God’s Righteousness Revealed: A Reflection on the Baptism of Christ

Today is the first Sunday after Epiphany, which means for us in the liturgical West that we commemorate the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River. In the East, this is the story associated with the feast of Epiphany itself. It would seem that in the early Church, it all started as a general ‘festival of lights’, celebrating the lengthening days by remembering all of the ways God has revealed Godself in the world, especially in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Over the decades and centuries, different aspects of this revelation got spun off into their own commemorations — the nativity, the visitation of the Magi, the naming of Christ, the baptism of Christ and so on — throughout the couple of weeks following the solstice. How interesting you find this history will vary, but the point is that when we think of these different commemorations, we should see them as parts of a whole, telling a larger story of God’s revelation. And so today I’d like to think through the story of the baptism of Jesus through this lens of what it is revealing to us about God.

In Matthew’s Gospel, the story takes up only five verses. It begins with an argument between John the Baptist and Jesus about whether it’s appropriate for Jesus to be baptized at all. Jesus insists, saying it must be done “to fulfill all righteousness” (that word that can equally be translated as ‘justice’). It’s a curious exchange that has prompted a lot of discussion and debate over the centuries.

What does Jesus being baptized have to do with God’s justice?

Some answers have been richly symbolic: Jesus the Word of God descending into the waters as a second creation, mirroring the Word of God’s activity over the primordial waters in the creation story, for example; or, Jesus as the second Joshua (the name Jesus is derived from the Greek form of Joshua) crossing the Jordan River to save God’s people, just as the first Joshua led the people across the Jordan River into the promised land. Other explanations have been more down to earth, focusing on Jesus honouring the authority of his cousin’s ministry as the pinnacle of the Covenant with Moses, or as a revelation of God’s humility.

As the story goes on, John relents and baptizes Jesus. As he comes out of the water, suddenly the skies are broken and the Holy Spirit descends upon Jesus as a voice from heaven proclaims, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” This is why in the Eastern Orthodox Church, they see the revelation of God in this story as primarily the revelation of the Trinity, with the Father publicly acknowledging and the Spirit anointing the Son in the person of Jesus. This has also been suggested as what Jesus could have meant by fulfilling righteousness or justice: The life of the Trinity as full and perfect loving communion as a revelation of what God’s justice looks like. I actually quite like this idea, but it has a side-effect of making justice so idealized as to make it almost meaningless for our actual day-to-day lives.

Our lectionary leads us in a different direction for understanding what Jesus’ baptism has to do with God’s justice. It pairs the story today with two other readings that revolve around the idea of justice or righteousness. What might they add to the mix?

The reading from the prophets is from Isaiah 42, which we looked at briefly towards the end of Advent. It begins with these words that resonate strongly with the story of Jesus’ baptism: 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. The wording isn’t exact, but the parallels are striking:

  • the Chosen Servant is parallel to the Beloved Son;
  • whom I uphold’ is a public recognition akin to God’s voice recognizing Jesus;
  • in whom my soul delights’ is synonymous ‘with whom I am well pleased‘;
  • the Spirit anoints both figures; and
  • the Isaiah figure will ‘bring forth justice’, as Jesus hopes to ‘fulfill all justice.

And so the pairing of Isaiah 42 with the baptism story invites us to read Jesus through the rest of the oracle, which describes what this upholding of justice looks like. I described it the other week as a kind of ‘anti-king’, someone who leads by embodying the opposite qualities of ‘how the world works’:

He will not shout or cry out,
or raise his voice in the streets.
A bruised reed he will not break,
and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.
In faithfulness he will bring forth justice;
he will not falter or be discouraged till he establishes justice on earth.
In his teaching the islands will put their hope.
This is what God the Lord says— the Creator of the heavens,
who stretches them out, who spreads out the earth with all that springs from it,
who gives breath to its people, and life to those who walk on it:
“I, the Lord, have called you in righteousness;
I will take hold of your hand.
I will keep you and will make you to be a covenant for the people and a light for the Gentiles,
to open eyes that are blind,
to free captives from prison
and to release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness. (Isaiah 42.2-7)

This Servant embraces silence and vulnerability. He refuses to crush those weaker than himself. He perseveres in working justice in the world. The oracle ends with a short preview of Isaiah 61, which in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus embraces as his manifesto or marching orders: “to open eyes that are blind, to free captives from prison and to release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness.”

If we follow this idea, then Jesus’ baptism ‘fulfills all righteousness’ by being the moment at which his identity as the Servant of the LORD, who suffers for the sake of justice, is crystallized. In this moment Jesus takes on the mantle of this prophetic figure and the weight of all the expectation and hope that went along with it.

The other reading appointed for the day is part of the larger narrative of Peter and Cornelius from Acts 10-11. The story is essentially about God changing Peter’s mind and opening his eyes to a new way of understanding faithfulness and righteousness — one apart from the Law of Moses that welcomes non-Jews into God’s people without requiring them to become Jewish. The climax of the story has Peter proclaim: “I now realize the truth that God does not show favoritism, but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and works justice” (Acts 10.34-35).

The pairing of this text with Jesus’ baptism offers us a different way of looking at how God — and God’s righteousness — is revealed here. Whereas Isaiah focuses on the particularity of the Servant and his mission, Acts focuses on how this mission is also for everyone who wants to be faithful to God. The baptism of Jesus identifies him as God’s beloved and chosen Son, but the Scriptures make it clear that we too are God’s beloved and chosen children in Jesus. To put it in the symbolic language of this Epiphany season, Jesus is the Light of the World, but we too are called to be light in the world, lamps not hidden but shining out in the darkness. Jesus’ baptism therefore prefigures our own baptism, the symbol of our adoption into God’s household. And this in turn means that, by that beautiful ancient rule of faith that we become by grace all that Jesus is by nature, his mission is our mission. And it is this more than anything else that marks us as being faithful.

So what we have here is a multifaceted symbol. Jesus’ baptism means many things. But today’s readings invite us to remember and appropriate for ourselves the wonderful double truth that Jesus is uniquely God’s Son and Servant who works tirelessly for justice in the world, and that those of us who are ‘in him’ are also God’s children and servants who are also called to work tirelessly for justice in the world. And it is in this way that all righteousness is fulfilled.

This is a big calling. But as we brought to mind on Friday’s feast, the best way we can live out this big calling is by starting small, not being overwhelmed by the immensity of the challenge, but simply by doing something, anything, by taking one step, lighting that spark that can ignite a raging fire.

May we choose today, this week, and always to live as children of the light, God’s beloved, in Him who is our Light and Life. Amen.

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