Lectionary Commentaries for January 13, 2008
Baptism of Our Lord

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Matthew 3:13-17

Mark Allan Powell

The Gospel lesson for this day presents the second of seven pericopes in Matthew’s Gospel dealing with John the Baptist:

  • 3:1-12 the ministry of John is reported
  • 3:13-17 John baptizes Jesus
  • 9:14-15 John’s disciples ask why the disciples of Jesus don’t fast
  • 11:2-15 John questions Jesus’ identity and Jesus speaks of John’s role
  • 14:1-12 John is murdered by Herod
  • 17:10-13 Jesus speaks of John following the Transfiguration
  • 21:23-27 Jesus refers to John when his own authority is questioned

A study of these texts reveals that John is an unusually significant figure in this Gospel; he is very much the forerunner of Jesus, to the point that the content of his preaching is word-for-word identical with that of Jesus (cf. 3:2; 4:17) and is echoed in apostolic proclamation as well (10:7). Matthew understands John to be a bridge figure between the old covenant and the new – he brings the era of promise to a close and initiates a new era of fulfillment. The story in today’s text presents a “passing of the baton” from John to Jesus.

John tries to prevent Jesus from being baptized. Why? Many Christians have probably thought it is because his baptism was one of “repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (see Mark 1:4) and, so, would have been superfluous for the sinless Jesus. But such thinking may be foreign to Matthew. John was calling Israel to repentance and, though individuals might have personal peccadillos to confess (3:6), the primary focus was probably on the sins of the nation. Jesus and others were baptized by John to symbolize a new birth for that nation, a cleansing for the people of God.

John’s objection to baptizing Jesus is related to a difference in status. John recognizes Jesus to be the “more powerful” one, the one he has been talking about for some time (3:11). John himself stands in need of what Jesus has to offer: a greater baptism of Spirit and fire (3:11); this is probably what he means when he says, “I need to be baptized by you” (3:14). John’s water baptism is one of repentance, which prepares the way for the messianic judgment that establishes God’s righteousness. Jesus’ response picks up on precisely that theme: they must do what is proper to “fulfill all righteousness” (3:16). These are the first words that Jesus speaks in Matthew’s Gospel and the saying is a bit mysterious. We may at least gather that God has a plan for making everything right and that Jesus is committed to being obedient to that plan. Why did he have to be baptized? That’s a minor question. The big one is, why did he have to die on a cross? Matthew grants that neither makes sense from a human point of view: thus, John tries to prevent Jesus’ baptism and Peter tries to prevent Jesus’ death (16:22).

The real focus of this story, however, is on the descent of the dove and, especially, the voice from heaven. Matthew’s Gospel is, of course, about God–every Gospel text in the Series A lectionary is about God–but most of the time God is in the background. People talk about God, and the thoughts of God are often revealed through prophets or angels or through references to scripture, which is “the word of God” (15:6). But there are only two texts in Matthew in which God actually speaks directly, as a character in the story (3:13-17; 17:1-9). One is read on the Baptism of Our Lord, the first Sunday in the Epiphany season; the other is read on the Transfiguration of Our Lord, the last Sunday in the Epiphany Season. These weeks we call Epiphany are literally framed by two divine pronouncements. What’s really interesting is that both times that God chooses to speak aloud from heaven, God says almost exactly the same thing: Jesus is God’s beloved Son and God is pleased with Jesus (3:17; 17:5).

The single most important thing that Matthew’s Gospel wants to say about Jesus is this: Jesus is the Son of God. This is the confession that gives birth to the church (see 16:16-19). It is hidden truth that must be revealed by the father in heaven (11:25-27; 16:17). Why is this so important? For Matthew, the divine sonship of Jesus is what establishes him as one in whom God is present (1:23). But hasn’t God been present in people before — kings, judges, prophets? No, not like this. God is present in Jesus in an absolute sense, so much so that people worship Jesus (see Matt 2:11; 8:2; 9:18; 14:33; 15:25; 20:20; 21:16; 28:9, 17; in all these verses the Greek word is proskyne´ō. Radically monotheistic Jews who believe that people should worship no one–no prophet, no king, no spirit, no angel, not even the messiah–no one but the Lord Yahweh (see Matt 4:10) are now worshiping Jesus. How is that okay? Matthew would say, because Jesus is the Son of God, and God is so present in him that worshiping Jesus counts as worshiping God. 

The season of Epiphany focuses on the worship of Jesus, in whom God is made manifest to us. The revelation of his glorious divine sonship begins with baptism — the revelation to the world began with the baptism of Jesus and the revelation to us typically begins with our baptism. Some such analogy was no doubt intended by Matthew: when we are baptized, we too receive the Spirit and we too are identified as beloved children of God. We are baptized with Christ and into Christ, so that God’s plan of righteousness might be fulfilled in us and through us.

First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 42:1-9

Christine Roy Yoder

“New things” are afoot. Israel’s penalty paid twofold, her exile at an end, the prophet known as Second Isaiah whispers tenderly “Comfort, O comfort” (40:1) and heralds the approach of “the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth…the Holy One of Israel” (40:28; 41:20).

The brushstrokes are vibrant and thick, God’s redemptive purposes writ large, before the prophet narrows to sketch, in this first of the so-called “servant songs,” the one who will act on God’s behalf (Isaiah 42:1-9; cf. 49:1-6; 50:4-9; 52:13-53:12). While the servant’s identity is complex and debated–note, for example, the servant is often Israel (e.g., 41:8-9; 44:1-2, 21; 45:4; 48:20) but also has a mission to Israel (e.g., 49:5-6)–many Christian interpreters associate God’s introduction of “my servant” (42:1) with the voice from heaven at Jesus’ baptism: “this is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17; cf. Mark 1:11; Luke 3:22). Both scenes focus on one who is adored by God, inspired by the divine spirit, and sent into the world for its redemption. The prophet’s description of the servant’s commissioning, which has elements of God’s blessing of kings elsewhere (e.g., 1 Samuel 16:12-13), unfolds in two scenes (42:1-4, 5-9).

With an attention-getting  (“Here!” 42:1), God presents the servant to an audience, possibly the divine council (42:1-4). God first establishes the identity of the servant as God’s own. Repetition of the first person singular emphasizes their intimate association (“my servant…I uphold…my chosen…my soul; I have put my spirit,” 42:1), while the terms “chosen” and “delight” name the relationship as a source of divine joy. The servant is not forced or intimidated, it seems, but sustained and inspired by God. Second, God characterizes the servant’s work as specific (“bring forth justice,” 42:1, 3; cf. 42:4) and universal in scope (“to the nations…in the earth,” 42:1, 4). Indeed, the coastlands wait for the servant’s torah (“teaching,” 42:4), an image that evokes Isaiah’s earlier portrait of all nations streaming to Zion to receive God’s instruction (Isaiah 2:1-4). Lastly, God describes the character of the servant as faithful (42:3), unassuming, and persistent (“he will not cry…will not grow faint or be crushed,” 42:4). The servant will not relent in the establishment of justice–justice that likewise refuses to “break” or “extinguish” the vulnerable (“a bruised reed,” “a dimly burning wick,” 42:3).

God then addresses the servant directly (42:5-9). At the heart of this scene God affirms divine guardianship of the servant (“called…taken…kept”), and accentuates the servant’s relationship to the world (42:6b-7). Although the juxtaposition of “covenant” and “people” in 42:6c is ambiguous (“a covenant people” or “a covenant to the people”), the sense is that the servant works for the restoration of everyone–a vocation that recalls God’s promise that by Abraham “all the families of the world shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:3). In particular, the servant is “to open the eyes that are blind” and “to bring out the prisoners” from the darkness and dungeons that hold them¬¬ (42:7). The tasks are striking when we observe that, in a manner of verses, Second-Isaiah will characterize the servant as blind and deaf (42:19). Moreover, the people of Israel are described variously as uncomprehending (stopped ears and blind eyes, e.g., Isaiah 6:9-10) and imprisoned (“trapped in holes and hidden in prisons,” 42:22). No stranger to affliction and hardship, the servant–Israel or an individual–labors so that others may be set free.

God frames the charge to the servant with two magisterial doxologies that leave no doubt the servant is doing God’s work (42:5-6a, 8-9). God begins in the beginning, recounting God’s work as Creator of the world (42:5-6a; e.g., Genesis 1-2; Isaiah 40:12, 21-26). The God who gives breath and “spirit” to every creature now puts “my spirit” on the servant; the God who “spread out the earth” sends the servant across it as a light to all nations. This is the God of long ago, the God of beginnings. God then turns in the second doxology (42:8-9) to reveal that God is doing “new things”. A motif in Isaiah (e.g., 9:1; 41:22), “former things” arguably refers to the divine judgment proclaimed in Isaiah 1-39, while “new things” are about the release and restoration of Israel. The God of creation thus summons the servant into God’s in-breaking, about-to-spring-forth works of liberation and renewal.

Although the lectionary ends with 42:9, we dare not miss that what follows God’s commissioning of the servant is a call for all creation “to sing to the LORD a new song” (42:10). The introduction of the quiet, unassuming servant in whom God delights and with whom God is bringing about justice and liberation requires nothing less than new melodies and fresh lyrics from every corner of the world. God’s delight bursts every convention, stirring up a cacophony of roaring seas, lifted voices, songs of joy, and shouts of praise (42:10-13). Creation cannot contain itself. And through the din, we glimpse the exilic community–renewed in hope, commissioned and inspired to participate in God’s reconciling work. May we who follow in Christ’s baptism remember that we are likewise.

Christine Roy Yoder is Associate Professor of Old Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, GA, and an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA).

Second Reading

Commentary on Acts 10:34-43

Craig R. Koester

This text for the Baptism of Jesus is a short sermon that summarizes the entire story of Jesus. The baptism proclaimed by John the Baptist is mentioned as the starting point for Jesus’ public ministry (Acts 10:37).

Then the sermon offers several perspectives on the significance of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. As the sermon unfolds, we find a surprisingly high level of tension. Giving due weight to each dimension of the sermon offers a more surprising and vital proclamation of the gospel than any one dimension taken alone.

First, the sermon begins with the statement that “God shows no partiality,” for “in every nation anyone who fears and does what is right is acceptable to him” (10:34-35). The message seems warm and inclusive. And it is, though there is more here than meets the eye. The context of this comment is the story of Peter and Cornelius. Cornelius is a Gentile, who is an officer in the Roman army. He is one of those from another nation. He may revere God and give alms generously, but he is a Gentile, not a member of the people of Israel.

Cornelius has a vision in which he is commanded to send a messenger to Peter, who is staying in the town of Joppa, some distance away. Meanwhile, Peter has a vision in which he sees a sheet full of unclean animals coming down from heaven. A voice commands Peter to kill and eat these animals, but he refuses to do so, since they are unclean according to Jewish law. Then the voice said, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane” (10:16). When the messengers from Cornelius arrive, Peter realizes that the vision is not just about unclean food, it is about unclean people. The issue is who can be considered part of the people of God.

Cornelius is Peter’s first test case. Does he belong to the people of God as Peter does, or not? To say that “God shows no partiality” means that belonging is not a matter of one’s ethnic background. The issue is faith and the kind of life that flows out of faith (10:34-35). So here is where things get interesting. Cornelius is not just a Gentile, since Gentiles traditionally worshiped various gods and goddesses. Cornelius is a person of faith. And faith, not ethnicity, is what matters.

The key point in Peter’s vision was that God can “make clean” those who are unclean (10:16). There is action on God’s part. Peter’s vision does not say that eating unclean food is just fine. Rather, it shows that God has the power to make things clean. Similarly, the encounter with Cornelius does not mean that Gentiles are fine no matter which deity they venerate. Rather, God has the power to make them acceptable by cleansing them, that is, by bringing them to faith. The power of God to change people will be the theme that is repeated whenever Peter’s story is told (11:18; 15:9). Cornelius has been brought to faith in the true God. Therefore he is a true member of God’s people.

Second, the sermon shows that Jesus himself was about the business of changing people’s lives. Peter sums up Jesus’ ministry by saying that he “went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil” (10:38). From this perspective, God found much about the human situation that was unacceptable. When people are in bondage to evil, the gospel is not one of peace and acceptance but of confrontation.

The brief sermon in this chapter of Acts recalls the kinds of healing stories that we find in Luke’s gospel, where Jesus heals those who are possessed by demons (Luke 4:31-37, 41; 8:2, 26-30). The forces of evil diminish life for individuals and the communities of which they are a part. They are powers that dominate the will and remove the freedom to live in ways that are life-sustaining. In the most specific sense, the passage is about those possessed by demons. In its extended sense, it relates to the addictions and compulsions that drive the lives of individuals and the systems of abuse from which families and societies cannot seem to break free. Evil is like an infection or cancer that takes life away. To heal, the gospel must overcome what is killing people in order to restore them to life.

Third, the sermon identifies Jesus as the judge of the living and the dead, and as the source of forgiveness (Acts 10:42-43). Again there is a surprising tension in the passage. Judgment and forgiveness are mentioned alongside each other. Neither stands alone.

In his role as judge, Jesus holds people to account for their sin. He does not treat sin as a matter of indifference, but confronts it and judges it. Sin has a destructive effect on those who commit it and on those victimized by it. The sermon does not trivialize sin, reducing it to a series of petty vices. Sin has perpetrators and victims. And where sin reigns, people suffer. As judge, Jesus says “no” to it. He brings sinners up short. He holds them to account.

The goal is that people might be released from sin. The Greek word usually translated “forgiveness” is aphesis, which literally means “release.” A pattern of sins often brings people to a point where the sins define the present and limit the future. For a person to have a different life, the sins must no longer define the person’s situation. This is what forgiveness means. It means that the grace of God brings release from the pattern of sins that have been committed, so that there can be a different future. Forgiveness does not mean accepting the situation but changing it through a word of grace. People need forgiveness precisely because they are accountable. And Jesus holds them to account precisely to awaken in them the sense of the need for change and a readiness to receive the grace that is offered.

For photos and information relating to the book of Acts see Craig Koester’s web site: www.luthersem.edu/ckoester/paul/main.htm