the Baptism of Jesus. Jesus' Baptism, as reported in the Gospel narratives, gives an initial sense of who Jesus is and what kind of ministry he might be about to embark on. It also forms the basis of the rite of Baptism for Christians today, whether practised as full immersion (river optional) or a gentle sprinkling.

And yet (forgive me) Luke's narrative of the event seems slightly ... underwhelming. When someone is baptised in church today, chances are there will be a certain degree of special ceremony, a sense of real occasion (and certainly a bit of a party afterwards). But here the act of Baptism is confined to a simple sentence and it's clear that he wasn't the only one to get dunked that day (verse 21).

There seems to be a common misconception that Baptism was somehow invented by the Church, whereas in fact it was really nothing new for first-century Jews like Jesus. Rituals of self-immersion and washing were common in Jewish practice at the time and symbolised a desire to be right with God and to cleanse oneself from impurity.

Most Christians understand 'impurity' to imply some form of sin from which one needs to repent, especially in the context of baptism. But if Jesus truly was God's son, and therefore sinless, why would such an act be necessary?

It's important to remember that, in Jesus' day, "impurity" could mean many things, including, but not restricted to sin. It might also simply be the consequences of life's circumstances (such as giving birth or having to touch something that had died).

At the start of his new ministry (and what would be a fairly short road to calvary) Jesus wants to be right with God, and God responds by affirming Jesus as God's son - a particularly special person among a host of baptismal candidates.

To Ponder

  • Have you been baptised? If so, what did your baptism mean to you?
  • What 'impurities' or things might there be in your daily life that can get in the way of your relationship with God, even though others may not consider them 'sinful' in themselves? 

Bible notes author

Anna Drew

Anna Drew is Director of Communications for the Diocese of Canterbury. She is a regular contributor to BBC Radio 4's Daily Service and Prayer for the Day and a freelance writer on faith issues.