Musings on Scripture

– and what isn’t always said

Baptism of Christ (Year A)

Published / by Steven Secker / Leave a Comment

Matthew 3:13-17

13Jesus came from Galilee to John, at the Jordan, to be baptised by him. 14John would have prevented him, saying, ‘You come to me even though it is I who need to be baptised by you?’ 15but Jesus answered him, ‘Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness.’ Then John consented. 16When Jesus had been baptised, just as He came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to Him and He saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on Him, 17and a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’

Text ©The New Revised Standard Version, alt, Used with permission.

One day, when I was walking between lectures associated with my theology degree, and talking to three of the college lecturers, I mentioned something which they hadn’t really considered seriously. Scholars are almost unanimous in claiming that Mark’s gospel was written first, and that Matthew and Luke had a copy of it when they were writing their own. Mark’s gospel is generally dated around AD65, more than 30 years after Christ’s crucifixion. The details of what happened after Christ was baptised, as given to us in Mark 1:9-11, Matthew 3:13-17, and Luke 3:21-22 are too close to not have been copied. The “aha” moment was when I commented that acceptance of the pre-eminence of Mark really means we have only one story of the baptism of Christ, repeated by Matthew and Luke.

John was a cousin of Jesus, born of Mary’s sister Elizabeth, and would have grown up knowing Jesus quite well, so he would have known that his own role in life was to point to Christ as the Messiah, one whose sandal he was unworthy to untie. My adjustment to the text of the NSRV makes the point clearer: John didn’t think he was worthy of being the one to baptise Christ and wanted the roles reversed, but that wouldn’t have fulfilled the scriptures which have often been quoted. Some translations render the end of verse 15 as “then he consented”. Given that Jesus was the last person mentioned, that implies that Jesus consented, whereas the Greek is quite clear that the meaning of the verse is that John consented. The grammar is critical. We should be very careful about quoting any translation from the original language as if it were totally correct. The situation is complicated by having a number of old manuscripts with differences, but not having the originals available to us.

The image of the heavens opening, and a dove, a common symbol of peace – though doves together are far from peaceful – coming down from heaven and landing on Christ, is common to all three synoptic gospels. Whether we render the Greek as “with whom I am well pleased”, “in whom I take delight” or something similar, the question arises: to whom is the comment directed? There were many people gathered round, and waiting for an opportunity to confess their sins, and be baptised, and there were those whom John had called a “brood of vipers”. Yes, this message from God was intended for those who were present, either as encouragement for believers or warning for the authorities, but if we remember that the story was written well after the event the irony of such a statement being made to both groups of people should not be lost on us. Jesus is well known for attacking the status quo, and showing up the religious authorities for their misguided actions and teachings, often designed to elevate their own status, rather than focus on God. Are we – that’s ALL of us – listening?

We might well ask why a divine and sinless Christ needed to be baptised at all. I have already mentioned fulfillment of scriptures, but there is another, significant, aspect to the story. Christ’s early life has shown his status as one sent by God, whose mission is attested by the Wise Men – taking Matthew’s gospel story as is – supported by scripture and proclaimed by John. The baptism is the start of His earthly ministry, now that He is beyond childhood and its distractions, and is an opportunity for God to affirm, for everyone, who Christ is.

Leave a comment