The Significance of Jesus’ Baptism
“Then Jesus was led by the Spirit out into the desert to be put to the test by the devil. He fasted for forty days and forty nights, after which he was hungry …”
This follows directly from what preceded it and can only be understood in that context. Jesus had just been baptized in the Jordan by John, “and when Jesus had been baptized he at once came up from the water, and suddenly the heavens opened and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming down on him. And suddenly there was a voice from heaven, “This is my Son, the Beloved, in whom I have found my delight.” He is to be tested on the basis of what he heard this voice proclaim. Three times the adversary will say, “If you are Son of God …”
But before we consider the tests themselves, we need to ask why Jesus went to receive baptism in the first place. “It is fitting for us in this way,” Jesus told John, “to fulfill all righteousness” (or “to do all that uprightness demands”). But what was fitting? For John to baptize him. But why? Why did this “fulfill righteousness”? Why was this what uprightness demanded? What was the significance of Jesus’ baptism?
To answer this we need to ask what was the significance of the baptism that John preached? This should also throw light on the meaning of Christian baptism. John’s message was, “Repent, for the kingdom of the heavens has drawn near!” and those whom he baptized confessed their sins. “I baptize you in water unto repentance,” he said. “In water into repentance” literally: those who were baptized entered into a life of repentance: they became penitents. Baptism was not merely a moment of repentance but the launch into a career of repentance. Jesus came to the Jordan to be baptized into repentance, to become a penitent.
We could stumble on this and consequently not hear it because we assume that Jesus must have been different than everyone else who came to John. He was the sinless one and had no need to repent. Something like this is, after all, what John stumbled on. “John tried to dissuade him, with the words, ‘It is I who need baptism from you, and yet you come to me!” And the voice from the heavens confirmed the presupposition, anointing Jesus with the Spirit of God and saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved, in whom I have found my delight.”
Yet Jesus was, nevertheless, baptized “into repentance.” In Hebrew, repentance has the meaning of turning around, making an about-face. “Turn to me,” God constantly reiterates. In the Greek in which Matthew wrote, “repentance” means to change the mind: meta-noia. The word for mind has a range of meanings, but here it probably has the sense of one’s attention (what one pays attention to, and therefore, to repent means to change one’s direction) or how one frames one’s entire outlook (and therefore, to repent means to think differently). We also have to consider how the word “repentance” is used: it embodies a concept more than a simple definition. It means to change one’s ways from the inside out and thus to change the direction one is going.
It means more than that, though. It also carries the sense of a deep regret and sorrow for one’s sin, one’s alienation from God. John asked the Pharisees and Sadducees (since when are these ever grouped together? But here they are): “Who warned you to flee from the coming retribution?” Repentance has in view the coming retribution, when the tree that fails to produce good fruit is cut down and thrown on the fire, or when the chaff once it is separated from the wheat is burned in a fire that never goes out. God’s holiness is a consuming fire of judgment.
We are uncomfortable thinking of God this way, but if God is, what do we really expect God to be? Something tame? Or something we could domesticate? Simply, God is goodness, the Great Goodness if you would. That implies that God is not evil. But how then do you think what is not good stands before God, assuming God has presence? I guess it depends what you think the force of that goodness is: whether it is God or simply a passive principle. But if God is that from which all things arise and by which they subsist, then if anything were to develop a contradiction to that which defines and sustains its existence, it would be self-destructive: it is to abandon itself to the abyss of non-existence. But if that from which all things arises and by which they are sustained is Goodness, then that which contradicts would have to be moral. Moreover, if the universe is conscious, and derives its consciousness from this Goodness (and has no beginning or end except in this Goodness), which as its source would have to be in its own way conscious, then the contradiction becomes personal; it becomes rebellion. What that contradiction incurs then is not simply annihilation (which given the nature of consciousness may not even be possible) but condemnation. That cannot be the end of the story, for if God be God, then all things not only have emerged from God but must also be resolved and return to God. The condemnation, then, can be no passive sentence but must somehow be active towards that end. The Goodness (i.e., God) does not leave what is rebellious to its rebelliousness. The condemnation, being personal, is persuasive. (This is all philosophical and actually beside the point.) It is nevertheless confirmed by the revelation of God.
To cut to the quick: repentance means to stop running away from God and to turn to God and place oneself under God’s judgment. It means to not only accept that judgment but to agree with it and to love God in it and for it. It means to love God while placing oneself under God’s righteous judgment, under the judgment of God’s holiness (God’s own nature, which is love). We are a contradiction to Love and therefore love condemns us. (Of course Love also reacts to us when we place ourselves there. When we concur with our condemnation in this way, we discover mercy, and more than mercy. But that is jumping ahead.) To repent is to live in this place before God, this place of concurrence and love.
This is exactly what Jesus does when he comes to John for baptism. He places himself under the judgment of God out of love for God and in love with God. He places himself in solidarity with the rest of us. Rather than judging others he becomes judged by God as the representative of humanity. Of course the moment he does this, God declares, “In him I have found my delight”: he is the sinless one. But he becomes the sinless one in solidarity with us in our sin. He places himself under our condemnation.
Was he right to have done so? He did so because it was the Father’s will, and he did so out of love for us and in solidarity with the Father’s love for us. He was free to do so. How so? Because when he did so, God entered into solidarity with us. To put it in Trinitarian terms, when the Son entered into solidarity with us in our condemnation, so did the Father and the Spirit, for they dwell in each other and every action “dances” through all three. There is no separating Jesus from the Son; they are one person. What Jesus does the Son does, and the Father and Spirit do in him, each in their own way; and what he experiences is experienced by all three in their own way. When Jesus dies a human death, the Son experiences that death and so do the Father and the Spirit in him. We say truthfully that when Jesus died, God died. Though we do not mean that the divine nature died, for it cannot, the divine nature shared by all three Persons nevertheless experienced death, Jesus’ death.
So this ethical freedom of Jesus to enter into solidarity with us is the freedom of the Son when God became incarnate. The Son entered into solidarity with us when the Son was conceived in the womb of Mary. Jesus made that a human decision when he became a man and chose to be baptized. Jesus, in fact, was born into this solidarity with us from his conception. It means he was subject to evil, injury, disease and even death. In his divinity he chose this without respect to time; in his humanity he had to develop in his consciousness and self-awareness until he could actively make this choice his own. Though the Son is one person, there are two wills, one divine and one human, perfectly in accord because he is one person, but each different in nature and none the less free.
The point is, when Jesus chose to be baptized, he placed himself under the judgment of God in solidarity with all who are under the judgment of God. But he did so in agreement with the righteousness of God’s judgment, and while loving God for the righteousness of God’s judgment and choosing to live in faithfulness to God while under this judgment, and doing so out of love for God. He was thus baptized into repentance, choosing to henceforth live as a penitent.
This is so weird, if you think about it, for he is the drawing near of God’s kingdom. He is the place where God rules. He is the presence of God in our midst. And this is what it looks like! It turns all our ideas of God on their head, and it completely confounds all our ideas about how God ought to save humankind. God is God, however. We think of God as an external being to the universe, as if there were these two entities: God and the creation. Yet God comes to us and saves us from within. The creation never existed apart from God, and never will.
It’s like the burning bush. The holiness of the Son is the burning fire of God’s judgment, yet when he comes, he comes placing himself under its judgment, and because of the way he does it, because in that place he loves God so much (because being the Son he can do nothing else), the bush is not consumed!
Why Did Jesus Choose to Fast?
But what has this got to do with what followed Jesus’ baptism? Why did the Spirit immediately lead Jesus to fast? What is the significance of his fasting? In the Old Testament, repentance is associated with fasting. For the Jews, in certain contexts, fasting and repentance are spoken of as if they were synonymous. But why fasting? If you look up every reference to fasting in the Old Testament, you will find that it is always associated with loss. One fasts because one is grieving over a loss: for example, the loss of a loved one. One also fasted because of the loss of one’s relationship with God, because of sin. We fast to express our sadness. Eating is enjoyable. We cannot enjoy ourselves and so we do not eat (though eventually we will eat to sustain our lives). So we fast as a way to grieve, especially to grieve over our sins. The sins over which I grieve may not be my personal sins; they may be ours collectively: the sins of those with whom I am associated. People fasted because of the nation’s sins. This is why fasting accompanied repentance. We fast because we are grieving over our sin: we are agreeing with the judgment of God with respect to our sin. We are expressing our utter unhappiness about our sin.
As a penitent, Jesus at once entered into a period of grief over our sins, the sins of Israel, the sins of the nations, the sins of the world. He let our sinfulness fully register on his consciousness; and as he did so, he situated himself fully under God’s judgment with respect to it.
He did this out in the desert where he could be undistracted in prayer. The desert also has particular associations in the Jewish mind. It is a wild place, the opposite of Eden, to which humanity was condemned. It is also a wild place, away from human settlements, away from the way of the world (the civilizations of Egypt and Babylon, and even Jerusalem and the cities and towns of Judah and Israel). It is the place where God wooed Israel at Sinai and made the covenant with the people. It is the place where God promised to woo her again (as Hosea declares). It is also the place where God alone provided for Israel all that she needed, and also where God tested Israel and found her in rebellion, again and again. Jesus entered this place to which Adam was condemned, a place where he was completely dependent on the providence of God, a place where he was alone with the images conjured up by his mind, the place where he could be tested.
He fasted as a penitent for forty days and forty nights. Forty is the number of days that the flood lasted on earth (Genesis 8:17), the flood that raged against the human beings because God regretted having made them (6:6). Forty is reminiscent of the years Israel spent wandering in the desert because of their faithlessness (Psalm 95). Forty days and forty nights is also the length of time Moses was up on Mount Sinai while the people corrupted one another. “They have been quick to leave the way I marked out for them … What an obstinate people they are!” When God was determined to destroy them and “wipe out their name under heaven,” Moses fell prostrate before YHWH: “as before, I spent forty days and forty nights with nothing to eat or drink, on account of all the sins which you had committed, by doing what was displeasing to YHWH and thus arousing his anger. For I was afraid of this anger, of the fury which so roused YHWH against you that he was ready to destroy you” (Deuteronomy 9:9-19). Likewise, Jesus—in whom God found delight—laid before God in identification with the people with whom God was so angry. He placed himself under that judgment, and did so before God, in love of God, for only there—in that kind of spiritual nakedness—can God’s mercy be found.
The testing came after forty days and forty nights. “And the tester came and said to him, ‘If you are Son of God …” In verses 1, 5, 8 and 11, the tester is called the devil, and in verse 10 the same one is called Satan. In Greek, a devil (diabolos) is an accuser, a calumniator. In Job 1 and 2 Satan is a member of the heavenly court and acts as a kind of legal prosecutor. In 1 Chronicles 21:1 Satan is a kind of opposing counsel. In Psalm 109:6 Satan is a prosecutor. In Zechariah 3:1-2 Satan is an active adversary. Between the Testaments, Satan is no longer a member of the heavenly court but is wholly evil, an active opponent of good. In the New Testament the devil has become the head of the rebellion against God, of the world as a gestalt and of the heavenly dominion of evil. He tries to lure Jesus off track so he can accuse him. If only Jesus, now knowing that he is the Son, could misunderstand what this means, like Peter did so soon after he declared that Jesus is the Son of God. Peter wanted to disassociate Jesus’ Sonship from the cross and Jesus recognized in his rebuke the voice of Satan, again trying to lure him. “Get behind me, Satan!” On both occasions Jesus names the accuser Satan; Jesus recognized and identified him.
My question here is, what exactly is this “tester” who comes to Jesus? What are we really talking about, in non-mythological terms? At first the tester just wants a basis on which to accuse him. He is the devil, a diabolos (accuser), the prosecutor in God’s court. But he cannot find anything. When Jesus recognizes that the goal of this persistent one is to subvert his penitence and therefore to divert him from his way to the cross, Jesus realizes that this one is not just an irritant, but rather is that primal temptation at the heart of the world, that brought forth the sin that makes the world what it is, that befouled our primal beginning in Eden. His naming of Satan drives him away.
That which tests Jesus is simply his mind as it has developed in the matrix of the world. The tempter are these thoughts that come out of that matrix, that Jesus brought with him into the desert and from that he was purging himself. The first two tests would have him live by the world, to go by these thoughts. These thoughts reflect an understanding of sonship that would have made sense according to the way society thinks, that accorded with its values. Jesus holds true and rejects such thoughts; he denies his soul. When the third test comes Jesus at once recognizes the source of all three: it is Satan, he who had the kingdoms of the world in his power.
Our thoughts are not simply our own. We would not even have words with which to think our thoughts if others had not taught us our language. We are taught how to frame the world, how to think about things: the categories we use and the connections that we see between them. We take it all for granted, but it comes to us from others, from our society, however extensive that might be. Our souls are part of a matrix. They derive from it and contribute to what it is. And what defines the world as a system that is organized against God, as a bubble that insulates us from reality, is a delusion of its own making. It is the delusion that it has an existence of its own, independent of body and spirit, of creation and God. For example, the idea of a nation: what is it? It has no basis in the divine nor in creation; it is purely the artifice of our collective souls, of our shared mind. It is a delusion. So also is money.
So Jesus has a mind like the rest of us, but he sees through the delusion. The temptations are the process by which he sees through the delusion. The thought presents itself and Jesus answers it with a scripture. The delusion vanishes. It happens again, this time the thought arising from the scriptures, and Jesus answers it in the same way. He is not simply batting at the ball with scripture verses. He is applying the correct understanding of the scriptures, “fulfilling” the scriptures with their true interpretation. When the third thought presents itself, Jesus realizes that these thoughts are not merely thoughts. These delusory thoughts are evil. They are coming out of that primal rebellion against reality, against God, against creation. They are not innocent or random but have an intention behind them. Satan is personified and named. There is that in the world, that which is inspiring and driving it that is more than some passive principle. It is a false life, something feigning to be life, the life of the soul, but the soul cut off from reality. It is the malicious and forceful presence of death disguised as life. Not death as simply the terminus of a creature, but rather that which is the enemy of life, of spirit, the enemy of God.
The Three Tests
Here I end this post. Hopefully what I have written in the past can throw some light on the temptations for those who are curious about what I might have to say.