Jesus comes from Galilee, from relative safety, to John at the Jordan to be baptized by him. The one who is free of sin, the one for whom it is John’s whole mission to announce, comes to be baptized by John. We should not be surprised then that John recognizes it is he who should be baptized by Jesus.
Yet Jesus, speaking for the first time in Matthew’s gospel, tells John that he must undergo his baptism in order “to fulfill all righteousness.” Jesus, who is the very embodiment of justice, of the law, submits to the law so that we might see justice done. This gives us a foretaste of Jesus, who is life itself, submitting to death so that death may be conquered once and for all.
John consents and baptizes Jesus. The heavens open, and Jesus, like Israel coming through the sea, sees the Spirit descending like a dove and hears a voice declaring: “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” This is Jesus’s coronation. The Father anoints the Son to rule over the nations. Jesus is the son decreed in Ps. 2:7–9:
He said to me, “You are my son;
today I have begotten you.
Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage,
and the ends of the earth your possession.
You shall break them with a rod of iron,
and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.”
Jesus is unleashed into the world. His mission will not be easy, for the kingdom inaugurated by his life and death is not one that can be recognized on the world’s terms. He is the beloved Son who must undergo the terror produced by our presumption that we are our own creators.
He submits to John’s baptism just as he will submit to the crucifixion so that we might know how God would rule the world. His journey begins. Matthew would have us follow.