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Baptism of the Lord (Cycle A)

by Norman Beck

Psalm 29
The specific life setting of Psalm 29 is apparently a thunderstorm hitting the entire west coast of Canaan and moving inland along a broad front that extends from Lebanon in the north to the wilderness of Kadesh in the south. The awesome sounds of the storm are attributed anthropomorphically to the Lord God, whose voice is acclaimed as full of power and majesty. It is only in regard to this voice of the Lord God in the storm that there is any notable connection with the specifics of the account in Matthew 3:13-17 about the baptism of Jesus.

Isaiah 42:1-9
This text, or at least Isaiah 42:1-4, is generally considered within traditional Christian interpretation to be the first of four “Servant Songs” (42:1-4; 49:1-6; 50:4-11; and 52:13–53:12) within the extensive document attributed to Isaiah. Their content indicates that they have had a long and complex history of development. After their final redaction, in their canonical form the “Suffering Servant” is usually interpreted within Judaism to be, not an individual but the people of Israel (“chosen,” “the one in whom God delights,” “who will bring forth justice to all nations,” a developing religious civilization intended by God to be engaged in “tikkun olam,” i.e., “repairing the world.”). The identification of the “Suffering Servant” as Israel is actually made within the canonical text in Isaiah 49:3.

Some of the followers of Jesus, however, within a few decades after his death claimed for Jesus the qualities of the “Suffering Servant Israel” and considered his life to have been the fulfillment of the role and purpose of “Suffering Servant Israel.” Therefore, from the perspective of many followers of Jesus, Israel in the sense of Jewish people and Jewish religion apart from the spiritual experiences of followers of Jesus no longer had any legitimate reason to continue to exist. Christian “rejection and displacement” theology regarding Judaism, preponderant ever since the last third of the first century of the common era, continues this point of view regarding Judaism and the Jewish people and has been a factor in depriving Jews of civil rights in lands controlled by Christians, the murder of Jews during the Christian Crusades, and the persecution and death of millions of Jewish men, women, and children during the Inquisition, the pogroms in Eastern Europe, and the Holocaust. Fortunately, however, since the end of World War II, as a result of more objective historical studies in general, more objective historical-critical studies of Scripture, constructive Jewish-Christian dialogues, and statements drafted and adopted by a variety of Christian groups, many Christians are replacing their “rejection and displacement” theology regarding Judaism with a theological perspective that recognizes the ongoing validity of Judaism and the richness of Jewish theological development during the past nineteen centuries.

Acts 10:34-43
As we learn more about the political situation during the first century of the common era and become aware that some of the references to “the devil,” “Satan,” and “the evil one” in the Newer Testament may have been cryptograms referring to Caesar and to the oppressive Roman Empire, we wonder when we read a text such as Acts 10:34-43 whether the Lukan playwright may have very subtly been referring to Caesar and to zealous advocates of Roman Civil Religion when the playwright has Peter speak about Jesus going around doing good things and acting as a healer for everyone who was being oppressed by the devil. If “the devil” mentioned in Acts 10:38 was a cryptic reference to Caesar and to Roman Civil Religion, then representatives of Caesar and of Roman Civil Religion were the “they” who according to the next verse, Acts 10:39, crucified Jesus. The message of the cryptogram would have been especially subtle in Acts, since the writer of Acts repeatedly castigated “the Jews” for all of the evil that befell both Jesus and Paul and deliberately openly exonerated the Romans, in order to attempt to reduce Roman persecution of followers of Jesus. For much more about this, see, among other recently published books and articles, Norman A. Beck, Anti-Roman Cryptograms in the New Testament: Hidden Transcripts of Hope and Liberation, Revised edition (Studies in Biblical Literature 127, New York: Peter Lang, 2010).

Matthew 3:13-17
That Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist is one of the most certainly verifiable occurrences of his life. That Jesus had come to John to receive a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sin raised many difficulties in the minds of early followers of Jesus. We see already in Matthew 3:14-15 an attempt to emphasize the subordination of John to Jesus and to assure that for Jesus to submit to baptism by John would imply no tacit acknowledgment of sinfulness in Jesus. In the Lukan account, the baptism of Jesus is recorded in a single circumstantial participle, and the heavenly vision is connected more closely to Jesus’ praying to God than to his baptism in what may have been intended as a subtle de-emphasis of John. The Fourth Gospel has John explain that he must decrease while Jesus increases. The interesting quotation in Jerome’s writings, quoted from the Gospel According to the Hebrews, is another endeavor to overcome the same difficulty. In this quotation Jesus’ mother encourages Jesus to be baptized:

Behold the mother of the Lord and his brothers said to him, “John the Baptist is baptizing for the remission of sins. Let us go and be baptized by him.”

He said, however, to them, “What have I sinned that I should go and be baptized by him? [I have not sinned] unless by chance this very thing which I have said is [a sin of] ignorance.”

The explanatory process is carried even farther in the Gospel of the Ebionites as quoted by Epiphanius. In that quotation, after John has baptized Jesus and after the heavenly vision, John falls down in front of Jesus and says, “I beg you, Lord, baptize me!”

According to what we have in Matthew 3:13-17, the baptism of Jesus was said to be “fitting (appropriate) in order to fulfill all righteousness.” It was the proper thing to do in respect to all of the relationships involved, with God, with John and Jesus, and with the Israelite people for whom this baptism was a preparation for reception of the eschatological rule of God. In a similar manner, our baptism in the name of Jesus is appropriate, fitting, and proper in order to fulfill all of the relationships involved in our lives, especially with God perceived as Father through Jesus the Son of God by the power of the Holy Spirit of God and with other people in our family that is the Church.

The message of Matthew 3:13-17 is expressed most clearly in the voice from the heavens, changed slightly from its Markan source from “You are my beloved Son,” to “This is my beloved Son.” Jesus is proclaimed in this text to be God’s special, beloved Son, and God is said to be pleased with him. This quotation adapted from Psalm 2:7 and from Isaiah 42:1 indicates that Jesus was proclaimed in the Synoptic communities to be a combination of God’s chosen kingly figure (Psalm 2) to rule in God’s great kingdom and of the Servant figure (Isaiah 42:1) who does everything in a way that is pleasing to God.

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Authors of
Lectionary Scripture Notes
Norman A. Beck is the Poehlmann Professor of Theology and Classical Languages and the Chairman of the Department of Theology, Philosophy, and Classical Languages at Texas Lutheran University
Dr. Norman A. Beck
Mark Ellingsen is professor at the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta, Georgia
Dr. Mark Ellingsen