Because it’s the season of Lent, I took a little time one morning this week to re-read the accounts of both Jesus’ baptism and his time in the wilderness. I particularly read Matthew’s account – 3:13-17 and 4:1-11.
I know that, for many of us, when we approach the Bible, we do so in hopes that it will speak to us personally. God, what are you saying to me? Father, how do I need to be changed by this text?
Questions similar to these.
And this is not wrong. It’s actually a very fine thing. But what we might not realise is that the Scriptures were actually given to speak into a larger, more communal setting. And, for the New Testament Scriptures, and specifically the gospels, they’ve been given to highlight something quite interesting about this person, Jesus.
What these gospels, or the gospel, is trying to help us understand (or help those original hearers understand, since it was originally written to people from long ago) is that Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah of Israel.
Yeah, we knew that already.
Well, maybe yes, maybe no. For what does this actually mean for the gospels to mainly teach us that Jesus is the century-anticipated Messiah of Israel? What does it mean to identify him as the son of Adam, the son of Abraham, the son of David to which the Law and the Prophets hinted? And what does it mean to do so in a more communal way than, say, an individualistic way?
Well, let’s think about the story.
In a galaxy far, far away…
Wait, that’s another story. Still, every story begins with once upon a time (or some similar phrasing, like in Star Wars).
There was a people created long ago. You’ll even find many Old Testament scholars teaching that Genesis 1 isn’t only about the beginning of the whole world (though it is in some respects), but it’s also about the beginning of the people of Israel. It’s a counter-account in opposition to many ancient near eastern creation renditions. But in that Genesis account, you also find hints of the beginning of the people of Israel. And lots of ‘time’ is covered as it quickly moves towards the important figure, Abraham.
Here we definitely have a people begun through Abraham, a people identified by the grandson of Abraham – Jacob’s name being changed to Israel. They were to be a royal priesthood and holy nation, God’s treasured possession on the earth, making known the right and just ways of Yahweh. God called them out and redeemed them from slavery in Egypt, he gave them his torah instruction at the mountain, and they were to be a light to the peoples around them.
But this people, Israel, really didn’t come through in much of any way. Prophets kept calling forth this people, reminding them of God’s ways – to act justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly with Yahweh. Still, they as a whole were a far cry from this.
Here comes a new son, a new anointed one, full of the Spirit of wisdom and justice. He would fulfil what Israel could not. He would do what Israel could not. He would live out the vocation and calling of Israel, since Israel had not.
When I say that Jesus was the fulfilment of Israel, I don’t mean it in finding individual verses scattered throughout the Old Testament to which Jesus fulfilled (like Gen 3:15 or Ps 110 or Isa 9:6-7 or Zech 9:9). It might be easy to view it this way, since we turn to the gospels or other parts of the New Testament and find a verse quoted here or there. But, for a Jew, to see ‘one verse’ quoted (they didn’t work in chapter & verse back then, since it was added much later), this brought to mind a much, much larger context.
So for Matthew to quote Hosea 11:1, it’s bringing to mind a very, very big account of Israel being brought out of Egypt.
But why does all this matter?
Because, when one reads the gospels, this is what the writers are trying to get us to see. Every act of Christ, every word of Christ, everything about Jesus Christ points to the fact that he is Israel’s Messiah, doing for Israel what Israel could not do. God had a people who were to make his good rule a reality on earth. They weren’t able to do this. But Christ was able as God’s Messiah. And this is what someone like Tom Wright is trying to get across in his book, How God Became King. We need to read the gospels a little more like first century Jews, rather than as modern-day evangelicals. At least try as best we can.
So, back to Jesus’ baptism and wilderness experience.
When we read the account of Jesus’ baptism, we probably aren’t surprised by John the Baptiser’s response – I need to be baptised by you, and do you come to me?
Of course it should be the other way around.
And Jesus responds with these words - Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfil all righteousness.
But there might be a sense in which we read this account and think – Ah, yes. This is God’s plan for all Christians – to be water baptised. Jesus doesn’t need to be water baptised, since he’s perfectly righteous. But he is doing it as an example of what it means to live righteously.
But Jesus’ baptism is not primarily given to teach Christians about the necessity of baptism (though I believe this is a very important act). Remember who Jesus is? He’s the new Israel. And so, we need to ask – What does Israel and baptism have to do with one another?
We might not have realised this, but Israel had been baptised in the sea under the hand of Moses (Paul refers to this in 1 Cor 10:1-5). Now, knowing the bigger picture of Jesus’ fulfilment of Israel, his baptism makes a lot more sense. Jesus, as Israel’s Messiah, must take part in everything Israel took part in. He cannot fulfil the ways of Israel if he’s not willing to walk in the ways of Israel. Hence, his baptism in water.
And, at this moment, the Father speaks - This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.
This statement is loaded with a whole host of pointers to Israel their Scriptures. It was Israel that had been proclaimed God’s son (i.e., Ex 4:22). And, not only that, but the Father had also spoken similar words to Israel’s anointed from long ago (i.e., David), that he was God’s son (Ps 2:7). And then we read about the Father’s pleasure at Jesus’ baptism. These words were part of the Isaiah songs, originally spoken to Israel (Isa 42:1). This might sound odd (that these words were originally spoken about Israel), but that’s only because we cannot fathom God saying such to Israel. Jesus is the only well-pleasing one.
And that’s just it. As stated earlier, Israel never stepped into that prophetic call of God. Paul tells us God was not pleased with them (1 Cor 10:5). Still, the songs of Isaiah very much spoke to the original hearers, the people of Israel. Even the well-known Suffering Servant song of 52:13-53:12. It, too, was to find its setting in Israel. But only Jesus would be the true Suffering Servant.
Thus, the baptism of Jesus is not an account given to address us as individuals in need of water baptism. At least not primarily. It was firstly given to that Jewish community of the first century, all to communicate that God’s Messiah was in their midst, the new Israel figure, the new and faithful Son.
And the same continues with the wilderness experience. Israel spent 40 years in the wilderness, led by God himself. Messiah spends 40 days in the wilderness, led by the Spirit of God himself. The gospel account is full of Israel connection points.
So when we come to Jesus’ quoting of Scripture to combat the enemy, it’s not so much a practice in sola scriptura (that Scripture alone stands as our infallible authority). Rather, something bigger is going on here. We have to ask – What is Jesus quoting? Or where is Jesus quoting from? And why quote from there?
Jesus is quoting from Deuteronomy – specifically 8:3; 6:16; and 6:13.
These passages recount Israel’s wilderness wanderings. The book of Deuteronomy recounts what took place in the second half of Exodus and in the book Numbers (those two sections giving us the story of Israel’s time in the wilderness; Leviticus contains priestly laws given during that time, but does not advance anything in the narrative story).
And, so, by Jesus quoting the text of Deuteronomy, he’s again making a very strong statement that he is the new Israel, or he is the faithful Israel. Even more, he is Israel’s Messiah.
Of course, as I said, we can consider Jesus’ baptism as instructive to the church about water baptism. And we can approach the wilderness time of Jesus at a time like Lent, pondering how we ward off the personal attacks of the devil, one main way being through the quoting of Scripture in faith.
But these take a secondary role as to why the gospel writers are really giving us these accounts. It’s all about Jesus – God’s Messiah-King – fulfilling what Israel could not.
We’re working our way from the anointed communal people of God down to this one specific anointed person. And, oddly enough, we’re working our way back out to a newly anointed communal people of God, made up of both Jew and Gentile. This new communal people rest in the faithfulness of the one, Messiah Jesus.
I point this out about the gospels, and specifically Jesus’ baptism and wilderness time, because it’s important to note. I believe it’s what the gospel writers wanted the original hearers to understand. God had a plan involving Israel – to be his image bearers, his kingly servants, making the just and merciful ways of Yahweh known to the nations. They participated in an exercise of greatly missing the point (as do so often ourselves). Hence, Jesus came as the image and thumbprint of God himself, the servant King, making the just and merciful ways of the Father known to both Israel and the Gentiles. He did it as God’s Messiah.
This is the story of the gospels. This is a very central piece of the gospel. This is where Jesus’ baptism and wilderness experience fall in to place.