Many Christians celebrated the Epiphany or manifestation of the Lord last week and remember Jesus’ Baptism today, though originally, they were celebrated together. Each event and celebration in their own way highlight the profound realization that God is with us—Immanuel (Matthew 1:23).
To build on previous entries on Epiphany, Epiphany marks the occasion of God’s Son revealing himself as human, namely Jesus. Meaning “manifestation” or “divine manifestation,” it derives its name from “the Greek ‘epiphania,’ which denotes the visit of a god to earth.” For centuries, Christians have associated the Epiphany celebration with the encounter of the three kings from the East and Jesus, recorded in Matthew 2:1-12. As one article notes of the tradition,
The three kings – named Melchior, Caspar and Balthazar – followed the star of Bethlehem to meet the baby Jesus. According to Matthew 2:11, they offered symbolic gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
The gifts were symbolic of the importance of Jesus’ birth, the gold representing his royal standing; frankincense his divine birth; and myrrh his mortality.
As noted above, the church often celebrates the Baptism of the Lord on the Sunday following Epiphany. There are similarities between the two celebrations (Refer here, for example). Before discussing a few of these similarities, we need to reference the biblical account of Jesus’ Baptism.
Matthew 3:13-17 recounts Jesus’ Baptism. Jesus appears to John the Baptist to receive his baptism of repentance. Jesus’ desire to be baptized by him troubles John since, as he asserts, he needs Jesus to baptize him (Matthew 3:14). Still, John consents when Jesus insists that it must be done to fulfill all righteousness: “But Jesus answered him, ‘Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.’ Then he consented” (Matthew 3:15; ESV).
Now for a few similarities. We find certain parallels between Jesus’ manifestation as a small child to the wise men from the East and his determination to be baptized as an adult in the Jordan River. The wise men honor him as a divine king, as they come to worship him and present him with their gifts (Matthew 2:2, 11). Later, as Jesus is baptized, the Spirit descends upon him and God declares him to be his beloved Son with whom he is well-pleased (Matthew 3:16-17). The Eastern church, which still celebrates this baptismal event on January 6, refers to the celebration as the “Feast of the Theophany.” The Feast of Theophany highlights the truth that the Baptism not only reveals Jesus, but the entire Trinity as well. Just as the wise men honor Jesus as divine royalty, God acknowledges him as his beloved Son in his Baptism and anoints him by the Spirit. Jesus’ Baptism signifies his anointing as king or firstborn of all creation, the most exalted among the kings of the earth (See Psalm 89:27; Colossians 1:15). Moreover, the wise men’s third gift, myrrh, and John’s baptism of repentance signify Jesus’ connection with us in our human frailty. As the writer of Hebrews claims, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15; ESV).For Jesus to complete our salvation as the God-Man, he had to identify with us in every way, which his baptism by John signified. The one who identifies with us in baptism is not a half human, but a full human made up of body and mind or soul. Gregory of Nazianzus puts it this way in his famous critique of Apollinarianism with its denial of Jesus possessing a human mind or soul:
If anyone has put his trust in Him as a Man without a human mind, he is really bereft of mind, and quite unworthy of salvation. For that which He has not assumed He has not healed; but that which is united to His Godhead is also saved. If only half Adam fell, then that which Christ assumes and saves may be half also; but if the whole of his nature fell, it must be united to the whole nature of Him that was begotten, and so be saved as a whole. Let them not, then, begrudge us our complete salvation, or clothe the Saviour only with bones and nerves and the portraiture of humanity.
Epiphany and Baptism manifest the mystery of our complete salvation through Jesus, who is fully God and fully human. Only as he assumes our full humanity “united to His Godhead” in the incarnation does he heal it, as Gregory argued.
Both celebrations—Jesus’ Epiphany and Baptism—declare the profound mystery of the incarnation, which John’s Gospel refers to as “The Word became flesh” (John 1:14) and which involves body and soul. Jesus is: the eternal Word made flesh (John 1:14), the most exalted of the kings of the earth (Psalm 89:27), the firstborn over all creation (Colossians 1:15), God’s beloved Son in whom he is well-pleased and on whom the Spirit descends (Matthew 3:16-17), who fulfills all righteousness (Matthew 3:15), who is our high priest who identifies with us fully in our total humanity, yet without sin (Hebrews 4:15), to bring us to God through his sacrifice unto death and resurrected life (1 Peter 3:18). May we who have seen his star from nations far and wide come to worship him who was born king of the Jews, bowing low and laying our gifts before him in joyful homage (Matthew 2:2, 10-11). May we receive his baptism of the Holy Spirit and fire and pray that we are wheat, not chaff (Matthew 3:11-12).
No one or two days can mark the significance of this divine and human manifestation. As has been said of the celebration of Epiphany, so it should be said of Jesus’ Baptism and incarnation as a whole:
Epiphany is a complex feast. Originating in the Eastern Church and formed by the mentality of a people whose thought processes differ sharply from our own, the Epiphany is like a rich Oriental tapestry in which the various themes are woven and interwoven– now to be seen in their historical setting, again to be viewed from a different vantage point in their deep mystical significance.
Like Epiphany, Jesus’ Baptism and entire incarnate life reflect the profound truth that what we find as a small child and as a man being baptized in the Jordan is none other than God with us—Immanuel (Matthew 1:23).
In light of this rich tapestry of Jesus’ life that is an integrated whole, it is fitting that for many Protestant churches, Epiphany marks the season from January 6th to Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent. Here the last Sunday associated with Epiphany is Transfiguration Sunday (refer here), which we will engage in a later entry.
The celebration of Epiphany as well as the Lord’s Baptism should not end today. Keep them in mind as we move forward toward his Transfiguration (Matthew 17:1-13). Until Transfiguration Sunday, and long after, may we continue to marvel at Jesus, who is “Immanuel”—God with us (Matthew 1:23).