Lectionary Commentaries for January 8, 2017
Baptism of Our Lord A

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Matthew 3:13-17

Warren Carter

Two related questions need to be addressed for interpreting this passage: Is it about our baptism or is it about Jesus’ baptism?

If the latter, another question emerges: why does Jesus need to be baptized? The first question is driven by concerns to make the scene relevant to parishioners; the second question is difficult, if not impossible, to answer, when it is freighted with anachronistic theological convictions about Jesus being divine and sinless.

In response to the first question, I suggest the scene is not about our baptism. The Gospel does not use Jesus’ baptism as the basis for urging disciples to be baptized like Jesus. When the Gospel does address the baptism of Jesus’ followers, it does so on the basis of the command of the risen Jesus, not by appealing to Jesus’ own baptism (Matthew 28:19).

Concerning the second question, it is important to remember that Matthew’s Gospel, written near the end of the first century, precedes fourth and fifth century Christological formulations by several hundred years. Questions of Jesus’ sinlessness or divinity are not yet to the fore. This recognition allows us to hear the Gospel according to Matthew and to interpret the scene in terms of its place in the Gospel’s narrative.

So why in Matthew’s account is Jesus baptized? Attention to four factors frames an answer.

The Context of Jesus’ Baptismal Scene

Jesus’ public activity does not begin until Matthew 4:17 (see the 3rd Sunday after Epiphany). The chapters prior to 4:17 establish Jesus’ identity as God’s agent whose public activity, commencing at 4:17, enacts God’s will and reign. By Matthew 3 Jesus has been

  • contextualized in God’s life-giving, ruling activity among Israel and the nations (1:1-17),
  • divinely commissioned from conception to manifest God’s saving presence (1:18-25),
  • born of Mary (1:25-2:1),
  • threatened by the murderous King Herod (2:1-23),
  • homaged by the magi (2:1-12),
  • neglected by the Jerusalem leaders (2:3-6),
  • protected by Joseph (2:13-23),
  • attested by the scriptures (2:1-23),
  • guided by God (2:1-23),
  • and witnessed to by John (3:1-12).

These chapters have established Jesus as God’s anointed agent (Christ), son of David and Abraham, Emmanuel, king of the Jews. In his baptism, Jesus, in his first action as an adult, affirms this identity and commission. God bears witness in verbalizing Jesus’ identity as God’s son or agent (Matthew 3:13-17). In the subsequent scene, the temptation, the devil tests Jesus’ commitment but Jesus remains resolute in his identity as God’s agent (Matthew 4:1-11).

John’s Baptizing Activity

John’s baptizing activity provides the occasion in which Jesus expresses this commitment and confirmation of his identity. John’s baptism of repentance calls people to a way of life that expresses commitment to God. This baptism occurs in the Jordan, the river that the people of Israel, God’s children, crossed (see Matthew 2:15 citing Hosea 11:1). They entered into a new communal life to be shaped by God’s will instead of oppressive Egyptian power and punitive wilderness wanderings. Like others (Matthew 3:5-6), Jesus receives John’s call to repent, confesses sin, and commits to God’s will. But the scene moves the focus beyond John’s concerns. It does not mention Jesus’ sin. Instead, the exchange between Jesus and John, and then God’s declaration of Jesus’ identity, take center stage.

John and Jesus Talk

The conversation between John and Jesus, missing from Mark and Luke, clarifies the significance of Jesus’ baptism (Matthew 3:15). John protests Jesus presenting himself for baptism. The narrative does not account for how John recognizes Jesus (Matthew 3:11-12) since subsequently he does not seem to know for sure who Jesus is (Matthew 11:2-6).

Jesus imposes his authority with his demand for immediate baptism (“Let it be now”). He follows this with an explanation (“for,” Matthew 3:15). The verb “fulfil” (four times previously: Matthew 1:22; 2:15, 17, 23) signals that the circumstances of Jesus’ life accord with and enact God’s will. Jesus’ baptism expresses his commitment to live God’s will which we know from Matthew 1 means being the agent of God’s saving presence (Matthew 1:21-23).

The language of “all justice” or “righteousness” expresses actions that are consistent with or faithful to a relationship or commitment. God is just or righteous, for example, when God acts consistently with God’s covenant commitments to deliver the people from exile in Babylon (Isaiah 46:13). To act justly/faithfully/righteously, whether God or humans, is to act in accord with God’s will. Jesus’ baptism, then, signifies his commitment to act faithfully to his God-given commission to manifest God’s saving presence that the angel announced to Joseph concerning Jesus’ conception (Matthew 1:21-23). Jesus’ commitment to enact God’s saving purpose faithfully is the “fruit” that John calls for — turning or committing to God’s purposes (Matthew 3:8). So, John consents to baptize Jesus (Matthew 3:15b).

God Agrees

God confirms Jesus’ identity and commitment by sending the empowering Spirit and declaring Jesus’ identity (Matthew 3:16-17). The climax of the scene is not the baptism itself but the vision and audition Jesus encounters as he comes up from the water.

The opened heavens is Bible-talk for divine revelation (compare Ezekiel 1:11; Revelations 4:1). Jesus sees the Spirit descending on him from heaven, the dwelling place of God. God reciprocates Jesus’ expression of commitment by equipping Jesus for ministry. The Spirit comes on various Biblical figures to equip them for divine service: for example, Gideon (Judges 6:34), the Davidic king (Isaiah 11:1), and God’s servant (Isaiah 42:1; 61:1).

The Spirit is imaged as a dove. Many have seen a link with the Spirit hovering over the waters at creation (Genesis 1:2), suggesting a new act of creation. But the Genesis scene lacks a bird image. More promising is a link with omens involving birds in Roman traditions that effect divine communications (the dove was Zeus’ messenger) and signify the destinies of powerful imperial figures.

Using the third not second person address, God declares Jesus’ identity and destiny as God’s son or agent. God expresses love for him and announces that God has “chosen” him (a better translation than “well pleased”) for this role. How Jesus will manifest God’s saving presence (Matthew 1:21-23) will be narrated after Matthew 4:17.

First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 42:1-9

Tyler Mayfield

God’s spirit, God’s servant, God’s delight.

These concepts are the connective tissue between today’s Old Testament lesson from Isaiah 42 and the assigned Gospel lesson from Matthew 3. The passages echo one another.

In Isaiah 42, the divine speaker announces the presence of a servant who is chosen by God and a source of delight for God. God will place God’s spirit upon this servant so that the servant is able to bring forth justice to the nations, to be a light, to open blind eyes and bring out prisoners. In Matthew 3, when Jesus is baptized, God’s spirit likewise descends upon him and God delights in him. The relationship here is not between God and God’s servant, but between God and God’s beloved son: “This is my son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased” (NRSV).

Both of these passages provide an opportunity to talk about the role of these individuals as God’s earthly representatives, as God’s chosen ones, as workers of justice in the world. What is their mission and role? Why are they divinely chosen? Why do they need the spirit of God? And is this a role for individuals and/or communities?

And how might we, as God’s people today, fashion our actions and demeanors into ones fitting for us as servants of God, ones in whom God delights? Are we God’s servants, establishing justice on earth as it is in heaven?

How do we take up the mission of the servant and live out our baptismal vows?

To answer some of these questions, let’s focus more on this servant figure in Isaiah 42.

The servant of Second Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55) is spoken of in four different passages — Isaiah 42:1-4; 49:1-6; 50:4-9; 52:13-53:12. Scholars typically extract these four passages from their surrounding literary contexts in order to interpret them with reference to each other; yet, these “servant songs” — actually the passages are poetic as is the surrounding Isaiah material — are part of an exilic prophetic announcement about the near future. So, they are best read within the confines of Second Isaiah’s overall message as presented in the middle section of the prophetic book of Isaiah.

The kingdom of Judah finds itself in exile with the temple in ruins and kingship at an end. Zion in all its splendor has been diminished, and some of the Judahites are forced exiles in the foreign land of Babylonia. Without a temple and a Davidic leader, the future of the people is greatly in peril. They need assurance, assistance, and a new vision.

Into this difficult political and religious situation, the prophet of Isaiah 42 introduces a servant figure. Interpreters spend much of their energy debating the precise identity of the servant. Is it the prophet himself? Or a ruler whether foreign such as Cyrus or native such as a Davidic kingly figure? The later Christian tradition of course develops the identity of the servant Christologically. The exact historical referent for the servant is perhaps tangential to the passage’s principal concerns. 

One fundamental and fruitful tension in the biblical text centers on whether the figure represents an individual or a community, the servant as a historical person or all of Israel. Personal or communal. The figure is spoken of in individual terms obviously but this fact does not preclude a collective interpretation. In fact, Isaiah 49:3 explicitly names the servant as Israel: “And [God] said to me, “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified” (NRSV).

Christians have typically seen the servant in individual terms and associated clearly with Jesus — his life and ministry, but especially his death and resurrection. Jews have understandably gravitated toward the communal interpretation and viewed Israel as called to be a servant to the world, a light to other people.

We might venture the same sort of communal/individual tension within the interpretation of the baptism of Jesus in Matthew 3. On one (historical and literary) level, Matthew is clearly presenting a narrative about an individual. Jesus is baptized. He is the Beloved, God’s son, the one in whom God is well pleased. On another (theological) level, Christian readers are invited to see themselves in this baptism experience, to see the Christian community as baptized like Jesus into faith, into the beloved community. We are together the daughters and sons of God. God is well pleased with us.

When we hold the tension between communal and individual readings of Isaiah 42 and Matthew 3, our response to these readings become clearer. We have individual models of servanthood as examples. Second Isaiah’s servant and Jesus point us toward our important work. They demonstrate that relationship with God is possible. They lay out the types of ministry possible when we are led my God’s spirit. But we — as a community — also participate in this work of justice together as communities of faith. As churches, not just as individuals, we are God’s servants to the world. We participate in God’s new thing (Isaiah 42:9), God’s new exodus out of exile and brokenness. God’s community is God’s servant.


Commentary on Psalm 29

Nancy deClaissé-Walford

Psalm 29 is classified as a Community Hymn, but is often considered an Enthronement psalm because of its striking similarities with Psalms 93-99.

Enthronement psalms are those that celebrate God’s sovereign reign over the world, and a cursory reading of Psalm 29 (see especially verse 10) reveals the reasons why such a designation may be appropriate.

Many scholars posit that Psalm 29 is one of the earliest Hebrew psalm compositions, an adaptation and/or incorporation of various elements of hymns to Baal, the Canaanite fertility and weather god. But Psalm 29 borrows those elements and “turns them on their heads.” The message of Psalm 29 is that Yahweh, not Baal, is the God whom the Israelites can rely on to rule over creation and provide peace (better, well-being) for the land and the people. How, then, does the singer of Psalm 29 present the case for Yahweh?

In the first two verses of the Psalm, the word “ascribe” (NRSV) occurs three times. The Hebrew word is yahab and means “give,” suggesting perhaps a better translation of “acknowledge.” The psalmist calls upon hearers to acknowledge the Lord, the Lord’s glory and strength, and the glory of the Lord’s name. The hearers who are called to acknowledge the Lord in verse 1 are “heavenly beings” (NRSV), in Hebrew beney ‘elohim (children of god). The identity of this group is open to question and interpretation.

Some maintain that the words refer to a “divine, heavenly council” (see Job 1:6). Others, and in the context of Psalm 29, very plausibly, assert that the call issued in verse 1 is to Canaanite gods and goddesses to recognize Yahweh as the true god. And yet others suggest that the call is to a “heavenly choir,” who then will lead the “earthly congregation” in praise of the sovereign God.

Verses 3-9 speak seven times of the “voice of the Lord” (qol yhwh) as sovereign over or emanating out of the waters and mighty waters, the lightning and thunder, the cedars of Lebanon, the flames of fire, the earthquake, and the mighty wind, as we see also in the Enthronement Psalms 93-99. All of these natural phenomena are elements of theophany experiences (appearances of the presence of God) in the Old Testament such as we see in Genesis 15, Exodus 3 and 19, 1 Kings 19, and Ezekiel 1.

These passages tell us that God is present in all of the magnificent, awe-inspiring, and sometimes terrifying elements of creation. But as we see in the story of Elijah’s encounter with God in 1 Kings 19, sometimes God is present in “a sheer silence” (NRSV), what some of us have learned as a “still small voice.” The central message of Psalm 29, thus, is that Yahweh God is sovereign and that God’s reign extends to all creation in all its manifestations.

Verse 10 announces, according to the NRSV, that Yahweh “sits enthroned” over the flood, that Yahweh “sits enthroned” as king forever. The word translated “sits enthroned” is yashab in Hebrew and means simply to sit, to dwell, to settle down, to occupy. God sits or dwells over the earth and dwells or settles down in the midst of the people as sovereign. The first and only mention of humankind in Psalm 29 is in verse 11 — “May the LORD bless his people with peace (shalom).” As with so many of the Enthronement Psalms, humanity is not the focus; rather the focus is on God’s sovereignty.

While Psalm 29 may have been a call to the Canaanite gods and goddesses, particularly Baal, to observe and acknowledge God’s sovereignty over all creation, it is also a sober reminder to humanity of our place within the created order. In Genesis 1, God says to the first humans, “Be fruitful and multiply … subdue the earth … have dominion … ” And the ever-enduring, ever-present question is, “Should we interpret these words as permission to do with creation as we like, to use it for the sole good of humanity? Or do the words give humanity a special responsibility to care for creation as God would care for it? Richard Bauckham, in a book titled The Bible and Ecology, writes:

Cosmic humility is a much-needed ecological virtue. We need the humility to recognize that our place in the world is a limited one. We need the humility to ‘walk more lightly upon the Earth, with more regard for the life around us.’ We need the humility to recognize the unforeseeable risks of technology before we ruin the world in pursuit of technological fixes to all our problems. We need the humility to know ourselves as creatures within creation, not gods over creation, the humility of knowing that only God is God (Baylor University Press, 2010, p. 46).

The Enthronement Psalms in general and Psalm 29 in particular ought to make us stop and consider, remind us of God’s sovereignty over God’s good creation, and indeed, invoke in us a little “cosmic humility.” The message of Psalm 29 may best be summed up in the closing words of the Lord’s Prayer. “For thine is the kingdom and the power and glory forever. Amen.”

Second Reading

Commentary on Acts 10:34-43

Brian Peterson

At first glance, it may seem that the connection between this text and this day is tenuous at best.

There is only a passing reference to “the baptism that John announced” in verse 37. There may be wisdom in the lectionary’s choice, however, and this text may provide a fresh perspective on this day.

The accounts of Jesus’ baptism in the Gospels focus on revealing both the identity and the mission of Jesus. In the Gospel stories, those claims are made by the disembodied voice of God. However, that sort of experience may be difficult to relate to our own lives and to our experiences of faith and discipleship. Closer to the church’s experience may be this passage from Acts, where the claims about Jesus are spoken by a human witness, and where both the witness and those who hear the good news are transformed by the encounter.

We are, of course, entering into the middle of the story when we begin with Acts 10:34. Peter has had his vision of the surprising foods that God now declares “clean,” he has pondered the meaning of this vision, he has heard God’s call through the messengers from Cornelius, he has entered into that Gentile’s home and heard how God has already been active there. At the beginning of our text, Peter begins to express new insights prompted by all of this.

Peter has begun to see new realities about God’s grace and justice because Peter has entered into the life and space of the stranger. There he glimpsed the extent of the peace that God is bringing into the world through Jesus. He now sees that the spread of the message did not stop at the boundaries of Judea and Jerusalem (verses 37 and 49). Cornelius is not the only one who experiences a “conversion” in Acts 10; so too does Peter, and Peter frames what is happening both to himself and to Cornelius by retelling the story of Jesus.

Likewise, we are called to tell the story of Jesus in such a way that it frames both our own story and the story of the world. Peter begins by suggesting that Jesus’ whole ministry can be summed up in this way: God was preaching peace through Jesus (verse 36). That statement could mean that through Jesus’ ministry God proclaimed “peace;” or it could mean that God proclaimed “peace which comes through Jesus.” Either is grammatically possible. The first is certainly true. The second is also true and more adequate, since Jesus is more than simply a preacher of peace; he is the agent of God’s peace.

Given all the confrontation and conflict that Jesus’ ministry brought, “peace” is perhaps a surprising summary. The author of Luke-Acts has a great deal to say about “peace.” In fact, the Gospel according to Luke uses that vocabulary more than the other three Gospels combined. Zechariah, John the Baptist’s father, declares that the Coming One will be God’s way of leading us into paths of peace (Luke 1:79). The angels announce the birth of Jesus as “peace upon the earth” (Luke 2:14). Those who experience healing from Jesus are dismissed into a new condition of peace (Luke 7:50). Jesus laments over the city that, even face-to- face with Jesus, still does not recognize the things that lead to peace (Luke 19:42). Yet it is peace that the risen Jesus declares again into the death–dealing world (Luke 24:36).

Such peace is not simply a lack of conflict, but the healing restoration of God’s world. This peace is nothing less than the good news of God’s salvation. In fact, to translate verse 36 as God “preaching” peace doesn’t quite capture the right tone. The text says that God “gospel-ed” peace (euaggelizomai, the common verb that describes proclaiming the good news).

This “peace” is more than simply being nice and quiet. This peace means engaging in the struggle against evil (“healing all who were oppressed by the devil,” verse 38). This peace means the end of oppression and domination, so that it may look like a Jewish fisherman entering into the home of a Roman elite in peace. This is what it means that Jesus is “Lord of all” (Acts 10:36). Peter is now beginning to realize just what that declaration entails.

As God reveals to us what Jesus’ lordship means in the world, we often find ourselves stumbling to keep up, just as Peter in this passage. Boundaries are pushed back and divisions are crossed as we respond to God’s calls and dreams about neighbors and strangers and enemies. We begin to realize in new ways that the family given to us by God’s grace extends beyond people who look, think, and live as we do.

Like Peter, we learn that God’s care extends beyond our own tribe, and that God calls us into an expanding welcome. In recent years, it seems that crossing boundaries has become increasingly offensive, and in some situations nearly anathema. Some politicians wear their refusal to work with those who belong to different political party as a badge of honor. Concern for others is sometimes dismissed with a sneer as “political correctness.” We can now ensure that the news we watch has no annoying “bias” that would challenge us or our prejudices. Politics of division and animosity seem to be on the rise. This is not the peace that God declares for the world, and the church is called to speak and to live a different reality.

Peter talks about those who were called as witnesses (verse 41). However, these witnesses do not simply repeat a story from long ago. They are witnesses to God’s continuing work of peace. That is what Peter realizes in this text, and we are called into that same living witness. The mission of God’s peace is at the heart of Jesus’ baptism. Of that truth, we are witnesses: empowered by eating and drinking with the risen Jesus, hearing his word, experiencing his forgiveness, and witnessing him welcoming all.