The Gospel reading for the first Sunday this year is from Matthew 3:13-17. Its subject is the baptism of Jesus. Notably, all four Gospels contain an account of the baptism of Jesus, as we shall see. Here is Matthew’s account, which is also the Sunday reading:
Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan
to be baptized by him.
John tried to prevent him, saying,
“I need to be baptized by you,
and yet you are coming to me?”
Jesus said to him in reply,
“Allow it now, for thus it is fitting for us
to fulfill all righteousness.”
Then he allowed him.
After Jesus was baptized,
he came up from the water and behold,
the heavens were opened for him,
and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove
and coming upon him.
And a voice came from the heavens, saying,
“This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”
In this passage, John the cousin of Jesus baptizes Jesus. This is also one of the few passages from the Gospels where we encounter the term “righteousness.” In context, it means simply to do what is right and necessary, not by Levitic standards, but by the standards laid down by Jesus in the Gospels.
By having John baptize Jesus, Jesus is simply setting in example that the rest of us ought to follow. It is an event important enough in the life of Jesus that all four Gospels recount this event. and yet there is some theological irony in the story, since Jesus uses a term beloved by protestants (“righteousness”) in a context associated with a very “catholic” and “sacramental” act. This is, from the perspective of reformed Christianity, a bit contradictory. Reformed Christians do not believe, unlike most Catholics and Protestants, that grace is propagated sacramentally. Yet here is Jesus, establishing the precedent to baptize “in all righteousness,” and participating in a sacramental act.
How do we know that the baptism of Jesus is a sacramental act, or at least indicative of one? It’s not all that complicated. The Sacred Author Matthew often pairs themes in the beginning and the end of his Gospel. At Matthew 28:19-20, which is the last verse of his entire Gospel, Matthew says:
Go, therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.
In chapter 28, Matthew the Evangelist gives us the “Trinitarian Formula” for baptism. Jesus requires that we baptize, in the name of the Triune God. He also establishes the theology of three persons in one God with this passage.
The Church requires that we baptize Christians, and the Church calls baptism a sacrament because a) Jesus mandated the authority to do so “in all righteousness” (Mt 3:15) , b) it is a universal obligation (Mt 28:19), and c) the Holy Spirit is propagated as a result of the baptism (Mt 3:16).
Matthew’s is not the only Gospel where we see the baptism of Jesus result in a “work,” where the cause of the “work,” (the baptism) results in a direct effect (the overt presence of the Holy Spirit). In fact, baptism, though accepted by all Christians, is such a theological dilemma for evangelical and reformed Christians that some insist (in complete contradiction to Scripture) that “justification by faith” may be more important in respect to salvation than the need to baptize.
This position is not only false, it directly contradicts the order of Jesus to “make disciples of all nations, baptizing in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” In order to further develop this argument, I thought I’d simply cite excerpts from Scripture on baptism:
Here is John 1:32:
And John bore witness, “I saw the Spirit descend as a dove from heaven, and it remained on him.
And here is further affirmation of the universal mandate to baptize. This passage from Mark 1:8 affirms Catholic, not reformed teaching on grace:
I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
Notice that John the Baptist says absolutely nothing about justification by faith. No, this is an order to baptize – (a “work” ) in order to propagate grace and effect salvation. As if Matthew, Mark and John were not enough, we also have this “testimony” from Luke the Evangelist (3:21-22) as to the sacramentality and universality of baptism as “work” propagating “grace:”
Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form, as a dove, and a voice came from heaven, “Thou art my beloved Son; with thee I am well pleased.”