The word Epiphany means manifestation or appearance. It is during this season that we celebrate the many manifestations of Jesus as Messiah. Clearly, what occurred at his baptism is one such manifestation. A voice from on high claiming him to be the Beloved could be inferred as proof positive. Yet the very fact that Jesus was baptized in the first place has perplexed many since the day of its occurrence. –– Ruth Harper Stevens
Ruth Stevens offers an illustration to help expand our understanding of the import of baptism:
. . . A ten-year-old boy was standing along a riverbank waiting his turn to be baptized. He observed intently as each person waded out into the river. He held his breath, watched the preacher dunk them, hold them under the water, and then lift them back up.
Finally, he commented, “You know, somebody could get hurt doing that!” He was right. Somebody did. Jesus! However, somebody could also be saved doing that. Now here’s the heart of the matter. Through his baptism, Jesus took responsibility upon himself for the sins of the world.
Through our baptism, we also share in taking upon ourselves the sins of the world. Of course, this does not mean that we become one with sin. –– Ruth Harper Stevens
In baptism we are sealed with a promise that it is God who tears the heavens to save us; God who claims us as beloved; God who welcomes and blesses us, transforming us from people who toddle around the edge [of the deep water, of the world’s dangers] in anxious oblivion to courageous, beloved sisters and brothers of Christ who swim out to the deep end, trusting that God will indeed jump in [when we need a hand]. –– Denise Thorpe
Out of the dark, empty void, we are presented with the creative Creator who ushers in light, and whose very present presence is one that is not indifferent or one that exhibits raw power. Instead, the God of heaven and earth is one who acts with purpose, creativity, and beauty. These lines provide a frame of reference for all that follows in holy Scripture, tethering us to God’s creative witness and to the God who effected that witness. –– Neal D. Presa
Here, on Paul’s third missionary journey, we see the apostle bringing the Gospel to Ephesus, where “the word of the Lord grew mightily and prevailed” (v 20). Paul meets followers of John the Baptist and is introduced to the apostolic baptism that grants them the gift of the Holy Spirit.
We immediately get the sense that baptism was the rite for initiation as Paul identifies these disciples as believers in his first question, and then proceeds to ask about their baptism when they respond negatively to the question of reception of the Holy Spirit, whereas the preparatory baptism of John the Baptist was to lead people to repentance.
Paul baptizes these Ephesian disciples with the baptism sanctioned by Jesus Christ and entrusted to the apostolic witness—a baptism that when given aligned the Ephesian disciples to the Christ, connected them to that tradition and to the apostles performing that rite, and enlightened them to the presence (and existence) of God’s Spirit. –– Neal D. Presa
Ruth Harper Stevens is retired after 30 years of ministry in the United Methodist North Carolina Conference.
Denise Thorpe is a Presbyterian pastor (PCUSA) who served a church in Raleigh, North Carolina, and in 2014 worked with a Louisville Institute team focused on Race, Church, and Theological Practices.
Neal D. Presa, pastor of Middlesex Presbyterian Church in Elizabeth Presbytery, New Jersey, was the Moderator of the 220th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (PCUSA).
Homily Service 42, no. 1 (2008): 87-96.