The first article in this series of three suggested that the life of a disciple should be the true reflection of God’s character, as made visible in Jesus. The present article focuses on baptism as the actual beginning of the disciple’s journey. The final article will be about communion.
“When the will is placed on the Lord’s side, The Holy Spirit takes that will and makes it one with the divine will.” —Ellen G. White, Letter 44, 1899
“My determination is to be my utmost for His Highest.”
“To get there is a question of the will, not of debate nor of reasoning, but a surrender of the will, an absolute and irrevocable surrender on that point.”
“The goal of the Christian experience is to reach the place where one is in such close contact with God that you never need to ask Him to show you his will. When you are rightly related to God, your whole life is God’s will for the world to see.” —Oswald Chambers
Most Christians readily acknowledge that Christ’s life was the exact reflection of God’s will. Yet, most Christians are reluctant to accept the idea that their own lives should also be a perfect reflection of God’s will. An impossibility they say. Yet, Paul’s life was so patterned after Christ’s life that he could write: “Imitate me as I, myself, imitate Christ.” And again, “Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children and live a life of joy, just as Christ loved us and gave his life for us” (1 Cor. 11: 1).
How could Paul make such a statement? Was it arrogance? Not at all. Paul could because, like Jesus, he had learned the lessons of self-denial: “I have been crucified with Christ, and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2:20). Ellen White wrote that “When the believers will reflect perfectly the Character of Christ, he will come to claim them.”
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus defined the attitudes, the character, and the action of his followers. He did so in the section referred to as the Beatitudes.
The first four are attitudes of the mind and heart:
1. Humility which curbs the Ego
2. Meekness which makes it possible to face adversity with equanimity
3. Sorrow for one’s shortcomings and the misery around
4. Hunger and thirst for righteousness, which is to be more like Jesus
The initial four attitudes together shape a character that is made up of integrity and compassion.
5. Pure in heart is about integrity—no duplicity
6. Compassion: the deep-seated awareness of the sufferings of others and the urge to help
The attitudes and character produce an on-going spirit of service that brings peace to the recipients.
7. Peacemakers: doing something about all the suffering, using one’s means, skills, talents, and spiritual gifts
To live such a life is a blessing in itself in the present. The enemy will send trials and tribulation to get the believer to give up. These are a blessing in disguise because they indicate that the believer is closely following in the Master’s steps.
However, the question must be asked and answered: How does one achieve a life that is the will of God made visible for the world to see?
Christ’s mission of redemption began at his baptism. It is impossible to imitate Christ’s life of selfless service unless one begins at the exact point where he began. We know next to nothing about him before that day. Just a few sparse details about his birth and only one incident during his childhood.
Two questions beg to be answered:
1. What was the significance of baptism for Christ and his mission?
2. Why is understanding its significance of utmost importance for whoever wants to live a life identical to Christ’s?
First, a word about my own experience of baptism. I was baptized on December 16, 1958, together with twenty of my Pathfinder Club mates, all of us teenagers. The minister baptized us after we had been taught the specific Seventh-day Adventist beliefs and practices. After responding positively to a dozen questions or so, we were baptized and accepted as members of the church.
I began to question my baptism a very short time after when I, sadly, found that nothing had really changed in my life. I was assailed by the same temptations as before and failed as often as well. Confused, I decided to talk to the minister. Was I right to believe and expect a life of victory after the event? The answer was one that I have heard over and over since. “Sanctification is the work of a life time.” I was advised not to worry because eventually victory would be achieved. The answer and the advice have produced neither intellectual nor spiritual satisfaction. Years later, I discovered another reading of that statement. More about that later.
The years went by, but as their number accumulated I began to worry about how much of a life time was necessary to overcome long-standing weaknesses. With each passing year, I found myself battling against the same problems and falling again and again. Half a century later, still battling the same issues and failing as often, I became cynical. I was also told that the church was a hospital for sinners. How long should one stay in a hospital which has been unable to produce healing after being an inpatient for decades? I decided that either the medication (church teachings and practices) was not adequate or that I, the patient, was not following the prescription.
As a pastor’s son and a church member, I had followed the prescription. Later as a minister, I had prescribed and dispensed it. I had followed all the advice received about the victorious life, but victory eluded me. (I have the feeling that my story is shared by many.) After much soul searching and studying, I gradually became aware that there was something vital missing in my Christian experience. The more I struggled with my inadequacies, the more I felt convinced that I had missed something essential about baptism.
Back to Christ’s baptism—why did Christ request and insist to be baptized? Several answers have been given, the most frequent being to serve as an example. Another one is that Christ was baptized vicariously for all human beings. There are a few more that may make theological sense, but I believe that as correct as these are, one vital point is missed.
To grasp the significance of Christ’s baptism, I suggest that one must read and understand four texts read as a unit: Matthew 3:3; Luke 3:21, 22, 23–38; 4:1; 14.
Matthew wrote that John the Baptist initially refused to baptize Jesus. Why? John preached baptism as being one of repentance for the remission of sins. A close relative of Jesus, John knew about his miraculous birth and about the purity of his life. In John’s mind, Jesus needed no repentance and no remission of sins. Yet Jesus insisted. Why? Luke recorded a detail not found in the other gospels. Jesus prayed, and in answer to his prayer, the Father sent the Holy Spirit. May I suggest that we may have a good idea of what Jesus prayed about, and what he prayed for, when we link the next two texts to the one about his baptism.
The Gospels record two genealogies with two different perspectives. Matthew was concerned about proving that Jesus was the son of David and, as such, entitled to sit on his illustrious forefather’s throne. Matthew listed the kings of Judah and through Joseph linked Jesus to them.
Luke, on the other hand, not concerned about royalty, mentioned only David. Being a Greek doctor most likely trained in philosophy, Luke was more preoccupied with the humanity of Jesus. As a man, he was subjected to the same struggle that all humans, starting with Adam, encounter. This is the reason why Luke included the lengthy genealogy, listing dozens of ordinary people to signify that Jesus was fully human with all the weaknesses intrinsic to human nature since the Fall. Adam’s sin was his decision to place his will above God’s. “Not God’s will but MINE be done.” Ever since, every human being has had to battle against that same deep-seated tendency. Jesus, through heredity, was certainly subjected to similar pressures.
By the incarnation, Jesus took upon himself the fallen human nature, which innately disregards God’s will. (There is an ongoing debate on the matter of Christ’s nature.) I believe that Christ’s prayer was his pledge of a good conscience toward God because he was aware that turning his life over to God would be a struggle. A good conscience is an attitude that in effect says to God: “By your grace and power I will not allow my own will to get in the way of your divine will.” Luke’s genealogy tells the readers that by any human standard, Jesus had made a pledge impossible to honor.
No human being, including Jesus in his humanity, could ever live up to that pledge unless strengthened by the ongoing presence of the Holy Spirit taking full control of one’s life. In answer to Christ’s pledge, God sent the Holy Spirit. The Gospels have recorded that Jesus often said that he had come to do his Father’s will (John 4: 34; 5: 30; 6: 38). At least once, his will faltered when he began to see into the frightening dark maw of the valley of the shadow of death. Had Jesus not made that pledge, he could not have taught, and even less, expected his disciples to pray: “Thy will be done on earth.”
In general, baptismal candidates are not taught that baptism has primarily to do with the submission of one’s will to God; rather it is linked to accepting Adventist beliefs and practices. Millions in the world, for different reasons, adhere to the same beliefs and practices without linking it to submission to God.
On the day of my baptism, I did not pledge the submission of my will to God. I did not pledge that my will would never be in the way of God’s will. From that day on, I qualified as a church member in good and regular standing with a good Adventist pedigree, but nothing was specifically mentioned about never allowing my will to get in the way of God’s will. For this to occur, I would need, like Jesus, to be under the constant control of the Holy Spirit. I now realize that my repeated failures to live a life modeled after Christ’s own life find their source in my ignorance of the significance of baptism and the true role of the Holy Spirit.
There is more to the story. The next text says that the Spirit lead him into the desert to be tempted. One would not expect the Holy Spirit to do that. So, what was the experience all about? I would suggest that Jesus, as the second Adam, had to be tested before he could be sent on his mission of redemption. The Spirit of Prophecy suggests that the first Adam was tested (Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 53). Christ’s prayer in the Jordan was his pledge of total submission. The temptations in the desert were the test of his resolve to be faithful to the pledge.
Two statements by Ellen G. White have a bearing on what I am saying. The first time that Jesus went to the temple, he witnessed the impressive Passover service. He saw the bleeding lamb, and he began to grasp the mystery of his mission (Desire of the Ages, “The Passover Visit”).
Jesus spent the next 18 years studying and pondering the significance of the prophetic writings about Israel’s Messiah. He gradually got a clearer understanding of his mission, slowly becoming aware of the path of suffering that he should have to follow. He had come to save the world but the path would be strewed with all the rejection, pain, and hurt that the world would inflict on him, and ultimately, abandonment by his own disciples and then by God.
People do not relish the idea of suffering even if it is for a good cause. Inevitably, the question arises: Is there another, easier, less painful way that will produce the desired result? Jesus, too, faced that crucial question. For forty days, he pondered and struggled. Jesus would not have been fully human if no such thoughts had entered his mind. Jesus had come to save the world from the enslavement and the condemnation of sin. As he strategized about the mission, he was keenly aware that he could call upon divine power to do things that would draw large crowds of eager followers.
I submit that the three temptations (Luke 4: 1-7) were internal in his mind. Jesus toyed with three different ideas that could make his mission a far easier one with highly visible marks of success. (Any reader who finds this idea difficult to accept should read what James 1: 14, 15 says about temptation.) Granted, Jesus may not have had evil desires but is there anything more human than the desire to look for the easiest way to achieve a goal, however worthy? Human beings are awed by miracles, drawn by sensationalism, and attracted by the trappings of political and financial power. God’s plan was to reconcile the world to himself. His Son would be the agent to achieve it. However, the success of the mission was conditional to the Christ’s complete denial of self.
The struggle was fierce, and Satan did not relinquish his hold until he was defeated. Jesus collapsed after the battle. Angels came and attended to his need. Satan departed, waiting for a more favorable time. From then on, Jesus faced the same temptations every day, in different shapes. The good fight of faith would be relentless over the following three and a half years. Satan did not give up. He tried one last time when Jesus was hanging on the cross.
Luke recorded that on the cross Jesus once again faced the same temptations, but this time in reverse (Chiastic structure). (The French Catholic theologian François Varonne developed the idea in his book “Ce Dieu sencé aimer la souffrance,” Cerf, p. 56. 57.)
In the desert:
1. Turn stones into bread to survive
2. Kingdom of this world
3. If you are God’s son throw yourself
On the cross:
3. Save yourself
2. The king of the Jews
1. If you are the Chosen One . . .
Jesus had fully lived his Father’s will. His life was the Father’s will, opened to the scrutiny of every one. His mission began with the Father saying, “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.” The mission ended with Jesus saying “Father, I commit my spirit into your hands.” An entire life of flawless submission to the Father’s will.
What of the statement referred to earlier: “Sanctification is the work of a life time?”
The sentence may not necessarily mean that it will take a life time to reach sanctification. The structure allows another meaning which makes more sense to me. I like to think that when believers genuinely pledge to submit their will to God at their baptism and the Holy Spirit takes full control, the result is sanctification, which, from then on, is a constant state of being that dovetails into doing the will of God always throughout their entire lives. The whole life becomes the will of God for all to see and hopefully be drawn to him. What a day when people who see us can truly say: “I know who God is and what he is like because I know you.”
“This is my beloved child in whom I am well pleased.”
Can it be that God’s term of endearment is seldom sensed, let alone heard by most, on the day of their baptism because full engagement of genuine and unfailing submission to God is not what baptism signifies anymore?
Eddy Johnson is the director of ADRA Blacktown in New South Wales, Australia, and a retired pastor.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Baptism of Christ by Joachim Patinir
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