Matthew 3:13-15

Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented.

There’s a certain awkwardness in Matthew’s telling of this story about John the Baptist and Jesus that he can’t quite hide. Actually, there’s an awkwardness in all the stories about John the Baptist and Jesus in the gospels.

The reason is pretty straightforward. Early Christians were uncomfortable with the idea that Jesus was baptized by John. To be baptized by someone was usually to acknowledge their authority and perhaps even to grant their superior position over you. And so early Christians wondered at – and were a little bothered by – the possibility that Jesus was baptized by John. Except that it wasn’t just a possibility — it was so clearly a part of the story handed down by eyewitnesses that it had to be acknowledged. And so each author deals with it in a particular way.

Mark, the earliest of the writers, seems least concerned, simply having John acknowledge that the one who comes after him is greater then he is. But as the tradition moves on, the discomfort grows. By the time we get to Matthew, probably written a decade or so later, he feels the need to elaborate, or perhaps embellish, the story by recording John’s dumbfounded protest: “I need to be baptized by you; and do you come to me?!?!” (Okay, so I added the extra punctuation. But since there’s no punctuation available in the original Greek, I see no reason not to do so in order to make the point 🙂 .)

In response, Jesus explains to John (and to Matthew’s audience, including us), that it’s not that Jesus needs to be baptized by John, but rather that they do so just “for now” in order to “fulfill all righteousness.” Whew, breathed Matthew and his community, at this creative solution. (Although, frankly, it pales in comparison to John, who solves the problem another decade later by simply not having John baptize Jesus at all, but rather witness the dove descending upon him as Jesus comes up out of the water.)

I can appreciate the problem John’s baptism presented the early Christians. They were trying to figure out the implications of proclaiming Jesus as Messiah and Lord, and part of figuring that out was reckoning with things that didn’t look like authority and power. Things like being baptized by someone else. But here’s the thing: the cross doesn’t exactly look like something the Messiah should endure either. And I figure if Jesus was willing to die like a commoner, and not just a commoner, but a common person executed by the Romans for treason, then why not also submit to baptism?

So I wonder if, even after all their thinking and meditating and praying and writing, I wonder if even the evangelists had a hard time comprehending just how far Jesus was willing to go not only to announce, but also to embody, a different kind of reign, power, and authority? One that wasn’t rooted in domination but instead in submission, that originated not in might but in vulnerability, and that achieved its ends not through conquering opponents but by bearing the burdens of all, friends and enemies alike.

That’s hard to imagine, let alone comprehend, for Jesus’ first disciples, who never quite get it until after the resurrection, for the earliest Christian communities and the evangelists, and quite frankly for us. Thank goodness faith doesn’t depend on perfect understanding!

Prayer: Dear God, whether we understand it or not, whether we even realize it or not, you loved us and all the world so much that you were willing to endure all manner of things in the person of Jesus, including death on the cross, so that we might know just how much you love us. Whether we understand it or not, help us to believe in your love, accept it, and share it with others. In Jesus’ name, Amen.


Post image: “The Baptism of Christ,” Joachim Patenier, 1515.