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The Gospel records of the baptism of Jesus Christ report that as Jesus came up out of the water the Spirit of God descended like a dove onto Jesus [Matthew 3:17; Mark 1:10; Luke 3:22; John 1:32]. Simultaneously, the voice of God sounded from heaven: ‘You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.’

It is important to understand what happened here, because some of the heresies that have plagued the church issue from, or include, a misunderstanding of Jesus’ baptism, and the visible presence of the Holy Spirit.

Jesus’ baptism outlaws the historic heresy of Modalism and contemporary Unitarianism:

At Jesus’ baptism the three members of the Trinity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – are present, and clearly distinct; all three are present at the same time and engaged in the same event, yet each one is doing something unique to them.

We see here unity, without fusion, and distinction, without division. This outlaws the Unitarian belief that Father, Son and Spirit are not distinct persons, but each simply a different mode in which God may appear and work at a given time. (The ancient heresy of Modalism.)

Jesus baptism outlaws the ancient (and contemporary) teaching of Adoptionism:

In the history of the church some people have taught that God adopted Jesus as his Son at this point – that it was not until this moment that Jesus became the divine Son, and that it was at this moment that Jesus received the Holy Spirit. In the previous meditations we have seen that Jesus was already ‘the Son’ and ‘the Lord’ from the time of his conception, and that the Holy Spirit was intimately involved in that conception and birth. In addition, John the Baptist already knew that the coming, but as yet unidentified, Christ was his superior, and had existed eternally, before he observed the descent of the Spirit upon Jesus:

Matthew 3:11 (see also Mark 1:7; Luke 3:16) – ‘But after me will come one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not fit to carry.’

John 1:30 – ‘A man who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.’

We are therefore forbidden to understand what occurred at his baptism to be the beginning of his incarnation, the beginning of the divine nature of the man Jesus.

Jesus’ baptism outlaws the ancient and contemporary teaching of baptismal regeneration:

Some Christians see the descent of the Spirit on Jesus at his baptism as an indication that it is at the point of Christian baptism that the individual human being receives the Spirit of God. This concept is easily repudiated by the following:

Acts 10:44-48, where the Holy Spirit came upon Cornelius and his household before their water baptism.

And Paul’s statements in Romans 8:9 – ‘if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ’, and Ephesians 1:13 – ‘Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit.’

So we must ask: what is happening here at the baptism of Jesus?

John the Baptist gives us the biblical and incredibly simple explanation: that the visible descent of the Holy Spirit was God’s confirmation to John the Baptist, [and through him to the rest of us], that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God. He said:

‘I would not have known him, except that the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, “The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is he who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.” I have seen and I testify that this is the Son of God’ – John 1:33-34.

This descent of the Holy Spirit on Jesus at his baptism is the visible divine testimony accompanying the audible divine testimony to the divine identity of this man, Jesus. Here, at the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, the Father and the Spirit testify that Jesus of Nazareth is the Son of God.

This testimony of the Father and the Spirit about the Son is the critical focus of Christian belief:

‘And it is the Spirit who testifies, because the Spirit is the truth... We accept man’s testimony, but God’s testimony is greater because it is the testimony of God, which he has given about his Son. Anyone who believes in the Son has this testimony in his heart. Anyone who does not believe God has made him out to be a liar, because he has not believed the testimony God has given about his Son’ – 1John 5:6b -10.

© Rosemary Bardsley 2024