On January 6th, Orthodox Christians gather together for the Feast of Theophany. This feast is the third most important feast day in the Orthodox Church (after Pascha and Pentecost). Yes, it’s even more important than Christmas! On this day, we commemorate the baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan. One question that always arises during this festal season is, “Why was Jesus, the sinless Word of God made flesh, baptized by his cousin, John the Baptist?” There are several theologically correct answers. The hymnography and prayers of the feast state that Jesus’ baptism sanctifed the nature of the waters, enlightened all creation, allowed celestials to celebrate and commune with the terrestrials, and made manifest the worship of the Trinity. However, there is another important aspect to this feast. If we look at Scripture and His baptism, we can see the promised fulfi llment of the Old Testament prophecies concerning His sacrificial death on the Cross. Thus, like the apostles, we can preach “Christ crucified” (I Corinthians 1:23) – the very heart of the Gospel – on the feast of Theophany.
First, let’s take a look at John’s baptism. It was not the same as our baptism today. In the sacrament of baptism, we were cleansed of ancestral sin, illumined, justified, given the seal of the Holy Spirit, and made complete and full members of Christ’s one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church. This is baptism’s function in the post-Resurrection and post-Pentecost Church. But John’s baptism was before all this. So, what was it? In Mark 1:4–5 we read,
John came baptizing in the wilderness and preaching a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins. Then all the land of Judea, and those from Jerusalem, went out to him and all were baptized by him in the Jordan River, confessing their sins.
The gospels also tell us that John the Baptist was the voice crying in the wilderness that prepared the way of the Lord, as foretold in Isaiah 40:3 and Malachi 3:1–7. At the sound of that voice, the people came to John, confessed their sins, and were baptized, promising to change their ways and to bear fruit worthy of repentance. John’s baptism was a type of Jewish purification ritual in preparation for the coming of the Messiah.
So again, the question arises, “If Jesus is God incarnate, and sinless, why does He need to enter into this purification ritual for sinners?” Even John didn’t want to baptize Jesus, but stated that he should be baptized by Jesus. In Matthew 3:15, though, Jesus states,
“Permit it to be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.”
Despite John’s hesitance, Jesus submits to baptism at the hand of John the Baptist. The meaning behind all this is made clear if we turn to the Old Testament.
In Leviticus 16, we read about the Day of Atonement. This religious ceremony involved the sacrifice of several animals, including two goats. We read that Aaron the high priest was to
take the two goats and present them before the Lord at the door of the tabernacle of meeting. Then Aaron shall cast lots for the two goats: one lot shall be for the Lord and the other lot for the scapegoat. . . . Then he shall kill the goat of the sin offering, which is for the people, bring its blood inside the veil, do with that blood as he did with the blood of the bull, and sprinkle it on the mercy seat and before the mercy seat. So shall he make atonement for the Holy Place, because of the uncleanness of the children of Israel, and because of their transgressions, for all their sins . . . (Leviticus 16:7–8, 15–16).
From this passage, we learn that the first goat was a sin offering that was sacrificed on behalf of the sinful Israelite people.
A few verses later we read about the second goat, the scapegoat:
And when he has made an end of atoning for the Holy Place, the tabernacle of meeting, and the altar, he shall bring the live goat. Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goat, confess over it all the iniquities of the children of Israel, and all their transgressions, concerning all their sins, putting them on the head of the goat, and shall send it away into the wilderness by the hand of a suitable man. The goat shall bear on itself all their iniquities to an uninhabited land; and he shall release the goat into the wilderness (Leviticus 16:20-22).
This second goat was not killed; hands were laid upon it, sins confessed over it, then the goat was driven into the wilderness. In Old Testament times, banishment into the wilderness meant certain death. The scapegoat symbolized for the Israelite people the removal of sin by the placing of the sin on some other entity so that it became the bearer of sin. In the New Testament, it is Jesus who takes on the roles of both sacrificial animals.
First, Jesus is our scapegoat. At His baptism, the Sinless One took upon Himself, willingly and voluntarily, all of the sins of humanity – past, present, and future. Every sin, every transgression, every fault, and every error of fallen humanity is now laid upon Jesus’ head. In doing this, He fulfills the type seen in the Levitical scapegoat. After being baptized and assuming the burden of humanity’s sins, Jesus exits to the wilderness for forty days. The new scapegoat is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. But wait, there’s more!
Second, Jesus is the fulfillment of the sin offering – the other goat from the Day of Atonement. Unlike the scapegoat, Jesus doesn’t die in the wilderness. He goes into the wilderness for forty days to fast and to defeat the temptations of the devil. After that, He returns from the desert and begins His public ministry. Remember, however, that baptism itself involves water. This is important because in the Old Testament water is often a symbol of chaos and death! Thus, in His descent into the waters of the Jordan River at the hands of His cousin, John the Baptist, we see foreshadowed the death of Jesus on the Cross at the hands of his own people. By His crucifixion, Life-Giving Divinity enters into the chaotic waters of death, subdues it, and destroys it. Then, just as Jesus arises from the waters at His baptism, He also arises from the chaotic waters of death at His Resurrection on the third day.
The good news for us on the feast day of Theophany is this: No longer do we have to offer goats and banish goats year after year which, as it states in Hebrews 10, can never make the offerers perfect. Now, we have a perfect sacrifi ce – a perfect someone – to lay our sins upon. The old Adam tried to make Eve and the serpent his scapegoats and caused mankind to be cast out of the Garden of Eden. Jesus, the new Adam, comes and takes responsibility for sin and suffers God’s wrath against sin so we don’t have to (Isaiah 53:3–8). By becoming the perfect and sinless scapegoat and sin offering, He takes away sin and the resultant sting of death, and prepares the way to paradise and the unending presence of the light and love of God for those who believe. Let us believers place our sins, our failures, our passions, and our despairs on Jesus so that He can drown them by the virtue of His baptism. On the great and holy feast-day of Theophany, just as those Old Testament priests partook of the flesh of the sin offering, let us, with joy in our hearts, as the priesthood of all believers, partake of the Body and Blood of the crucified Christ who deigned to be baptized in the Jordan River for our salvation. Glory to Jesus Christ!
Fr. Stephen Salaris is pastor of All Saints of North America Antiochian Orthodox Mission.