Baptism and the Holiness of God
“As many as have been baptized into Christ…”
The truth of the Trinitarian nature of Israel’s God was revealed through the incarnation of the Word, and the Word became incarnate that sinful creatures could partake of the saving holiness of God. In the words of St. Peter, we are called to become “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pet 1:4); in the words of St. Paul, though Christ was rich, He “became poor so that by his poverty you might become rich” (2 Cor 8:9). Our salvation, our divinization, our enrichment was the purpose of his incarnation.
Through the Trinitarian action of God, and by his grace, we become what Christ is by nature so that now He has become the first-born among many brothers (Rom 8:29). God’s holiness is not simply a goal for which we strive; it is God’s present gift to us. We are already holy, and are called to become what we are, realizing ever more fully our sanctification. God is holy, agios, and through our incorporation into his Son by the power of the Spirit, we have also become agioi, “saints” (compare 1 Cor 1:2; Phil 1:1; Col 1:2). That is why the eucharistic celebrant invites the faithful to come to receive Holy Communion by saying, “The holy things for the holy!” The faithful communicants are holy and are therefore called to receive the holy eucharistic gifts.
This gift of holiness and incorporation into Christ takes place in baptism.
The Christian sacramental mystery of baptism has a long Jewish pre-history. Judaism knew of periodic immersions for the removal of ritual impurity (such as were required after menstruation or after touching a dead body; Leviticus 15:19; Numbers 19:19). After the exile when the phenomenon of Gentiles wishing to convert to Judaism became more common, a way to receive such converts or proselytes was needed. This conversion ritual included (as well as circumcision for the men) an immersion in water to wash away the stain associated with the Gentile world. The immersion came to be known a “proselyte baptism.”
It was, it has been suggested, this ritual act that St. John the Forerunner chose as the sign for his fellow Jews who accepted his message calling them to repentance. John proclaimed that Israel must repent if they were to be ready for the imminent coming of the Messiah, and he required that Jews who repented signify their repentance by undergoing the baptism normally given to Gentiles upon their conversion. The application of proselyte baptism to Jews was controversial to say the least, since it seemed to imply that Jews were no better off than Gentiles, and so John experienced opposition from those who questioned his authority to administer such a baptism to Jews (see John 1:19–28). Such baptisms were a prominent part of his ministry, so that he became popularly known as “John the Baptizer” (thus in Josephus’ Jewish Antiquities, 18.5).
The ministry of Jesus grew out of John’s ministry, since Jesus was baptized by John. Accordingly, Jesus also used baptism as a sign of acceptance of his message (compare John 3:26, 4:1–2). It was not until Jesus had been glorified after his crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension that the baptism administered in His Name conveyed the Holy Spirit (John 7:37–39). Thereafter the baptism administered by the Church effectively bestowed such spiritual power.