Tuesday, 12 May 2015

The Baptism of Jesus: Authority and Power (1): Messianic Expectations

In the charismatic renewal it is often argued that Christians should minister healing and deliverance to others like Jesus ministered to people, in the same “authority” and “power”. But didn't Jesus have authority and power to heal and deliver because he was divine? In a short series I'll explore the significance of the baptism of Jesus in terms of "authority" and "power". How did Protestant theologians Abraham Kuyper, Karl Barth, Jurgen Moltmann and Wolfhart Pannenberg understand the baptism of Jesus?

In this first pasrt, we'll set the scene: The Jewish expectation of the coming of the Kingdom of God proves important for a proper understanding of Jesus' baptism.

Check also:
- Part 2 (on authority)
- Part 3 (on Power).

The Baptism of Jesus: Authority and Power (1)

In the charismatic renewal within the churches it is often argued that believers should minister to others like Jesus ministered to people, in the same “authority” and “power”. A recent example is found in Learning to Heal, a “practical guide” by Anglican theologian John Coles, until recently international director of New Wine.[1] The point of departure for his argument is that to be a Christian involves becoming more like Jesus, and that this is a process that involves not only “developing the type of relationship with God that Jesus had”, and “having our lives transformed by the Holy Spirit so that we increasingly reflect the qualities of purity and holiness that characterized Jesus’ life”, but also “learning to minister to others with the same love and power in which Jesus ministered.”[2] He then goes on to explain this in terms of “authority” and “power” (Chapter 3). When Christians are to be involved in healing ministry they need to understand that God gives them authority to carry out this ministry, and that it is the Holy Spirit who empowers them for this ministry. Both statements he then grounds in the New Testament account of Jesus being “anointed with the power of the Holy Spirit following his baptism.”[3]

Before establishing the way in which believers would share in the ministry of Jesus, we need to explore the meaning of this “authority” and “power” in the ministry of Jesus himself. Why was Jesus baptized in the river Jordan, prior to taking up his ministry? Is this terminology of “authority” and “power” merely a matter of evangelical-charismatic vocabulary, or could it be grounded in a Reformed systematic-theological understanding of the ministry of Jesus?
In order to investigate this, we will look into contributions to christology and pneumatology by non-charismatic theologians within the tradition of the Reformation: Abraham Kuyper, Karl Barth, Jürgen Moltmann and Wolfhart Pannenberg. How do they perceive the baptism of Jesus in terms of authority and power?[4]

Obviously, this focus on the perception of authority and power leaves out other issues relevant to the baptism of Jesus, for instance the connection to forgiveness of sin and representation, or the link between Jesus’ baptism and the Christian baptism.

The setting of the scene: Announcing the Kingdom of God

Jesus began his public work in the context of the proclamation of John the Baptist, as he applied this proclamation to himself and had himself baptized by John.
The whole setting is loaded with symbolism, as New Testament scholars (and mostly those associated with the Third Quest, with their keen eye for the socio-historical backgrounds) don’t fail to emphasize. When John the Baptist commences his ministry, it is no coincidence that he lives in the desert, calls for repentance and baptizes in the river Jordan.
As N.T. Wright puts it,

“anyone collecting people in the Jordan wilderness was symbolically saying: this is the new exodus. Anybody offering water-baptism for the forgiveness of sins was saying: you can have, here and now, what you would normally get through the Temple cult. Anybody inviting those who wished to do so to pass through an initiatory rite of this kind was symbolically saying: here is the true Israel that is to be vindicated by YHWH.”[5]

Jürgen Moltmann emphasizes how this whole setting is eschatologically charged, and pointing at the coming Kingdom of God:

“Alles, was Johannes tut, ist symbolkräftig und voller Erinnerung an die alte Gottesgeschichte Israels. Er tauft die Bußfertigen Israels am Jordan für den neuen, endgültigen Eintritt ins Land Gottes. Die Botschaft, die Symbolik und die Taufe des Johannes bilden ein eschatologisches Bußsakrament. Diese Taufe unterscheidet sich von rituellen Waschungen durch ihre eschatologischen Endgültigkeit (…) Die Eschatologie des Johannes war die Naherwartung des Gerichtes Gottes, durch das das Reich der Gottesgerechtigkeit kommt.[6]

The baptism of John the Baptist meant an enacting of the “new exodus”, the “true return from exile” that first century Jews were expecting, as YHWH would finally intervene and stand up for his people, defeat their enemies and dwell with his people, establishing his Kingdom.[7]

Four canonical accounts: Mighty works
The accounts of the baptism of Jesus can be found in each of the three synoptic Gospels (Matthew 3:13-17; Mark 1:9-11; Luke 3:21-22), and the Gospel according to John mentions the descending of the Spirit on Jesus (John 1:29-34). Matthew, Mark and Luke each mention how after this event Jesus was either “led by the Spirit” or “full of the Spirit”, marking this as the beginning of the public ministry of Jesus. Especially Mark places these events in the context of the Jewish expectation of the coming Messiah, by beginning his Gospel with a quotation from the prophet Isaiah, announcing the coming of the Lord (Mark 1:1-3).
Apparently then, Jesus applies this proclamation of the coming Messiah, bringing the Kingdom of God, to himself. “Jesus was known (…) as someone who could speak with power and authority”, N.T. Wright argues, “But it was the sort of things he said which marked him out in particular”, as he announces the inbreaking of the Kingdom of God.[8] By what he said, and by what he did, including his “mighty works” of healing and deliverance, he claimed that the Kingdom of God had come in him. These “mighty works” or “works of power” are not to be regarded as “proof” of Jesus’ “divinity”, as traditional theology sometimes has done, Wright argues. Instead, Jesus was “indeed inaugurating the long-awaited time of liberation (…) the kingdom of God”.

“From the perspective of a follower of Jesus at the time, his mighty works will have been interpreted within the context of his overall proclamation: they would be seen as signs that the kingdom of Israel’s god was indeed coming to birth.”[9]

This how Jesus clearly perceived his ministry, Wright argues.

“He never performed mighty works simply to impress. He saw them as part of the inauguration of the sovereign and healing rule of Israel’s covenant god.”[10]

The synoptic Gospels mention that the people witnessing the public ministry of Jesus stand amazed of his “authority” and “power”(Matthew 7:29; 12:24; Mark 1:27; Luke 4:31; 4:36; 5:26; 6:19), as he inaugurates the Kingdom of God.
The evangelists use words like paradoxa, things one would not normally expect, or terata and semeia, signs and portents, to refer to the “mighty works” that usher in God’s healing reign.[11] The words mostly used for “authority” and “power” are exousia and dunameis (see for instance Luke 4:36 for their distinct use alongside each other).

Raising questions
What then, in this context of messianic expectation and the inauguration of the Kingdom of God, is the significance of Jesus’ baptism and the descending of the Spirit on him?
  • Did he receive this authority and this power at this point in his life?
  • Or did he have authority already, being the Son of God?
  • But if so, did he still need to receive the Spirit then?
  • How to perceive this authority and this power, in the context of his public ministry that apparently began with the events at the river Jordan?

Further reading:
In the next weeks, I'll explore the interpretations of Kuyper, Barth, Moltmann and Pannenberg, and in the backs of our mind is the question what all of this could imply for our own involvement in the proclamation of the Kingdom of God:
- Part 2: Authority
- Part 3: Power


[1] John Coles, Learning to Heal. A Practical Guide for Every Christian (Milton Keynes: Authentic Media, 2010; revised reprint 2012).
[2] Coles, 3.
[3] Coles, 39.
[4] For our exploration we will limit ourselves to the following paragraphs: Kuyper, Het werk van den Heiligen Geest, Chapters 5 and 6; Barth, Kirchliche Dogmatik IV/4, Chapter 2, Paragraph II; Moltmann, Der Weg Jesu Christi, Chapter III, Paragraph 3-6; Pannenberg, Systematic Theology Vols 2 and 3, with a focus on Vol. 2, Chapter 9, Paragraph 2, and Vol. 3, Chapter 13, Part III, Paragraph 1 d.
[5] N.T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, Christian Origins and the Question of God, Volume Two (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996), 160.
[6] Jürgen Moltmann, Der Weg Jesu Christi. Christologie in messianischen Dimensionen (München: Kaiser Verlag, 1989), 108.
[7] Wright, 172, 190.
[8] Wright, 171.
[9] Wright, 190-191.
[10] Wright, 191.
[11] Wright, 188.

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