Lectionary Commentaries for January 8, 2023
Baptism of Our Lord

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on Matthew 3:13-17

Diane G. Chen

The account of Jesus’ baptism is found in all four Gospels. Only Matthew records the dialogue between John and Jesus, in which John initially expressed a reluctance to baptize Jesus (3:14), arguing that it should be the other way around because Jesus was superior to him (3:11). 

In order to understand where John was coming from, it is helpful to consider briefly the meaning and possible origin of the practice of baptism. How did John come up with the idea of baptizing people in the Jordan? Several sources of influence have been proposed:

  • Jewish ritual cleansing by immersion in a mikveh, or ritual bath, was practiced as a form of purification by the time of John and Jesus. These were not a one-time cleansing but repeated when necessary.
  • The Essenes at Qumran participated in frequent ritual washings as a means of purification, even though they were living in the desert where water supply was extremely limited. Was John ever a part of this community?
  • When gentile proselytes converted to Judaism, they underwent ritual cleansing as part of their initiation. The caveat, though, is that extant evidence of proselyte baptism post-dates the time of John. 

Although none of the above proposals fits John’s baptism exactly, they are all worth some consideration, as they all have something to do with purification. The purpose of John’s baptism was also for repentance and the forgiveness of sins (3:2, 6). 

The people who came to the Jordan to be baptized by John confessed and repented of their sins, in order to prepare themselves to receive God’s forgiveness and salvation. While one might think this was a very good idea, the dynamics of honor and shame in the ancient Mediterranean world would have made this a challenging thing to do. At that time, any dignified person, especially a man, would do anything he could to amass honor and avoid shame. Therefore, coming to John for baptism and confessing one’s sin in public would not bode well for one’s reputation. God’s approval would come at the cost of losing face and social honor.

Behind John’s objection were two possible reasons. First, John deemed himself to be far inferior in rank, unworthy to even carry Jesus’ sandals. So how could the lesser baptize the greater? Second, unlike everyone else who was coming for baptism, Jesus did not need to repent. While Jesus’ sinlessness is not explicitly stated in Matthew, Paul asserts that Jesus “knew no sin” (2 Corinthians 5:21), and the author of Hebrews speaks of Jesus as “one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15). As such, John’s protest was legitimate. 

Yet Jesus’ reply was somewhat cryptic. He said, “It is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness” (3:15). In Matthew, the notion of righteousness has to do with obedience to God’s law (5:17-20; 6:1) and seeking God’s righteousness (5:6; 6:33; see also 5:10). What, then, is the connection between righteousness and Jesus’ baptism? 

The concept of righteousness, especially in the Old Testament, is not limited to moral uprightness. More importantly, righteousness is a relational concept. For example, Abraham “believed the LORD, and the LORD reckoned it to him as righteousness” (Genesis 15:6). Abraham was righteous because he trusted God, not because he was morally perfect. Human righteousness entails being put in a right relationship before God, as Habakkuk states, “The righteous live by their faith” (Habakkuk 2:4). God’s righteousness, then, is expressed in his covenantal faithfulness and salvation for Israel (see also Isaiah 46:13; Psalm 143:11).  

John’s baptism is a call to repentance, a preparatory step in restoring one’s relationship with God, that is, to become righteous again. Jesus, therefore, was not coming for baptism for his own sins, but he came in solidarity with the sinners whom God had sent him to save. Apart from being God’s eschatological agent of salvation, Jesus was at the same time the Davidic King and representative of the Jews before God. So he humbled himself alongside his people to wait on God’s mercy. Because of Jesus’ mediatory role, John finally consented to baptize him. 

The text does not explicitly describe Jesus’ immersion into the Jordan, only the theophany as he came up from the water. At this Trinitarian moment, God the Father spoke through the clouds about his Son, on whom the Spirit descended in the form of a dove. 

What the voice from heaven said was essentially identical across the three Synoptic Gospels with one key difference. In Mark and Luke, God addressed Jesus directly, “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased” (Mark 1:11; Luke 3:22), whereas in Matthew, God made an announcement, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17). Jesus was being commissioned to his messianic task in Mark and Luke, but he was introduced to Israel in Matthew.

This declaration is laden with meaning. First, Israel’s king was viewed metaphorically as God’s son (see also 2 Samuel 7:14; Psalm 2:7), ruling Israel on God’s behalf, and leading the nation to live as obedient children of God. For Jesus, though, “Son of God” not only points to his messianic status, but his unique conception by the Holy Spirit as well. Second, Jesus was God’s beloved like how Isaac was the “only son … whom [Abraham] loved” (Genesis 22:2). Just as Abraham was told to sacrifice Isaac, God would also lose his Son to death. Third, Jesus was identified with the servant of the Lord, about whom God says, “Here is my servant, … in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him” (Isaiah 42:1). 

The Christ Hymn of Philippians 2:5-11 says it all. Like the people at the Jordan, we too must respond to God’s voice in awe and in gratitude, giving Jesus the worship worthy of his divine status, and the heartfelt thanks for his humility and faithful obedience to his Father.


First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 42:1-9

Cory Driver

As we celebrate the baptism of our Lord this week, it is worth considering what role Jesus was being baptized into. As I have been writing across the past several weeks, we may choose to read the servant sections as applying to Jesus, or not. Again, Rashi, the 11th Century CE sage, points out that God’s chosen servant is explicitly named as Jacob/Israel (Psalm 135:4 and Isaiah 45:4). But I suspect that most preachers will want to read Isaiah’s references to God’s servant through the lens of Jesus the Messiah. Either way, what does Isaiah say about God’s chosen one?

The first thing to notice is God’s emotional self-revelation. God is presented here as Creator of all that is (42:5), and unique possessor of the divine name (Isaiah 42:8). When this majestic and holy God contemplates the chosen servant, God’s soul is delighted (Isaiah 42:1). The servant has serious work to do, to be discussed below, but the interpreter should not for a moment view the servant as a mere instrument of divine policy. God grasps at the servant, chooses the servant and places God’s Spirit upon him (42:1). Later, God holds the servant’s hand and watches over the chosen one (Isaiah 42:6). To be sure, God also chose Assyria and Babylon to accomplish the divine will. But there is real, lasting affection from God toward this chosen one. 

Second, the task of the chosen servant is to multiply justice beyond the boundaries of Israel. Repeatedly, Isaiah insists that he will bring forth justice to the nations (42:1), that he will faithfully bring forth justice (42:3) and that he will not be defeated until he brings forth justice to the earth (42:4). God calls the servant in righteousness to be both 1) a covenant to the nation, and 2) a light to the other nations/gentiles. The chosen servant is to be, then a missionary educator, reaffirming God’s covenant with God’s chosen people, and proclaiming the ways of justice to nations that are unaware of God’s instructions for community. Ultimately, God will teach a new song of justice to this servant. Just as God’s people sang a song of freedom and release after the exodus from Egypt (Exodus 15), so now, upon hearing the new thing that God will do (Isaiah 42:9), the chosen servant is to be a sort of choir leader, spreading the new song of praise for God’s justice to the ends of the earth (Isaiah 42:10-13). 

But if the chosen servant is to teach the nations God’s customs and laws of justice, does that mean that the servant will conquer and impose justice by force? Rashi insists that the servant not raising his voice means that he will not force his agenda on anyone. On the contrary, the nations will come to the soft-spoken teacher, and listen to his every whisper because of their desire for God’s justice. Rashi references Zechariah 8:23 [“In those days ten people from all the languages of nations will grasp the garment of a Jew, saying, ‘Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you.’”] as a supporting prophecy, pointing to the agency of gentiles in seeking out God’s justice for themselves. 

The chosen servant is a gentle teacher who welcomes all comers, rather than someone who harangues or yells at people in the street. Rabbi Jonathan’s targum paraphrases Isaiah 42:3 to say that just as the servant will not break a reed, he will protect the meek; and just as he will not extinguish a flickering wick, he will not allow the lives of the poor to be snuffed out. The servant will be resolute in providing for the meek and the poor. Just as he did not take advantage of their crushed (ratsuts) or dim (kehah) state (42:3), the servant himself will not be dimmed/disheartened (yikheh), nor crushed (yaruts) until he completes his mission (42:4). 

The chosen servant will not just passively protect the marginalized. He will also intervene in the cases of those who are imprisoned, and bring them out of dark pits, such that their eyes can finally see the light of day. The mission of the chosen servant is, accordingly, twofold: 1) to establish an international justice training academy for representatives of the nations who wish to come and learn the new song of freedom, and 2) to actively intervene in the mistreatment of the lowly and poor. 

Looking briefly at the interplay between Isaiah and Jesus’ framing of his own ministry, Jesus seems focused on the role of international education in the ways of the Kingdom of Heaven (Luke 2:32; 4:25-27; 7:1-10; 8:25-39; 17:11-19; 24:45-47). Also, Jesus frames his own ministry as one of proclaiming good news for the poor and freeing prisoners from dark dungeons that bind them (4:18-19). And yet, Jesus will do more to heal people from diseases and release humans from captivity to unclean spirits than actually bringing people out of jails. Jesus confesses this himself when his relative John’s disciples ask if he is truly the one that God said would come (and if so, why is their master still in prison?). Jesus references bits of Isaiah just adjacent to prophesies of prison release, (for example, Isaiah 42:7, Isaiah 61:1-2, Isaiah 35:4-6), and then says “blessed is the one who does not stumble on account of me (Luke 7:21-23). Why would healing and exorcizing unclean spirits cause anyone to stumble? Jesus is telling John that he will die in prison, and Jesus will not be bringing captives and prisoners out of jailat least not yet. I see this as an invitation to be the Body of Christ and a holy people, to work for prison reform and release for prisoners.

Whether we see Jesus or the people of Israel as the object of prophetic speech in Isaiah, the chosen servant is to focus on announcing justice to the nations, and to upholding the cause of the poor and humble. How does our baptismal call challenge us to join in this work?


Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 29

Jason Byassee

If there’s one word to describe this psalm, it might be “loud.”1

The God of glory “thunders” (verse 3). That voice breaks the cedars, and not just any cedars, but the mighty ones of Lebanon (verse 5). It’s loud enough to make mountains skip and to shake the wilderness, to cause the oaks to whirl and the people to cry out. This is no quiet, reserved voice. It is a booming, cascading, thundering cry.

Historians trace the psalm’s origins to the north of Israel, with such geographic references as Lebanon, Syria, and Kadesh. It may have had its birth in reference to a Canaanite storm god or a more general religious sense in the Mediterranean that God appears in natural phenomena. These origins are often obscure and debated, but of course biblical texts do not sit still, they move forward and not just back. The god of thunder once had to subdue the gods of rivers and seas—now the Lord simply reigns majestic, without need to conquer his own creation.

The reflections on the “voice” of the Lord are particularly important for Christians, for whom the Word of God is fleshed in Jesus of Nazareth. The stories we have heard over the last few weeks are of a baby born in surprising circumstances to be king of Israel and savior of the world. They include notes of hushed noise, stillness amidst the storm, not even the baby or the animals are crying. Those are appropriate to the ‘loquacious God,’ Luther’s deus loquens, here born without the ability to speak. But before the eternal Word gestated in a Jewish womb, he already was a voice, stripping forests and whirling oaks. This is a powerful word, a crashing voice, temporarily quiet, but soon to preach, to summon forth the dead from their very tombs.

And now a voice thunders over the waters of the Jordan. But that thunder is somewhat ambiguous. In some of the stories of Jesus’ baptism it seems only he hears the voice. In others, everyone seems to. But this voice is subtle, miss-able, more a mother’s coo than a storm god’s gauntlet splitting the earth’s crest. “This is my Son, the Beloved, listen to him.” The command is direct and strong, yet most of humanity has done anything but listen to him, in that day or since. The baptism of the Lord is impressive for its trinitarian theophany. All three persons are on the stage of salvation history: the Father (voice), the Son (fleshed), and the Spirit (the dove). Yet the enfleshment of God’s own Son has an unassuming way about it. Most folks don’t ever notice. Those that do notice often misinterpret, while those who linger with him still fail, disobey, deny, or abandon the Son. This theophany is unbearably gentle, suggesting that God is unbearably patient.

But not in Psalm 29. The voice strips forests and makes mountains dance. The cedars of Lebanon were known throughout the Bible’s world as giant, load-bearing behemoths, worthy of building into a temple for God. When I lived in British Columbia, there also enormous red cedars, some nearly 1,000 years old, still smelling sweet and reaching toward heaven. They evoke awe, passion in their defense, money in their clear-cutting, and love from our poets. Nearby in a botanical garden there is a bona fide cedar of Lebanon, planted by Lebanese-Canadians in gratitude for Canada’s welcome of refugees. It is not a great tree yet, only a few decades old. But it is already mighty, dozens of feet high, with branches like a canopy. It will tower—several human lifetimes from now.

The mountains of Lebanon skip like a calf, Sirion like a young wild ox. It is a delight to human beings to watch animals frolic and play, for no other obvious reason than that they like to. Here the image is of enormous and ancient mountains doing the same. Jesus would later promise that faith the size of a mustard seed could make a mountain skip off into the sea. Interpreters have often wondered what he means—OK, if so, why don’t we ever see it? Psalm 29’s answer is clear: the mountains already do skip and dance at the voice of the Lord. Can’t see it? Look again. In Moses’ day, when he climbed the mountain to speak with God, it shook with noise and fire. The psalmist praises the way mountains continue to smoke (Psalm 104:32). God turns what seems solid to liquid and vice versa.

And now God does the same with the water of the Jordan. God is poised above it, as God once was about the waters of chaos in creation, as God was after the flood that cleansed the world (verse 10). Only the words this time are of belovedness. Listening—to a voice rather more subtle than quaking oaks or skipping mountains. The God of unmistakable theophany thunders … in an underwhelming peasant preacher from nowhere important.

Strength and silence: both aspects of God’s self-manifestation are important. The psalm will remind you of the loudest thing you have ever heard (for me, calving glaciers—the sound still rattles in my skull). And the baptism will surprise you by its modesty. James Mays, the great dean of Psalm scholarship in his generation, ties the pieces together this way:

The liturgical setting connects the psalm’s mighty theophany with the quiet epiphany in the waters of the Jordan. The voice of the Lord in the thunderstorm is paired with the voice from heaven saying, “This is my Son.” The storm says “This is my cosmos”; the baptism, “This is my Christ.” The two go inseparably together. The Christology is not adequate unless its setting in cosmology is maintained.2

And, we might add, the setting in cosmology is inadequate unless the Christology is maintained. This is an odd case where the Old Testament cries out fulsomely and the New whispers gently. The tree-smashing, storm-inducing God of thunder is fleshed in an easy-to-reject uneducated itinerant preacher.

One cannot explain these things. One can only marvel at them.


Notes:

  1. Commentary first published on this site on Jan. 12, 2020.
  2. James Mays. Psalms. (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1994), 138.

Second Reading

Commentary on Acts 10:34-43

Jennifer Vija Pietz

In Acts 10:34–43, Peter shares the good news of what God has done in Jesus Christ with Cornelius and other gentiles. He gives a beautiful summary of the gospel, from Jesus’ liberating ministry to his death, resurrection, and exaltation as Lord of the living and dead. This might leave a contemporary preacher wondering how to preach a text that is itself a sermon—and a very good one at that!

One place to start is by examining the literary context of this passage. Acts 10:1–33 tells the story of how Peter ended up preaching in Cornelius’ home. Strikingly, this did not come about by coincidence or by Peter’s own evangelistic zeal. Instead, it was orchestrated by God.

God first works with Cornelius (verses 1–8). The text describes Cornelius and his household as devout and God-fearing (verse 2), even though they are gentiles. Then Cornelius has a vision of an angel of God telling him to send people to summon Peter (verses 3–6). He immediately responds faithfully and sends for Peter (verses 7–8).

In the meantime, God also gives Peter a vision (verses 9–16) that opens him up to the unexpected, upcoming encounter with Cornelius’ envoy. Thus, when the Spirit tells Peter to go with the unknown visitors, without hesitation he does so (verses 19–23)—despite reservations that he, as a Jew, might otherwise have about associating with gentiles (verses 28–29). 

What unfolds in the rest of Acts 10 and 11:1–18 is the account of how Peter’s divinely-prompted encounter with Cornelius’ household leads Peter and the rest of the early Jewish Christian community to recognize that God’s gospel is for gentiles, just as it is for Jews (for example, Acts 10:34–35, 45; 11:18). While this might seem like old news to Christians some 2,000 years later, it was astounding to Peter and his first-century Jewish-Christian companions. God was doing something that would transform life in Christian communities.

This brings us back to Peter’s sermon in 10:34–43. What was he saying while the Holy Spirit fell upon everyone in his gentile audience, leading them to baptism (10:44–48)? Reflecting on Peter’s words and the wider story in which they are set can be fruitful for thinking about preaching today. More specifically, it helps us consider the dynamics of sharing the gospel with people who have never truly heard it—”evangelism,” as some might call it.

While the idea of evangelism excites some Christians, it makes others uncomfortable (to say the least). It may evoke unpleasant images of a lone individual on a street corner yelling at passersby to “repent or perish.” Or it might raise people’s anxiety as they fear that sharing their faith in Christ will offend their co-workers, friends, or relatives. These are valid concerns. To be sure, Acts 10:34–43 does not present a guaranteed formula for successful evangelism. What it does show is that God worked through Peter simply—yet boldly—telling the truth about God, as he experienced and understood it (Acts 10:39–42). This is something that all Christians can do by the power of the Spirit. And preaching this text today can remind them of this. Just as God prompted both Peter and Cornelius to their mutually transformative encounter, so too does God continue to prepare people in our communities to hear the good news. Christians are called to act in response, trusting that it is God who works through them.

If Christians today, like Peter, have experienced the gospel and know it to be God’s life-changing good news, how can we not want to share it with others? Does the story of God, out of love, empowering Jesus with the Holy Spirit to heal the sick and free the oppressed (Acts 10:38) ever get old? Is the miracle of God raising the unjustly executed Jesus from the dead to reign as a merciful Lord who forgives sins (verses 40–43) something that should embarrass us? 

It is important to emphasize that when Peter tells of Jesus’ ministry, crucifixion, and resurrection, he is not merely relating a story of how God was at work in Jesus in the past. Rather, he is declaring that God is still working through the risen Jesus, by the Holy Spirit, in the present. This is evident in his divinely orchestrated encounter with Cornelius. It is also on display throughout Acts, as Jesus’ apostles continue to heal the sick, liberate the oppressed, and bring diverse groups of people into fellowship in his name. This is the same Jesus that works through the church—including its preaching of the gospel—today. 

Appropriate caution should be taken when preaching texts such as Acts 10:34–43 not to promise that God always works exactly as we see in biblical texts. Experience tells us that God does not heal every physical illness nor instantly break the hold that depression, addiction, or fear has on people when the church prays for them. Nonetheless, we should not doubt that the healing and forgiving presence of the Risen Christ is present in the church and beyond. The wider context of Acts shows that the church is not only to preach the gospel with words, but also to enact it with deeds, so that a type of healing can come through a lonely person being accepted into Christian communities, just as a person burdened with guilt for a past error can experience freedom through the church’s proclamation that Christ has forgiven their sin.

In the end, Acts 10 calls us to expect God to work through the church and its proclamation of the gospel in unexpected ways. Indeed, the biblical texts remind Christians that God also works outside of the church. A sermon might, therefore, call people to be attentive to the Spirit’s guidance in their daily lives and to be prepared to respond with faithful action.