This encounter between John and Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel, is remarkable for many things about which we need to be alert and mindful as we read and hear the story of Jesus’ baptism.
In Matthew’s Gospel, the story of Jesus’ baptism marks the end of John the Baptiser’s story and we return to the story of Jesus as Messiah.
These five verses (Matt.3:13-17) provide the first words Jesus speaks in this Gospel.
We do not hear the explicit referencing of baptism concerning the forgiveness of sins but rather Matthew points us to the focus of Jesus’ baptism being obedience to fulfill ‘righteousness’.
And, we note, Jesus’ baptism confirms his identity and purpose, as we stand as witnesses to the coronation of the true king, the Messiah, God the Son.
The story of Jesus’ baptism introduces us to Jesus the adult for the first time. Jesus has come to meet his cousin John, at the banks of the River Jordan, to be baptised along with all the others who have made the journey and commitments. John has also been prophesying to the crowds about the coming of the Messiah, saying: (Matt. 3:11)
I baptise you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me;….he will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and with fire….
John’s understanding and acceptance of the role of the Messiah is clear and unequivocal. John immediately recognises Jesus, not simply as a relative already well known, but as someone far more important to him, to God and to the world; and his immediate instinct and response to Jesus’ presence and request is to refuse to baptise him and he questions the need for this ritual for Jesus, the Messiah.
Many Christians have wondered at Jesus’ insistence on being baptised when he patently didn’t need it as the divine Son of God. If Jesus was God the Son, why does he need a baptism of repentance and forgiveness? For each of us, if baptism is about death to the old life and rebirth into a new life in God, Jesus’ decision to be baptised is critical to his ministry as he shows us the way in loving righteousness.
Matthew’s explanation of the baptism also gives us a clearer understanding of Jesus’ true relationship with God as God the Son as well as true discipleship.
While John hesitates about baptising Jesus and Jesus explains, this dialogue occurs only in Matthew. In Mark and Luke there is no discussion. We are simply told Jesus came to the River Jordan and John baptised him. The other difference in these three Gospels, is the wording of God’s response.
In Matthew, God says publicly to all the people present and to Jesus and John: “This is my beloved Son.”
In Luke and Mark, God says: “You are my beloved Son.” And speaks to Jesus.
John sees the irony of the situation and when he questions the need for Jesus as the Messiah to be baptised, we recognise Jesus’ state of sinfulness needing absolution is not the reason for the objection, nor is it about their relationship. Jesus’ identity is central to the discussion. Jesus’ response is critical, it concerns the absolute commitment, diligence and desire to be obedient to serve God’s will, and this is what drenches and permeates the ritual of baptism.
There is an interesting word used by Matthew in the brief conversation between the two men. Jesus said:
Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness. Then he [John] consented. (Matt.3:15)
Righteousness means being in a ‘right and ethical relationship’ with God, obeying and doing God’s will. Jesus’ response to John’s genuine puzzlement and questioning, acknowledges John’s acceptance of Jesus as the Messiah, and also highlights Jesus as God the Son, humbly obeying the will of God.
This is a clear characteristic of Jesus, who he is and how he lives. Jesus the Messiah, God the Son, who always humbly obeys God. This is what God affirms and celebrates in the moment of baptism:
This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased. (Matt. 3:17)
As we reflect on our understanding of living in righteousness relationship with God, humility and humble living mean self-forgetfulness, no ego coming between us and God, no desire to control and shape our life except to trust and follow God. No putting aside ethical considerations in our relationship with God, which always comes first.
This is not something we do well as often we allow the voices and judgements of others to come between us and God and distort and diminish our trust. We seek approval from others before we think about God. We allow others to determine our decisions, our ethics, our way of living and the extent of our commitment to God, so we go this far and no further.
In grief and joy we can hear the voice of God declaring Jesus God’s Beloved Son.
Jesus’ baptism does what we do at each baptism and as we did last Sunday; we are named as God’s own. God has claimed us and all people as God’s beloved children.
In Matthew, the ordering of the events and the explicit statement and public declaration and revelation by God of Jesus’ identity occurs only after the baptism occurs.
Matthew consistently portrays Jesus as the humbly obedient Son of God, fulfilling God’s will. We relearn as disciples, humble obedience as critical to our way of living and expression of our faith.
The significance of Jesus’ baptism does not end with his obedience, it also serves as a sign as we understand more clearly the consecrating servant language of the relationship and anointing of Jesus by God’s Holy Spirit. We read earlier Isaiah (42:1):
Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness (Isaiah 42:6-7)
In his baptism, Jesus shows himself to be the one true king who represents God to humanity and humanity to God. He is invested with divine authority and power through the descent of the Holy Spirit and God’s proclamation to the whole world: ‘This is my Son, my Beloved…”
Jesus also embodies and represents lost humanity by taking on the human responsibility to repent and turn toward God in the face of the impending kingdom of Heaven. In his baptism by John, Jesus identifies himself with the human condition and represents them in a right relationship with God.
This baptism not only bestows upon Jesus the mark of divinity, but also highlights his self-emptying (kenosis) on behalf of humanity. His old life dies and he is reborn in God. Jesus is the king, the true and only mediator between God and humanity.
In Jesus Christ, God covenants, demonstrates and embodies God’s love for all humanity; and humanity responds in faith and repentance to God and with obedience. This is what makes Jesus the Messiah. This is what drives Jesus to the cross and the resurrection it accomplishes in love for all of humanity.
To each of us God is reaching out in God the Son, to say: ‘Listen! You too I have named ‘My Beloved’. I know your name. I knew you before you were born. I know the length and substance of your days and I will always be with you.’
In obedience and in love we give thanks to God, our Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier.
The Lord be with you.