By Paul D. Wheatley

In former generations this mystery was not made known to humankind, as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit: that is, the Gentiles have become fellow-heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel                                                                                                                         Ephesians 3:5–6

The word mystery in modern parlance generally refers to something difficult to comprehend without concerted effort. Whether a page-turning mystery novel or a story about a stranger new in town with a tall, dark, mysterious persona, this mysteriousness speaks of something only partially known, but seasoned with intrigue. When presented with a mystery, we are beckoned toward understanding.

Tomorrow’s Feast of the Epiphany celebrates the uncovering of a mystery. The word epiphany speaks of something coming to light or appearing before those who previously could not perceive it. In the West, we know it to be the commemoration of the manifestation of the Messiah to the Gentiles, represented in the coming of the Magi in Matthew 2:1–12. As the prophet of old put it, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light” (Isa. 9:2).


However, the nature of the mystery celebrated in the feast of Epiphany has changed throughout the centuries. The earliest commemorations of Epiphany, taking place in the Christian East, celebrated Jesus’ baptism. Although Matthew and Luke’s accounts of the events surrounding the birth of the Messiah occur with great fanfare, Jesus remains largely unknown to the people of Judea or the surrounding nations throughout his childhood. In all four Gospels, it is Jesus’ baptism that marks the beginning of his public ministry, and Mark and John feature Jesus’ baptism as the first scene of their gospels. John the Baptist speaks of Jesus’ baptism as the means of this epiphany: “I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel” (John 1:31b). Yet, even in the Gospel of John, it isn’t until after Jesus’ baptism that the real epiphany takes place: “Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory” (John 2:11a).

Each of these gospel stories — the wedding at Cana, the baptism of Jesus, and the visit of the Magi — occur along the way in the commemoration of Epiphany in many Anglican lectionaries, whether in the Daily Office readings, the eucharistic readings for the Epiphany on January 6, or readings for the Baptism of the Lord on the Sunday after Epiphany. This multiplicity of images is appropriate to the multifaceted nature of the mystery revealed in the advent of Jesus the Messiah.

These multiple images also speak to the nature of the mystery of the Incarnation that beckons us toward understanding throughout the 12 days of Christmas. The arrival of the Magi provides a narrative of how those outside Jesus’ immediate family and the religious and political establishment respond to the birth of the Messiah. Like the appearance of the angels to Mary and to the shepherds in the field testifies to the importance of this event for the lowly of Israel, the coming of the Magi speaks to us of the significance of the incarnation of God the Son, the Messiah, for the nations. As it says in Ephesians 3:6, the mystery revealed is that “the Gentiles have become fellow heirs” with righteous Israel: Mary, Joseph, the disciples, the shepherds, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, the prophets, and the faithful throughout the ages.

But this mystery, as the passage in Ephesians puts it, is a mystery God “revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit” (Eph. 3:5), which brings us back to the baptism of Jesus, and to the mystery of baptism. Each of the gospel accounts of Jesus’ encounter with John the Baptist at the Jordan describe Jesus’ baptism including the descent of the Spirit and a divine testimony that Jesus is God’s Son. In Mark 1:10–11, Jesus sees the heavens torn open — apocalyptic, epiphanic language — the Spirit descending, and Jesus hears a voice from heaven saying, “You are my son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased” (Mark 1:11). Mark describes Jesus’ baptism like a heavenly anointing, a revelation of Jesus’ divine Sonship, using words that recall God’s word to the Messianic king of Psalm 2: “You are my son, this day I have begotten you” (Ps. 2:7). Although the Son is eternally begotten of the Father, there is a sense in which this begetting is revealed by the Spirit and baptism in a unique way.

Second-century Christian apologist Justin Martyr describes the baptism of Jesus less as a new beginning in Jesus’ life and more as the transformation of humanity.

When Jesus came to the Jordan … then the Holy Spirit descended to him for the sake of humanity, as I already said, in the appearance of a dove. And at the same time a voice came from the heavens which also had been spoken through David, as he spoke in his own persona that which would later be said to Christ by the Father, “You are my son, today I have begotten you.” Thus, we might say that his birth occurred when knowledge of him would be born in people. (Dialogue with Trypho 88.8, author’s translation)

For Justin, the event is not primarily about the inauguration of Jesus’ mission, nor the revelation of his divine sonship. Jesus’ baptism, according to Justin, recapitulates the story of God’s work in Israel. It is a birth that recurs in every baptism into Christ. As such, it is a prism that focuses the story of David onto Christ, but it also refracts this story into the experiences of those baptized in his day: the descent of the Spirit occurs “for the sake of humanity.” The words of Psalm 2:7, quoted as from the mouth of both David and God, come into their fullest meaning not in Jesus’ anointing with the Spirit, but in Christ being born in the hearts of those baptized into him. For Justin, the baptism of Jesus is as mystagogical as it is christological, describing the meaning and effects of baptism, while also telling those baptized who they become through baptism into Christ: “You are my son; this day have I begotten you” (Ps. 2:7).

St. Paul describes the baptism of a Christian similarly. Paul speaks of how those baptized into Christ are clothed with Christ, becoming children, “sons” of God through faith, whether male or female, slave or free, Jew or Gentile (Gal. 3:28). I highlight the language of sons here to make explicit that it’s a matter of our coming to share in the relationship Jesus, the Son of God, has with God. This sonship, according to Paul, is a gift bestowed in baptism by the Spirit: “because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba, Father!’ So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God” (Gal. 4:6–7). So too, in Romans, Paul says, “For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ” (Rom 8:15–17a). This spirit of adoption, which can also be translated as “spirit of sonship,” gives the same testimony to those baptized that God revealed to Jesus at his baptism. What God declared to Jesus at his baptism with the descent of the Spirit, that same Spirit reveals to us in our baptism: we become sons and daughters of God.

This mystery, then, is not only disclosed by the epiphanic revelation of Jesus to the Magi, the glorious revelation of Jesus’ glory to the disciples at the wedding in Cana, or Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan. This mystery, as Ephesians tells us, is disclosed as a transformation of humanity by the gift of the Spirit, into sons and daughters through the gift of the Spirit. What is revealed in the mystery of the Incarnation, and celebrated in the Epiphany, is that God the Son’s union with humanity is an embrace that, in our baptism, clothes us with his divine humanity (cf. Gal. 3:27). This kind of humanity, undivided into Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, is granted to us in the form of Christ’s divine Sonship through the gift of the Holy Spirit. The baptism of Jesus, extended to all through baptism into Christ, has revealed the universal promise of Christ’s divine Sonship through the Spirit. As we move from Christmastide to Epiphanytide, we celebrate the ways that Christ is born in us and through us into the world by the baptismal gift of the Spirit.

About The Author

The Rev. Dr. Paul D. Wheatley is assistant professor of New Testament at Nashotah House Theological Seminary.

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