Baptised in water, spirit and fire

By Alan Bean

This post was written in anticipation of a Mustard Seed Conspiracy study dealing with the baptism and temptation of Jesus.

Water baptism is a sacrament, “an outward and physical sign of an inward and spiritual grace.” In some Christian communions, children are baptized in anticipation of Spirit baptism.

But however we conceive it, baptism in the Holy Spirit is a glorious thing. As Jesus emerges from the Jordan, he sees the heavens ripped apart and the Holy Spirit, dove-like, descending to his shoulder.

Whether anyone else witnessed this event is hard to say. Matthew gives us the impression that the voice from heaven “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased,” is addressed to the crowd; Mark and Matthew’s wording applies only to Jesus: “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.”

But whether this Holy Ghost baptism was a personal or a communal experience, it was powerful and profound. The hand of God was on Jesus in a mighty way. Great things were coming, probably just around the next bend.

But in the Bible, as in life, glory merges into agony. For Christian disciples, the two are integrally connected. We are baptized in water, spirit and fire: a package deal.

It’s in the wilderness that we face the fire.

In all three Synoptic Gospels, Mark, Matthew and Luke, there is a close association between baptism in the Holy Spirit and temptation.

In Matthew and Luke, the Spirit leads Jesus to the wilderness. We picture the Spirit gently taking Jesus by the hand.

In Mark, the Spirit drives Jesus into the wilderness. You get the sense of the Spirit, whip in hand, driving Jesus somewhere he naturally would not wish to go.

John the Baptist felt at home in the wilderness. Luke tells us that John “was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly to Israel.” Jesus, by contrast, grew up in the town of Nazareth.

In Scripture, the wilderness isn’t just a physical location; it is a place of testing and trial—a school of hard knocks.

The people of Israel wandered in the wilderness for forty years until they were ready for freedom.

Centuries later, the sons and daughters of Abraham were led out of Babylonian captivity through the wilderness. Mark, Matthew and Luke all identify the mission of John the Baptist as “the voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,’” a text originally addressed to the captives in Babylon.

The wilderness is the place of testing and learning, the place for making mistakes and making crooked things straight.

Most importantly, the wilderness is the place where you decide who you will be no matter what the cost, and who you will never be regardless of the promised reward. Prophets are wilderness people, that’s what allows them to look you dead in the eye and speak truths you don’t want to hear.

You get strange ideas in the wilderness. Dangerous ideas. Luke introduces John’s baptism of Jesus by reminding his readers that, shortly after this incident, John was arrested by Herod Antipas.

Now it’s Jesus’ turn to suffer, learn and decide. This detour into the wilderness isn’t optional; it is part of the drill. Why, we wonder, would the Holy Spirit of God want Jesus to wrestle with Satan, alone, in the wilderness?

And why must Jesus face the tempter on an empty stomach? After forty days without food, Luke tells us, Jesus was famished. Well, Duh! But Luke has a good reason to spell out the obvious, he didn’t want us to miss the point of the first temptation.

Satan is well versed in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, the most pressing of which are physiological. We must have food and water and when we don’t get them nothing else matters. Temptations always hit us where we are vulnerable. Jesus is like a quarterback playing with a bruised rib, and the devil is like a linebacker trying to lay a direct hit on the rib cage.

The first temptation is directly related to the “You are my Son, the Beloved” message. If that’s true, the devil says, why not change a few of these rocks into loaves of bread.”

The devil wasn’t encouraging Jesus to become a do-gooder messiah who meets physical needs without touching the spirit. Jesus supplied the hungry with food, the thirsty with drink and the sick with healing. These signs of the kingdom were a big part of his ministry. But this rocks into bread thing was personal. Jesus was desperately hungry and his new superpowers provided a solution to the problem.

But Jesus will not take the bait. Quoting from Deuteronomy, he reminds the devil that we don’t live by bread alone, but by the word of God.

Could Jesus have turned rocks into bread? I don’t know the answer to that question. But if Jesus had gone down that road he would have surrendered his messianic credentials. The Holy Ghost baptism at the Jordan filled him with the power of God; the forty days of fasting were specifically designed to empty him of all Godly power. Jesus faced Satan as a vulnerable, hungering, thirsting human being. Only so could he serve the compassionate interests of God.

Having failed at the physiological level; Satan aims higher. Taking Jesus to the pinnacle of Herod’s temple in Jerusalem, he tells Jesus to launch himself into thin air so that, as the Scriptures testify, the holy angels can bear him up on their wings.”

Not only does the devil take Jesus to the holiest of places; he wants to show that he can quote Scripture with the best of them. The devil is a chameleon who can spout the rhetoric of science, superstition, dialectical materialism, pop culture or religious piety depending on which suits his purpose at the time. When you’re talking to God’s Beloved, you go to the temple and you quote chapter and verse.

What would have happened if Jesus had followed the devil’s advice? Would the angels have held up their end of the bargain?

I suspect that many would-be messiahs have turned rocks into bread or taken a header off the temple. It happens all the time. Jesus is exceptional because he refused to be an exception.

You don’t put God to the test, Jesus says. You walk with God even when he appears to be wandering into the wrong kind of neighborhood. Like the wilderness, or the hood. What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. Asking for miraculous deliverance makes us weaker. Jesus knew that; now he has a chance to live it out.

In the book of Job, Satan is part of God’s heavenly court; a kind of drill sergeant tasked with breaking in (and breaking down) the new recruits. To an extent, that’s his role here as well. The devil takes Jesus from real glory to real agony and then tempts him with fake glory.

When that fails, the devil takes Jesus to a high mountain and shows him all the kingdoms of the world in a single instant. When we think of the kingdoms of this world (and the splendor thereof) we should be thinking of the normal functioning of the not-so-holy-Roman Empire: a kingdom of slaves and armies, of triumphs and crucifixions, of bread and circuses, of routine terror and pitiless domination.

“To you I will give their glory and all this authority,” Luke’s devil tells Jesus; “for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.”

Jesus doesn’t challenge the grandiosity of Satan’s claims. The tempter speaks the simple truth. Those who thrive in the kingdoms of this world have sold their souls to the devil. “What does it profit,” Jesus asked his disciples, “to gain the world and lose your soul?”

Jesus came across that insight in the wilderness. As Moses led the children of Israel out of Egypt and Isaiah heralded release from Babylon, Jesus must lead his people out of Roman bondage.

The devil doesn’t lay his cards on the table with a crude quid pro quo unless he is desperate, but from the beginning of this ordeal, the temptation to devil worship has been implicit. If Jesus had tried to turn rocks into bread or if he had launched himself from the parapet of the temple he would have been bowing down before the golden calf—a god that is no God.

Satan knows it is time to go big or go home, so he reveals the nature of his real game.

Then he goes home.

Or, as in Luke’s account, the tempter stages a strategic retreat, waiting for a more opportune time.

This isn’t a story about resisting the many temptations of life: gluttony, debauchery and the like. It is a story about baptism. Only those who are baptized into the death of Jesus, only those who have been filled with the Holy Spirit of God, know what it means to be driven into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.

Do we really understand what’s going on? Do we know what’s at stake? Do we understand that following the Master will frequently mean relinquishing power and all the sweet bon bons of self-gratification? Do we understand that the wilderness makes us weird, just like John the Baptist, just like Jesus?

God wants to baptize all of us in water and the Spirit. But we must also be baptized with fire. The muddy Jordan runs straight through the fiery wilderness.