Part 5 of series: Missional and Formational?
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Today I’m returning to the series I began last week: Missional and Formational? So far I’ve looked briefly at some connections between missional and formational in the Old Testament and in the early life of Jesus. Today I want to focus on a couple of passages from the Gospels that shed light upon the formation of Jesus for his mission.
The Baptism of Jesus
The baptism of Jesus appears in the three synoptic Gospels. In each of these texts, Jesus is baptized in the Jordan River by John the Baptist. At this time, the Holy Spirit came upon Jesus, taking the form of a dove. A voice from heaven identified Jesus, saying: “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased” (Matt 3:17). (Photo: a painting of the baptism of Jesus in a church in Mahon, Minorca.)
The testimony of the heavenly voice must surely have encouraged Jesus, even though we would expect that he had some idea of his special identity prior to his baptism. Nevertheless, to hear that he was God’s Son would have powerfully formed Jesus sense of self and mission. Since “Son” was, in this context, primarily a royal or messianic title, Jesus would have understood his identity as related to the fulfillment of Israel’s hopes for the coming of the kingdom of God.
The Temptation of Jesus
Following the glorious moment of his baptism, Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, where he fasted for forty days and nights. During this time, he was tempted by the devil. The substance of this temptation had to do with what it meant for Jesus to be the Son of God. Would Jesus seek his own glory, advantage, and power as the Son of God? Or would he choose the way of faithful servanthood and sacrifice?
I find it interesting that Jesus’ first “official” action as the Son of God was to get away from the people to whom he had been sent so that he might spend extended time alone. Of course he wasn’t quite alone, because, according to the Gospels, he was tempted by the devil for forty days. During this time in the wilderness, Jesus began to sort out the implications of his identity and calling. He said a definitive “no” to temptations that would have distracted him from his mission.
In all of my time associated with churches and other Christian ministries, I have only known one church that wanted its new leader to begin his work by spending extended time in solitude and prayer. This church sent its brand new pastor away for a personal retreat as his first official duty. Every other Christian organization of which I am aware is only too eager for its new leader to get down to business: meeting people, learning systems, preaching sermons, etc. etc. etc.
It does seem curious to me that we don’t feel more obliged to imitate Jesus’ own beginning in ministry. I wonder how things might be different if, when a church calls a new pastor, the first task required of that pastor is to take two weeks away from the congregation for prayer and discernment. Perhaps that pastor would confront and defeat his or her own temptations, rather than giving in to them while working way too many hours trying to please everybody in the congregation. I wonder . . . .
It is clear, however, that before Jesus began doing the things that characterized his mission–preaching the good news of the kingdom, healing the sick, casting out demons, training his disciples–he was being formed for his mission. His Heavenly Father clarified his identity. The Spirit led him into a period of testing so that he might grasp the implications of that identity. To use the language of this blog series, in the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, formational preceded missional and was essential to it.