The baptism of Jesus has long been a favorite passage for heretics who deny the Incarnation—for it can be misinterpreted if one lacks a full understanding of the revelation. The error is to see the descent of the Spirit upon Jesus as new thing, as if the Spirit did not rest upon Jesus before his baptism. Thus, some heretics will say that Jesus was just an ordinary man who became the Son of God when he received the Spirit in baptism.
The true and biblical faith is that Jesus is the Son of God from eternity. He was conceived by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, and he was begotten of the Father before all worlds. The baptism of Jesus does not establish a new identity. Rather, the baptism of Jesus reveals what he has always been. Jesus is, as the Te Deum proclaims, “the everlasting Son of the Father”—“As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be.”
What the heretic believes wrongly about the baptism of Jesus is, in fact, true about our baptisms. In baptism we do receive a new gift. We do become what we were not before. What Jesus is by nature, from eternity, we become by God’s grace. We are baptized “into Christ.” We are grafted into Jesus’ baptism. God adopts us as his children and gives us as a gift the inheritance his Son possesses by nature.
The ministry of Jesus began at his baptism. He was declared publicly to be the Son of God. Then he went about doing the things that only the Son of God can do. This pattern is instructive for the Christian life. It teaches us that identify precedes behavior. Who we are determines what we do. It was only because Jesus is the Son of God that he was able to fulfill the law and die for our sins. It is only because God has adopted us as his children and given us the gift of the Spirit that we are able to all such good works as he has prepared for us to walk in.
This pattern reveals the great distinction between Christian faith and religions that are the product of human nature. Human nature strives to achieve a status with God. It wants our relationship with God to be a reward for what we have done. [For example, our neighbors across the street believe that Jesus was once an ordinary man who worked his way up to become the Son of God. They believe that our task is the same.] In contrast, the gospel teaches us that God makes us his children as a gift, by grace; worthy behavior is a result, not the cause, of this gifted status. We can never be good enough to become God’s children.
This is why we are always talking about the life of prayer. To live a life of prayer means to live continually in the light of our baptismal identity. We must, day by day and week by week, begin the Christian life by entering back into the baptismal experience of union with the Father through the Son in the Spirit through prayer. Unless we remember who we are, it is not possible to do what we ought to do.
Sin and unfaithfulness result from forgetfulness. When we forget that we are children of God; when we forget that our sins have been forgiven; when we forget that we are members of Christ and heirs of the kingdom, we take on other identities. We come to think of ourselves as consumers or victims or worshipers of money and pleasure; and we come to act according to impulses of the flesh and not the Spirit.
We develop a better memory, we integrate our Christian identify into our lives by a commitment to the life of prayer over time. As we return to the altar of God each week, as we practice the daily disciplines of Scripture reading and prayer, as continue to experience, in the body of Christ, what it means to be forgiven and receive God’s grace, we become more conscious of who were really are, and more able to live as we ought as a result.
One problem we have in advocating for the life of prayer is that prayer is often viewed negatively as a passive activity—“You better not just pray about that job. You better go and look for one also.” We should acknowledge that passivity is a real error also. There are people who use prayer as an excuse to avoid doing what they should do.
However, prayer is not opposed to action. Prayer is to action in our lives as Word is to flesh in the Incarnation. Prayer leads us to right behavior and divinely guided actions. It should be emphasized that the two central New Testament advocates for continual prayer, Jesus and St. Paul, are also the two who were arguably the busiest. The same Paul who claimed that he “labored more abundantly” than all of the other apostles (1 Corinthians 15:10) also exhorts us to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17).
Activity lacking prayerfulness is often like a whirlwind. There is a lot of stuff flying around, but it only produces a greater mess. We can never accomplish the will of God merely by trying harder or doing more. This is why the foundational work of the Christian life is prayer, and all holy behavior and all good works are the fruit thereof.
Just as we talk a lot about prayer, so we also talk a lot about spiritual gifts. This is the subject of our epistle, which says that “have gifts differing according to the grace that is given to us.” Through prayer we discover the gifts that God has given us and the sense of ministry to which we are called. These are an integral part of our Christian identity. When God makes us members of Christ in baptism, he gives us some part, some role to play in the ministry of Christ.
The general sense of giftedness is this: By nature we are selfish. We approach the world wanting to know what we can get from it. By grace the emptiness of sin is filled by God so that we can approach the world “In Christ” in a new way, wanting to know what we can give to it. Baptism transforms us from takers into givers. Through the life of prayer we discover the particular things God calls us to do, and we are given the gift of charity that enables us to use our gifts in the right way. For it is not enough to know what our gifts are; we also need to learn how to use our gifts with love, without which they are worth nothing (1 Corinthians 13).
Baptism teaches us that the Christian life begins, not with human effort, but with God’s grace. Through the life of prayer we return again and again to baptism, where the Spirit descended upon us and God adopted as his children so that we are able to cry, “Abba, Father” (Galatians 4:6). We can only do what we ought to do by first remembering that we are children of God, members of Christ and heirs of the kingdom.