John the Baptist dressed in red baptizes Jesus, dressed in a white loin cloth. Two other people watch, one to the right and one to the left. The Holy Spirit is represented by a dove above Jesus.

Lent Series: The Baptism of Jesus

Instead of the tradition of “giving something up for Lent,” I’m reflecting on passages in the Bible that best portray its meaning. First on the list is when Jesus was baptized. Each of the Gospels portrays it slightly different. For simplicity, I’ve chosen Matthew. Unless otherwise noted, all biblical quotes come from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV).

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. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

(Matthew 3:16-17 NRSV)
John the Baptist dressed in red baptizes Jesus, dressed in a white loin cloth. Two other people watch, one to the right and one to the left. The Holy Spirit is represented by a dove above Jesus.
Andrea Mantegna, Baptism of Christ, ca. 1505

A voice from heaven. I’m gonna go out on a limb and say that’s God. There is a lot packed into what God says. Three scriptures are echoed here that together paint a fascinating portrait of Jesus and his mission.

“This is my Son…”

Son is not capitalized in all translations. Like most Christians, I think it is appropriate in this case. In a sense, I could call myself a son of God, but not Son (with a capital S) of God. We reserve that title for Jesus alone.

This echoes a line from a coronation psalm.

“You are my son; today I have begotten you.”

(Psalm 2:7b)

This psalm was recited, or likely sung, at the coronation of a new king. In ancient Israel, the king could be called a son of God, but not Son (capital S) of God. It extols the king for his power and assures him he has God’s blessing. Even other kings and rulers better beware of him. God is ready to punish anyone who crosses him or defies his authority. That is exactly the attitude we expect God to have toward God’s anointed, right? “Touch not mine anointed.”

But does that truly reflect the kind of king he would be?

“…the beloved…”

This recalls God’s word to Abraham.

“Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love…”

(Genesis 22:2a)

Just as Abraham had one son (of his wife, Sarah), God has one Son, whom God loves. So far, it sounds like Jesus has it made in the shade. He is a king, God’s only Son, beloved of God, probably more than any other person on earth. Just as Abraham loved Isaac.

“…and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.”

(Genesis 22:2b)

So if God is referring back to the Abraham and Isaac, that means at the same time God affirms him as the “beloved Son,” God also says he must be sacrificed.

“…with whom I am well pleased.”

This comes from a passage in Isaiah about a figure called “the suffering 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.

(Isaiah 42:1)

With whom I am well pleased recalls In whom my soul delights. God also says, I have put my spirit upon him. The Spirit of God descend on Jesus like a dove. Again, it sounds like things are going good for Jesus. Who wouldn’t like to hear God say God is well pleased with them? But in context, it means he will be the chosen servant who suffers for the redemption of others. That becomes clearer in another passage from Isaiah.

Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him with pain.

(Isaiah 53:10a)

Some translations say, “Yet it pleased the Lord to crush him….” I think the NRSV is more accurate. It’s not like God is a sadist who gets pleasure from seeing people tortured. But in this case, it was God’s will for him to suffer as he eventually did. But by using pleased instead of will, it is easy to see the connection with God’s pronouncement. Let’s continue.

When you make his life an offering for sin, he shall see his offspring, and shall prolong his days; through him the will of the Lord shall prosper. Out of his anguish he shall see light; he shall find satisfaction through his knowledge. The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities. Therefore I will allot him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong; because he poured out himself to death, and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.

(Isaiah 53:10b-12)

He will be crushed as an offering for sin. He will live as a servant, and in the end, he will suffer in ways most of us cannot begin to comprehend. None of us knows what it is to be crucified, but it was a torture designed to totally humiliate and inflict as much pain as possible. The word excruciating derives from crucifixion. No one would go through it voluntarily. But that is exactly what God would call him to do, to suffer not for his own sin but for the sins of others. In doing so, he would make many righteous.

We know how his story goes. He will be crucified, dead, and buried, and on the third day, he will rise from the dead.  He will descend into darkness, but then he shall see light. But as I read it, I try to put myself in the shoes of people there who witnessed the Spirit of God descend on him like a dove, who heard what God said about him. Did they really understand it?

Could he be the Messiah?

The text does not say who heard the voice. I think it’s safe to assume Jesus heard it. I’m approaching it as if John the Baptist and the others who were there heard it as well. They would not have to recognize all those scripture references I gave to know this guy must be special. But if they did recognize those echoes of prophecy, they would be thinking, “Could he be the Messiah?”

That question dogged Jesus throughout his ministry. You might think he would be happy to say, “Yes, I am.” But the title Messiah was fraught with political and religious tension. He had to be careful who he revealed it to. When King Herod found out he was destined to be “king of the Jews,” he tried to have him killed. The Romans knew the legend of a coming Messiah, a son of David, who would throw off the yoke of Roman occupation and re-establish the Davidic kingdom.

The Jews lived for the hope that they would see that happen. They believed Elijah would return just before the Messiah.

See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight—indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts.

(Malachi 3:1)

Those who were with John believed he was the messenger, the one who would prepare the way for the Messiah. If the forerunner was here, surely the Messiah could not be far behind. And then they hear God call this man “my son, the beloved, in whom I am well-pleased.” The hairs on their necks must have stood up.

What did they hear in that message? He was a king, probably from the Davidic line. The Spirit of God rested upon him. God called him his beloved Son. God is well-pleased with him. I’m sure more than one of them thought, he must be the one. If they thought of the song in Isaiah 42:1-4, they would have thought of the last line,

he will bring forth justice to the nations.

(Isaiah 42:1)

Justice for them began with defeating Rome and making Israel a great nation once again. If he was God’s anointed, no power on earth could stop him. And the vast majority who followed him, including the twelve, wanted to be at his side when it happened. When they thought of the Messiah, they thought of glory, power, dominion, and freedom. They thought of the victories of Moses, Joshua, and David over God’s enemies that built the nation. They thought it was about to happen again. They would have had a lot of questions for him. They wanted to be sure they understood what they had just witnessed. But before they could ask any questions, he left immediately to wander in the wilderness for forty days (Mat 4:1-11). I guess he was not eager to answer those questions just yet. He knew how hard they were to teach.

One recurring theme in the Gospels is how people keep wanting to call him the Messiah, but they don’t understand everything that comes with it. The glorious king was just one side of the coin. The flip side was the suffering servant. He did not come to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many. He would not overthrow their enemies. He would submit to death at their hands. All those people who followed him as the “Son of David,” how many of them continued to follow him to the cross?

A stiff-necked and stubborn people

When I see what passes for religious programming now, I can’t help but wonder, are we any different? They talk about victory, health and wealth, divine protection from enemies and pandemics, dominion over the earth, and personal freedom. “Don’t mess with me! I’m one of the King’s kids!”

You don’t hear about God’s power being made perfect in weakness (2 Cor 12:9). You don’t hear that having the mind of Christ means a willingness to serve and sacrifice for others (Phil 2:5-8). You don’t hear that you share in his glory by sharing in his suffering (Rom 8:17). Their message is resurrection without crucifixion.

What does it mean to follow a Messiah who came as king, Son of God, servant, and sacrifice, all at the same time? If you have any thoughts, please leave them in the comments below.

Next, what happened to Jesus when he went into the wilderness to be tempted by the Devil? (Mat 4:1-11).

-Grace and peace to you.

Little Known Facts about Christmas Traditions

I thought I would take a break from blogging for the holidays. However, I managed to get this put together. It’s shorter than previous posts, and I didn’t get everything in here I wanted to. Just a little bit of background about our Christian traditions.

Did You Know?

Jesus was not really born on December 25

The Gospel of Luke says,

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.

 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see–I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”

(Luk 2:8-12 NRS)

You are probably familiar with this story of the angels announcing the birth of Jesus, the Messiah, to some shepherds. For trying to figure out what time of year Jesus was born, the key phrase is that the shepherds were keeping watch over their flock by night. I have heard from modern shepherds who say this would place it between late February and mid-April, when they had to stay up to assist the ewes giving birth.

Emerson White Hours's depiction of the annunciation to the shepherds
The angels announce the birth of Jesus to the shepherds (Luke 2:8-15). Painting ca. 1485-90,

So why do we celebrate on December 25th, you ask?

In the fourth century, when the Roman emperor Constantine wanted to make Jesus’ birthday a holiday, no one knew exactly when it was. Devotees of a Persian deity named Mithras, who was also popular at the time, claimed his birthday was on December 25th, probably to coincide with the winter solstice. Constantine figured since no one knows when Jesus was born, why not make it the same day? He believed combining the two celebrations would help unite the people.

Now you may be wondering, why didn’t anyone record the date of his birth if he was going to be such an important person? From what I’ve seen, when and where a great man was born was not necessarily important in the ancient world. Do we know the birthdays of Abraham, Moses, Jacob, David, Solomon, or any of the prophets? And if you follow the trajectory of preaching about Jesus in the first century, no one seemed to think his birth was important. The focus of their message was on Jesus’ death and resurrection.

Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.

Ancient Christian confession

They didn’t care much about his birth, at least not at first. The less they knew about his natural origins, the better (Heb 7:3; Jn 1:1-3). Great religious figures should have some mystery surrounding them.

It was only in later years, maybe around the 70’s and after, that people began seriously wanting to know where and when he was born. The issue of where he was born became more pressing, because scholars insisted the Messiah had to be born in Bethlehem (Mat 2:4-6). How was Jesus of Nazareth born in Bethlehem?

Luke investigated (Luk 1:1-4) and found there was a census where Joseph had to return with a pregnant Mary to the place of his birth, which just happened to be … Bethlehem! So we’re good on that. Matthew also included a “birth narrative” that placed his Nativity in Bethlehem. I put birth narrative in quotes because …

… Jesus Was Probably Not a Baby When the Magi Arrived

Matthew gives us the narrative of the Magi who came from the east to pay homage to the one “born king of the Jews” (2:2). They saw a star that told them this had happened. Since they were looking for a newborn king, the palace of Herod seemed the natural place to look. They didn’t know, however, just how jealously Herod guarded his power.

Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared.

(Mat 2:7 NRS)

He would make an infamous order based on that information. Herod told the magi he would have been born in Bethlehem, according to the chief priests and scribes (2:4-6). He sent them on their way and asked them to pass along to let him know where the child was, so that he too could come and worship him. Yeah, right.

cave painting of the magi
Hard to make out but this is the earliest artistic rendering of the magi discovered so far, believed to be mid-3rd century.

Sorry to Mess with Your Nativity Scene, but …

When the magi find Jesus, he is referred to as a “child,” not a baby (2:11). An angel appeared to them in a dream and warned them not to return to Herod, so they went home without informing the reigning king. Herod responds with shocking cruelty. He orders his soldiers to kill every male child two years old or younger. Granted, Herod was known to be ruthless to anyone who could threaten his position. He even had two of his sons killed when he suspected they were not willing to wait for him to die of natural causes. So even though we have no other record of this event, it is certainly consistent with Herod’s character to do this.

But why kill all the males under two years old? If he was a newborn baby, he would probably have said any male child one year old or younger. That would give you enough margin for error to get him. But by the time they are two years old, they are usually walking. You can tell that’s not a newborn baby. And remember, Matthew told us Herod asked the wise men “the exact time when the star appeared.” That is probably why he said two years or younger.

The conclusion some have drawn from this is the shepherds visited the holy family the night of Jesus’ birth, but the magi arrived some time later. This is recognized in some traditions that celebrate January 6 as Epiphany or Dia de los Reyes (“Day of the Kings”). The belief is that the magi (called “kings” by some) arrived twelve days after his birth. But Matthew’s account says it could have been as many as two years.

The Powers that Be

The shepherds and the magi saw Jesus’ birth as a cause of celebrating and worshipping God for giving the long-awaited Messiah to the world. Herod saw Jesus’ birth as a threat to his power and position. The powers that be would be even more threatened when he became an adult and revealed himself as the Messiah. His kingdom was not of this world, but it changed the world.

He was not like the kings of this world, who secure their power through violence, oppression, and intimidation. He was the Messiah because he came as the prince of peace, and of the increase of his kingdom and his peace there would be no end. The shepherds and the magi, representing the lowly and the elites, both received the news with rejoicing. The ruling king of the Jews, on the other hand, saw this news as a threat to the power and position he had worked so hard to maintain.

The power structures of the world were turned upside down, good news for those living under violence and oppression. Bad news for the oppressors. Herod is not unique. This is how the powers that be have always reacted when they see their power threatened. Not so with Jesus. He taught his disciples greatness in his kingdom does not come through power, wealth, and military power. If you want to be great in his kingdom, you must be the servant of everyone.

Truly he taught us to love one another,

His law is love, and his gospel is peace.

The chains shall he break, for the slave is our brother,

And in his name all oppression shall cease.

“O Holy Night”

It seems our world today is still ruled by Herods, even where we once thought we were safe from them. Still, the voices of the angels ring through the ages,

“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”

(Luk 2:14 KJV)

Even so, come quickly Lord Jesus. Amen.