Every now and then I’ll choose to follow the Revised Common Lectionary’s cycle of texts for my evening services (though, truth be told, using the lectionary “now and then,” rather than all the time, is rather like enrolling in an academic course and then dropping in on a class only when the mood suits you). I appreciate the way the lectionary strives to hold together threads of continuity that bind together the Psalms and the Gospels, the Old Testament and the New. This past week, as part of an ongoing reflection on the holiday of Epiphany, the account of Jesus’ baptism was paired with the Genesis 1 account of creation, with particular focus on the Trinitarian presence in the first few verses of that chapter, with the Father creating, the Spirit “hovering over the waters,” and the Son, “the Word,” being the agent by which creation is brought into existence. The more I reflected on this union of passages, though, I began to see more and more linkages between the two, to the point where it began to suggest a rather inspiring answer to a biblical question that I’ve never really seen answered to my full satisfaction.
That annoying little question is, “Why did Jesus get baptized?” In my evangelical tradition, I’ve heard a number of answers thrown out—“He was using it as a sign of radical, full-hearted commitment to God the Father,” or “He was using it as a way to mark the beginning of his ministry,” or “He wanted to be a model of baptism for the generations of Christians to come.” There is, likely, some truth to all of these propositions, but it still doesn’t really break through the dissonance of this act, which John the Baptist sees as glaringly obvious: “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” (Matt. 3:14) The inherent problem in this situation is that John was clearly preaching and practicing a baptism of repentance—that is, the act of baptism signified a turning away from one’s sins and toward God, and the symbolism of the water was to denote the way in which God would honor such repentance by washing us clean of our sins. Jesus, according to orthodox Christian theology, had no sins from which to repent, so it was exceedingly odd that he would choose John’s baptism as the marker for the beginning of his ministry. And it doesn’t just seem odd to us; it clearly seemed odd to John the Baptist as well. Jesus’ answer, which appears rather vague, doesn’t offer much explanatory power at first glance: “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” What could this mean? Was Jesus saying that he was in need or righteousness, or that the act of his baptism would somehow bring righteousness to something else?
One thing that’s worth pointing out at the very beginning is that Matthew (who gives us our most extensive account of Jesus’ baptism, being the only Gospel that mentions this dialogue between Jesus and John) often chooses to depict the acts of Jesus as enacted fulfillments of Old Testament stories, in order to show that the whole plan of God, from the beginning of the world until that moment, was being summed up entirely in the person of Jesus Christ. Thus, for instance, Matthew shows Jesus fleeing to Egypt and then returning, just as the ancient Israelites did between Jacob’s time and Moses’; and he portrays Jesus as “the new lawgiver,” surpassing Moses in his Sermon on the Mount. So when Matthew records Jesus saying “it is proper for us to fulfill…”, it’s worth noting that Matthew only ever uses the word “fulfill” when he is specifically noting an aspect of the Old Testament that is being fulfilled in Christ. (“Fulfill” is a word he uses a fifteen times—a fairly high count for a single verb in a single book of the Bible; the only other time English translations of Matthew might use “fulfill” in reference to something other than the OT is Matt. 5:33, but in that case it’s an entirely different Greek verb that is used). So, since Matthew appears to be viewing the baptism as a fulfillment of something from the Old Testament, the next question is, What? The answer to this is probably twofold. One aspect of fulfillment can be seen merely in the structure of Matthew’s narrative. The immediately previous story about Jesus (Matt. 3:19-23) showed him going down and sojourning in Egypt, and the immediately following story (Matt. 4:1-11) shows Jesus spending forty days in the desert. So, what story in the Old Testament fits between the sojourn in Egypt and the wanderings in the desert? The answer is: the Israelites crossing through the Red Sea. It is likely that when Matthew presents the story of Jesus’ baptism, he sees it (at least in part) as a recapitulation and fulfillment of Israel’s experience of God’s salvation in the waters of the Red Sea.
But that’s not all. I’m actually going to suggest that that story, though probably in Matthew’s mind, isn’t the primary one being referred to here. To press on, we need to understand the meaning of Jesus’ quote: “it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” We’ve seen that “fulfill” likely signifies a nod to an Old Testament reference, but what is meant by “all righteousness”? We tend to think of “righteousness” in terms of individual moral purity, and thus Jesus’ quote becomes even stranger, because then his reference to “righteousness” would have to be referring to his own condition; but we know that Jesus was not in need of any further righteousness than he already had. The problem is that we’re not quite reading that word, “righteousness,” correctly. In Greek, as in Hebrew, it has a broader and deeper scope than its English parallel. The Greek term is the same as the one used for “justice,” and includes the idea not just of individual moral righteousness, but of all-encompassing “right-ness” in oneself, or in a whole society, or in the totality of creation. When used in Scripture, “righteousness” may not have in view just the individual believer’s moral status, but rather the work of God in “making things right” in a whole society or in the whole world. The clue in the Matt. 3:15 text is probably that Jesus says “all righteousness.” That is to say, Jesus might just be referring to “making things right” not just in himself or in that one spot, but everywhere and for all things. “All righteousness” might be a reference to God’s plan to restore everything in the created order, to make right what had gone wrong in creation. If that’s the case, then the Old Testament text which is fulfilled in Jesus’ baptism would have to be the very act of creation itself, from Genesis 1.
Let’s see if this holds up. We can note a number of similarities right off the bat. First, it should be clear that both the creation and baptism accounts are theophanies of the whole Trinity working in concert. Second, the way the Father and the Holy Spirit are shown working is similar in both cases. In Genesis, God the Father is not portrayed spatially (that is, in reference to a place), but the story seems to assume that when he is speaking creation into existence, he is in that place-beyond-all-places where he resides, and which the New Testament usually refers to by the non-spatial sense of the term “heaven.” Likewise, God the Father is portrayed as speaking from heaven at Jesus’ baptism. The earth below is represented in both accounts by the symbol of water (in Gen. 1:2, “the deep,” or “the waters,” and in Matt. 3:16, the water of the Jordan River). In both accounts, we have the presence of the Holy Spirit, described in some manner of flying-motion above the waters (in Genesis, the Spirit of God hovers over the waters; in Matthew, the Spirit descends upon Jesus in the form of a dove when he comes up from the water).
But the parallels don’t just stop there, or else one might be tempted to call it a coincidence. No, in the Matthew account God is quoted as speaking forth the two parts of the divine post-creation assessment which are repeatedly portrayed in Genesis 1: identification and affirmation. In most cases, after God had created some element of the physical world, he would identify it (i.e., “God called the light ‘day,’ and the darkness he called ‘night’) and then there would be an affirmation (“and God saw that it was good”). Similarly, these are the two things that God the Father does at Jesus’ baptism: first he identifies (“This is my beloved son”), and then he affirms (“with him I am well pleased”).
The other clue that Matthew has the moment of creation in mind when he describes Jesus’ baptism is that he has Jesus instruct John to baptize him by using a fairly gentle form of command: “Let it be so.” The Greek here is an imperative form of a word that can mean many things, but here probably means “permit.” Jesus says to John, “Permit it,” a word-choice that invites consent and participation. Conceivably, Jesus could have used a stronger word, since John clearly recognizes Jesus’ greater authority; he could have simply said to John, “Do it now.” The fact that he uses a word that invites John’s consent and participation calls to mind the way that God speaks in the act of creation: instead of shouting out into the nothingness like a divine dictator, “Be!”, he chooses a way of commanding creation that carries more of a gentle quality, an invitation for creation itself to respond to him in its moment of becoming: “Let there be…”
With all these pieces lined up, then, it appears that Matthew might indeed have had the creation account in mind when he showed us Jesus’ baptism (in addition to the parallel of Israel crossing the Red Sea). If so, then the baptism of Jesus is a re-enactment of the moment of creation. It is the divine announcement of the New Creation, begun in Christ. The new creation, God’s great work of setting all things right through Christ, begins with the re-creation of a new humanity in Christ, and through his death and resurrection we too can join this new humanity, this new creation of God, which ultimately will encompass and renew the entire created order when Christ comes again. Seen in this light, Christ’s baptism may not be the head-scratching puzzle that John the Baptist took it to be; it might very well be the public proclamation that God was beginning his great work of calling into being the new creation in the person of Jesus Christ.