God’s Servant is empowered by the Spirit for a mission to the nations.
The Sunday after Epiphany is traditionally celebrated as the Baptism of the Lord. In all the Gospels, the baptism of Jesus is the time when the Holy Spirit comes upon the Anointed One with power. This event inaugurates Jesus’ mission of preaching, healing, and combating the powers of destruction afflicting the people.
The prophetic reading is one of the most important passages of the Hebrew scriptures for the development of Christianity. It is the first of four passages in Isaiah 42 through 53 that present the “Servant of the Lord” as the key figure in God’s plan for bringing justice to all peoples. (The other passages are 49:1-6 [next Sunday’s prophetic reading]; 50:4-11; and 52:13-53:12, the four often called the Servant Songs, though they are more a drama than a set of songs.)
In this first passage, God speaks to the heavenly powers and through them to the kings of the earth. God introduces the servant.
Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my spirit upon him;
he will bring forth justice to the nations. (Verse 1, NRSV.)
The larger context of the passage, as well as the Greek translation, make clear that the servant is Israel. The servant is Israel in a complicated way, however. The servant is an individual, and when the servant passages are complete it is clear that the individual is a royal figure, a king. For some ceremonial and symbolic purposes, the king embodied Israel and its destiny before God and the nations. For example, in Psalm 2 the king is declared to be Yahweh’s son, an identity occasionally assigned also to Israel (Hosea 11:1; Jeremiah 31:9). Also, the “one like a son of man” is installed as a royal figure embodying the destiny of the people in Daniel 7:13-14, 22 and 27. Such a representative figure lies behind God’s presentation of the servant.
There is some strange language used to describe the servant’s character.
He will not cry or lift up his voice,
or make it heard in the street;
a bruised reed he will not break,
and a dimly burning wick he will not quench;
he will faithfully bring forth justice. (Verses 2-3.)
The probable meaning is that as one who brings justice, this powerful figure will be very gentle. He will not resort to violent behavior in the streets. Rather, he will be very sensitive to the most delicate and damaged needy ones who depend on him for support and the protection of their rights.
The presentation of the servant concludes with a firm declaration that the servant will persist in his mission “until he has established justice in the earth” (verse 4). For guidance toward such an outcome, “the coastlands” – all that later became the Greek and Roman worlds – “wait for his teaching [torah].” (See the same idea in Isaiah 2:3.).
Our passage has a second part. A prophetic voice declares that God the Creator speaks, and what God says is addressed to the servant.
I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness,
I have taken you by the hand and kept you;
I have given you as a covenant to the people,
a light to the nations. (Verse 6.)
The third line here has an unclear Hebrew construction, most literally rendered as, “I have appointed you a covenant of people, a light of nations.” The basic idea, however, is given by the later passage 49:6, where the servant quotes back what God said to him: “I will give you as a light to the nations, / that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”
The mission of the servant in Isaiah is to carry Israel’s experience of God’s salvation to all the nations. For early Christians this mission was carried forward through the Servant Jesus, a mission gradually expanding from an abandoned Jerusalem to the many nations (see Matthew 28:18-20).
This Psalm is always used on the Sunday of the Baptism of the Lord (as well as on Trinity Sunday in year B). On other occasions we will comment on this psalm as a hymn to the Storm God manifested as an awesome electrical storm sweeping eastward from the Mediterranean Sea to the desert beyond Damascus (Year B, 1st Sunday after Epiphany), and also on it as an Ugaritic-Canaanite contribution to the glory of Yahweh, the God of Zion (Year C, 1st Sunday after Epiphany).
As the psalm of Jesus’ baptism, its most direct link to the Gospel narratives is the Voice of the Lord. “The voice of the Lord” (qol Yahweh) occurs seven times in verses 3 through 9. In so far as this phrase has one meaning, it means the sound of thunder, and the psalm portrays it as wondrous, violent, and astonishing in its power over many grandiose and lofty things in the world. However, the wild sweep of roaring and flashing across the Syrian heavens culminates in a reverent and liturgical response from the assembled people in the temple – “and in his temple all say, ‘Glory!’” (verse 9, NRSV). The worshiping community thus speaks its awed Amen! as the conclusion of the earthly sweep of God’s Voice.
In the baptism narratives, of course, there is a Voice of God – one that speaks as Jesus emerges from the waters of the river. There, however, the Voice accompanies a peaceful dove and solemnly declares that the Son of God has come into the world.
The psalm affirms for Christian believers that the mighty sweep of the heavenly powers has also spoken quietly through the dove that brings the Spirit to Jesus.
In place of an Epistle reading, the lection for the Baptism of the Lord is from the book of Acts. The season after Epiphany represents the movement of God’s power into the human world – into the world of Jesus’ people in the Gospels, into the world of the nations in the book of Acts.
The reading is the sermon that Peter began to preach when God had shown him that the people of the nations – the non-Jews – were to be accepted into the Spirit-filled life of the Jesus followers. The household of the Roman centurion, Cornelius, listens to Peter summarize the story of Jesus from baptism by John through resurrection (verses 36-41).
The culmination of the sermon – before the Holy spirit broke in and disrupted the service – was the declaration, “[Jesus] commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead. All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name” (verses 42-43, NRSV).
Peter proclaims a historic movement that had its beginning in the baptism offered by John the Baptist.
The Gospel reading is the Jesus baptism as given in the Gospel According to Matthew, the Gospel for year A of the Lectionary. All four Gospels begin Jesus’ mission in the world with the baptism by John, though each treats it a little differently.
Historically, Jesus seems to have been a follower of the Baptist, and therefore shared the view that the eschatological judgment was at hand. In Matthew their messages of the coming kingdom are identical (3:2 and 4:17). Jesus, however, came to realize that he was himself a channel of power from that coming realm on behalf of the afflicted people among John’s audiences. John does not seem to have been a healer or one who ministered directly to the injured and broken among the sinners. It was just such healing of needy ones to which Jesus pointed when John later asked who Jesus really was (Matthew 11:2-6). The healing had become the difference between Jesus and John.
Theologically, the early followers of Jesus recognized some important link between Jesus and John the Baptist, but were compelled by their later insights about Jesus to interpret John as only “preparatory” in some way. This apparently remained an important issue for some time, and evolved in the directions we see taken by the four different Gospels. David hill comments, “The place of John the Baptist in relation to Jesus must have been one of the most discussed topics in the church of the 1st century.” (The Gospel of Matthew, “New Century Bible,” Attic Press, 1977, p. 95.)
The distinctive feature of the Matthew version of the baptism is the discussion of who is worthy to be baptized by whom. Here, the Jesus tradition assumes that John knows who Jesus really is, that he is the “one more powerful” whose coming John is proclaiming as the judgment of God at hand. Therefore, John objects to his baptizing Jesus and says, “I need to be baptized by you …” (verse 14, NRSV). Jesus’ answer is: we should do this now, “for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness” (verse 15, NRSV).
There is a divine sequence to these things, according to which John is the last of the prophets (11:10-14), and in that divine sequence Jesus begins as subordinate to John. The later issue about whether a sinless Messiah should submit to a baptism for the repentance of sins is not yet an important question in the stage of the tradition preserved in the Gospel According to Matthew.
The baptism itself is quickly told, and when Jesus emerges from the water the Spirit of God descends upon him in the shape of a dove. The Voice of the Lord then speaks from heaven, introducing the Servant, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased” (verse 17).
After the proper order has been followed – all righteousness fulfilled – the Savior, Yeshua, receives the divine power that will heal and restore the many.
Special Note on John the Baptist and Jesus
This note is about an item concerning the historical Jesus, not just Jesus as presented in one or more of the Gospels. That is unusual for me. I mostly treat Jesus as an unknown entity, because we can only see him through several layers of lenses which have shaped him in their own imaginations before telling us what they remembered.
First a few words about the historical John the Baptist.
Two facts in the life of Jesus command almost universal assent. They bracket the three years for which Jesus is most remembered, his life’s work, his mission. One is Jesus’ baptism by John. The other is his death by crucifixion. Because they rank so high on the ‘almost impossible to doubt or deny’ scale of historical ‘facts,’ they are obvious starting points for an attempt to clarify the what and why of Jesus’ mission. (J.D.G. Dunn, Jesus Remembered, Eerdmans, 2003, p. 339.)
For Herod [Antipas] had put [John the Baptist] to death, even though he was a good man and had encouraged the Jews to lead righteous lives, to practice justice towards one another and piety towards God, and so doing to join in baptism…. When others too joined the crowds about him, because they were roused to fever pitch by his words, Herod became alarmed. He feared that John’s ability to sway people might lead to some form of sedition, for it looked as if they would act on John’s advice in everything that they did. Herod therefore decided that it would be much better to strike first and be rid of him before his work led to an uprising … And so John, because of Herod’s suspicions, was brought in chains to Machaerus…and there put to death. (Josephus, Antiquities 18.115-119, as quoted in Graham Stanton, The Gospels and Jesus, 2d ed., Oxford Univ. Press, 2002, p. 184.)
So it is historically clear that Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist – something he would only have submitted to if he shared John’s basic belief that God’s power was about to break forth in judgment and radical rearrangement of the human realm. However, we cannot accept the Gospels’ view that John recognized Jesus as the “one mightier than himself” in those early days of Jesus’ baptism. This is clear from the fact that John later, while he was in prison, sends other disciples to ask a now-independent Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” (Matthew 11:3 = Luke 7:19). John, while he was living, did not know Jesus as having any special status in the divine plan. (And perhaps his disciples, those who did not join the Jesus movement in the early years, did not know much of Jesus’ special status even many years later; see Acts 18:24-25, and 19:1-7.)
Jesus the healer. Several years ago, studying the miracle stories in Matthew’s Gospel, I was struck by an implication of the difference between Jesus and John the Baptist. Historically speaking – no way around it – Jesus was a healer, big time! That sets him off from his mentor, John the Baptist, of whom no one, Gospels or Josephus, suggests he had any healing powers. The implication of this, projected back into some real Jesus’ early life, is that discovering this power to heal was the beginning of Jesus’ own route beyond where the Baptist had brought him.
One may suppose that as the weeks and months of John’s ministry went on, his disciples (like other assistants at great revivals) worked with the people who came as candidates for the great moment of the dunking. Worked with people who came with disabilities and psycho-somatic disorders (possessed ones). In an excited atmosphere, permeated with expectations of divine relief near at hand (such as those predicted in Isaiah 35), a compassionate and spiritually acute believer (Jesus) might come to realize that healing could come through him – that the power of God’s reign was not only ahead, but for some suffering few could happen NOW. That a pronouncement or a laying on of hands could bring God’s own power into the present moment.
And, if so, a new page of God’s good news would be opened for those seized by the spirit of that place, time – and that special person. Jesus clearly became a widely-known healer. He had to have started at some time – and he probably did not get it directly from John the Baptist. (In a later view, of course, it came with the Holy Spirit that descended on him at the baptism.)
I have now learned that other Gospel readers, reflecting on the historical Jesus, have come to the same conclusion. (The reflections on Matthew 3:13-17 given above were originally written in 2004.)
How are these differences [between Jesus and John the Baptist] to be accounted for? Paul Hollenbach (1982) discerns a shift in Jesus’ ministry from baptizer to healer, and accounts for the change by referring to Jesus’ experience of the kingdom of God in his power to heal and exorcize. Robert Webb (1994, pp. 225-6) accepts this explanation and adds a further observation: as a prophet, Jesus experienced God’s call at the time of his baptism by John, and only gradually understood the full significance of that call. “Jesus’ shift from baptizer to healer and exorcist implies a shift to an increased experience and intimacy with the divine realm.” (Stanton, The Gospels and Jesus, 2d ed., p. 188.)
[The cited works are: Paul Hollenbach, “The Conversion of Jesus: From Jesus the Baptizer to Jesus the Healer,” Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen Welt, II.25.1 (Berlin: de Gruyter, 1982), pp. 196-219. Robert Webb, “John the Baptist and his Relationship to Jesus,” in B. Chilton and C.A. Evans (eds.), Studying the Historical Jesus (Leiden: Brill, 1994), pp. 179-230.]
In the context of the Baptist’s highly public ministry, Jesus shared the apocalyptic framework of John’s work, but gradually realized that the power of God’s reign was already available for the suffering ones, through his own compassionate voice and touch. Long after both men were dead, and probably toward the second generation of Jesus followers, Christians had developed a view of John’s subordination to Jesus the Messiah, and that is made clear – though with somewhat inconsistent variations in detail – at the beginnings of all the mainline Gospels.
(Graham Stanton concludes his discussion of John the Baptist with an observation about the greatest difference between Jesus and John. Unlike Jesus, John was not acclaimed by his disciples as raised from the dead (though Herod heard rumors of such a thing, Matthew 14:1-2). Thus John gradually became only a page in history while Jesus became the “one more powerful than” he – and much more! Stanton, p. 189.)