Gospel: Matthew 3:13-17
The baptism of Jesus makes little sense separated from the verses preceding it. I have included them here.
3In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, 2‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’ 3This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,
‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.” ’
4Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. 5Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, 6and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
7 But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8Bear fruit worthy of repentance. 9Do not presume to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor”; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 10Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
11 ‘I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12His winnowing-fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing-floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’
13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. 14John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’ 15But Jesus answered him, ‘Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness.’ Then he consented. 16And 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. 17And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’
We have had two detailed chapters about the birth of Jesus. (God has micromanaged the process more thoroughly than Kevin Rudd.) Jesus is the Chosen One. His story resonates with the Old Testament tradition at point after point. In human terms, there could not be a more obviously chosen and approved heir apparent.
But what are his first words in the Gospel? Jesus’ first words are “it is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness.” Position, status, birth, endowment, and calling, are no substitute for doing and being what God wants. We will see this repeated and emphasised over and again during the year. Matthew 25 springs to mind:
“Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” 45Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” 46And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.’
Of course we have already heard it.
3:7 But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8Bear fruit worthy of repentance. 9Do not presume to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor”; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 10Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
Brian Stoffregen writes:
A sermon title I have used for this text is: "Christ's first temptation". John, by trying to prevent the baptism, tempts Jesus not to do all that God requires of him. He tempts Jesus to assume his proper position now: to be the more powerful one; to baptize with the judgmental Holy Spirit and fire; to meet John's need. I don't think that these are too dissimilar to the devil's temptations that occur immediately after the baptism (4:1-11) -- temptations for Jesus to use his power now, for his own glory; and avoid his emptying and eventually the pain and suffering of the cross.
What does God require of Jesus? Is it just the baptism? I think that baptism is only part of the picture of Jesus identifying with sinful humanity: the Sinless One is baptized for the forgiveness of sin; the Holy One eats/fellowships with unholy sinners; the Immortal One dies on a cross as a criminal. It is part of the emptying of himself -- the God who becomes truly human.
Brian is right. The baptism is not some formality; that diluted rite of passage to which it has decayed in our time. Neither is it a hoop through which Jesus must jump to please some arbitrary whim bureaucratic of God.
It is a fundamental identification with Israel and the story of the nation. It happens at the Jordan, the place of entry into the Promised Land. Recently, I suggested that the angel’s announcement to the shepherds was God coming to David the boy shepherd’s people first of all. “He is one of us.” So it is here also, at the baptism; identifying with his people (despite the warning of 3:9), identifying with their sinfulness, and identifying with all the great figures of the tradition; Moses, Joshua, Elijah, Elisha, Jacob as he is reconciled with his brother and God (Genesis 32:10). We are probably unable to appreciate the depth of the Jordan in the consciousness of Jesus’ people. There were 161 references to the river by the time I counted to the end of 2 Chronicles. It is a fundamental way point in the telling of stories of Israel.
For all his identification with us, Jesus is different. When Joshua and Elijah and Elisha arrive at Jordan, they are able to part the waters, as Moses parted the Red Sea. As Spong said somewhere, when Jesus arrives at Jordan, he parts not the waters, but the very heavens.
At the beginning of his public ministry, God is present again. There is a ringing endorsement, as they say. Not only does Jesus see the heavens opened and the spirit of God descending upon him, but the words he alone heard in Mark are spoken to all the crowd:
This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.
The sheer weight of endorsement is perhaps not so obvious to our eyes. John Goldingay says dryly,
The words are not made up for the occasion: they are taken from the Old Testament.
Phrases from two or three Old Testament passages are combined ... 'This is my son' recalls Psalm 2:7. Psalm 2 is a king's testimony to the Lord's word to him.... he recalls the Lord's words of commission and assurance, 'You are my son, today I have begotten you.' ... 'My beloved, in whom! delight' recalls Isaiah 42:1. Isaiah 42:1-9 describes the role that the Lord's servant is expected to fulfil. The role is in some respects quite similar to the king's calling, but the portrait of the servant in Isaiah 40-55 makes it clear that this role is not fulfilled by what we normally see as the exercise of power, but by accepting affliction and paying a huge personal price for the restoration of relationships between God and man. It is this calling that God the Father places before Jesus.
... the middle phrase 'my son, my beloved' also recalls Genesis 22:2. In Genesis 22 God bids Abraham, 'Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love' and offer him as a burnt offering to the Lord. In the end this sacrifice is not exacted, but Abraham shows himself willing to make it. His action (and Isaac's implicit willingness to be sacrificed) made a deep impression on Israel, and the passage was a much pondered one among Jews of Jesus' day. ... Given its importance in Jesus' day, it probably also lies behind God the Father's words in Matthew 3:17: Jesus is the only Son whom he loves but whom he is willing to sacrifice for the sake of the world, and Jesus is called to imitate Isaac's availability.
The conversation between John and Jesus is fascinating. John Petty says
John is right, of course. Baptism was for sinners (3:6). If that's so, what's Jesus doing here? What John needs is to be baptized by Jesus--"with the Holy Spirit and with fire" (3:11)--not for Jesus to baptized, "confessing (his) sins."
John is right about that, but misunderstands the nature of God's mission. God's reign will not be about John's fiery images of judgment for sinners, but rather God's "full immersion" into the trials and tribulations of his people.
It’s a commonplace that the church had a problem with John baptising Jesus. The baptiser has seniority over the baptised! It's argued that John is made to show his subordinate position to Jesus by objecting to baptising him. Luke deals with the problem by not mentioning just who baptised Jesus (3:21) and John leaves the baptism out, having John the Baptist witness to the descent of the Spirit upon Jesus. (1:29ff)
I read it that Matthew and Mark are much less worried. I’m not sure Matthew even saw a problem. For one, Jesus talks to John as confidante and equal- it is proper for us. He contradicts even the notion of hierarchy. Then Matthew takes the first words spoken by Jesus in the Gospel of Mark, (1:15) and makes them the first words of John (3:2) 2‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’
Jesus affirms and validates the ministry of John much more visibly than in the other gospels. Indeed one of the hallmarks of Matthew’s Jesus is somewhat contra John Petty’s statement that
John is right ... but misunderstands the nature of God's mission. God's reign will not be about John's fiery images of judgment for sinners, but rather God's "full immersion" into the trials and tribulations of his people.
We like to forget that the Jesus of Matthew is uncomfortably enthusiastic, we might say, about fiery images of judgement. Not only does he endorse John the Baptist's dire warnings of fire (3:7), he makes his own. A word search on “fire” in the gospels, shows Matthew’s Jesus making eight of these warnings, far more than in any other gospel.
Our modern sensibilities are offended by the notion of burning anyone, and by the notion of eternal punishment. We are also aware of the logical contradiction between such actions and a loving God. Such sensitivities are embarrassingly too often absent in people claiming to speak for God, and spreading something other than Good News. But perhaps the grim fierceness of Matthew can also be a corrective.
At the beginning I noted the first words of Jesus in this Gospel. Jesus’ first words are “it is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness.” Position, status, birth, endowment, and calling, are no substitute for doing and being what God wants.
Sometimes we take the love of God for granted. However God might respond, and however loving God may be, there is no substitute for seeking to fulfil all righteousness, and I appreciate the reminder.
Andrew Prior Jan 5 2011
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
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