Yesterday in class, we spent a good deal of time considering the meaning and implications of Jesus' baptism in the gospels. This baptism scene, which is discussed by all four gospel writers, has a particularly interesting twist in the book of Matthew.
In Matthew 3, we learn that John the Baptist is in the wilderness baptizing people "when they confessed their sins." So the baptism of John was connected to repentance and the forgiveness of sins. This presents a problem when Jesus comes and asks to be baptized. Does this suggest that Jesus had sin and needed to repent? John the Baptist himself saw this dilemma and said to Jesus, "I am the one who needs to be baptized by you." But Jesus says no. According the New Living Translation he says, "It must be done because we must do everything that is right." While this may be an accurate translation, we lose some significant wording. More literally, Jesus says that he must be baptized in order to 'fulfill all righteousness.'
Whatever this means, it is enough for John and he proceeds to baptize Jesus. This seems like an odd encounter, but remember- we have less than one percent of all Jesus said and did recorded for us. Matthew isn't wasting words here; he's communicating something to us. But what?
Now fast forward to Matthew 5. Here, Jesus is preaching his famous "sermon on the mount". Early on, he says that he did not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. And then he encourages his disciples that unless their righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees, they can never enter God's Kingdom. We have the same two words used in a different context, but located in close proximity to Jesus' words in Matthew 3.
What is happening here? Jesus is presenting himself, and his life, as the righteousness that people need. Throughout Matthew 5, Jesus takes the known law (do not commit adultery) and extends it even further (if you look lustfully, you are committing adultery.) All of these laws are beyond our capability to live out. So is Jesus commanding something of us that is impossible to do? No! He's highlighting that he has come, and through His life, we are made right with God.
This goes back to an early theory of the atonement known as "recapitulation." I know, it's a big fancy word, but it just means that a big part of Jesus' work for us was to go back over all of human life and do it right. The reason he could give us right standing with God at the cross is because he had lived in right standing with God throughout his life.
What does this mean for us? It means that we celebrate not only the death and resurrection of Jesus, but that we celebrate his life as well. We can experience meaning in baptism because Jesus was baptized on our behalf. We have the power to live in God's way because Jesus did just that 2000 years ago. We can pray, and be married, and eat, and throw parties in a way that honors God because Jesus has lived a righteous life, and in so doing, he has given that righteousness to us.
For some of you, this was probably for more "heady" information than you cared for, but it was exciting to me to see how Matthew pulled these events together (the baptism and the sermon on the mount) to make a point for us. Jesus is our righteousness, and in His life, we can find real purpose for our own.
May you be blessed on your journey because of His life today,