INTRODUCTION TO THE SCRIPTURE
Year A - First Sunday After Epiphany ‑ The Baptism of our Lord
ISAIAH 42:1‑9. This is one of four poetic passages in the Book of Isaiah referred to as "The Servant Songs." They describe Israel's mission as God's servant people chosen to bring "light to the nations." They represent some of the most advanced theology of the Old Testament.
Though composed by an unknown prophet during Israel's exile in Babylon (586‑539 BC), the early Christian church regarded these poems as prophecies about Jesus, the Messiah/Christ. Some biblical scholars have suggested that Jesus himself adopted these Servant Songs as the pattern for his ministry which began with his baptism by John.
PSALM 29. In descriptive metaphors the psalmist 'sees' and 'hears' God during a fierce thunderstorm while worshipping in the temple. This causes the worshippers to praise the glory of God, envisioned as a monarch on a throne giving peace to his subjects.
ACTS 10:34‑43. The previous chapter had described the conversion of Saul, a Jewish rabbi. This chapter tells of Peter's conversion to the wider interpretation of the new faith. The gospel is for all people, not just those of the Jewish tradition.
As a result of this experience, Peter preaches to a mixed congregation of Jews and Gentiles in the home of a Roman military officer. His new understanding of the faith is blessed by the Holy Spirit coming upon the assembly while Peter was stil speaking.
MATTHEW 3:13‑17. This simple story of Jesus' baptism by John contrasts the humility of the two. Jesus fully accepted John's ministry and insisted on being baptized by him.
In Matthew's version of this incident only Jesus saw the Spirit descend as a dove and heard God's voice. It may be interpreted best as Jesus' ordination for his ministry.
A MORE COMPLETE ANALYSIS
ISAIAH 42:1-9. This is one of four poetic passages in the Book of Isaiah referred to as “The Servant Songs.” They describe Israel’s mission as God’s servant people to bring “light to the nations.” Though composed by an unknown prophet during Israel’s exile in Babylon (586-539 BCE) who has been named by scholars as Deutero-Isaiah (or Second Isaiah), the apostolic church appears to have regarded these poems as prophecies of Jesus, the Messiah/Christ.
Arguments have persisted as to who the servant referred to actually was - an individual or the nation as a whole. There is no generally accepted answer to this question. Many OT figures from the patriarchs onward were identified as “servants of Yahweh.” In this instance, it would seem that while vss. 1-4 appear to identify an individual, vss. 5-9 seem to refer to the nation as God’s representative. It is also possible that the latter verses were not part of the original song. Furthermore, it is now thought that the four “Servant Songs” did not necessarily come from the same hand nor were they part of a separate collection included in the Book of Isaiah by the final editors. Generally speaking, the nation has been incorporated in an individual in the same way that a monarch incorporates a people
- e.g. in the law courts using English Common Law, “the Queen vs. Smith and Company.”
Some biblical scholars have suggested that Jesus himself adopted these songs as the model for his ministry which began with his baptism by John. The authors of the four Gospels nowhere cite Jesus himself quoting from these songs. There is little doubt, however, that they had these passages in mind as they told the story of his ministry and passion. (Matt.26:24, 54, 56; Mark 9:12; Luke 18:31, 24:25-27, 46) He alone fulfilled all the qualities ascribed to the Servant. His character
completely exemplified the gentleness, righteousness and justice described in this passage, moral qualities which to this poet/prophet come directly from Yahweh.
The role of the Servant is clearly defined as creating a new covenant that will bring
this knowledge of Israel’s moral monotheism to other nations.
At the beginning of the Christian era, some Jews thought of the Servant as the Israel’s Messiah, but surprisingly Christian interpreters dissented from this view until the end of the 18th century.
PSALM 29. In descriptive metaphors the psalmist sees and hears God during a fierce thunderstorm while worshiping in the temple. Lightning flashes (vs. 7), thunder crashes and rain pours down (vs. 3) with such power that they can be likened only to the voice and the majestic power and glory of God. The wind blows so strongly that it bends the mighty cedars on Lebanon and its counterpart Sirion (vs.5-6). These mountains most likely refer to Mount Hermon and the anti-Lebanon range to the north of Israel. So severe is the storm that it whirls the oak trees and strips the forest bare (vs. 9).
A storm of this magnitude may not match what we recognize as a hurricane, but would be an unusual occurrence. Heavier rainfall is normal in the north of Israel where the Lebanese mountains block the passage of clouds and cause greater precipitation. On average, Dan receives about five times as much rain as Jericho. In 1949 at Haifa, for instance, four and a half inches of rain fell in a single hour, about 17% of that year’s rainfall. The result on bare hills such as those around Mount Carmel near Haifa would be devastating flash floods.
Such a storm became a metaphor for the psalmist to praise the glory of God seen as a monarch enthroned over the flood (vs. 10) giving his subjects strength and peace. Having so recently seen the victims of intense storms huddling in shelters or returning to devastated homes, we can easily understand how well this metaphor would suit the spiritual needs of such victims. Perhaps the psalmist had something like this in mind as he composed these lines.
ACTS 10:34-43. The Christian celebration of Epiphany is intended to mark the globalization of the gospel. In reading this passage we should remember that we are “the Gentiles” to whom the NT scriptures so frequently refer. This reading gives the biblical authority for the liturgical theme for the next several weeks.
The previous chapter had described the conversion of Saul, a Jewish rabbi, to be the apostle to the Gentiles. This chapter tells of Peter’s similar conversion to a wider interpretation of the new faith. The gospel he preached was not to be just for Jews, but for all people. The whole chapter contains the story of two epiphanies - that of Peter (vss. 9-16) and that of Cornelius the centurion. Almost in a competitive spirit, it presents Peter as every bit as much an apostle to the Gentiles as was Paul.
As a result of this experience, Peter received a summons to Caesarea, a Roman military garrison, to preach to a mixed congregation of Jews and Gentiles (vs. 45), in the home of a Roman officer of considerable standing. Peter’s new understanding of the faith was then blessed by the Holy Spirit coming upon the whole gathering.
The reading is limited to the message Peter delivered to the assembled congregation in the house of Cornelius. While similar to other Petrine sermons, this one has some significant differences. It retains emphasis on the judicial murder of Jesus and on the resurrection, but these have been adapted for a Gentile audience, probably by Luke. God now “shows no partiality” for Jews only, but has a spiritual relationship with the righteous of every nation (vss. 34-35). Jesus is no longer named as the Jewish “Lord and Christ” - i.e. the Jewish Messiah - but as “Lord of all” (vs. 36) and “judge of the living and the dead” (vs. 42).
Note too that the baptism Peter performed has a significance beyond that of Acts 2:37-38 where the gift of the Spirit is said to come after baptism for repentance. Here the order is reversed, as it was at Pentecost when the Spirit fell on the apostles independent of baptism. In chapter 11, Peter was forced to defend his action before the Jerusalem church. We are dealing here with the practice in church during the latter decades of the 1st century. The baptismal rite of initiation into the membership of the church had become the outward, visible expression of the inner conversion of new members, who then had to be further instructed in the meaning and practice of their new way of life.
MATTHEW 3:13-17. This simple story of Jesus’ baptism by John contrasts the humility of the two persons. Jesus came to John like any other person seeking baptism as the sign of beginning a new life. He identified with sinners and did not consider himself perfect in every respect as did the later church (e.g Heb. 4:15).
E.P. Sanders gave an interesting explanation for the apparent mutual deference of the two men. He concluded that Jesus was “closely connected with John, perhaps dependent on him at the outset....The Gospels and Acts strive to put John in a self-assigned subordinate role to Jesus; and the effort is so pronounced that it leads one to suppose that the opposite was the case, that Jesus began as a follower of the Baptist.” (*Jesus And Judaism.* SCM Press, 1985.)
In Matthew’s version of the baptism, only Jesus saw the Spirit descend as a dove and heard God’s voice. This follows Mark’s narrative, but both Luke and John give a different view of the experience. Luke tells of it as an impartial observer of the incident would do, probably because the matter did not seem important to him or he had no independent tradition on which to base this detail. (Luke 3:21-23). John, however, states specifically that it was John the Baptist who saw “the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove” and for him this was the sign that Jesus was the Son of God to whom he was to bear witness (John 1:32-34). Of course, such a distinct presentation of the same incident served the specific purposes of the different authors.
While Matthew does not make reference to the OT passages, the concept contained in the words, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased,” are undoubtedly a combination of phrases from Psalm 2:7 and Isaiah 42:1. Matthew intended them to be interpreted as confirmation of Jesus’ messianic role.
A more extreme view expressed by Morton Smith in his “Jesus the Magician” (New York, 1978) proposes that this incident serves as the deification of Jesus. Smith tells of a similar episode from Greek magical papyri in which a magician who believes he is “heir of the gods” calls for the heavens to open and “the bark of Phre” (supposedly the spirit of the god Phre) to descend on him. Such extremes aside, the most we can say is that for Matthew, the baptism by John was the point in his life when Jesus recognized his true vocation.