Baptism of the Lord / 12 January 2020
for smart phones and tablets
Matt 3:13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. 14 John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” 15 But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. 16 And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17 And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
The baptism of Jesus by John is referred to in all four Gospels. “Referred to” rather than recounted because while Mark tells the story more or less straightforwardly, the other accounts show varying degrees of unease. The origin of the unease is probably two-fold. First of all, the baptism shows Jesus “submitting” to John and receiving from him. One could conclude that the one who gave was greater than the one who received. In the second place, at the time the Gospels were actually written there were still followers of John the Baptist around. Perhaps part of their identity over against the Christian movement was that John was the mentor and Jesus a pupil. One of the side-effects of this unease with John’s Baptism of Jesus is that the baptism is one of the most historically certain events in the Gospels, because the early Christians would not have “developed” an account which gave them so much trouble.
The trouble it did give them becomes apparent in today’s excerpt—the conversation shows John realising that something was not quite right in his baptising Jesus. This is unlikely to be historical—it is not found in Mark, the vocabulary is Matthean (see below), and it is in tension with the question of the Baptist regarding the identity of Jesus in Matt 11:2-6. The unease is more marked in Luke, where, from a narrative point of view, John seems to be in prison when the baptism takes place (see Lk 3:18-22)! Again, in John’s Gospel, the Baptism is avoided and not recounted (although the associated phenomena are—see Jn 1:29-34).
Kind of writing
The first scene, with a basis in history, is an anecdote (a chreia), telling of a key turning point in the career of Jesus. The Transfiguration will be similarly significant. The second scene, resonant with symbolism, expresses the transcendent meaning of the baptism for Jesus (awareness of Sonship and the gift of the Spirit) and also for the first Christians.
Old Testament background
(i) Ritual washing is known in the Old Testament and was widely used in Qumran by the community of the Dead Sea Scrolls. John’s baptism seems to be different—marking acceptance of his programme rather than ritual purification.
(ii) The “voice over the water” is an echo of Ps 29, today’s responsorial psalm. The Spirit over the water is an echo of Gen 1:1-2; “like a dove” perhaps echoes the story of Noah’s flood, with the dove signalling the beginning of the end of the disaster.
(iii) “This is my Son” may echo the enthronement Psalm 2, used in the NT as a messianic text (Acts 4:25-26; 13:33; Heb 1:5; Rev 2:27).
New Testament foreground
(i) There is an immediate foreground in the Transfiguration accounts:
While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” (Matt 17:5 ; Mk 9:7; Lk 9:35) For he received honour and glory from God the Father when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory, saying, “This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” (2Pet 1:17 )
(ii) Matthew, with a strong Jewish identity, has a special interest in “righteousness”, as can be seen from the Gospel occurrences: 7-0-1-2. In our particular setting, righteousness retains its Old Testament meaning of “to act correctly within a relationship”. In this instance, the right thing for John to do is to baptise Jesus. “Proper” and “prevent” are hapax in the Gospels. In the Synoptics, “to fulfil” is a strong Matthew word: 16-2-9-15.
(iii) That Jesus is God’s Son is made plain in Matthew’s Gospel:
But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” (Matt 1:20-21) “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” (Matt 1:23) “The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.”” (Matt 4:3) …saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” (Matt 4:6) At that time Jesus said, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. (Matt 11:25-27) “Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”” (Matt 16:16) Now when the centurion and those with him, who were keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were terrified and said, “Truly this man was God’s Son!” (Matt 27:54)
As many of you as were baptised into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise. (Gal 3:27–29)
Verse 13 Jesus came to John from Nazareth, in Galilee. John was a prophet, proclaiming the last days, offering a baptism which symbolised the conversion to God’s word as revealed to John himself. Jesus was definitely a follower, as is shown by the baptism and also by the timing of the start of Jesus’ ministry. Implied in the withdrawal to the desert from Jerusalem is a critique of the Temple cult (as can also be seen in Jesus’ ministry). Baptise here means to “immerse”.
Verse 14 This Matthean addition has been accounted for above. This extra Matthean verse communicates the unease of the writer and perhaps his community (in Antioch on the Orontes).
Verse 15 Each has a role within a relationship, which includes relationship with God. Righteousness is a kind of code word here meaning the right fulfilment of the Scriptures. Thus, John acts “righteously.”
Verse 16 Notice that the actual baptism is not recounted but presumed (a kind of elipsis). The symbolism indicates an experience of the numinous—heavens opened, God’s Spirit descends. Alighting on him make the symbolism very physical. This was probably not Mark’s intention when he spoke of “like a dove.” However, for Matthew the real meaning is not physically but really and truly.
Verse 17 A profound affirmation of identity. It has often been noted that the descent of the Holy Spirit marks the end of the relative absence of the Holy Spirit. In rabbinic tradition, it was considered that at this time all one could expect was an echo of the voice of God (a bat qol, literally a daughter of the voice). Mark has “you are my Son”, a real echo of Ps 2. Because Matt has made clear the Sonship of Jesus already (in Matthew 1-2), it makes less sense to use “you”, so Matt changes the wording to “this is”. The scene becomes, in Matthew’s hands, not only a realisation of Sonship, but a revelation of the Son to the world. This incipiently “Trinitarian” moment anticipates Mt 28:19.
Pointers for prayer
1. The Baptism of Jesus marks a turning point in his life, and the start of his public ministry. Recall moments when your life changed and you moved into a new phase.
2. The experience was one in which Jesus had a new sense of his own identity. What have been the experiences which have helped shaped your sense of who you are?
3. How have you come to an awareness of being a child of God, beloved by God, and one on whom rests the grace of God?
4. It is surprising that Jesus, the Saviour of the world, asks to be baptised by John. The request symbolises his desire to identify with us. At the same time he is filled with the Holy Spirit. That step of identifying with us is an important element in his being able to help us. Have you ever found that when someone identifies with you, it is easier for him/her to help you? Has your ability to identify with others had any impact on your effectiveness in helping others?
God of the covenant, you anointed your beloved Son with the power of the Holy Spirit, to be the light of the nations and release for captives.
Grant that we who are born again of water and the Spirit may proclaim with our lips the good news of his peace and show forth in our lives the victory of his justice.
We make our prayer through Jesus Christ, your Word made flesh, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, in the splendour of eternal light, God for ever and ever. Amen.
Thought for the day
Begin by recalling some special moment between yourself and your parents. Did you ever hear from them the equivalent of “This is my son, my daughter, the beloved: my favour rests on you”? In Jesus’ ministry, on several occasions, he felt such a word from his Abba, his Father. His baptism by John was one such moment, as was the Transfiguration later on. Such deep love and affirmation grounded him as a human being and as God’s prophet to the people of Israel. Our sense of calling grows out of our relationship with the Father, whose beloved we are, whose favour we too enjoy.
Let us hear again, Abba, Father, your words of favour to each one of us. Direct us on the Way of discipleship, that we may be bearers of the Good News by simply being who we truly are before you, your children.