Baptism of Our Lord (Year B)

On the first Sunday after Epiphany, we recall Jesus’ baptism.

January 11, 2009

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Commentary on Mark 1:4-11

On the first Sunday after Epiphany, we recall Jesus’ baptism.

This day, coming soon after Christmas, provides rich opportunity to reflect on the meaning of Jesus’ divine sonship (cf. Luke 1:32, 35), as well as the meaning of our own adoption as children of God through baptism into Christ.

The gospel text can be divided into three sections: the appearance of John in the wilderness (1:4-6); his preaching (1:7-8); and Jesus’ baptism (1:9-11). Any one of these sections could become the basis for a sermon. However, the special character of this Sunday (and knowing that John’s appearance and preaching were featured on the second Sunday in Advent) may encourage the preacher to focus on Jesus’ baptism.

There is a certain irony in Mark’s account of Jesus’ baptism being chosen as the text for the first Sunday after Epiphany. In the church’s tradition, Epiphany is the season when we recall the manifestation (epiphaneia) of Jesus to the world. Yet Mark’s account of Jesus’ baptism, like his gospel as a whole, has an air of secrecy. In Matthew, God’s declaration about Jesus, “This is my son” (Matt 3:17), reads like a public announcement to John and the crowds gathered at the Jordan. In contrast, Mark portrays God’s declaration of Jesus as though it were a private transaction between God and Jesus: “You are my son.” Likewise, it is apparently Jesus alone who sees the heavens split open and the Spirit descend upon him. In the three other gospels, these events seem to be portrayed in more objective terms (Matthew 3:16; Luke 3:21-22; John 1:32-34).

This feature of Mark’s account is probably related to Mark’s famous secrecy motif. Not until the second half of the gospel is Jesus’ messianic identity unveiled, after Peter confesses Jesus to be the messiah (8:29). Indeed, only then will God publicly announce to the disciples on the mountain that “This is my son” (9:7). Still, the disciples will not understand what it means for Jesus to be the messiah (9:32; cf. 8:31-33). Ironically, in the end it will be only the Roman centurion, witnessing the death of Jesus, who confesses Jesus to be son of God (15:39). As Mark sees it, Jesus’ identity as messiah and Son of God will be revealed and can be known only through his death on the cross.

But this feature of Mark may have an additional explanation. The words, “You are my son,” recall God’s declaration to the messiah (the anointed king) in Psalm 2:7: “You are my son; today I have begotten you.” It was an early Christian conviction that God had raised up (anestēsen) Jesus through the power of the Holy Spirit and appointed him as God’s Son (Acts 13:33; Romans 1:4). Thus, God fulfills his promise to David that he would raise up (anastēsō; 2 Samuel 7:12) his offspring to rule over Israel forever (2 Samuel 7:13; Acts 13:34; cf. Luke 1:32-33). God’s relationship to that Davidic king would be as a father to a son (2 Sam 7:14). Therefore God’s words to the king of Israel, “you are my son” (Ps 2:7), are fulfilled in the resurrection of Jesus (Acts 13:33).

This early Christology seems to have influenced Mark’s account of Jesus’ baptism. Portraying the baptism as a private transaction between God and Jesus suggests that Mark does not treat the events surrounding the baptism in strictly historical terms. Instead, Mark has a different agenda. But to be sure, there is no reason to doubt the historicity of Jesus’ baptism. Nor is there reason to doubt that Jesus saw his own ministry taking place under the power of the Holy Spirit (cf. Luke 4:18; Matt 12:28).

Considering the influence the early Christian tradition had on this account of Jesus’ baptism, Mark’s “different agenda” arises in a rich theology of baptism. God’s words to Jesus, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased,” allude not only to Psalm 2:7, but also to Genesis 22:2 (Isaac as the only [Greek: beloved] son of Abraham), Isaiah 11:2 (God’s spirit resting on the king of Israel), and Isaiah 42:1 (God’s spirit resting on the servant in whom he delights). Thus, Mark is subtly telling us that, already in his baptism, Jesus’ future course is laid before him: he will be the servant of God, who will offer his life as a sacrifice. Like Isaac, he is the son of promise, a promise that nothing, not even death, can break. In fact, it is precisely through his death and resurrection that Jesus’ sonship and messiahship will be confirmed and God’s promises fulfilled.

Jesus’ baptism is fulfilled in his death and resurrection. According to Peter, in his resurrection Jesus received the Holy Spirit from the Father, and his installation as messiah was complete (Acts 2:32-36). Moreover, because Jesus has received the Holy Spirit from the Father, he can give the Holy Spirit to those who believe in him (Acts 2:33), sharing with them this precious gift. Consequently, John’s promise that the “more powerful one” would baptize with the Holy Spirit is also fulfilled (Mark 1:8). Those who are baptized in Jesus’ name receive the Holy Spirit (Galatians 3:14, 29), become sons and daughters of God (Galatians 3:26), and share in Jesus’ destiny of death and resurrection (Romans 8:15-17).

This text is about new beginnings. Mark writes of Jesus’ baptism under the rubric of the “beginning” (archē) of the gospel of Jesus Christ (1:1). This word recalls Genesis 1:1-5, the Old Testament lesson for the day. “In the beginning,” God’s Spirit once hovered over the waters, while God spoke and called heaven and earth into being. So also at the baptism of Jesus, God’s Spirit came over the waters and his voice declared Jesus to be his Son. That was the beginning of a whole new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17; Revelation 21:5). Through Jesus’ death and resurrection, which his baptism already foreshadows, the new creation is fulfilled. For us,we are baptized into Christ, and we all have the possibility of sharing in the new creation that Christ brings. Through baptism, we have all been reborn. In Christ, and in our daily return to our own baptisms, there is an inexhaustible source for the renewal and new beginnings of our lives (Titus 3:5).

A marvelous aspect of Jesus’ baptism is its remind that he is not only our Lord but also our brother. He was baptized, just as we are. He shares in our humanity. Although Jesus is Son of God par excellence and our Lord, he is not these in a selfish way that hoards the Father’s inheritance for himself. We do not need to envy him in the way that Joseph’s brothers envied Joseph, because Jacob favored him (Genesis 37:4).  Rather, just as Joseph’s humiliation (by his own brothers!) and exaltation (God made Joseph “Lord” of Egypt: Genesis 45:9) ultimately led to the brothers’ sharing in Joseph’s bounty (Genesis 45:11), so God’s making Jesus Lord through his death and resurrection (Acts 2:36) and his giving of the Holy Spirit make us co-inheritors with him of everything that the Father has to give his children (Rom 8:17; Gal 4:7), above all, eternal life. There is also a reminder, of course, that our baptisms call us to conform our lives to Jesus, and to live our lives under the cross., for we will not be glorified with him unless we suffer with him (Rom 8:17).