Sunday, January 27, 2008
Brad R. Braxton, Lectionary Team Commentator
Lection - Matthew 3:13-17 (New Revised Standard Version)
(v. 13) Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by
(v. 14) John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you,
and do you come to me?” (v. 15) But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now;
for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he
consented. (v. 16) And when Jesus had been baptized, 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. (v. 17) And a voice from heaven
said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
I. Description of the Liturgical Moment
Baptism comes from the Greek word (baptizo) meaning to intensively
immerse in water. The word also connotes ceremonial washing for purification.
For the Christian community, baptism symbolically establishes or affirms a
person’s relationship with God. While often associated with the ministry of
John the Baptist, baptism is–in the most radical sense–a willingness to join
Jesus in death (Mark 10:38 and Romans 6:3). John’s baptism anticipated the
Messiah to come. Today, baptism honors the Messiah who has come, acknowledges
the Messiah who is, and awaits the Messiah who is coming again.
African American churches conduct baptism in various ways. Some baptize persons
after they publicly confess their faith in Jesus Christ. Others baptize infants
or children on the basis of family members’ faith in Jesus Christ and the
family’s connection with that particular congregation. Also, the method of
administration varies from full immersion to pouring or sprinkling of water.
Seriousness and celebration surround African American services of baptism;
for the person being baptized both dies and rises to new life simultaneously.
For more information, consult Lars Hartman, “Baptism,” in
The Anchor Bible Dictionary, volume I, ed. David Noel Freedman.
New York: Doubleday, 1992, pp 583-594.
II. Biblical Interpretation for Preaching and Worship: Matthew 3:13-17
Part One: The Contemporary Contexts of the Interpreter
Thirty years have passed since my father–and my pastor–immersed me in the
chilly waters of the baptismal pool at First Baptist Church in Salem, VA.
I still hear the voices surrounding that moment. The choir resolutely sang about
God who was “gonna trouble the waters.” As the choir lowered their voices, my
father raised his: “On the profession of your faith, and in the presence of God,
the angels, and this company, I now baptize you…”
Those baptismal waters marked me as a person standing on God’s side.
Standing with God can at times mean standing against forces
that deny God’s justice and peace. My baptism, while an intensely personal
moment, possesses profound political implications. It declares on whose side
I am standing.
Not long ago, I took a stand in a public speech against certain practices of
the United States Government that were as much acts of terrorism> as the
terrorism the United States is currently fighting around the world. The speech
became the subject of public debate in the editorials of the local newspaper.
Some people were enraged that I could equate the United States with other
In one acidic editorial, a person questioned my patriotic loyalty and asked the
question, “Braxton, are you with us?” When confronted with this kind of
question, my baptismal identity requires me to ask, “Which ‘us’ are you
talking about?” There may be an “us” that our baptismal identity won’t allow
us to join because of our allegiance with the “us” struggling for justice,
peace, and non-violence.
Part Two: Biblical Commentary
In Matthew 3:13-17, Jesus’ baptism declares his readiness for the political and
religious revolution represented by the kingdom of heaven. In the synoptic
Gospels, only Matthew presents this curious dialogue between Jesus and John
prior to the baptism. Jesus is eager to submit to John’s baptism.
In Matthew 3:14, however, John’s resistance meets Jesus’ readiness.
Recognizing Jesus’ superiority, John urges a role reversal, protesting that
Jesus should baptize him. After some persuading, John eventually concedes and
Many New Testament scholars contend that Matthew uses this dialogue to address
a Messianic embarrassment troubling some followers of Jesus. Certain early
Christians may have inquired, “Why would Jesus, a sinless Messiah, submit to
John’s baptism, which was for the repentance of sins?”
According to Matthew, Jesus submits to John’s baptism not because of any need
to repent of sin but rather to “fulfill all righteousness” (v. 15).
Interpreters debate extensively the meaning of “to fulfill all righteousness,”
especially since the word righteousness carries numerous connotations.
For many Christians, the word righteousness evokes thoughts of personal
piety and the state of a person’s “soul” or conscience before God. Such
meanings are inherent in the term righteousness. Yet often the Christian
tradition has emphasized the personal aspects of righteousness to the
exclusion of the political aspects of righteousness. Therefore, we
frequently ignore the revolutionary characteristics of John and Jesus.
Righteousness also signifies God’s saving action in the world. We might even
translate the Greek word for righteousness (dikaiosune) as justice.
Righteousness encapsulates God’s passionate commitment to set right the things
that are wrong in society1. In other words, righteousness is also
a matter of social justice.
Thus, Jesus’ submission to John’s baptism is no simple act of personal piety.
On the contrary, Jesus discerns that John’s baptism and fiery preaching
constitute a revolutionary declaration about a new world order where God will
set right all that “the establishment” (in Jerusalem and Rome) has twisted.
Jesus wants to be a part of this revolution. By pleading with John to baptize
him in order to fulfill all (God’s) righteousness, Jesus in effect says,
“Through this baptism, I ‘take up arms’ with you, John, and join this
revolution whereby God’s justice will be manifest in the world.” By
submitting to John’s baptism, Jesus declares, “I am ready for the
Other textual clues indicate the political and religious radicalism of John and
Jesus. John’s baptismal activity occurs in the wilderness (Matthew 3:1). In the
first century CE, the word wilderness increasingly obtained a subversive
significance. Historical accounts approximately during the time of Jesus
attest to social protest movements around Judea against the ruling
establishments where the agitators led their followers into the wilderness.
Thus, John’s choice of the wilderness and Jesus’ willingness to join him there
would have carried a subversive symbolism, especially given the popularity of
John’s movement. John’s revolution, which people joined through repentance and
baptism, declared that God’s true power would emerge on the margins of the
society (the wilderness) and not in the center of the establishment
(Jerusalem and Rome).
Still another indicator of the revolutionary commitment of John and Jesus is the
centrality of repentance in their proclamation. Excessive, sentimental use has
blunted the sharp edge of the word repentance. Repentance involves more than
an admission of wrong. The Greek word for repentance (metanoia) connotes
a change of mindset. To repent is to adopt a new mindset that causes a
person to turn around. Repentance is a revolutionary act, creating a new way of
imagining the world. Both John and Jesus assert that only those with new
mindsets will be fit for the new kingdom.
Furthermore, the means by which John and Jesus meet their deaths should
convince even the most hardened skeptics about the revolutionary nature
of their ministries. Neither dies of “old age” or “natural causes.” Both
are the victims of government-sponsored execution.
By stepping into the Jordan River with John, Jesus signs his own death
certificate. The church would look so different if we truly lived out the
revolutionary implications of baptism. Unfortunately, throughout Christian
history, believers often have spent more time fighting over the mode of
baptism (e.g., immersion, sprinkling, in the name of the Trinity, or in Jesus’
name only) than fathoming the depths of its meaning. The next time I baptize
someone, I will be sure to ask that person, “Are you really ready for this
revolution? It may just cost you your life!”
The descriptive details of this passage include:
Sounds: The sounds of the Jordan River (v. 13); the dialogue between
John and Jesus (vv. 14-15); the voice from heaven (v. 17);
Sights: The Jordan River (v. 13); John (whose clothing is described in
v. 4); the opening of the heavens (v. 16); the descending of the Spirit of
God (v. 16); Jesus2;
Smells: The scent of the Jordan River (v. 13);
Tastes: John’s meals (locusts and wild honey) (v. 4); and
Textures: John’s clothing (v. 4); the sensation of the waters of the
Jordan River upon the skin of John and Jesus (v. 16).
Stories and Quotations
The New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman provocatively addresses the political,
even revolutionary, nature of the ministries of John and Jesus. He writes:
If, for example, Jesus had simply been a great moral teacher, a gentle rabbi who
did nothing more than urge his devoted followers to love God and one another…
then he would scarcely have been seen as a threat to the social order and nailed
to a cross. Great moral teachers were not crucified–unless their teachings
were considered subversive. Nor were charismatic leaders with large
followings–unless their followers were thought to be dangerous… John the
Baptist was imprisoned and executed because of his preaching… Jesus was to
fare no better.3
1. Long, Thomas G. Matthew. Westminster Bible companion. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997. p. 33.
2. For a recent artistic reconstruction of Jesus’ face, which
depicts his African-Asian features, consult Mike Fillon’s article “Real
Face of Jesus,” in Popular Mechanic, December 2002. Online location: www.popularmechanics.com/science/research/1282186.html accessed 22 October 2007.
3. Ehrman, Bart D. The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. p. 233.