First Thoughts on Year A Gospel Passages from the Lectionary

Baptism of Jesus

William Loader

Baptism of Jesus: 12 January  Matthew 3:13-17

This text portrays the baptism of Jesus by John, but only after highly significant material which gives it a unique context. For only in Matthew do we find John and Jesus so closely linked that their messages can be summarised in the same words, as Matthew does in 3:2 ('Repent; for the kingdom of heaven is at hand'). In Matthew Jesus is so much like John, especially in the emphasis on judgement and the insistence that pedigree, whether Jewish or Christian, is no guarantee of God's favour if it is not matched by real performance (see 3:7-10). In fact through Matthew 3 the expectation is built up of the judge to come (especially 3:11-12). The episode of 13:13-17 functions then as a moment of identification and confirmation. John has just announced the one who would come to baptise with spirit and fire. Here we see Jesus receiving that spirit. In chapter 12 Matthew will cite Isaiah 42 as an echo of the baptism: the Spirit is upon him because he will announce judgement to the nations.

In other words, Matthew focuses our attention on Jesus as one before whom we shall have to give account. Whether we think of that in traditional terms of a day of judgement or in more existential ways, the message is clear: in facing up to him we are to face up to ourselves. Matthew reinforces Jesus' superiority and underlines his identity as the one to come by having John be reluctant to perform the baptism. This also helps, apparently in Matthew's view, to deal with the anomaly that the inferior baptises the superior, perhaps an embarrassment for some Christians. Jesus' insistence on fulfilling righteousness could be understood as a desire to keep every instruction to the letter. It can also be seen as typical of what righteousness means elsewhere in Matthew: it means doing what God wants without regard to how it might make us look. Jesus' obedience receives much attention in Matthew. His righteousness is not primarily about being right but about doing what God wants and that is never unconnected from God's saving, compassionate purpose.

In all the gospels the baptism has a mythical quality as portraying a point where the heavenly world and earthly reality meet. It is a kind of Chalcedonian confession set in narrative. Like the story of the star, the opening of the heavens is a symbolic narrative making a statement about the breakthrough which is to come. However it may be linked with Jesus' actual baptism, perhaps even a sense of call, it also celebrates who Jesus is. In Mark the hearers of the gospel share the secret with the narrator as only Jesus sees the spirit and hears the voice.

In Matthew the scene sits on the canvas in more direct colours. The heavenly voice does not address Jesus; it addresses everyone. The story is making a statement and has itself become a narrative of a public event. 'My beloved son, in whom I am well pleased' echoes, as it did in Mark, both hopes for a royal messiah, who would be addressed God's son as kings were addressed at their coronation (see Psalm 2), and the call of a prophet, reflected in Isa 42:1. But hearing it in Matthew we bring to the story our knowledge of his miraculous conception; we know that he transcends as well as fulfils messianic and prophetic categories. Divine pleasure makes special sense after Jesus chose not to comply with John's request, but to submit himself in humility to the waters of baptism. It is this lowliness which builds the striking paradox in Matthew's story, for this is the one whom John has announced as powerful judge. We begin to face ourselves when we find our way into the same waters and find ourselves involved in acts of compassion where lofty ideas of divinity would never occur to us, but where, as Matthew's Jesus will say, you were tending to me and meeting me (Matt 25:31-46).

Epistle: Baptism of Jesus 12 January  Acts 10:34-43

Return to Home Page