This passage from the first epistle of John seems on the surface a little strange, if not rather difficult to comprehend on first hearing. But then its always difficult looking at a passage in isolation. As it links in with the second reading set for today, its probably not a bad idea to stop and see just what we can learn from what seems at first glance, to be a rather agitated bit of writing.
The first thing to say by way of background information, is that the author of this epistle is probably the same one who wrote the fourth gospel. It was probably written in Ephasus where John had moved, and around 60 years after the death of Jesus.
It was more than likely written after he wrote the gospel, and probably written to encourage the fledgling faith of the local Christians, in the face of what seems to have been opposition from the beliefs of some on the fringes of the Christian church - who, John was indignant to find out were actually using his gospel for their own ends by misquoting or taking passages out of context. Some things never change, do they?
How often do we see or hear so-called experts and theologians arguing about aspects of our faith that we hold dear, and think "Hang on, that doesnt sound right!" or "Thats not my experience of Gods love!" - but do we ever do anything about it? When was the last time you wrote a "Mr Angry" letter to a newspaper?
Well, fortunately John didnt belong to that camp. He wasnt going to hang around and see his gospel message used to prop up something that seemed to him positively heretical.
Theres a lovely story concerning John which illustrates this aspect of his personality. Its one thats been handed down from the early church and concerns Johns irritation at the teaching of a man called Cerinthus. We are told that one day John fled the bathhouse at Ephasus when he found that Cerinthus was in it, on the grounds that God could at any time reach down and destroy this "enemy of the truth"
So what was Cerinthus preaching that got John so hot under the collar? Well, he seems to have been questioning the whole idea of the incarnation - the entry of the divine into human form and life - trying to separate the man Jesus from the divine Christ. The Spirit, he taught, came upon Jesus only at his baptism, and left him again - abandoned him - to suffer alone on the cross.
Cerinthus belonged to a belief system we know as Gnosticism. This included the belief that the Divine Redeemer was a pure spiritual being, and pure spirit couldnt have any contact with impure matter. John will have nothing of this, because it denies the possibility of the incarnation, and attacks Cerinthus teaching - that the Spirit came upon the man Jesus at his baptism and then left him before his death.
In verse 6 John says "This is the one who came by water and blood - Jesus Christ." In chapter 19 of his gospel we can read of the moment that a soldier pierced Jesus side with a spear - and were told that out poured blood and water. Is this a coincidence? In the epistle, John is thinking about Jesus baptism and death.
Carry on and we read "And it is the Spirit who testifies, for the Spirit is truth. For there are three that testify; the Spirit, the water and the blood, and all agree."
So the witnesses to the full humanity of our Lord both in his life and death, if we translate them into the life of the church, are the Spirit, the water of baptism, and the Lords supper where we share in the body and blood of Christ.
To recognise this is a gift and sign of the genuine Spirit of God, because earlier in chapter four John says to his readers "This is how you can recognise the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God."
As Charles Wesley so elegantly puts it
"Our God contracted to a span,
Incomprehensibly made man......
He laid his glory by,
He wrapped him in our clay;
unmarked by human eye,
the latent Godhead lay;
Infant of days he here became,
And bore the mild Immanuels name."
Mark in his gospel is not one to waste words. He has a purpose in his writing and his narrative is action-based. He shifts scene rapidly, with Jesus seen constantly on the move, healing, exorcising demons, confronting opponents and instructing his disciples.
Our reading comes from whats been called the prologue to his story, and is of course that lovely moment when God reveals to the world that "You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased."
But if we concentrate on that, weve missed something. For tucked into verse five is the fact that Jesus was baptised by John in the river Jordan.
Why did Jesus, Son of God and sinless need to take part in the baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins as preached by John the Baptist, before he could start his ministry?
Mark doesnt tell us.... Surely Jesus knew who he was, and what his purpose was. His parents certainly knew that this was no ordinary child.
But if we take Lukes description of the visit of the twelve year old Jesus to the Passover Feast, then it looks like they hadnt really cottoned on to the full significance of the child they were raising. Perhaps what they, and the world at large, needed was a sign.
Our first reading gives us a clue perhaps, to the significance of the baptism. If you remember, John says that there are three witnesses to Jesus full humanity, Spirit, water and blood. And here in this important moment in Jesus life, we see two of these witnesses and gain an insight into the third.
There is a close similarity between this event in Jesus life, and that of the anointing of David by Samuel as king. In Samuel we read "So Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the presence of his brothers, and from that day on the Spirit of the Lord came upon David in power."
David was chosen by the Lord, anointed and proclaimed king in the presence of his brothers, and empowered by the Lord to do the task. It was a sign to the people of Gods will.
Jesus too, is to be introduced to the world as king, but unlike any other king that the world had seen until that day. There was to be no anointing with oil - although later in his life he would be anointed with oil, but not by priest or leader. No, he was to be the sort of king of whom Isaiah could prophesy:-
"Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit upon him and he will bring justice to the nations. He will not cry out, or raise his voice in the streets. A bruised reed he will not break, and a smouldering wick he will not put out. In faithfulness he will bring forth justice; he will not falter or be discouraged, till he establishes justice on the earth. In his law the people will put their hope."
And so the world has its sign, but one of greater significance than perhaps they could have imagined. Jesus knew who he was, he knew that there was no earthly reason for him to enter into the baptism of John the Baptist, a baptism for the repentance and cleansing of sin. But there was a "need" if you like, for him to do so. And why? Because of the reason for him being there in the first place.
"For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, so that all who believe in him should not perish......."
"The wages of sin is death" the bible tells us. But God so loved the world that he was prepared make the ultimate sacrifice in order to bring a sinful world back into his family. In Jesus baptism then, we see him showing his willingness to share in the lot of a sinful world, and to ultimately bear its sin on the cross.
It was a symbolic moment, and one the world would not understand at that moment in time. But later, when the pieces of the jigsaw were put together and his followers started to understand who he really was, then they would remember.
So although Mark almost glosses over this event, focussing more on the spiritual event that followed, for Israel and for us this baptism holds particular symbolic meaning. In it Jesus shows both his humanity and a glimpse of his destiny.
Then Mark tells us that the Spirit descended on Him like a dove. Another wonderfully symbolic moment, reminding us of some well-worn passages in Isaiah
"The Spirit of the Lord will rest upon him - the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of power....."
"The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release for the prisoners...."
These passages speak of the Spirit being given to certain people as their anointing for kingly and prophetic service. They are also often quoted as being prophetic words, reflecting as they obviously do the life and ministry of Jesus.
John gave us three witnesses to the reality of Jesus true nature; Spirit, water and blood. Human kings could be baptised and human kings could be anointed with Gods Spirit - chosen by Him for service. But God adds one more sign for the people. "And a voice came down from heaven: 'You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.'"
To the declaration of the humanity of Jesus is added proof if it were needed of his divinity. "You are my Son..." declares God in no uncertain terms, and sets his seal upon the vocation of Jesus. From that moment, the gospels reveal to us, Jesus ministry on earth began.
In an extraordinary moment in time, Marks gospel tells us, an ordinary looking man was revealed to the world to be Gods Son. Matthew and Johns gospels tell us slightly more - that John the Baptist saw Jesus and somehow, and were not told how, knew who he really was. But the fact is that the rest of Israel were apparently unaware until Jesus baptism and anointing. There was a moment of revelation, in spectacular fashion.
Do you have a friend or acquaintance who you thought you knew very well, and then all of a sudden they do something really unexpected and out of character. "Well, that was a bit of a revelation." we might say. A side of their character which we didnt know existed suddenly sheds new light on an old friend - but wed have never found out ourselves.
Revelation, according to the dictionary means "Something disclosed or made known by supernatural means". This is something that someone else discloses to us, beyond our own ability to discover. For Christians revelation is important, because it means that God has taken the initiative in disclosing Himself to us - assuming of course that man is out there somewhere actually looking or searching for God.
To the wise men at Christmas, Jesus coming was revealed to them through a star. To John the Baptist and to anyone else that was watching at the time, the true nature of Jesus was revealed at his anointing in the river Jordan. To us, our revelation often comes through prayer, preaching, worship and the reading of the Word, when suddenly something clicks and another mystery of our faith suddenly makes sense.
Jesus had a very deep respect for his scripture, especially when it concerned prophesy about himself
"Everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled." (Luke 24:44)
Jesus expected the people of his time to know enough about their scriptures that within them they might see prophesy concerning himself - and of course come to a realisation that those prophesies had been fulfilled in his birth, life and ministry.
If we are open enough to want to hear Gods voice, and to read His Word when we have the opportunity then this process of revelation - of God revealing his purpose and his person to us - will take place in our lives as well. Well learn more about our faith, more about our God and more about the love that came to earth as one of us, was prepared in humility to undertake a baptism of repentance - so as to share the lot of a sinful people - and later to die a terrible death in order that those same people might be made right again with their creator.
It is also a starting point in our own ministry as servants of our living God. Mark doesnt explain why Jesus was baptised, but he does point out the significance of the event. If the church (the Body of Christ) has a task, which is to carry forward the mission of Christ, detailed in the last few verses of Matthews gospel.
"Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and of the Holy Spirit..."
Then Jesus commissioning, empowering and encouraging in this way has implications for all of us.