Mt. 28: 16-20. The Ascension and Baptism

The readings for the Ascension of Jesus pair Acts 1:1-11 with the “great commission” of the disciples in Matthew 28.  The common theme is not the Ascension of Jesus (from Acts 1), but baptism, which is mentioned in both Acts and Matthew.  If you are looking for commentary on the Ascension reading for Acts 1, my recent blog post on Acts 1:1-11 goes into some detail on “baptism in Spirit.”

In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus ministry on earth begins (Mt 3:6-17) and ends (Mt 28:16-20) with the action of baptism. In Matthew 3, John the Baptist baptizes the faithful in the waters of the Jordan, and then baptizes Jesus himself. Matthew 3 is theologically notable because Jesus is baptized both in water and visibly in spirit (the dove descends in Mt 3:16) by John.

Mission of the Apostles

The Book of Acts is the first book in the New Testament to give us a picture of the missionary activity of the Apostles soon after the resurrection and Ascension of Christ.  Some theologians argue that the kerygma (the kernel) of the faith is summarized in four different discourses in Acts.

But the mission activity of the Apostles is not accidental. it goes without saying that this is a Trinitarian initiative – a work of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Christians are not freelance missionaries: they cooperate with the triune God.

Jesus told the disciples at the Last Supper that he would send the Advocate to assist them in their missionary activity.  After the Resurrection, the Evangelist Matthew tells us that Jesus ordered the disciples to Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit (Mt 28:19).  

This is the mission Ad Gentes – to the people.  In fact, the document of the Second Vatican Council Ad Gentes takes its title from Matthew 28:19, where “all nations” is translated omnes gentes.  The link between mission and baptism is even more explicit in Mark 16:15-16:

 And he said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to the whole creation. He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned. 

Baptism by Water

In Matthew 28:19, Jesus commissions the eleven Apostles (c.f. Mt 28:16; Judas has taken his own life) to baptize “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” He also reminds the Apostles that Jesus is with them until the end of time.  In so doing, Jesus affirms that he remains with the Church for as long as this entire missionary endeavor (to make disciples of all nations)  takes.

In Acts 1:5, the Sacred Author Luke distinguishes between baptism by water and baptism in Spirit.  Luke echoes a statement expressed by John the Baptist in Mark 1:8;  I have baptized you with water; but [Jesus] will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.   Baptism in spirit is a commissioning, or the bestowing of a gift of the Holy Spirit.

We also see parallels in theology between Acts and Matthew. The Gospel of Matthew begins and ends with the action of baptism, and Acts (at verse 2:22) confirms that the ministry of Jesus commenced “from the baptism of John” and finished “on the day when [Jesus] was taken up from us.”  And again, the Ascension of Jesus coincides with the Christian community’s “baptism of the Holy Spirit.”   Note also that the Sacred author tells us in Acts 1:14 that all eleven apostles were present with the Christian community when this occurred.

In short, the ministry of Jesus begins with his own baptism.  When his ministry ended with the Ascension, the Church’s ministry begins with baptism (Acts 1:5; Acts 1:8, Matthew 28:19, Mark 16:15-16).  Furthermore, the action of baptism is associated with church – a community of believers.  The Great Commission in Matthew 28:19 is given to the Apostles, who represent the church.  The baptism in Spirit in Acts also occurs with all eleven Apostles present, but it also includes the Christian community.

This is not a mindless theological tautology.  The simple lesson is that a life in Christ, where the person is truly incorporated into the “church,” which is “the body of Christ,” begins with a baptism, which is, broadly speaking, an entirely Trinitarian work.

Even Jesus, the Son of God, did not exempt himself from the need to be baptized.  However, Jesus was not baptized for the same reasons we are.  Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist was an outward sign of his divine commission, in the same way that the disciples were baptized in Spirit as an outward sign of their commission.   But if there is a commonality between the baptism of Jesus, the baptism of the apostles at Pentecost, and our own baptism, it is that all three are Trinitarian works.  In other words, Jesus could not achieve his mission independent of the work of the Father and the Holy Spirit. Nor can the Church, nor we as Christians, knowingly and willfully achieve our mission as Christians without being baptized in the name of the Trinity.

The term baptism comes form the greek root bapto– (βαπτω-), which means, “to dip.”  The closer term baptizo (βαπτίζω) means to “submerge,” “to immerse,” or to “change via immersion.”  The term Christian theologians often used today to describe Christian baptism is “re-generation” – a renewed life in Jesus Christ as a result of the grace imparted by baptism.   Baptism overcomes the disobedience of Adam, makes the baptized a member of the Christian church, and enables the believer to participate in the Kingdom of God.

Baptism in the ancient world refers to the religious practice of immersing an individual in water. Hebrew Scripture is silent on the matter of baptism… meaning it was not an ancient ritual  Jewish practice.  From the perspective of first-century Jews, it is an innovation in Judeo-Christian religious ritual that, nevertheless, recalls God’s work in two well-known – and ancient – accounts in Jewish salvation history.   Whether the practice was borrowed from another religion is irrelevant, since it does not help us understand the theology and symbolism of baptism from the Judeo-Christian perspective.

The first Jewish tradition of which baptism is symbolic is the allegoric account of the flood. In Genesis 7:5, God lament’s the wickedness of man, and sets about to destroy all life on earth. After Noah builds an ark and saves two of each creature, the flood waters recede. God makes a covenant with Noah, promising that “never again shall all bodily creatures be destroyed by the waters of a flood.” In the epistle I Peter 3:20-21, the author argues that baptism corresponds to those who survived the allegoric flood in Noah’s time.

The second Jewish tradition is the Exodus account. Exodus parallel with baptism is explicitly made by early Fathers of the Church. Just as the Jews escaped from the slavery of Egypt and prepared to enter the promised land via the parted waters of the Sea of Reeds, Christians are baptized in water. As the Christian is immersed in the waters of baptism, she suffers a death to a life in the flesh (a life of slavery to sin) and enjoyes a re-birth in a life in the spirit – a life in Christ (see Romans 6:4 and Colossians 2:12).

 N.T. Wright, the scriptural scholar, says this of baptism:

Baptism then becomes the Exodus moment, the equivalent of the Red Sea for the renewed people of God. Just as Paul speaks of the Israelites being baptized into Moses when crossing the Red Sea (1 Corinthians 10:2), so here the whole renewed people is baptized into the Messiah.

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