[January 13, 2013] Within the context of the tide of Epiphany, we celebrate the baptism of the Lord as an aspect of His manifestation. As He received baptism at the hands of John the Baptist, “heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon Him in bodily form like a dove, and a voice came out of heaven, [saying], ‘You are My Son, the Beloved, in Whom I have found My delight.’”
Within the context of the Gospel according to Luke and the Acts of the Apostles, Jesus’ baptism in which He received the Holy Spirit is a precursor of Christian baptism: “Repent, and each of you be baptized upon the Name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38). In the Acts of the Apostles, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit accompanied baptism in water, either spontaneously or by the laying on of hands, either before or after the baptism itself. (The outpouring of the Holy Spirit usually—but not always—was accompanied by the laying on of hands, but it was not under human control.)
Just as Jesus presented Himself for baptism and then received the Holy Spirit as the anointing for the work that He was to do, so the believer presents her or himself for baptism and enters into the church’s anointing for the work which they are to do. While Jesus was indwelt by the Holy Spirit before His baptism, this was not the same as the “anointing” which He received in the Jordan. The anointing (or christening) equipped Him with the power of the Holy Spirit for His work. He was the Anointed One, the Messiah, for the sake of His work, His ministry of preaching and signs and His offering up of Himself on the cross. The believer too is indwelt by the Holy Spirit, but this is not identical with the anointing for ministry. The anointing that comes upon the believer is the anointing that came upon the church on the day of Pentecost. What happened to the church on the day of Pentecost was what happened to Jesus at His baptism. We come under the church’s anointing when we receive baptism and the laying on of hands. You will see that whenever the expression “baptism in the Holy Spirit” occurs in the New Testament it refers to the day of Pentecost, not the individual’s experience, though the individual does receive the outpouring of the Holy Spirit when they come under the church’s anointing.
So the Holy Spirit has these two aspects: She indwells us as a Person and She empowers us outwardly for witness and ministry. She baptized the church on the day of Pentecost, and when we are baptized into Christ in water and enter the church through the laying on of hands, we receive that which has been poured out upon the church on the day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit’s empowerment for witness and ministry.
We can take this one step further. What happens to us, and what happened to the church, is not separate from what happened to Christ. Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit and from His conception He dwelt in the Holy Spirit and the Holy Spirit dwelt in Him. When He went to John for baptism, He went as a Penitent, repenting of the sins of the world, and when He was baptized He received the Holy Spirit in response to His act of obedience. What happens to us is this very experience. When we believe “into” Him (by believing “upon”—on the basis of—His Name, His revelation), the Holy Spirit Who indwells us is the same Holy Spirit that indwelt Him. The baptism that we then receive is the baptism of repentance that He received at the hands of John. We receive His baptism. And the Holy Spirit that comes upon us is no other than the Holy Spirit that anointed Him.
Moreover, when Jesus rose from the dead, His human nature was divinized (including the judgment and death that He passed through). He rose as a new Person. And what happened to Him, this divinization of His human nature, was also “experienced” by the Holy Spirit who indwelt Him. The Holy Spirit “became” this divinized human Being, just as He “became” the Holy Spirit. When we believe into Jesus, we believe into this resurrected One and this “new” Holy Spirit is She who comes to dwell in us. This is the teaching of the Gospel according to John. Because of His co-inherence with the Holy Spirit, He is wherever the Holy Spirit is and the Holy Spirit is wherever He is. When He passed through the judgment of God on the cross and His human nature was divinized in the resurrection, His new nature and being is now communicable through the Holy Spirit whenever we repent and receive the forgiveness of sins by faith in Him (thus clearing the way to receive Him into our spirit as the Holy Spirit).
In Luke’s writings, there is a second step. The resurrected Jesus ascended into heaven and “received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit,” whereupon—Peter tells us on the day of Pentecost—“He has poured forth this which you both see and hear.” Just as Jesus received the anointing at His baptism upon Himself as a (divinely incarnate) individual, so in His ascension He receives the anointing of the Holy Spirit upon His divinized flesh, which results in the pouring out of the Holy Spirit on the church. So because Christ dwells in us through the Holy Spirit’s indwelling, the anointing that He received upon His ascension also comes upon us. The power of the Holy Spirit that is upon Him in resurrection operates on us as the Body of Christ.
I have jumped right into this, rushing through the intermediate steps. There is what happened to Jesus as an Individual (coming to John the Baptist for baptism); there is what happened to Jesus and the church after the resurrection, at His ascension and on the day of Pentecost; and there is what happens to us individually when we believe and are baptized and receive the laying on of hands by the church.
Two important things need to be explained. One is what Jesus was doing when He was baptized—His coming as a Penitent—and what He was doing when He was crucified—bearing the sins of the world. The other is this: what does this all really mean? It is all “mythological”; at least the language is. Let us see if we can get to these two points.
Jesus did not go to John the Baptist for John to do something different for Him than what he was doing for everyone else. It was a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” Yet Jesus was without sin. How could He be a Penitent when He had no sin in need of forgiveness? He took on the mode of repentance as if He were a sinner because He was repenting on our behalf. He was acting as if He were a sinner, because He was identifying Himself with all those who are sinners. He was acting as they should act—offering up the only true repentance, a repentance that every sinner actually falls far short of. He could do this: by hating sin, by loving the righteousness and holiness of God and the judgment of God’s nature against sin, and by submitting to the judgment of God willingly and lovingly, and giving God the love and faithfulness that the creature owes. Jesus did not have to be thinking about all these things in order to do them. He simply had to be loving and giving Himself to the Father as He did naturally, and to do this—coming to John—in loving obedience to the Father. Could anyone actually do this on behalf of others? Not if the others have no part with Him; but Jesus intercedes for those who come to Him and offers Himself that if anyone would commit themselves to Him, enter into a particular relationship of fidelity to Him, the Father will regard them the way He regards Him. This is done “on faith” until His crucifixion. When Jesus suffers the wrath of God, it means the Father answers His prayer and He truly atones for the sins of others—His “repentance” (the offering of His faithfulness) is accepted as theirs. And the Father’s seal of this is Jesus’ resurrection. His perfected human nature (through its offering up in perfect obedience) is divinized. Now whoever receives Jesus (as the Holy Spirit) receives the forgiveness of sins in Him because they receive His obedience on the cross, His faithfulness to God under the wrath of God. Receiving the forgiveness of sins, they are able to receive His indwelling in resurrection.
What Does It All Mean Anyway?
The second question, what does all this really mean, is more difficult. For the afterlife is not the sole prerogative of Christians, and it is hard to imagine that the institution of Christianity embodies the change in humanity that these thoughts I have just laid out imply. It is much easier to imagine that Jesus is unique than to imagine that Christianity is, to image that Jesus underwent what I describe than to imagine that the consequences for the church have an equal force. It may be that the Son of God, incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth, co-inheres with the Holy Spirit, the feminine unity of the Father/Mother and the Son, and Who proceeds from Both, so that wherever the Spirit of God is—everywhere in the creation—the Son also is. It is more difficult to believe that “faith in Jesus” sets Christians apart from everyone else, for apart from Jesus Himself (not to be confused with His believers), nothing else distinguishes Christians from others. That perhaps is the point—that in this life, nothing does distinguish Christians from others except that they bear witness to Jesus. It is not a credible witness, for Christians bear so little resemblance to the One whom they claim is their Master, except for the fact that others do recognize in Jesus Someone worthy of their admiration—and this is true for Jews, Muslims, Sufis, Hindus, Buddhists, pagans, feminists, humanists, environmentalists, and so forth. That fact alone attests to a reason for the church’s existence. Christians are a contradiction to Jesus, yet in spite of themselves (it is a responsibility, not a privilege), Jesus uses them as a vehicle to bear witness to Himself. It is this self-witness that reaches others and that has been the salt of the earth all these centuries.
So the question is what does Jesus mean? Why does He speak to so many others outside the church, even though He seems to be able to speak to those within the church with such difficulty? Who is He? What the church has said, in spite of itself, is that Jesus is the Presence of God, of the infinitely transcendent divine nature, in His creaturely, very human, being. His “I” is the “I am” of God, yet it speaks to us out of—and as—His very humanness, His creaturely-ness that He has in common with worms and dirt. Somehow He seems to speak to us, to address us personally, and this address, His “I” speaking to me, affects me, leaves me changed. I become aware of something of which I was not aware before. It is deep and intuitive, but I cannot get Him out of my head. It is as though I have seen myself, my true self, that which is authentic in me, in spite of all my garbage, all my confusion, all the stuff I have been telling myself for years. He is the echo or reflection of the real (the deep inner) me—or, Is it that what is real in me is a reflection of Whoever He is?
I may not think this through; I may not be able to. But it may be that the Holy Spirit, this immanent Presence of the divine, which is in me and seems to be more me than I am, and yet seems so infinitely transcendent too, is my own awakened consciousness, which I might discover, is not mine at all but the consciousness of all that is: spirit and consciousness are not different, but identical (the spirit being “I” and my soul being “me”), and the Spirit of God is not something other than spirit but—inseparable from spirit—that which causes spirit to be, its Source and Ground. Then the Holy Spirit is not just the Spirit of God but the Spirit of God yearning for and promising the divinization of our creature-ness (our telos), and, in the moment of enlightenment, fulfilling this, the eschaton realized in the present. (For time is only the unfolding of eternity: eternity never ceases, preceding, following and accompanying the duration of time: eternity in which the divine and the created co-inhere as one.)
The “Son” is the image of the Father (which bears a male and female face, Who begets and births us, Who nourishes and nurtures us), the male Actor or Agent, yet is inseparable from the female Spirit Who creates (and is) communion, Son and Spirit the divine freedom and the divine love. In the baptism of Jesus the heavens open (indicating revelation, the opening of awareness) and the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus in bodily form like a dove, and a voice came out of heaven, “You are My Son, the Beloved, in You I am well-pleased.” Our own “recognition” of Jesus as Someone is an echo of the divine’s recognition of Him, the divine’s delight in beholding Him, and the Spirit’s comfort in settling on Him. He is the home of the divine, and so the Shekinah (God’s feminine Presence) at last comes home—to Him—to roost.
This is not only what all this means, in my view, but this is also why I persist in being a Christian in spite of the church. I, and presumably all who call themselves Christians—we cannot be Christians because of each other (we are as abhorred at each other as others are of us!), but only because of Jesus, because we have beheld (and behold) in Him that which the voice from heaven acknowledged and to which the descending Spirit reacted.