By Dan Clendenin
The story of Jesus always surprises us if we observe the obvious. When we see and hear what’s really happening, it can be very unsettling. The baptism of Jesus, and the stories in Matthew’s gospel that lead up to it, are a case in point.
We all have a genealogy, and we all hope that at least some of our ancestors were important people. Documenting our noteworthy forebears is a status booster, however tenuous the connection.
The gospel of Matthew begins with the genealogy of Jesus. Matthew burnishes his credentials by name-dropping Abraham and King David — next to Moses, the two most important people in all of Jewish history. He lists forty-two men in three sets of fourteen generations each. All nice and neat. But then a shock.
Matthew includes five women in Jesus’s family tree. Tamar was widowed twice, then became a victim of incest when her father-in-law Judah abused her as a prostitute. Rahab was a foreigner and a prostitute who protected the Hebrew spies by lying. Ruth was a foreigner and a widow. Bathsheba was the object of David’s adulterous passion and murderous cover-up. Then, of course, there’s Mary the mother of Jesus, who was an unmarried and pregnant teenager. What was Matthew signaling by including these women?
He then describes the birth of Jesus through five disturbing dreams — four by Joseph and one by the pagan magi. He contrasts Herod “the king of the Jews” with Jesus “the king of the Jews.” You don’t need to be a political scientist to know that imperial Rome would have considered that claim an act of political sedition. Two kings over one realm; one of them must be deposed.
And who were the first people to worship the “real” king of the Jews? Another shock — pagan magi from the east worship Jesus. Whereas Herod tries to kill Jesus by slaughtering the baby boys of Bethlehem, these foreigners honor Jesus with their gifts.
The historical obscurity of the magi has encouraged speculation. Matthew doesn’t say that there were three of them. The Greek historian Herodotus (5th century BC) said they were a caste of priests from Persia. Others trace them to the Kurds of two millennia ago, which would be a delicious irony in our contemporary geo-political context.
By the third century, some people interpreted the magi as three kings, a reading which would provoke yet another clash of kingdoms: on the one hand, pagan kings who bow down to the newborn king of the Jews, and, on the other hand, king Herod who tries to murder him.
Still more surprises burst the boundaries of Matthew’s most Jewish of all the gospels. Hunted by king Herod, the holy family fled to pagan Egypt where they found asylum. The political ironies in the flight to Egypt are remarkable. The infant Son of God fled as a displaced refugee to a foreign country, Egypt, Israel’s sworn and symbolic enemy that had oppressed the Jews for 430 years. The place where Pharaoh had unleashed his own infanticide against the firstborn Israelite children became a refuge for Jesus.
In the end, king Herod died, about 4 BC, not king Jesus. Jesus returned from Egypt and settled in the town of Nazareth in the district of Galilee, a village so insignificant that it’s not mentioned in the Old Testament, in the historian Josephus (c. 37–100), or in the Jewish Talmud. “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” asked Nathaniel (John 1:46).
Except for Luke’s story about the boy Jesus in the temple, these few pages in Matthew are all we know about him before he began his public ministry. The gospels of Mark and John begin with Jesus as an adult. He otherwise disappears into historical obscurity for thirty years. This part of Jesus’ life seems to have been so unremarkable and so invisible that it became entirely forgettable. It’s counterintuitive in our culture of overexposed “influencers.”
Eventually, there emerged a tension between Jesus’s filial identity with God the father and his obedience to his earthly parents. That obedience gave way to a radical rupture, for by the time of his public ministry his own family tried to apprehend him, and the entire village of Nazareth tried to kill him as a deranged crackpot (cf. Mark 3:21, Luke 4:29, John 7:5).
That brings us to his baptism — the baptism of a king, who doesn’t look or act or sound like any earthly king. After living in anonymity and obscurity for thirty years, Jesus left his family and joined the movement of his eccentric cousin John.
Whereas John’s father had been part of the religious establishment as a priest in the Jerusalem temple, John fled the comforts and corruptions of the city for the loneliness of the desert. Living on the margins of society, both literally and figuratively, he preached “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”
Contrary to what we might have expected from such an ascetic man and an austere message, the people flocked to John. Even twenty years later in far away Ephesus (1,000 miles by land), people still submitted to the baptism of John (Acts 19:3).
Then another shock — Jesus asks to be baptized by John. This is an explicit role reversal. John had predicted that Jesus would baptize us with a figurative “baptism of fire.” And now Jesus asks John for a literal baptism by water.
With some important stylistic differences, all four gospels include Jesus’ baptism by John: “When all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too. And as he was praying, heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: ‘You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.’”
Why did Jesus the greater submit to baptism “for the forgiveness of sin” by John the lesser? Did he need to repent of his own sins?
The earliest witnesses of his baptism asked this question, because in Matthew’s gospel John tried to dissuade Jesus: “Why do you come to me? I need to be baptized by you!” Crossan argues that there was an “acute embarrassment” about Jesus’ baptism. Even a hundred years later Jesus’ baptism troubled some Christians. In the non-canonical Gospel of the Hebrews (c. 80–150 AD), Jesus denies any need to repent, and seems to get baptized to please his mother.
Jesus’ baptism inaugurated his public ministry by identifying with “the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem.” He identified himself with the faults and failures, the pains and problems, of all the broken people who had flocked to the Jordan River. By wading into the waters with them he took his place beside us.
Not long into his public mission, the sanctimonious religious leaders derided Jesus as a “friend of gluttons and sinners.” They were more right than they knew.
But none of this comes close to the biggest bombshell of the baptismal story — the stupendous claim of a trinitarian confession.
Jesus’ baptismal solidarity with broken people was confirmed by God’s affirmation and empowerment. Still wet with water after John had plunged him beneath the Jordan River, Jesus heard a voice and saw a vision — the declaration of God the Father that Jesus was his beloved son, and the descent of God the Spirit in the form of a dove.
The vision and the voice punctuated the baptismal event. They signaled the meaning, the message and the mission of Jesus as he went public after thirty years of invisibility — that by the power of the Spirit, the Son of God embodied his Father’s unconditional embrace of all people everywhere.
Reginald Heber (1783–1826)
Brightest and best of the sons of the morning,
Dawn on our darkness and lend us thine aid;
Star of the East, the horizon adorning,
Guide where our infant Redeemer is laid.
Cold on His cradle the dewdrops are shining;
Low lies His head with the beasts of the stall;
Angels adore Him in slumber reclining,
Maker and Monarch and Savior of all!
Say, shall we yield Him, in costly devotion,
Odors of Edom and offerings divine?
Gems of the mountain and pearls of the ocean,
Myrrh from the forest, or gold from the mine?
Vainly we offer each ample oblation,
Vainly with gifts would His favor secure;
Richer by far is the heart’s adoration,
Dearer to God are the prayers of the poor.
Dan Clendenin: email@example.com
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