GOSPEL, FIRST READING & PSALM TRANSCRIPT (Subscribe or Login for Full Transcript):
Today the Church celebrates the great feast of the Baptism of the Lord. We’re in Year A, so we’re going to be looking at the account of the Baptism in the Gospel of Matthew. But before we do that, just an important reminder here that the feast of the Baptism of the Lord is one of these interesting feasts. It’s kind of a bridge between Christmas time—between the season of Christmas—and Ordinary Time, where we begin our journey through the Gospel of Matthew looking at the public ministry of Jesus. So technically, the Baptismal feast (the feast of the Baptism) is in Christmas—it’s the very end of the Christmas season, but it’s also launching us into our journey through the public ministry and the life of Jesus that will take place over the course of the next 34 weeks in Year A, as we walk step by step with Jesus through the Gospel of Matthew.
So in order to bring Christmas to an end and to begin that process of journeying through the Gospel of Matthew, the Church takes us to Matthew 3:13-17. This is Matthew’s account of the Baptism of Jesus. Now the Baptism of Jesus is given in all four Gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and even John has his own take on that—but this is probably the most famous and the most familiar to most people. So let’s read through it together, and then we’ll unpack it and look at how it goes with the Old Testament. And also we’re going to hone in on a peculiar aspect of this account that’s only present in the Gospel of Matthew. So Matthew 3:13 says this:
Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus was baptized, he went up immediately from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and alighting on him; and lo, a voice from heaven, saying, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”
Okay, so what’s going on here in the story of Jesus’ Baptism? I think most of us are kind of familiar with the fact that the Baptism of Jesus marks the end, in a sense, or the climax of John the Baptist’s ministry and the beginning or the transition into the public ministry of Jesus Himself. But what would it have meant in a first century Jewish context? What would it have meant to Matthew’s initial Jewish Christian readers—people who are reading the Gospel through the eyes of first century Judaism? In their perspective, there are a few things that would stand out here from the Baptism of Jesus.
Number one: the geography. It’s really important here for us to be familiar with the geography of Matthew’s Gospel, because geography in the Holy Land isn’t just geographical, it’s theological. So places have theological significance. So when Matthew says that Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan (to John) every first century Jew would have known that Galilee was the northern territory. It was the place where the ten northern tribes had once dwelled and that Judea in the south was the place of the two southern tribes...and that the Jordan, in particular, was a river that ran southeast of the city of Jerusalem and poured its waters into the famous Dead Sea.
So the Jordan River was basically the eastern border of the Holy Land—the eastern border of the Promised Land. And every Jew would have known that in the history of salvation in the Old Testament, that the Jordan was particularly significant because it was the place where the exodus from Egypt had come to an end. So if you recall, at the time of Moses in the book of Exodus, when the Israelites are set free from Pharaoh and they begin their journey toward the Promised Land, the exodus—which means “the going out”—really wasn’t accomplished until 40 years later. They crossed over the waters of the river Jordan and entered into the Promised Land.
Now that is narrated in the book of Joshua, chapters 3 tand 4. If you go back to the book of Joshua, you’ll notice something interesting about the crossing of the river Jordan. I think most of us are familiar with the crossing of the Red Sea at the beginning of the exodus, because there have been movies made out of it. But there haven’t been as many movies made out of the book of Joshua, so we tend to be a little less familiar with this text. But in the book of Joshua 3, it describes the people crossing the Jordan to enter the Promised Land. And listen to what it says in Joshua 3:14 and following:
...when the people set out from their tents, to pass over the Jordan with the priests bearing the ark of the covenant before the people, and when those who bore the ark had come to the Jordan, and the feet of the priests bearing the ark were dipped in the brink of the water, the waters coming down from above stood and rose up in a heap far off, at Adam, the city that is beside Zar′ethan, and those flowing down toward the sea of the Arabah, the Salt Sea...
That’s the Dead Sea.
...were wholly cut off; and the people passed over opposite Jericho. And while all Israel were passing over on dry ground, the priests who bore the ark of the covenant of the Lord stood on dry ground in the midst of the Jordan, until all the nation finished passing over the Jordan.
Okay, so notice here, for a Jew in the first century, there are two miraculous crossings of water—the crossing of the Red Sea at the beginning of the exodus and the crossing of the Jordan River at the end of the exodus. So when John goes out into the wilderness, and he’s proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, any first century Jew familiar with the Old Testament would have caught the echoes of the exodus from Egypt by John’s location and the Jordan River.
And as I’ve shown in my book, Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist,
and elsewhere, in the first century AD, you have to understand, the Jewish people were waiting for many different things to happen. One of them—one of the central hopes—was not just the coming of the Messiah, but the coming of a new exodus in which God would save His people in the future age of salvation like He had saved them in the first era of salvation, the exodus from Egypt. So there would be parallels between the old exodus and the new exodus here.
So John, when he’s proclaiming to the people a baptism of repentance, and he’s beginning to tell them the kingdom of Heaven is at hand, they would have recognized that he’s heralding the coming of the new exodus...and that the Messiah that was expected to come would be like a new Moses who would inaugurate this new exodus. So when John goes out to the Jordan River, all those echoes of the exodus are there. And so what the people are doing is they’re preparing the way of the Lord by repenting of sin in order to help usher in, so to speak, to be prepared for the coming of the Messiah, the coming of the kingdom of God.
Now in that context, John is baptizing, and it says very explicitly—this is the second point—it was a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. It says that earlier at the beginning of Matthew 3. And so when Jesus goes down to receive the Baptism, John is—so to speak—brought to a halt. He objects, because he says, “I need to be baptized by you, and yet you come to me?” Now this objection of John is only in Matthew’s account, so we only know about it from this account of the Baptism of Jesus—very interesting here. Because as we know from elsewhere in the New Testament, like Hebrews 4, Jesus is fully human, but He’s like us in all things except sin. And we see that kind of implied here by John’s response. Because if John is giving a baptism of repentance from sin—for the sinners, people who are sinful in the people of Israel—then why does Jesus need to receive it if He himself is sinless?
Now Jesus answers the question by saying this:
“Let it be so now; for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.”
Now you might be thinking, “Okay, thanks...that clears everything up.” This is one of those sayings where we read the Gospel, and we proclaim the Gospel of the Lord, and everyone says, “Thanks be to God” or “Praise to You, Lord Jesus Christ”...but in the back of your mind you’re thinking, “I’m not really sure exactly what that meant.” It’s one of those puzzles. I’m going to come back to that in just a minute, so press pause on that. Hold it for a second, because I want to end by looking at exactly what Jesus says there.
For now, the point is this: John recognizes that Jesus doesn’t need Baptism for repentance, but Jesus wants to do it for some reason. It’s fitting for Him to do it so that He can fulfill all righteousness. At the very least, the language of “fulfilled” in the Gospel of Matthew should make you think of the fulfillment of Scripture...that there’s some prophetic dimension to Jesus’ action here. There’s some typological dimension to Jesus’ action here—that He is fulfilling the Scripture and He’s fulfilling salvation history in some way, shape, or form by going through the Baptism of Jesus.
And I think that that—although as we’ll see in a minute—there’s another meaning to His words. I think that’s really clear if you look at Matthew’s account of the Baptism of Jesus for a couple of reasons. Notice here what happens, when Jesus goes down into the water, He comes up out of the water and the Heavens were opened, and He sees the Spirit of God descending like a dove.
Now most of us are probably aware here that what’s happening is a kind of anointing of Jesus with the Holy Spirit. So He’s going down into the waters, and the Spirit is coming upon Him, and He’s being anointed by the Spirit of God, because that’s what the Messiah is—the word christos
, messiah, means “anointed one.” And just as David was anointed with oil in the Old Testament when he was made king over Israel, so now Jesus—the true King—is being anointed, but not with the oil from a horn like David, who had oil poured over him by Samuel...but with the very spirit of God Himself coming down upon Him in the form of a dove. So we see here another echo. This is an echo of David being anointed king over Israel, but it’s Jesus here being anointed with the Spirit of God.
A third—or fourth or second, I can’t remember how many I’ve said here—a third echo of the Old Testament is in that line, “The heavens were open.” Now you might just think, “Oh, well okay. That’s just how the Spirit comes down from Heaven”—because the Spirit is in Heaven, so the Heavens have to be open for Him to come down. But any first century Jew familiar with the Old Testament would have had another passage from the Old Testament in mind, and that is the ascension of Elijah into Heaven.
So although most of us are probably familiar with the fact that at the end of his life, Elijah the prophet is taken up into Heaven, what we tend to forget is where that happened. In the book of Kings—in 2 Kings 2—it tells us that Elijah was taken up into Heaven after he parted the waters of the Jordan River. So what happens is that Elijah, at the end of his life, goes to the Jordan River, and there the Heavens open and he is taken up into Heaven. So that’s the Old Testament background.
Jesus...something similar happens to at His Baptism. In His case—watch this, this is really fascinating—it isn’t the waters of the Jordan that part so He can go into the Promised Land like the exodus from Egypt. It’s the heavens that are opened, in the same sense that Elijah went up into Heaven at the end of His life.
So Jesus here is—at His Baptism—there’s being revealed the nature of the new exodus. So the first exodus was an earthly journey to an earthly Promised Land. But when Jesus goes down into the waters of the Jordan, it’s not the waters that part so He can go into the earthly Promised Land. It’s the Heavens that part so the Spirit can come down upon Him.
So what is going to be the ultimate destination of the new exodus of Jesus? It’s not the earthly Promised Land. It’s the heavenly Promised Land, the one to which Elijah was taken at the end of his life—at the Jordan River. So you’ve got to think about the theological geography here. All of these echoes of the Old Testament...all of these connections or parallels between the Old and the New are kind of being woven into this one tapestry of Jesus’ Baptism. A lot is going on here in this one moment.
So, in other words, Jesus is inaugurating a new exodus through His Baptism...but that’s not all. There’s another allusion to the Old Testament. You might be wondering here...
SECOND READING TRANSCRIPT (Subscribe or Login for Full Transcript):
However, I’d like to home in on the opening section of this passage and draw some of its implications out, because it’s one of those texts in the New Testament that is easily misunderstood and needs to be situated in context...and actually, it has some real implications not just for the Baptism of Jesus, but the sacrament that flows out of His Baptism in our Baptism, and whether it’s necessary for salvation or not.
So in Acts 10:34, that opening verse, Peter here says:
Truly I perceive that God shows no partiality, but in every nation any one who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.
Now I have seen this verse used as a kind of biblical foundation for a kind of universalism. In other words, some people will point to this text and say, “See, look, all religions are equal really before God. God has no partiality to the Jewish people, for example, or to the Christian Church, for example. But everyone in any nation who fears Him and does what is right is acceptable to Him.” So in other words, this can be used for a kind of universalism or relativism—or it’s sometimes called indifferentism, where you have an idea that all religions are basically created equal and none of them has any absolute claim to the fullness of truth and to an exclusive way of salvation.
Now, the only way to interpret that verse in that way is to rip it completely out of its context. So I want to look at what it actually means in context. So if you back up—you won’t see this in the lectionary for this week—but if you back up a few verses in Acts 10, the context of Peter’s statement here is the famous vision of the sheet that comes down from Heaven and the revelation to Peter by God, through the vision, that He has accepted the Gentile people...that salvation isn’t just for the Israelites, but that it’s for the Gentiles as well.
So if you might remember in Acts 10, a centurion—a Roman centurion, a pagan, Cornelius—has a dream where he’s told to seek out Simon Peter, who is one of the leaders of Jesus’ disciples. So while Simon Peter is there in Caesarea, he has a dream in which a sheet descends from Heaven with all kinds of animals on it, including some animals that were unclean—so for example, lizards were considered unclean. I don’t know why you would want to eat one anyway, but they were considered unclean so they were forbidden to the Jews.
And in the vision, God says to Peter, “Rise, kill, and eat.” And Peter says, “Well, I’ve never eaten anything unclean.” And then the vision comes again. It happens three times. God tells him, “Rise, kill, and eat.” And the explanation of the vision is given to Peter, and what God says here is in chapter 10:15:
“What God has cleansed, you must not call common.”
And then the sheet is taken up into Heaven. Now what does that mean? What it means is this...that when Jesus goes to the cross, He doesn’t just die for the sins of Israel. He dies for the sins of all humanity. In other words, through His passion and death, all of humanity is cleansed of sin. All of humanity is offered the gift of redemption. And so the vision of the sheet is given to Peter to show him that there’s no longer clean and unclean, there’s no longer a division between Israel and the Gentiles...but God has, so to speak, cleansed the Gentile peoples through the death of Jesus, and therefore, the door is now open for them to come into communion with the beginning of the new Israel, which is represented by Peter and the twelve apostles. And of course that’s going to happen primarily through them beginning to baptize Gentiles.
Up to this point, Peter has baptized thousands of people, but if you look at Acts, it’s very clear—these are all Jews who were going to Jerusalem for Pentecost. He hasn’t...they haven’t begun baptizing non-Jews. And so in Acts 10, God says, “No, the Gentiles are going to be included.” So it’s in that context that Peter says, in the wake of his vision:
Truly I perceive that God shows no partiality, but in every nation any one who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.
So who’s he talking about there? Well, he’s talking about Cornelius, who has come to faith in God and who is actually praying to not just any God, but the God of Israel, and to whom a vision from an angel comes and appears to him and says:
“Your prayers and your alms have ascended as a memorial before God…go and seek out Simon Peter.”
Now as all of this is happening, once Peter finishes his speech, if you skip down to verse 44 in Acts, it says:
While Peter was still saying this, the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word.
...so the centurion, Cornelius there, and the others with him…
And the believers from among the circumcised who came with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles. For they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter declared, “Can any one forbid water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.
So the context here—again, the lectionary doesn’t give you everything—but the context here isn’t just Peter pointing back to the Baptism of Jesus and talking about how that was the beginning of His public ministry. It’s also the moment when we have the first Baptism of the first Gentiles. Cornelius and his companions are baptized after God pours out the Holy Spirit upon them, and they begin to speak in tongues. They receive...in other words, they receive the same gift of the Holy Spirit—these pagans—that Peter and the apostles received at Pentecost.
Now I say they’re pagans, but they’re pagans by nationality but not by belief, because it tells us that Cornelius had already begun praying to the God of Israel—that the God of Israel heard his prayers. So there’s some context there too for you. So when Peter says:
...I perceive that God shows no partiality, but in every nation any one who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.
What he’s not saying there is that if the Egyptian person worships their Egyptian gods, and the Greek person worships the Greek gods, and the Roman person worships the Roman gods, that they’re acceptable to God and they’re okay—that as long as they do that and they do what is right, they’re acceptable to Him. No, what he’s saying is, when a Gentile like Cornelius fears the God of Israel and prays to Him and does what is right, He is acceptable to God. And that’s why the vision came to Cornelius, to come to Peter and seek what? The gift of salvation through Jesus Christ, which comes to him, above all, in Baptism.
So far from being a kind of text that can be used here to endorse a lax universalism that doesn’t have any vision of a Christian mission because everyone’s going to be saved through their different religions, Peter’s words here is saying, “We can’t keep the Gentiles from receiving Baptism, because those of them who fear God and who live according to the commandments, are acceptable to God. And they’re so acceptable that we have to bring the Good News of peace by Jesus Christ and offer to them the gift of Baptism, which will cleanse them from sin in the name of Jesus Christ.”
So, this is going to be the beginning of the Gentile mission. It’s very important. A lot of people think that Paul was the one who came up with the idea of baptizing the Gentiles and the door being open to the Gentiles, and the Gentiles being saved, and the Good News going to the Gentiles—not according to Acts. According to Acts, in Acts 9, Paul is still persecuting the Church. In Acts 10, it’s Peter who first opens the door of salvation, through Baptism, to the Gentiles.
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