Wednesday, March 25, 2015

The Baptism of Jesus and the Mission of God (Matthew 3:13-17)

 13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John. 14 But John tried to deter him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”

15 Jesus replied, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” Then John consented.

16 As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17 And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”

John baptizes Jesus in the Jordan river.  This action serves a couple of functions in Matthew’s Gospel.  1) It is a transition point from John’s ministry to Jesus’. If John represented the consummate OT prophet, Jesus’ baptism marks the end of one epoch and the beginning of the new age of salvation that Jesus has come to initiate. 2) It also affirms a continuity between the actions of John and of Jesus.  Both figures serve in the divine mission of bringing salvation.

The baptism scene itself reaches its climax in vv 16-17 when the heavens open and the Spirit of God descends upon Jesus.  At this moment, the voice of God is heard: This is my son, the beloved one, with whom I am well pleased.  God’s speech is an amalgam of two texts: Ps 2:7 and Isa 42:1.  The deployment of these OT texts has several missional implications:

1) Psalm Two is about Yahweh’s anointed king (Messiah).  It is a psalm that celebrates the coronation of Israel’s king and his charge to serve as God’s human representative on earth.  Psalm 2 is audacious is in its claim that God reigns through the person of his chosen king.  2:7 reads “He said to me, ‘You are my son; today I have become your father.’” 

This rule is not merely over Israel but over the nations.  Vv. 10-12 conclude the psalm with an invitation/warning:

Therefore, you kings be wise; be warned you rulers of the earth.
Serve the Lord with fear and celebrate his rule with trembling.
Kiss his son, or he will be angry and you and your ways will be destroyed, for his wrath can flare up in a moment.
Blessed are all who take refuge in him.

First, by God invoking Ps 2 in his blessing of Jesus’ baptism, God is asserting that he is reinaugurating his rule through the person of Jesus who is his Christ, i.e., the anointed human ruler.  Second, the international flavor of Ps 2, that is its insistence that the scope of God’s Christ’s rule is inclusive of the nations, points to the cosmic significance of Jesus.  Jesus’ mission is not limited to the restoration of Israel.  Jesus’ mission will have implications for the global community of nations.

2) Isaiah 42 is the first of the Servant Songs that dominate the second half of the book of Isaiah.  By offering a quotation from 42:1, God is affirming that Jesus is the fulfillment of the servant passages in Isaiah—Jesus is the servant.  42:1 reads:

Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight; I will put my spirit on him and he will bring justice to the nations.

Jesus is God’s spirit filled servant who will usher in the new age of salvation.  Isaiah 42 is powerful because like Ps 2 it likewise has a cosmic scope in its portrayal of God’s plan of salvation.  The servant will be empowered to bring justice to the nations (42:1)…He will not falter or be discouraged till he establishes justice on earth (42:4)…[God] will keep and make [him] to be a covenant for the people and a light for the Gentiles (42: 6).

This cosmic scope is rooted in the affirmation of God as creator and sustainer of the cosmos:

This is what God the LORD says—he who created the heavens and stretched out the earth with all that springs from it, who gives breath to its people and life to those who walk on it.

The Creator has sent his Son, his human respresentative to usher in a new age of salvation that will bring to fruition God’s desire to extend salvation to all of humanity.  Jesus, the Son, is God the Father’s authorized agent of all of this.  His baptism marks the public affirmation of this mission.

If Jesus’ baptism was marked by a sense of the cosmic implications of his coming work, what would it look like for our communities of faith to see our own work as Jesus followers in the same light?

Isn’t it time to recapture mission as the center of our communities?

© 2015 Brian D. Russell

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