Life of Christ Part 3: Beginning his earthly ministry

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Baptism of Jesus

This is the third in a 12-part series looking at the life of Christ.

In Jesus’ day, not unlike our own, Palestine was no placid backwater but a hotbed of political, ethnic and religious animosities and aspirations. Roman domination and the burdensome taxes that accompanied it chafed painfully on Jewish sensibilities, while the rule of puppet kings like Herod and his sons made things worse.

Not long before, the Romans had put down an armed insurrection, leaving the Zealot party — two of whose members were to be numbered among Jesus’ apostles — as a residue of the recent unpleasantness. Now messianic fever was stirring among Jews eager for the long-promised liberator, the Messiah, who was expected to restore power and prestige to God’s chosen people.

The baptism in the Jordan

Against this turbulent background, a striking, not to say strange, figure appears on the scene — John the Baptist, Jesus’ kinsman, son of Zechariah and Elizabeth. Clothed in camel’s hair, with a broad leather belt around his waist, subsisting on a diet of locusts and wild honey, John preaches repentance to growing crowds who come out from Jerusalem to hear him and be baptized in the Jordan River.

It is thought that John may have belonged to, or at least been influenced by, the Essenes, a monkish sect committed to a primitive version of Judaism and unaffiliated with either the Pharisees or Sadducees, both soon to appear as Jesus’ opponents. Some people take John for the Messiah. But John gruffly rejects that idea, explaining: “One mightier than I is coming after me” (Mk 1:7)

He, of course, is Jesus of Nazareth, and in due course Jesus also presents himself to John to be baptized. The Baptist hesitates, but Jesus insists. As he rises from the waters of the Jordan, the Holy Spirit descends on him in the form of a dove and the Father’s voice speaks from heaven: “This is my beloved son; with you I am well pleased” (Mk 1:11).

This is all rather mystifying at first. Why should the sinless one seek a baptism meant for sinners? By way of explanation, Jesus tells John, “It is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness,” but this obscure remark does not shed much light (Mt 3:15).

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI offers an explanation based on the understanding of Christian baptism as a sacramental sign of dying to the life of sin in order to rise reborn and redeemed. Thus in “Jesus of Nazareth” he writes that Jesus’ baptism in a way set a pattern in that it “anticipated his death on the cross, and the heavenly voice proclaimed an anticipation of the Resurrection.”

Calling of the apostles

In John’s Gospel, these early days with the Baptist also are the setting for Jesus’ calling of his first followers — Simon, Andrew, Philip and Bartholomew. Having come to the Jordan to hear John the Baptist’s message and be baptized, to their surprise and joy they find one greater than John.

Jesus’ first encounter with Simon, brother of Andrew, hints at things to come, as he welcomes him by surprisingly giving him another name: “So you are Simon the son of John; You shall be called Cephas” (Jn 1:42). Cephas, the Gospel writer explains, means “Peter” — and also rock. And although Jesus does not belabor the point, the name suggests the special role lies ahead for this sturdy fisherman from Galilee (cf. Jn 1:35-51).

Jesus’ temptation in the desert

Next comes the temptation of Christ. And here we are reminded that G.K. Chesterton was correct in calling the story of Jesus, as it is told in the Gospels, very strange. Theologian Romano Guardini notes the same strangeness, so far removed from what we are accustomed to in biographies of great men. And the ethicist and moral theologian Germain Grisez goes so far as to say that, apart from faith, what the Gospels tell us about Jesus’ life and death “makes little sense” (even though, seen with the eyes of faith, everything is just as it should be).

The devil’s attempted temptation of Christ is depicted in this 19th century painting by Félix Joseph Barrias. Public domain

Surely, then, nothing is stranger than the temptation, which the three synoptic Gospels situate immediately after Jesus’ baptism (Mt 4:1-11; Mk 1:12-13; Lk 4:1-13). It is best understood in the context of which the Second Vatican Council speaks: “The whole of man’s history has been the story of dour combat with the powers of evil, stretching, so Our Lord tells us, from the very dawn of history until the last day. Finding himself in the midst of the battlefield man has to struggle to do what is right, and it is at great cost to himself, and aided by God’s grace, that he succeeds in achieving his own inner intregrity” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 409).

This age-old struggle — the life, death and resurrection of Jesus — represents the decisive battle. Of course it is hardly the only one, since all of us have our own particular battles to fight. Yet Jesus’ is of central importance. As the letter to the Hebrews points out, “Because he himself was tested through what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested” (Heb 2:18).

Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness, fasting and praying in preparation for his public ministry, when the tempter approaches him. Commentators have much to say about what follows. The interpretation best suited to the circumstances is that Satan here seeks precisely to corrupt Jesus’ commitment to his vocation as Messiah by offering him superficially attractive alternatives — other ways of being messiah that depart from his Father’s plan. Note that in rejecting them, Jesus quotes from the section of Deuteronomy in which Moses announces God’s law to the Israelites.

First, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread” (Mt 4:3) — a temptation to be a messiah who guarantees material comfort and gratification for himself and his followers. Jesus says no, quoting Deuteronomy 8:3: “It is not by bread alone that people live, but by all that comes forth from the mouth of the Lord.”

Then, spoken from the pinnacle of the Temple to which he has brought Jesus: “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down” (Mt 4:6) — an invitation to dazzle the crowd with miraculous displays that exploit his special relationship with the Father. Again Jesus says no, this time quoting Deuteronomy 6:16: “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.”

Finally, on a mountaintop with a vision of the world’s kingdoms and their glory spread before them, the tempter gets to the heart of it: “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me” (Mt 4:9) — worldly power in exchange for giving Satan the place that belongs to God.

The Second Vatican Council has this in view in declaring human progress, for all its advantages, to be “fraught with grave temptations” requiring that it be “purified and perfected by the cross and resurrection of Christ” (Gaudium et Spes, No. 37). Jesus, once more quoting Deuteronomy (6:13), replies emphatically: “Begone, Satan! For it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve'” (Mt 4:10).

Luke’s Gospel closes its account of the temptation with the cryptic remark that the devil then left Jesus until an opportune time (cf. Lk 4:13). We shall hear this same seductive, insinuating voice at crucial moments in what follows and, above all, beneath the cross on Calvary.

Russell Shaw is a contributing editor for Our Sunday Visitor.

Baptism in the Catechism
In Paragraphs 1213-1214 in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, holy baptism is described as “the basis of the whole Christian life, the gateway to life in the Spirit and the door which gives access to the other sacraments. Through Baptism we are freed from sin and reborn as sons of God; we become members of Christ, are incorporated into the Church and made sharers in her mission: ‘Baptism is the sacrament of regeneration through water in the word.’ This sacrament is called baptism, after the central rite by which it is carried out: to baptize (Greek baptizein) means to ‘plunge’ or ‘immerse’; the ‘plunge’ into the water symbolizes the catechumen’s burial into Christ’s death, from which he rises up by resurrection with him, as ‘a new creature.'”

Russell Shaw

Russell Shaw writes from Maryland.