Today is Epiphany, the day set aside on the church calendar for celebrating the revelation of Jesus to Israel and the world at his birth and baptism. This post is adapted from my sermon this past Sunday on Jesus’ baptism.
When Jesus hears the voice from heaven—God’s voice to him—saying, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased,” what does Jesus hear? Embedded in this divine message to Jesus are echoes of two very different biblical statements.
The first echo is from Psalm 2. This is a Psalm that was understood in Jesus’ day as messianic—pointing forward to the coming Messiah, the promised King in the line of David. The Psalm itself was possibly a royal coronation song, sung as each successive descendant of David ascended the throne in ancient Israel. It speaks of the Lord’s “anointed”—YHWH’s “messiah”—which referred to the new king being crowned. It describes how God sets up his “anointed,” the king, on Mount Zion in Jerusalem, from where the king will rule over God’s people in anticipation of God’s coming reign over the whole earth.
And in the middle of this Psalm you have these words: “I will tell of the decree of the Lord: He said to me, ‘You are my son; today I have begotten you.’”
This is God’s benediction over each successive king in Israel, anticipating the coming Messiah who would reign over the earth. It is God’s decree affirming the king’s special status: “You are my son,” the Son of God.
This is the first thing Jesus would have heard in the voice from heaven: this baptism was his anointing as Messianic King. God was doing for Jesus what he had done for all the kings of ancient Israel, what he was to do for the promised Messiah: declaring that this one was the rightful king of Israel, the one who would bring in God’s kingdom on earth.
But there’s another Scripture passage Jesus would also have heard in the voice from heaven: Isaiah 42. Isaiah 42 is one of four passages in Isaiah called the “Servant Songs,” because they speak of God’s “servant” who was to accomplish God’s purposes for Israel. The thing is, this “servant” accomplishes God’s purposes by suffering and even dying on behalf of God’s people—he is a “suffering servant” (Isa 42:1-4; 49:1-6; 50:4-9; 52:13-53:12).
The very first of these “Servant Songs” is Isaiah 42, and it opens with these words: “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.”
This is the second thing Jesus would have heard in the voice from heaven: this baptism was his appointment as Suffering Servant. And, as promised in Isaiah, the Spirit of God comes upon him—but as a dove, a symbol of humility, of peace, and like the dove of Noah’s ark fame, a sign of new creation.
Jesus had come to John to be baptized by him “to fulfill all righteousness,” Matthew’s Gospel says—in other words, to be a faithful Israelite, to fully identify with God’s people. But God had more in store for Jesus: at the moment of his baptism, God gave Jesus a vision of who Jesus truly was, what Jesus was called to do, and how much this would cost Jesus.
This was a very personal event for Jesus—none of the Gospels says others present saw or heard anything, only Jesus and John the Baptist. I actually think this vision was the first moment when Jesus had a real inkling as to what God wanted of him. And this is why the first Christians started their basic Gospel story of Jesus with this event: it’s the moment when Jesus gets his orders from heaven, it’s the moment when Jesus hears God say, “This is your mission, should you choose to accept it.”
This is the moment in which Jesus is anointed by God to take up his calling to be the Messiah, to bring in God’s kingdom of justice and peace through his own self-giving, suffering love.
All that waiting—Israel longing for a Messiah, the world yearning for a Saviour, all creation groaning in anticipation of renewal and restoration.
All that waiting—and here comes the one everyone has been waiting for, bringing in God’s kingdom, bringing salvation from our sin, bringing new creation for all things.
All that waiting—yet the result is not what anyone expected, a King who would suffer in weakness, a Saviour who would die in humility, a Redeemer who would give himself to the uttermost in love.