Scripture notes – The Baptism of the Lord (A) – 8th January 2023

The feast days celebrating Christmas come to an end with Epiphany highlighting the Magi coming to Bethlehem. The word ‘Epiphany’ has the sense of ‘revelation’ and the story of today’s gospel show a revelation about Jesus after he has been baptised by John and will shortly after begin his public ministry. In Advent, we heard how John the Baptizer ‘prepared the way’ for one greater coming after him, and today’s Gospel brings the two together.

The readings are available online here.

Isaiah 42:1-4, 6-7
This is from one of the four selections in Isaiah that have been labelled ‘Servant Songs’. They are descriptions of an ideal servant of the Lord who will carry out his intentions in the world. Christians have seen in them a prophecy or a foreshadowing of Jesus. The servant is described as the ‘chosen one’ in whom God delights, words which have resonance with today’s gospel. This servant combines a kingly role of judgement as the Davidic Messiah with the prophetic work of teaching. The last verses suggest healing and saving, and both of these will be aspects of Jesus emphasised in the gospels and also the next reading from Acts. The gentleness, even tenderness, of the Servant is stressed, in contrast to the usual political leader and those who rule by conquest.

Psalm 28/29:1-4, 9-10
After the quiet, reflective tone of the Servant Song, we have an exuberant hymn of praise. The emphasis on water is likely the reason it was chosen for the feast of Jesus’ baptism.

Acts 10:34-38
You can read the story of Peter and Cornelius in chapter 10 in Acts. It explains how the early church come to understand that the Messiah was for all people and not just Israel. In summary: Peter had a vision that indicated what was ‘unclean’ in Jewish Law does not hold for the new community. Another vision came to Cornelius who was not Jewish, but a devout man living out the spirit of the Law. With his whole household, he waits for Peter to explain why God brought them together. Our reading begins with Peter’s speech, summarising Jesus’ life and his teaching. Pointing out that it began with John’s baptising leads into today’s gospel reading.

Matthew 3:13-17
John had said that ‘there is one greater coming after me whose sandals I am not worthy to carry.’ (3:1-12). Now the ‘greater one’ comes along with the others who were listening to John and being baptised in the river Jordan. All four gospels tell of this in various ways, but only Matthew has this short dialogue of John objecting to baptising Jesus. Recognising Jesus as one not in need of repentance, he says the roles should be reversed. Jesus, however, insists with a reason that has something enigmatic or mysterious about it – ‘it is fitting for us to fulfil all righteousness.’ The word ‘righteousness’ may mean ‘the saving activity of God’ (John P. Meier) or carry the idea of ‘doing all that God asks’ (R. T. France). John and Jesus both have a role in carrying out God’s will. Some commentators suggest that as the one come to save sinners, Jesus ‘must first be identified’ with them.

The descent of the Spirit and the words of God are the climax of this part of the gospel. ‘The heavens were opened’ – the sky was thought of as a sort of barrier which would need to be moved apart for a vision from God (an idea also found in Genesis 1 and Ezekiel 1:1.) ‘Like a dove’ – all three of the first gospels use this image, which is familiar in art depicting the Holy Spirit. (In the back of our parish church is a stained glass window of Jesus’ baptism with the dove.) Scholars have tried to figure out a meaning for this comparison, looking for clues in the Older Testament, but finding few. There is the dove that Noah sends out of the Ark, which returns with an olive branch, something that is now widely used now as a symbol of peace. The opening of Genesis has no dove, but the verb says the Spirit of God ‘hovered’ over the waters, and that word suggesting a comparison to a bird may also in the background. Or it may simply be that thinking that a bird which can fly through the sky is a metaphor for something coming down from above.

In the infancy stories, Matthew has identified Jesus in various ways, as son of David, the Messiah, as a king, and ‘God-with-us’. Now as a climax, we hear that he is ‘Son of God’, thus sharing his Father’s nature and united with him in love. The words ‘on whom my favour rests’ can be translated as ‘in whom I am well pleased’ and has echoes of various Old Testament texts, including our first reading.

For Matthew, it will always be important to show how Jesus ‘fulfils’ perfectly in his life what was promised in the older covenant but not fully carried out before. He also, however, presents Jesus as someone beyond usual experience or earlier expectations as here in the revelation of his relationship with the Father. We do not find any use of the word ‘Trinity’ in the gospels, but that idea of the Godhead is indicated by associating in one moment Father, Son and Spirit.

Joan Griffith