Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. 14John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’15But Jesus answered him, ‘Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness.’ Then he consented.
16And 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. 17And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’
Translation: Then comes Jesus from Galilee to the Jordan to John to be baptized under him, but he forbade him, saying, "I have need to be baptized by you, and you come to me?" But Jesus answered and said to him, "Let it be so for now, for in this manner it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness." Then he let it be.
And, having been baptized, Jesus immediately was raised from the water, and behold! the heavens were opened and he saw the spirit of God coming down like a dove, coming upon him. And behold! a voice out of heaven says, "This one is my son, the beloved, in whom I am well pleased."
Background and situation: Our lection contains the first utterance of Jesus in Matthew's gospel. First remarks are telling in all four gospels.
In Mark, Jesus' first words are, "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near. Repent, and believe in the good news." Put another way: "The kairotic moment is now, God's reign is here, turn around your lives, trust the gospel"--all major themes of Mark's gospel.
In Luke, Jesus first words are to read from the prophet Isaiah:
‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
19to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’
This fits well with Lukan themes such as an emphasis on the Holy Spirit, the prophetic mission of Jesus, help for the poor, healing as a sign of the kingdom, freedom from political oppression, and the connection of Jesus to the Jubilee year. (The Jubilee year--"the year of the Lord's favor"--was to be marked by the cancellation of debt and return of property to its original owner. In his version of the Lord's Prayer, Luke has "debts," and he means money.)
In the fourth gospel, Jesus' first words are addressed to two disciples who were following him. He says, "What are you looking for?" This is evocative of the first words of God--"Where are you?"--spoken to Adam and Eve in Genesis. There are several such connections with Genesis in John's gospel. The soaring introduction (1: 1-14) recalls the beginning of Genesis, as does Jesus' resurrection in a garden.
Matthew's agenda is different. The first words of Jesus in Matthew are: "Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness." The first phrase is aphes arti. Aphes, of course, is also translated as "release" or "forgive." (Aphes will be used a lot in Matthew's gospel.)
The issue of the Baptist: The "for now" part is how Matthew handles the issue of John the Baptist. The baptism of Jesus by John was a bit of an issue in the early church. You can tell by the squeamishness with which the story is told in all four gospels. Mark relates the actual baptism in the passive voice, and puts the focus squarely on the voice from heaven, as does Matthew.
Matthew adds to Mark the dialog in which John tries to talk Jesus out of being baptized by him. Luke says only that Jesus was baptized, but doesn't mention that it was John who did the baptism. (In the verse just prior to the baptism in Luke's gospel, John is in prison!) The fourth gospel doesn't mention the baptism at all, only that the Spirit descended on Jesus like a dove.
John's baptism implied a hierarchical relationship. The baptizer is senior to the baptizee. John himself recognizes this in Matthew's gospel, and says that Jesus should instead baptize him. He should be subordinate to Jesus. Matthew drums this in with his use of the imperfect: "John kept preventing him." (Thus, we have somewhat of a theological Alphonse and Gaston routine: "You first." "No, you first.")
John is right, of course. Baptism was for sinners (3:6). If that's so, what's Jesus doing here? What John needs is to be baptized by Jesus--"with the Holy Spirit and with fire" (3:11)--not for Jesus to baptized, "confessing (his) sins."
John is right about that, but misunderstands the nature of God's mission. God's reign will not be about John's fiery images of judgment for sinners, but rather God's "full immersion" into the trials and tribulations of his people.
The baptism of Jesus: Jesus' entry into the river recalls the Hebrew peoples' entrance into the Promised Land. In solidarity with them, Jesus stands in line with sinners. Jesus' mission will not be punishment of sinners, but identification with sinners.
This should be considered: John's request that Jesus baptize him would have been to affirm hierarchical relationships, the senior partner initiating the junior one. Hierarchical relationships are all upended in the new reign of God. "The last shall be first," after all, "and the first shall be last" (20:16). Jesus' solidarity with sinners is, in God's upside-down way, the superior position.
But release it, Jesus says. "Let it go for now." (John then "let it go"--aphes, again.) Why? Because "it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness." (Note the "for us." Jesus sees John as a partner in this enterprise, neither a superior nor an inferior.)
Righteousness is a key theme throughout Matthew's gospel. In Jesus' first quoted utterance, Matthew puts the word right on Jesus' lips--"fulfill all righteousness." "Fulfill"--pleroma--is a word Matthew often associates with the prophets. "All righteousness"--the totality of it--is Jesus' solidarity with sinners, and in service to them. As Jesus will explain later (20:28):
‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. 26It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, 27and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; 28just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.’
The actual baptism of Jesus is described briefly and, as in Mark, in the passive voice. "Having been baptized, Jesus immediately ascended from the water," recalling both resurrection and the creation of the world. He is the "new creation."
Then follow two "behold" statements--idou--unfortunately not translated in the New Revised Standard Version, which translates idou with the rather lame "see." (Which is better? The emphatic "Behold! I bring you good tidings of great joy!" Or, "See, I bring you good tidings of great joy.")
Matthew uses idou to announce something important. "Behold! The heavens were opened." This is a moment of special revelation. The abyss between heaven and earth is traversed. "And the spirit of God descended like a dove on him."
Said the prophet Isaiah, "Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down" (64:1) In continuity with the vision of Isaiah, God does come down, all the way down into the muck and mire of human existance. Moreover, God comes down not with John's fire, but as a dove, with peace.
Then another "Behold!" "A voice out of heaven saying, 'This one is my son, the beloved, in whom I am well pleased." God is saying that Jesus is the expression--the earthly issue--of God's very self. God is not saying anything about trinitarian theology, a subject which, if we go by the scriptures, does not interest God all that much. God is putting the imprimatur on Jesus. In the way of Jesus, in his service on behalf of sinners, in his identification with sinners, we see the expressed desire of God himself.