|Pietro Perugino (1450-1523), Baptism of Christ (c. 1482)|
Apocryphal gospels, produced in the later phase of the early church's existence, reshaped the memory of Jesus in an effort to satisfy the desires of pious imaginations. They offered details about the life of Jesus not found in the New Testament, giving details about His birth, youth and post-resurrection revelation.
One of these, the Gospel of the Nazoreans told the story of Jesus leaving Galilee, following Him down to the encounter with John at the Jordan for baptism.
Matthew chose another course, narrating the story of Jesus' baptism within the story line of salvation history, in which the Baptist was already present (Matthew 3:1-12). For the evangelist, the movement of God's saving purpose took place in a continuum which extended from the Old Testament, through John until it came to its fulfilment in Jesus.
Matthew emphasized in his account of the baptism Jesus' sense of purpose. For Jesus had decided, while still in Galilee, to be baptized. This is the first hint that throughout this episode, which stands at the beginning of the public ministry, Jesus is in charge.
The other signal that Jesus guided the action in His encounter with the Baptist lies in their dialogue. John had protested against Jesus' request for baptism, saying “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”
Differing from the other synoptic evangelists on this point, Matthew had John recognize Jesus as his superior. In an act of humility, the Baptist tried to reverse the action about to take place. Jesus now speaks for the first time in the gospel narrative, taking charge of His baptism.
|Gerard David (c. 1460-1523), The Baptism of Christ (c. 1505)|
In Jesus’ reply that He wished to submit to John’s baptism (“Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness”), we are introduced to two key emphases of the Matthean gospel: “fulfilment” and “righteousness”.
In the Sermon on the Mount, “righteousness” is pre-eminently the goal of a disciple's following of Jesus (cf. Matthew 5:20; 6:1, 33). Fundamentally, “fulfilling all righteousness” means to accomplish, to do, to perform God's will in all its fullness. The plural “us” links John and Jesus as partners in carrying out God's saving plan.
The scene of the baptism culminated with a revelation of Jesus' identity spoken from heaven for the benefit of the on-lookers (“This is my Son, the Beloved”) rather than for Jesus, as was suggested in Mark and Luke (“You are my Son, the Beloved” [cf. Mark 1:11; Luke 3:22]).
The open heavens, the voice from above and the gift of the Holy Spirit were all regarded by the Judaism of Jesus' day as gifts of God in the past that no longer occurred but would be manifest in the end-times. Matthew presents Jesus Messiah's appearance as the beginning of those eschatological times.
Identifying fully with God’s people, Jesus obediently acted out His role and received the Spirit's anointing to carry out His mission. This mission set Jesus on the path that would ultimately lead to His death on the Cross, the fullest measure of His identification with sinful humanity.
As the agent of God who would bring the Kingdom to its full visible manifestation, Jesus symbolized strength and authority befitting the Son of God and Son of David.
God’s voice speaking directly from heaven, with authority, served the Church as a catechetical and confessional formula. In similar vein, Peter's speech in Acts declared the Church's conviction that at His baptism “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; ... he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him”.
Isaiah had said that fulfilment of God's design to bring justice to the nations would come about through a surprising development effected by a mysterious “Servant of the Lord”. God would send a messenger in whom wickedness would be judged and righteousness triumph. In himself, the Servant of the Lord would establish justice on earth. And because of this, the nations would await his torah, his instruction, his law.
This teaching, prepared for by the Baptism of Jesus, will become clear as Matthew's Good News concerning Jesus unfolds in coming weeks.
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JOUR DU SEIGNEUR
L’équipe du Jour du Seigneur m’a interviewé cette semaine pour l’émission d’aujourd’hui (Radio-Canada, à 10 h 00).