The baptism of Jesus, the epiphany and the wedding feast at Cana form in the church’s liturgy a triptych of public manifestations of Jesus. Though the word baptism suggests a ritual, the main themes of the readings are God’s commissioning and manifestation of the one who will establish justice upon the earth (Is. 42:4).
The reading from Isaiah is the first of the four great Servant Songs (Is. 42:1-4; 49:1-6; 50:4-9; 52:13-53:12), which describe a figure chosen by God to proclaim justice through tenderness rather than force, and who will ultimately be lifted up not in triumph but in shame and disgrace and give his life as an offering for sin (Is. 53:12). Though Old Testament scholars debate the identity of the servantperhaps a prophet, a symbol of the suffering people, or a hoped-for royal figurethe application of these texts to Jesus forms one of the oldest theologies found in the New Testament.
The baptism of Jesus has distinctive characteristics in Matthew. Only Matthew recounts John’s resistance, I need to be baptized by you. This reflects the growing concern of Matthew’s community to exalt Jesus over John (see 11:10-15), as well as to clarify that John’s baptism was for sinners, to symbolize repentance. Jesus states that his baptism is to fulfill all righteousness, which is somewhat of an exegetical puzzle. Righteousness scarcely means observance of the Torah, since the Torah contains no prescript on baptism. A better translation would be to bring to fullness all justice, which would envision Jesus as continuing the mission of the servant (see Mt. 15:11-21). Jesus is one who begins to show the way in which men and women will be made right or just before God and with fellow humans. This initial public appearance of Jesus prepares for the final heavenly assize, when people will be called just or unjust on the basis of their care of the suffering and marginal of the world (Mt. 25:31-46).
Matthew emphasizes that in Jesus a new communication is opened between God and men and women. The heavens open, the Spirit descends like a dove hovering over the earth (recalling Gen. 1:2), and a voice from heaven resonant of the creative word in Genesis proclaims, This is my beloved Son. In Mark and Luke the voice proclaims, You are my beloved Son. Matthew alone stresses the public character of the baptism. In this way a Markan adoption is turned into an inaugural commissioning.
In light of Jesus’ final mandate to his disciples to baptize all nations, early Christian interpreters quickly came to view Jesus’ baptism as prefiguring their own baptism. Today we should recall that baptism is both adoption into the very life of God and a mission to proclaim justice in the land, to be a light for the nations, open the eyes of the blind and free prisoners from their dungeons (Is. 42:7). What an awesome task for a little baby. But it is not really for him or her; it is rather for those who bring the child to baptism and are commissioned to renew their life of faith and form their beloved son and daughter, so that they too may work to bring justice to its fullness.