Lectionary Guide: Epiphany 2024
January 7 | Baptism of the Lord | Year B
Genesis 1:1-5 | Psalm 29 | Mark 1:4-11
Summary of the Text
Paul in Ephesus: His Third Missionary Journey
This passage describes Paul’s arrival in Ephesus during his third missionary journey. He finds there some disciples who know only of John’s baptism, which continues a theme from the previous chapter of Acts.
At the end of chapter 18 we learned of the Ephesian ministry of the Alexandrian Jewish convert Apollos, whose understanding of baptism had been similarly lacking prior to his receiving further instruction from Priscilla and Aquila. Luke doesn’t express an explicit connection between the ministry of Apollos and the disciples Paul encounters (some scholars, like Joseph Fitzmyer, conclude that there is therefore no direct connection between the two, and F.F. Bruce notes that the error of these disciples seems to go beyond that of Apollos), but there is at the very least a thematic and regional link—there is something rotten in the Ephesian conception of Christian baptism.
“I planted,” Paul writes to the Corinthian church, “Apollos watered, but God gave the growth” (1 Cor. 3:6). In Ephesus the order seems to have been largely the reverse, but with the same principle: complementary ministries of the apostles—their labors neither in opposition to each other, nor individually sufficient and complete, and with God as the effective agent of growth.
Despite the manifest deficiency in Apollos’s teaching (regardless of whether he was directly responsible for the deficiency in the theology of the disciples in the Acts 19 passage), Paul does not malign his ministry. Nor does Luke dismiss him as a false apostle; he is described, rather, as “an eloquent man, well-versed in the scriptures,” who “spoke with burning enthusiasm and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus, though he knew only the baptism of John” (Acts 18:24-25). His limited knowledge does not hinder Paul’s subsequent work, but provides a seed that Paul can water.
John the Baptist’s own ministry, likewise, is described here not as being in conflict with that of Jesus (despite John’s limitations), but as preparing the way and pointing to the fulfillment that Christ will bring: “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, in Jesus.”
Paul’s Initiative in Spiritual Formation
Serious and faithful scholars have argued both for genuine Pauline authorship and for the pseudonymous authorship of a disciple of Paul’s. This issue need not take up much time in a sermon, as the theology expressed in the epistle is clearly consistent with that of the undisputed letters, though a decision should be made for the sake of having a consistent way of referring to the author.
The authorship question does gain some significance, however, if the preacher plans to elaborate on the prison context (this being one of the traditional “prison epistles”) or on the impact of Paul’s background as “a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews” (Phil. 3:5) on his special calling to the gentiles.
Many of us in the Church today have a habit of quickly writing off and separating ourselves from other believers with whom we may have even fairly minor doctrinal discrepancies. Should we baptize infants? How exactly is Christ present in the Eucharist? Should coffee be allowed in the sanctuary? In today’s passage we find a doctrinal error of major moment—“No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.”
Even if we fill in an assumed “…in relation to baptism,” or “…who has already arrived”—as would be logical to do for a group designated as “disciples”—we still have a significant theological problem here. Had this exchange happened in 2023 I might expect the apostle to respond, “Yikes—well, then, go on your heretical little way. I’m off to find some real Christians, or perhaps some unbelievers untainted by a corrupted gospel.” Yet Paul neither ignores their error nor writes them off. His model of loving correction isn’t always easy in practice, but it is the example he sets for us.
Getting Stuck in Repentance
Martin Luther famously opened his Ninety-Five Theses by stating that God “willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” In the context of calling the Church away from the practice of “doing penance” and back to a biblical conception of inner repentance and outward transformation, this emphasis was warranted. And many today have an inclination to avoid repentance of any sort, preferring the more affirming and uplifting aspects of the faith.
Yet we can also get “stuck” in repentance, struggling to experience forgiveness and freedom. “John baptized with the baptism of repentance,” Paul tells this group of Ephesian believers. But something essential was missing from their discipleship, as they failed to move past the limitations of “John’s baptism.”
We might note that repentance is itself a gift from God (see, for example, Acts 11:18), and the One who begins a good work in us is faithful to complete it (Philippians 1:6). So it is not as though these disciples are trudging along in a grace-less kind of self-flagellation. Rather, through ignorance, naïveté, willfulness, or other factors, they (and we) can impede the Spirit’s work of moving us through repentance to peace and purpose.
And Luther’s observation can remind us that these further gifts are not ours by our merit, but are always gifts that Christ grants us through this process of repentance.
The disciples Paul encounters in Ephesus clearly have a great deal of theological development and maturing to do before they approach an understanding of the faith that we would recognize as being orthodox. We must take care, however, to avoid thinking of them as therefore categorically different from ourselves in terms of their need for further growth.
Baptism into Christ and the Holy Spirit’s role in the Christian life are essential tenets of every variety of traditional Christianity, but even when we have all of these essentials in place it is not as though we are then “finished” in any sense. Both in the endeavor of “faith seeking understanding” and in being sanctified in the lived expression of our faith, we are also—like these disciples—always to be in the process of reformation.
“One Baptism for the Forgiveness of Sins”
My tradition (Reformed) especially emphasizes the unity of God’s purpose throughout the ages—that, in God’s eternal counsel, there is but one covenant of grace, and a single plan of salvation for all the elect. This passage provides rich opportunity to highlight this unity and continuity.
Paul establishes this theme right at the outset of the epistle, stating in 1:4 that God “chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love”—Paul is elaborating on a divine plan that has been in place since the very beginning.
This truth is emphasized in the present passage, assuring that the surprising, “mysterious” shift in the people’s understanding of God’s workings does not reflect a change in God’s perfect plan. So we read in v. 5 of a newly revealed mystery, but we are reminded in v. 9 that this mystery was “hidden for ages in God, who created all things.”
And we learn of the extension of God’s call to gentiles, who “have become fellow heirs” (v. 6), but we are assured in v. 11 that this expansion was no ‘Plan B,’ but “was in accordance with the eternal purpose that [God] has carried out in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
One God in Three Persons
It is worth noting that when these disciples are baptized in the name of Jesus, the Holy Spirit comes upon them. Since the baptismal ignorance of these disciples concerns the Spirit, we might expect for the new, revised, standard baptism in verse 5 to be “in the Holy Spirit.” But instead we find them being baptized “in the name of the Lord Jesus,” which leads, with the laying on of hands, to the coming of the Spirit. The preacher can use this combination of names to comment on the distinction of divine Persons and the unity of the divine Substance.
empowered for service
The “roughly” twelve men who are baptized into Christ’s name (the imprecision has always amused me, as it would seem to be a small enough group to get an accurate count) immediately speak in tongues and prophesy once the Holy Spirit comes upon them. Some traditions interpret these as the definitive signs of Spirit baptism, though there are strong reasons to read this as a description of their experience more than as a prescription for what the experience should look like for all (consider, for example, the diverse forms that spiritual gifting takes in Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12). What is clear, though, is that with the Spirit comes the power of God, and the equipment to carry out whatever mission God gives to those who receive the Spirit.
“As long as he does not convert it into action, it does not matter how much he thinks about this new repentance. Let the little brute wallow in it. Let him, if he has any bent that way, write a book about it; that is often an excellent way of sterilizing the seeds which the Enemy [i.e. God] plants in a human soul. Let him do anything but act. No amount of piety in his imagination and affections will harm us if we can keep it out of his will…The more often he feels without acting, the less he will be able ever to act, and, in the long run, the less he will be able to feel.”
—C.S. Lewis; as Screwtape, in The Screwtape Letters, Letter 13
A TV reporter became interested in the Apollo trips to the moon—what did they talk about? He was surprised to find how much conversation was devoted to course corrections. Apparently, the lunar spacecraft was off course something like 85% of the time. When I asked a friend who was heavily involved in the Apollo missions if this was true, he told me it was. Once leaving the earth’s orbit, because of limitations of fuel, the spacecraft mostly drifted, unpropelled to the moon. But occasionally, small retro-rockets were fired to correct the course. It’s not a bad description of the Christian walk.
- Do you tend more to avoid repentance or get stuck in it? If there were two Christians (or Christian traditions) on opposite ends of this spectrum how might they help each other to have a more biblical experience of repentance?
- How do you generally regard other ministers who might have different gifts from you? Do you find ways that your gifts can complement each other? Do you see them as threats to your own ministry? As impediments? (for laypersons, consider other laypersons engaged in similar lay ministries)
- Do you find it harder to give or to receive correction? How can one best adopt a receptive position
- When might “rebaptism” be necessary in your Christian tradition? What other options are available to you when rebaptism is not an option but someone returning to the faith needs a strong “reset”?
- Do you find it difficult to take the initiative in aiding in another’s spiritual formation? Do you feel as though you need to be asked or given permission to initiate this type of conversation? How can one avoid being meddlesome or abrasive in engaging in these conversations?
Call to Worship
Inspired by Psalm 29, Mark 1:11, Isaiah 43:1
The voice of the Lord is upon the waters,
And in the temple God’s people say: Glory!
The heavens opened, the Spirit descended,
And a voice sounded: Your are my Beloved Son.
Do not fear, for the Lord has spoken:
I have called you by your name, you are mine.
—Austin D. Hill
God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – You know what it’s like to be many and one at the same time.
In You, we too are many … yet one.
You’ve made us one body—a single family unified for one purpose; with one baptism—giving us a single identity.
You’ve given us one Spirit—Your Spirit; and one hope—in the same future.
And, with one faith we trust You for our salvation, our one Lord, Jesus Christ.
Prayer of Confession
O Father of all creation, who hovered over the deep at the beginning, who spoke light into darkness, who split the heavens open and descended upon the Son of God in the waters of the Jordan, who created us in his image, who declared that each one us is fearfully and wonderfully made; we have forgotten. We have forgotten who we are. Our identity as beloved children has been obscured by a multitude of wrong-doing and wrong-thinking. We have exchanged the truth for a lie. Nevertheless, you have not forgotten us. You have cued up in the baptismal line yourself and entered into the waters with us, to show us our true humanity, our true identity. Forgive us, we pray for our forgetfulness of who we are. Let us not forget our own baptism and that which it signifies. Cleanse us by the power of your Spirit so that we may once again walk in the understanding of that truth.
“Even now,” declares the LORD, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning.” Rend your heart and not your garments. Return to the LORD your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents from sending calamity. (NIV)
Psalm 116:5 and Colossians 1:13 & 14
The Lord is gracious and righteous. Our God is merciful. He has delivered us out of the power of darkness, and translated us into the Kingdom of the Son of his love, in whom we have our redemption, the forgiveness of our sins.
In Christ we are forgiven!
(WEB, adapted for liturgical use)
Seven Sacraments: Baptism by Nicolas Poussin, abt. 1641-1642. The National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C..
John the Baptist pours water over Jesus, with the dove symbolizing the Holy Spirit above. Others prepare to be baptized. Public domain, via Art & the Bible.
More Quotes: Baptism of the Lord
Baptism of the Lord
Darren Pollock is Pastor of Panorama Presbyterian Church (PCUSA) and Adjunct Assistant Professor of Church History at Fuller Seminary. A graduate of UC Davis (BA in classics), Princeton Seminary (MDiv), and Calvin Seminary (PhD in historical theology), he lives in Temple City, CA, with his wife Ashley, two young children Charlie and Carter, and step-cat Fanny.
Darren is the author of Early Stuart Polemical Hermeneutics: Andrew Willet’s 1611 Hexapla on Romans (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2017). He has also been published in Jonathan Edwards Studies, Anglican & Episcopal History, and Word & World, and he contributed multiple entries to The Jonathan Edwards Encyclopedia (Eerdmans, 2017).
After Christ and his family, Darren most loves crossword puzzles and Scrabble, Zion National Park, good coffee, passion fruit, and the ascendant Sacramento Kings.