At that time Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan River so that John would baptize him. John tried to stop him and said, “I need to be baptized by you, yet you come to me?”
Jesus answered, “Allow me to be baptized now. This is necessary to fulfill all righteousness.”
So John agreed to baptize Jesus. When Jesus was baptized, he immediately came up out of the water. Heaven was opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God coming down like a dove and resting on him. A voice from heaven said, “This is my Son whom I dearly love; I find happiness in him.”
“Why was Jesus baptized?” The question hung in the air. My Sunday School teacher looked around the room. None of us had an answer.
“The answer’s in the text,” he said. “The answer is, ‘to fulfill all righteousness’.”
Someone asked, “What does that mean?”
He said something about fulfilling all the requirements of the Law of Moses. Even then, I thought that didn’t make much sense. I mean, in our tradition, one was baptized for either joining our local church, re-dedicating one’s life to Jesus, or as the “next step” after one was “saved.”
And that was the problem. I was trying to understand Jesus’ baptism from my religious tradition. And we weren’t practicing baptism properly. Furthermore, my Sunday School teacher’s answer wasn’t right, either. The average person didn’t need to be baptised to fulfill the Law of Moses. So the question comes full circle: Why was Jesus baptized? And how did his baptism “fulfill all righteousness?” Let’s address these in reverse order.
The Greek word for “righteousness” is δικαιοσύνη (dikaiosuné) and is best understood as “justice.” It comes from the idea that someone has been before a judge, evidence has been presented, and the judge gives the judicial verdict. Justice has been served. Furthermore, it developed into the idea that Yahweh as the ultimate Judge and the one declared “just” was approved by Yahweh. The question, then, is how did Jesus’ baptism fulfill justice?
Many years ago, I was told a story that during Yom Kippur, the high priest would enter the holy of holies to offer the sacrifice to Yahweh for the sins of the people that had accumulated the previous year. To do this, the high priest would disrobe, bathe in the “holy water,” the put on the linen garments that had been set aside for this holy day. Once the sacrifice was made, the priest would reverse the process and return to the people.
Now, I don’t know how much of that is true, since I can’t seem to find any reference to it anywhere. But, if it is, then Jesus baptism could be viewed as his ordination into the priesthood.
My own take on it goes something like this: John’s baptism was for repentance; for preparing oneself for the coming of Yahweh. If we see Jesus’ baptism as following suit, that is, as a baptism of repentance, I think it fits quite nicely into the narrative.
As we know, repentance means to turn from ones own way of doing things and submitting to G_d’s way of doing things. If we see Jesus, at this point, fully submitting to G_d’s will and leaving behind his own way of doing things, then John’s baptism makes sense. I could see Jesus struggling with his calling, not wanting to walk the road he sees ahead of him, of looking for a different way. But, finally realizing that this is what G_d has called him to, he submits to it.
I know exactly how that feels. When I first felt G_d calling me to the priesthood, I ran and fought it for a long time. I always thought that running from G_d meant that one got into sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll. That’s not necessarily the case. Like me, one can just not surrender to the calling. One can just continue doing one’s own thing and turn a blind eye to what one knows to be true.
That’s how I see Jesus life leading up to his baptism. He was searching for a different vocation, one that wouldn’t lead to the cross. But, finally, after his own struggles, he decides to quit running and submit to G_d’s will for his life — G_d wants him to be a new kind of Priest for a new kind of Realm. So, putting aside his own wants and desires, Jesus comes to John for baptism.
And then comes Jesus’ ordination, the anointing from G_d — the Holy Spirit descends like a dove and G_d’s presence rests on him. People all around hear a voice say that Jesus is loved and G_d finds happiness in him.
And his ministry truly begins.
In the Love of the Three in One,
Br. Jack+, LC