What is he like?!

What is Jesus like? How does he stand out from the crowd? Jesus’s baptism comes at the start of his ministry, but it also shows us who Jesus really is.

Colin Gale preaching at St. Luke’s on 8th January 2023

The 500 year old paintings of Pieter Breughel frequently have a ‘Where’s Wally’ quality to them. They are so rich in detail that it is often necessary to hunt deep into the picture in order to find the principal characters that are depicted. The painting on the slide is called The Preaching of John the Baptist, but we have to really zoom in to see the preaching figure, dressed in brown, and we also need to have a sense of what we’re looking for, in the same way as we would look for a horizontal-striped shirt and a red beanie if we were on the hunt for Wally. To the left of John the Baptist, or to the right as we look at the picture, Breughel has placed Jesus Christ, standing with his arms crossed and dressed in teal, listening to John’s preaching. To recognise him in the picture, we need to know something about how he has been portrayed in the history of art. But our Bible reading this morning shows us that the defining features of Jesus Christ run much deeper than the possession of a beard and a cloak, and we will also find that the defining features of Jesus Christ matter intensely to us today.

When we read the account of the baptism of Jesus in Matthew chapter 3 verses 13 to 17 and ask the question, ‘What is he like?’, we will find two ways of answering that question, both of which turn out to be of vital importance to us today. The first way of answering the question is this: in being baptised, Jesus shows us that he is one with us. To try to explain this, I am going to tell you a story that may sound a bit like a fairy tale of the kind told by the famous storyteller Hans Christian Anderson, though in fact it was written by someone else who lived at around the same time and in the same country as Hans Christian Anderson, by the name of Søren Kierkegaard. The story goes like this:

“Suppose there was a king who loved a humble maiden from a peasant family. … Let everyone rejoice … for love is overjoyed when it unites equals, but it is triumphant when it makes equal that which was unequal. Let the king’s love reign! But then there arose a sadness in the king’s soul. … He spoke to no-one about his sadness. Had he done so, everyone would doubtless have said, ‘Your Majesty, you are doing the girl a generous favour for which she could never thank you enough’, and that would have caused the king even more sorrow. Would the maiden ever be happy? Would she be able to forget what the king wished to forget, namely, that he was the king and she a former lowly maiden? … If the memory of her former state awoke within her, and … stole her thoughts away from the king … or if this memory at times crossed her soul like death crossing over a grave – where then would be the glory of their love be? She would have been happier had she remained in obscurity, loved by one of her own kind. And even if the maiden were content … the king would never be satisfied, simply because he loved her … He would much rather lose her than be her benefactor. … If equality cannot be established, love becomes unhappy and incomplete.”[1]

This story is, of course, a parable concerning the relationship between Jesus Christ and his disciple, and Kierkegaard considers options for how that relationship could be put on a healthy footing. “One way could be by the elevation of the disciple”, he writes. “God could lift the disciple up to his own exultant state and this could well divert the disciple with an everlasting joy. But God, the unselfish king, would find no satisfaction in this. He knows that the disciple, like the maiden, would be gravely deceived … bewitched by a simple change of costume”.

Kierkegaard then considers the option of unity being “brought about by God directly appearing to the disciple and receiving his or her unhindered worship. That would surely make the disciple forget about himself or herself, much in the way the king could have appeared in all his glory to the humble maiden, making her forget herself in worshipping adoration. … This might have satisfied the maiden but not the king, who desires not his own exultation but hers. Nor would she understand him, and this would make the king’s sorrow even worse.”

“Who can grasp the contradiction of this sorrow”?, asks Kierkegaard: “The unity of love will have to be brought about in some other way. If not by way of elevation, of ascent, then by a descent of the lowliest kind. God must become the equal of the lowliest. But the lowliest is one who serves others. God must therefore appear in the form of a servant. But this servant’s form is not merely something he puts on, like … a cloak … No, it is his true form. For that is the unfathomable nature of boundless love, that it desires to be equal with the beloved; not in jest, but in truth.”[2]

In appearing in the flesh as a helpless baby, in receiving in his flesh the sign of circumcision, and in submitting to the baptism of John, Jesus Christ truly became one with us. That is the meaning behind the short conversation between John the Baptist and Jesus as recorded by Matthew, the gospel writer. John tried to deter him, saying ‘I need to be baptised by you, and do you come to me?’ (verse 14). The logic of his objection is something like this: You are the Messiah. Don’t try to put yourself in the place of those who are being baptized for the forgiveness of sins. You should remain a king in all your glory. To take on the role, not only of a servant, but actually of a repentant sinner, is appropriate for me, John the Baptist, and everyone I have baptised up till now, but for you, wouldn’t it be a humiliating form of play-acting?

The answer Jesus gave to this was: Let it be so now: it is proper for us to do this to fulfil all righteousness. This must have been a mysterious saying for John to hear, and in fact we are here at the edge of the great mystery of righteousness, but at the heart of this saying of Jesus was his determination to stoop so low, precisely in order to raise sinners heavenward. The New Testament tells us that ‘Jesus Christ, the Righteous One’, is the propitiation for our sins’ (I John 2:2), and this is true only because he ‘was willing to humble himself and put himself in our place, so that our sins became his, and his righteousness became ours. ‘God made him who had no sin to be sin’, the apostle Paul writes, ‘so that in him we might become the righteousness of God’ (2 Corinthians 5:21). Perhaps we are familiar with the idea that Jesus died and rose again for our sake, but it is also true that he lived the perfect life for us, that we have been unable to live for ourselves, and that because he is one with us, he is able to bring righteousness to the nations, and ultimately to us.

That identification is genuine, it is not play-acting, and nowhere is it clearer than in the baptism of Jesus. For as long as Jesus retained all the privileges of his Messiah-ship and divinity, he had no need of John’s baptism of repentance. But in accepting baptism, he humbly descended to be one with all of us who need, and know we need, the forgiveness of sins. Without his baptism, and the radical identification with sinners it entailed, the death and resurrection of Jesus could be of no benefit to us. So it is his baptism that provides the vitally important assurance we need that not only is he like us, he is actually one with us.

Jesus also transformed the meaning of baptism by being baptised. Never again could baptism be understood merely as a sign of the baptismal candidate’s repentance. From then on, baptism was no longer primarily about the candidate and his or her repentance; it was now supremely about union with Jesus Christ, made possible by his radical identification with sinners. It’s no longer all about us; now we see that it is all about him. In love he has become the equal of the lowliest, not simply in appearance but also in reality. He “suffers all things, endures all things, is tried in all things, hungers in the desert, thirsts in his agonies, is forsaken in death”,[3] but this all began, in a manner of speaking, on the day he was baptised by John – and now, in baptism, Christ claims us for his own. In the Book of Common Prayer, the baptism of Jesus is remembered in a prayer (called the Litany) that says:

“By thine agony and bloody sweat, by thy cross and passion, by thy precious death and burial; by thy glorious resurrection and ascension, and by the coming of the Holy Spirit, good Lord, deliver [or save] us”.

But also, before that, the prayer says:

“By the mystery of thy holy incarnation, by thy holy nativity and circumcision; by thy baptism, fasting and temptation, good Lord, deliver us”.

It is the life of Jesus, as well as his death and resurrection, that saves us. We are saved on account of our union with him, a union which is mysterious but nonetheless real, a union which possible because of Jesus having become one with us.

So that is the first way in which Matthew chapter 3 verses 13 to 17 answers the question ‘What is he like?’, and here is the second part of the answer: immediately after being baptised, Jesus shows us that he is one with God the Father and God the Holy Spirit. You may remember that the opening verse at the start of this service came from the word of the Lord to the prophet Isaiah: ‘This is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight: I will put my Spirit on him, and he will bring righteousness to the nations’ (Isaiah 42:1). (I said ‘… righteousness to the nations…’, the opening verse said ‘… justice …’, but in the thought-world of the Old and New Testaments, these two concepts are fused together.) In Matthew 3, verses 16 and 17 we read the fulfilment of Isaiah’s prophecy. ‘As soon as Jesus was baptised, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and lighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased”.’

Here we are at the edge of another great mystery, the mystery of the Holy Trinity, and what we see here is the closest possible identification of Jesus Christ with God the Father and God the Holy Spirit, the closest possible identification that is consistent with ongoing differentiation. If the Holy Spirit had not descended upon Jesus at his baptism, Jesus would not have been in a position to say, as he did say in John chapter 15, that “when the Spirit of truth comes, whom I will send you from the Father, he will testify on my behalf”. And if the Father had not said “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased” at Jesus’ baptism, Jesus would not have been in a position to say, as he does say in John chapters 10 and 14, ‘I and the Father are one. Whoever has seen me has seen the Father’. At the baptism of Jesus and at Pentecost, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit act in concert and in concord. They act as one, because they are one. It’s not just that Jesus is like the Father and the Spirit – rather, he is at one with them.

This is not just a matter of dry academic theology. It is of vital importance to us, because it means that through Christ “we have access to the Father by one Spirit”, as Paul writes in Ephesians chapter 2. In other words, the outworking of the Christian doctrine of the Holy Trinity is that any authentic encounter or experience we may have of God is simultaneously through Christ, with the Father, and by the Spirit.

Practically, what this means is that it is not “possible to be in the Spirit without being in the Son” or to “have a valid relationship to God that is not mediated by Jesus, or to try to reach the Father by some other spiritual path than the one true and living way he has given us in Jesus”.[4] Because the three persons of the Trinity are one substance, and one in will and purpose, Christians may show tolerance, hospitality, humility and respect towards adherents of other world religions, certainly, but we cannot regard those religions as “independent manifestations of the Spirit that can be set alongside God’s self-manifestation in Christ”[5] on an equal footing. That would be to divide the unity of the persons of the Godhead.

Likewise it is not possible to be in the Son without also being in the Spirit, because “it is through the Spirit that we come to believe the gospel and to receive all that the Father has done for us in the Son … None of this is a possibility for, or an achievement of, our own inherent spirituality … it is a gracious work of God within us”.[6] Because the three persons of the Trinity are one substance, and one in will and purpose, practically what this means for us is that the Son and the Spirit do not operate in silos to oversee different stages of the Christian life. It is not the case that we “receive salvation from sin from Christ crucified and then, having fulfilled certain further conditions … go on to a further stage in which we are baptised in the Holy Spirit into the fullness of God’s life and power”.[7] That too would be to divide the unity of the persons of the Godhead. On the contrary, the beginning, the middle and the end of the Christian life is the enjoyment of “access to the Father through Christ by one Spirit”.

Because the three persons of the Trinity are one substance, and one in will and purpose, practically what this means for us is that the Holy Spirit will not be encountered via “introspective inner journeys into ourselves” – once again, that would be to divide the unity of the persons. Instead, he will be found by an “outward journey beyond ourselves into Christ”[8] – the incarnate, crucified and risen Lord of history, from whom the Spirit of God comes to us – or rather, we will be found by him and led on this journey.

So Matthew chapter 3 shows us what Jesus is like, and why it matters. First, by his baptism he has shown himself to be one with us, and he has shown us that the true form of God is that of a servant. He has stooped so tenderly, that he can lift our humanity to the heights of his throne in union with him. Second, having been baptised, Jesus is shown to be one with the Father and the Holy Spirit. Because of that unity, we may be brought into the life of God the Father, not via one route out of many possible routes, nor by a mystical inner journey, nor by a two-step second-blessing process, but always, only and ever through Christ by the Holy Spirit in an act of sheer grace.

We recognise Wally because he wears a horizontal-striped shirt and a red beanie. But what are the defining features of Jesus Christ, what is he like? He is like a king who loved a peasant girl, who humbled himself to become the equal of the lowliest, not in appearance but in reality, and who in this way brought about the triumph of love.

[1] Søren Kierkegaard, Provocations (Plough Publishing House, 2002),  pp. 91-92 (preacher’s additions in italics).

[2] Ibid. pp. 92-93.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Tom Smail, ‘The Holy Spirit in the Holy Trinity’, in C. Seitz (ed.), Nicene Christianity: The future for a new ecumenism (Brazos Press, 2001).

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

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