Thoughts on the Baptism of Our Lord Jesus Christ 2017

Francesco Albani (1578-1660), Baptism of Christ (
Francesco Albani (1578-1660), Baptism of Christ

“Then,” Saint Matthew tells us—that is, while John the Baptist was preaching—“Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan.” Jesus comes with a purpose: “to be baptized by him”—and so Matthew prepares us for the conversation that follows. It begins with John’s demurral: “John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’” How can he, the mere forerunner, possibly baptize the One who is stronger than he, whose sandals he is not worthy to carry?

But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.”

Our Lord’s response is striking in at least two ways. First, because in Matthew’s gospel it’s the first thing Jesus says, and second because it’s unique to Matthew. All our other accounts of Jesus’ baptism tell the story without this conversation. Neither of those facts, however, means that Our Lord’s words are easy to understand. And as you’ll see if you look at any major commentary on Matthew, interpreters have been arguing about what they mean for more or less the whole history of Christianity.

This in itself may be a useful lesson for us. The fathers of the reformation used to say that the Scriptures had perspicuitas, or “clarity”: by which, at least when they were at their best, they did not mean that the Scriptures were easy, nor even that they always made sense to us, but that the effort to understand them, undertaken so far as one could in communion with the church and in faithfulness to her teaching, would always bear good fruit.

So then, in this second Sunday of the year of our Lord 2017, we take our own little shot at understanding.  “It is proper,” Our Lord says, that “in this way”—that is, by accepting John’s Baptism—he should “fulfill all righteousness.” What, then, is “righteousness”—or, more precisely, “all righteousness”?  We are to understand, I suggest, that whole area of justice and loyalty to one’s covenant obligation that is covered in the Old Testament by the Hebrew word tzadiq, a word that our English versions generally translate as “righteousness,” and which is used to refer to two different, though evidently related, things:

First, it is used of “God’s righteousness,” that is, the norm of God’s faithful behavior towards God’s creation, toward humankind and among humankind particularly toward those called to be God’s people.

Second, and as a result of that (since justice and loyalty are naturally reciprocal: you can’t be just or loyal alone) it is used of the proper norm for our conduct in response to God: our “righteousness,” that norm of human behavior which the prophet Micah summarized in simple practical terms as “to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8).

What then does it mean that Jesus will “fulfill” this “righteousness”? —indeed, that he will, according to our text, “fulfill all righteousness”? The word “fulfill” (Greek: plēroō) is clearly special for Matthew. In connection with the actions of disciples, he uses other words, such as to “do” God’s will, or to “keep” the commandments. The word “fulfill” he reserves for Jesus alone: and surely we aren’t wrong, given this signal, to look ahead to Our Lord’s words in the Sermon on the Mount—words again that are to be found only in Matthew: “I have not come to destroy the Law and the Prophets, but to fulfill” (5.17), and also to bear in mind those several occasions when the evangelist speaks of a word or event in connection with our Lord as “fulfilling” Scripture (1.22, 2.15, 2.17, 2.23, 4.14, 8.17, 12.17, 13.35, 21.4, 26.56, 27.9)—using, again, the same word, plēroō.

So just how does Jesus’ accepting John the Baptist’s baptism—“a baptism of repentance,” even though Matthew clearly understands that Jesus in himself has nothing to repent—how does that “fulfill all righteousness”? It does so because undergoing the baptism of repentance joins Jesus with those who do have to repent—which is to say, it joins him with humanity, with us. Of course the baptism is not in itself “all righteousness.” But it is a part of that righteousness: a sign that Jesus is, to use another phrase about him that is, in this sense, unique to Matthew, Immanuel, “God with us.”

And God greets that sign, says the Evangelist, with a sign: “when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him.” Just as the Spirit of God brooded like a dove over the face of the waters in the Genesis creation story, so the Spirit of God broods over Jesus in this union of God with us which is, as Saint Paul will later put it, “a new creation” (2 Cor. 5.17, Gal. 6.15), an act of God as wonderful and mighty, in its own way, as the first.

But at what cost?

And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

In Greek these are the very words with which, in the Greek Old Testament, Abraham was told to take his beloved son Abraham and lay him upon the altar and kill him (LXX Gen. 22.2, 16). They are the words, again, that God will speak from heaven on the Mount of Transfiguration, as Our Lord is about to set his face to go to Jerusalem and death (Matt. 17.5). And finally “God’s son” is the title that will be attested as Jesus’ own on Calvary, on this occasion not from heaven, but by none other than the pagan soldier who has just crucified him, whose conversion through the cross will stand as first fruit of the gentiles (Matt. 27.54). That is how, being united with us even unto death on a cross, our Lord will finally “fulfill all righteousness.”

And what is that to us? A millennium or so before Our Lord was born at Bethlehem, King David sang, “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me.” Two millennia or so after, Austin Miles the Protestant hymn writer sang, “for he walks with me and he talks with me.”[1] Matthew’s portrait of Our Lord as Immanuel, God with us, is a declaration that both David and Austin Miles were right, that God chooses in Christ to be united with us in life and even in death. And of that faithful union of God with God’s people and God’s creation, our Lord’s uniting himself with Israel in its “baptism of repentance” was a sign: the sign that we celebrate today.

And now let us confess our faith…

[1] C. Austin Miles, “I come to the garden alone” (1913).

Christopher Bryan