For you Anglican types, Lectionary A schedules a reading from Matthew 3:13-17 this Sunday. Here are my thoughts, especially if you’re preparing to preach on this text:

1. Karl Barth described this event as “the Great Sinner repenting”. That’s an awesome phrase. It’s shocking in just the right way. John the Baptist is shocked by Jesus’ request, but we aren’t. It’s too familiar. We need to be shocked. Why is the Sinless One seeking John’s baptism, the “baptism of repentance”?

2. This is the opening bookend to Jesus’ ministry. The closing bookend is his crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension. Jesus later refers to his crucifixion as a baptism he must undergo. So he goes to the cross bearing the sin of his people. The judgment of God closes over his head. He goes down into the grave (not into heaven above or the earth beneath, but into the water under the earth, if we’re using the threefold division of Ex 20.4.). He rises up again. The Spirit rests upon him and becomes his gift. He is declared to be the Son of God with power, vindicated as the sinless one with whom the Father is well-pleased. He is exalted to God’s right hand.

This observation seems central and essential to understanding the passage. I am shocked that none of my commentaries so much as mentions it.

3. Lots of echos of creation/re-creation in this passage

  • Gen 1 – Spirit hovering like a dove over the waters waiting for creation to be made habitable, a place for Adam, made in God’s image, to build God’s temple.
  • The Flood – First the uncreation–waters brought together horizontally (over land) and vertically (waters above meet waters below). The judgment waters destroy the world that then was while simultaneously saving Noah and his family. Then the recreation, the division of the waters. Then the dove announcing the new creation.
  • Crossing the Red Sea – Paul tells us this was a baptism event. It’s also the creation/confirmation of Israel as the son of God (see Ex 4:22 and Hos 11:1). On the far side of the sea, the Spirit rests on his people as a cloud and a pillar of fire. The judgment waters destroy Israel’s enemies while simultaneously saving Israel.
  • Baptism of Jesus – Jesus goes down into the judgment waters bearing sin. He comes up cleansed, purified. The Spirit rests upon him and he is declared to be the Son of God. When you connect it to Noah and to the crucifixion/resurrection as above, you see that Jesus is symbolically coming into a new creation where sin is defeated and righteousness dwells.

4. Matthew 1 – 7 presents Jesus as simultaneously the new Moses and the new Israel.

  • Chapter 1 – “The book of the genealogy” echoes the repeated line from Genesis translated as “These are the generations.” That phrase functions as a chapter heading in Genesis, marking off the major events in the lines of the Serpent’s seed and the Woman’s. The last time it occurs is when introducing the story of Jacob. THE REST OF THE OLD TESTAMENT comes under the heading “These are the generations of Jacob.” You thought the next chapter began with Exodus. It didn’t. Now, at last, Matthew announces the next chapter heading. These are the generations of Jesus.
  • Chapter 2 – Jesus escapes a king who is intent on slaughtering all the Hebrew babies in his area. (Sound familiar?) He fulfils the prophecy “Out of Egypt I called my son,” a prophecy that originally referred to Israel.
  • Chapter 3 – See above on Crossing the Red Sea. The events are clearly parallel.
  • Chapter 4 – Jesus wanders in the desert and is tempted. Unlike Israel, he passes the test. He is a new and better Israel.
  • Chapters 5-7 – Jesus climbs a mountain and delivers his law. He is a new and better Moses.