Matt. 3:13-17; Mark 1:9-11; Luke 3:21-23; John 1:26-34
1. The Baptism.
These passages of Scripture, while differing in some details, bring out the main features in the baptism of Jesus. Check the following: (1) Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist; (2) John was apparently reluctant to perform this ceremony—which reluctance was overcome by the reassuring words of Jesus; (3) the baptism apparently followed the same form of immersion used for other candidates for baptism; (4) however, following the baptism of Jesus there was the manifestation of the Holy Spirit (which did not appear to others) "descending as a dove ... upon him" (Matt. 3:16); (5) there was also the divine message, "This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased" (Matt. 3:17).
After giving careful consideration to the above, the questions may arise: Why was Jesus baptized? What was Jesus' purpose in going through this ceremony?
Of course, we cannot regard Jesus' baptism as a sign of repentance, symbolizing the washing away of sin. Matthew's account tells how other people came to John "confessing their sins" (Matt. 3:6), but we always think of Jesus as "the sinless One." Indeed, later in His ministry Jesus Himself laid emphasis upon this very point, when He said, "Which of you convicteth me of sin?" (John 8:46). Neither should we see in the baptism an indication that Jesus was thereby joining the Baptist movement. The Gospels make clear that at quite an early period Jesus completely disassociated Himself from the John-the-Baptist movement. (See John 4:1-2.) This will be further discussed in a later lesson.
Seeking to understand the meaning of Jesus' baptism, we find several things standing out clearly:
(1) The baptism may be regarded as a public declaration by Jesus of His intention to enter upon His active ministry. The gospel writers make a special point of associating the baptism with the opening of Jesus' ministry. (See Mark 1:1 and Luke 3:23.) Nowadays, the start of a minister's active work is usually marked by some form of ordination ceremony. The baptism of Jesus may therefore be regarded as fulfilling a somewhat similar function. Indeed, in all probability Jesus was referring to this when He said, "It becometh us to fulfil all righteousness" (Matt. 3:15).
(2) The baptism may also be regarded as a symbol of something Jesus was actually doing at that time. While there was no thought of "washing away sin"—as already indicated—yet Jesus was actually letting go of one form of activity and entering upon an entirely different form of life. Thus far Jesus had been a carpenter, a shaper of wood; now He was to become a shaper of men. He was also letting go of the sheltered family life and launching out into the world, with "not where to lay his head" (Matt. 8:20). He was letting go of family responsibilities, but taking upon Himself worldwide responsibilities. Perhaps, also, Jesus saw in this baptism a foreshadowing of that baptism which He was to experience later, as mentioned to His disciples: "Are ye able ... to be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?" (Mark 10:38).
(3) But may it not be that Jesus, through His baptism, was also seeking to present to us some very important lessons? Note how the emphasis in the baptism story is placed not upon the outer ceremony, but upon the descending of the Holy Spirit. This means that while outer forms and ceremonies may have their place, they are not really complete in themselves. The "outward and visible sign" must be followed by a receiving of the "inward spiritual grace." Baptism may be regarded as a symbol of cleansing, or letting go; but this is only preparatory to receiving or taking hold of the desired good. John baptized with water; following the example of Jesus, we should seek to be baptized in the Holy Spirit.
The baptism of Jesus also throws much helpful light upon the use of denials and affirmations. The denial, like water baptism, has to do with cleansing, or letting go. But the denial is not complete in itself. The denial does only preparatory work, and should always be followed by the corresponding affirmation—just as the water baptism of Jesus was followed by the descent of the Holy Spirit. Through denial we are cleansed; by affirmation we are infilled with the desired good.
It should be further noted that when Jesus thus dedicated Himself to His God-given ministry, the dedication was followed not only by the descent of the Holy Spirit, but also by the message of divine approval. In like manner, as we dedicate ourselves to God's service and are ready and willing to follow His directions, we also become aware of divine approval; and once again is heard the message, "This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased" (Matt. 3:17).
In order to understand fully the metaphysical meaning of this story of the baptism of Jesus, the following notes from The Revealing Word (pp. 21, 22) should be carefully considered:
"Baptism—The spiritual cleansing of the mind. Typifies the cleansing power and work of Spirit that redeems men from sin. It is the first step in the realization of Truth. When the baptizing power of the word is poured on a center in consciousness, it dissolves all material thought, and through this cleansing, purifying process, the individual is prepared to see and discern spiritually.
"The two baptisms, those of John and Jesus, represent the two common steps in spiritual development, denial and affirmation, or the dropping of the old and laying hold of the new. In the first baptism, that of John, through the power of the word, the sense man is erased from consciousness, and the mind is purged and made ready for the second baptism, that of Jesus. In the second baptism, the creative law of divine affirmation, set into action by supreme Mind, lights its fires at the center of man's being, and when thus kindled raises soul and body to a high degree of purity. This process is known as regeneration. ...
"Baptism, the Holy Spirit—A quickening of the spiritual nature that is reflected in mind and body. Spiritual baptism has power; it is affirmative; it is positive. This outpouring of the Holy Spirit is the second baptism. Christ represents this phase of baptism. It is the most precious gift of God and comes to those who steadfastly seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness. 'He shall baptize you in the Holy Spirit' (Matt. 3:11)."
Matt. 4:1-11; Mark 1:12-13; Luke 4:1-13
2. The Temptations.
Note the following:
(1) Mark makes only a general reference to this period of temptation.
(2) Matthew and Luke give the complete story and are in essential agreement—except in the order of the temptations.
(3) The period of time mentioned is "forty days." This may refer to an actual calendar period, or (as seems more likely) it may be an approximate statement, equivalent to our term "about a month." However, it is interesting and instructive to note how this word forty (days, or years) appears again and again in Scripture. In most instances the word forty indicates "a period of time necessary to complete the work that is being undertaken." "Forty days" would mean something like this in the story of the temptations of Jesus.
While reading the Scripture passages given above, the questions will naturally arise: How should we think of this period of temptation? What are the writers of these stories actually seeking to convey to us? Several things should be given careful consideration:
(1) The word temptation, as here used, should not be thought of as meaning enticement to do wrong. Rather, the word should be regarded as indicating a time of testing, or proving; for it was through this testing or proving that Jesus was assured that He was really ready to enter upon His ministry. It will be noted that there are a number of references in the Bible where the "devil" is shown in the capacity of a "testing agent." (See Job 1-2.)
(2) The temptations as here recorded are more than unrelated incidents. Everything mentioned is clearly related to the forthcoming ministry of Jesus. The temptations represent what we may term the "pros and cons" of Jesus' thinking during this period. In other words, the temptations represent some of the challenges of the forthcoming ministry, such as had to be faced, and upon which decisions had to be made. Indeed, if we read the story of the temptations aright, we shall find that we are here actually thinking things through with Jesus.
Thus, a careful study of this period of temptation is important—because not only do we see Jesus coming through with flying colors (as the saying goes), but we are clearly shown how we also may become overcomers, as we face up to the various situations in life. Let us therefore consider these temptations of Jesus:
First temptation. (Matt. 4:1-4.)
At this time Jesus was not only physically hungry because of the period of fasting mentioned, but He was also facing an entirely new situation in life. Thus far Jesus had been a carpenter, and His daily bread had been earned through His work. He knew that if He did a certain job, the recompense therefrom would provide for His living. But now He was facing an entirely different situation. His work now was that of an itinerant preacher, and He would be called upon to go from place to place, traveling up and down the country. How could He be sure of His daily bread? True, God had endowed Him with certain wonderful powers, and Jesus Himself was aware of this; but was He justified in using these powers to provide for His own personal wants? Something within Him said, "A man must live, you know!" But Jesus went deeper and found the right answer, as He said: "It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God" (Matt. 4:4). It should be noted that Jesus' answer was almost a direct quotation from Deut. 8:3.
Second and third temptations. (Matt. 4:5-11.)
In order to understand the second and third temptations it is necessary to know something about what is usually termed "the Jewish messianic expectation." At the time of Jesus (and for many years prior to this) the Jewish people were looking for a heaven-sent deliverer, or messiah (the Anointed One). It was believed that when this deliverer appeared, not only would he free the Jewish people from the Roman yoke, and overcome other enemies, but he would also re-establish the Jewish kingdom in a manner even exceeding the splendor and glories of the David-Solomon period. Many passages in Scripture encouraged the Jewish people to expect this deliverer; and at the time of Jesus the people were eagerly looking forward to the appearance of their messiah.
However, in this expectancy there was one important point of difference. People were asking: Just how, and in what form will this messiah appear? Some believed that a deliverer of this sort could come only in a supernatural way—a celestial being, descending to earth from the skies. A messiah of this type, people believed, could subdue the earth through fear, plus the exercise of his supernatural powers. However, others believed that the coming messiah would be of a warrior type -— someone raised up in the midst of the nation, similar to David. They thought that a warrior of this sort would gather around him an army of patriots, strong enough to overthrow Rome, or any other arising world power. This warrior, or kingly type of messiah, is pictured in Psalms 72.
Now, with this background, the second and third temptations immediately take on new and important meaning. When Jesus was taken (either in thought, or in person) to the high pinnacle of the Temple, the thought came to Him: "Cast thyself down ..." As He saw Himself gradually descending into the Temple courts, upheld by the promised "angel hands" (see Psalms 91), He recognized that this would appear as a literal fulfillment of the Jewish expectancy, and all the people worshipping there would immediately acclaim Him as the Messiah. Furthermore, all this would be in complete accord with the Scripture prediction: "And the Lord, whom ye seek, will suddenly come to his temple" (Mal. 3:1). Thus, the second temptation resolved itself into a challenge to claim messiahship through a spectacular demonstration. The story indicates how all this was immediately rejected by Jesus.
Coming to the third temptation, it is not difficult to see that this is closely connected with the warrior, or kingly, type of messiah. The thought here is this: Just as the "kingdoms of the world" had been conquered by the armed might of Rome, so could Jesus and His army make conquest of the entire world, including Rome. In other words, the temptation was to gain a world kingdom by worldly means. Of course, Jesus also rejected this temptation—and how thorough and far-reaching was this rejection is indicated by the statement He made later: "My kingdom is not of this world: if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight ... but now is my kingdom not from hence" (John 18:36).
In reading this story, it is most important for us to see just how Jesus overcame these temptations. This is not fully explained in the record, and checking in detail just how each temptation was met does not provide an explanation. Rather, we should look at the entire story to see if it contains some well-defined principles for overcoming, and which were used by Jesus at this time. Then, if these principles can be recognized and fully understood, we also shall be in a position to "go ... and do likewise."
These "overcoming principles" may be briefly outlined, as follows:
(1) In meeting and overcoming these temptations, Jesus took the first step by putting God first. This applies in all three instances. The usual tendency is to put self first—to make personal provision, to receive personal acclaim, to gain personal power; but it will be noted that in each instance Jesus put God first.
(2) Jesus then spoke a strong word of Truth, based on Scripture—and He shaped His statements to meet each arising challenge. It is both interesting and helpful to notice how Jesus used denials and affirmations in these statements.
(3) Jesus then acted in accord with His spoken word. This is especially important—for it is through such actions that our statements become indeed "living words"!
Surely, we also can use these principles to meet and overcome every arising challenge or temptation in life.
Just at this point we may find ourselves inquiring: If Jesus thus rejected the current ideas regarding tbe coming of the messiah, what actually was His attitude regarding the messiah? "What sort of messiah did Jesus visualize and seek to reveal? And how would such a messiah establish his kingdom?
We find the answers to these and similar questions in the teaching ministry of Jesus. This matter will be referred to again and again in these lessons.
At this time, therefore, it may be sufficient to say that as we read the Gospels it soon becomes clear that Jesus thought of the messiah, not as a glorified earthly monarch—one holding dominion over his subjects by fear and force—but rather as one who helped, inspired, and served his people. Jesus Himself said, "I am in the midst of you as he that serveth" (Luke 22:27). Further study reveals that Jesus saw Himself as outpicturing the inspired poem of "the suffering servant" (Isa. 52:13 through 53:12). This passage should be carefully read at this time.
Furthermore, Jesus saw the coming of the messiah, not as a spectacular, outer event, but rather as the reception of the Spirit of Truth into the hearts and lives of believers. He saw clearly that a messiahship established upon spectacular appearance or physical force would not endure; but a messiahship established through the reception of Truth, and maintained through loving service, would endure forever. Of course, this was not an entirely new viewpoint, originating with Jesus; several Old Testament writers sought to emphasize this spiritual-type messiah, but their words were, for the most part, overlooked until Jesus brought them to light. At this time the student might refer back to Zechariah 9:9-10 and other similar passages. Several modern writers also have the same idea—as indicated in Phillips Brooks' Christmas Hymn:
"How silently, how silently, The wondrous gift is giv'n!
So God imparts to human hearts The blessings of His heav'n.
No ear may hear His coming, But in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive Him still, The dear Christ enters in." (Unity Song Selections, 134)
Questions for Lesson 3
- Why was Jesus baptized? Mention several important reasons for this ceremony.
- In what way, or ways, did the baptism of Jesus differ from other baptisms performed by John the Baptist at that time? Were there also some similarities?
- Explain briefly why Jesus' baptism was immediately followed by a period of temptation.
- Can you trace a connection between the first temptation, and a question which would arise at the start of Jesus' active ministry? What was the quotation from Deuteronomy which Jesus used at that time?
- Explain briefly how the second and third temptations were related to the messianic expectations at the time of Jesus. How did Jesus deal with these temptations? Quote some actual statements made by Jesus at this time.
- What does baptism represent in our experience?
- Is an outer ceremony sufficient in itself, or must something else be added? Illustrate your answer from the story of Jesus' baptism.
- Explain briefly the connection between baptism and the work of denials and affirmations.
- Can you suggest any reason, or reasons, why a high spiritual experience (such as that which occurred at the baptism of Jesus) should be followed by a period of "temptation"?
- Explain briefly the step-by-step method of overcoming temptation, as used by Jesus. Can we follow this method today? What good may we gain during these testing periods?