“Here is my servant whom I uphold, my chosen one with whom I am pleased, upon whom I have put my spirit” (Isa 42:1).
The baptism of Jesus by John must have raised the question in the early church about why Jesus, who was sinless and greater than John, would need to subject himself to John’s baptism of repentance.
Matthew answers this question by having John object to Jesus’ request for baptism, saying, “You should be baptizing me, not the other way around.” But Jesus insists on undergoing this ritual “to fulfill all righteousness.” This is fitting because Jesus is fulfilling Isaiah’s prophecy that God would send his servant to save us from our sins. This servant, as described in today’s first reading, will be so obedient and pleasing that God’s own Spirit will descend on him.
And this is exactly what happens when John baptizes Jesus. As Jesus comes up out of the water, the scene turns into a theophany: “The heavens were opened for him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming upon him,” and a voice says, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”
In this meeting of John, representing the righteousness of the old covenant under the Law, and Jesus, revealing the new covenant of grace, the two identities of Jesus come together. First he is God’s beloved Son, the Word of God and Savior of the World. But, secondly, he is also one of us, Jesus of Nazareth, and in his human state he is part of humanity, “born of woman under the law,” in the words of St. Paul (Gal 4: 4), and therefore subject to the same limitations and temptations all of us face.
As God’s Servant, Jesus will save us, not as a divine hero entering our fallen world to rescue us, but by living and dying within our human experience of suffering and struggle, for he is one of us, representing us before God. Jesus will empty himself of divine privilege, subject himself to our human vulnerabilities and accept not just death, but death on the cross (Phil 2:7). In Jesus, not only is God among us, but God is one of us. The bridge between heaven and earth that we will cross from this world into eternal life is Jesus himself. This is the joy of the gospel.