“Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” (Matthew 3:15)
These are the first words Jesus speaks in the gospel of Matthew, and they concern his baptism. This is even the first act in the story in which Jesus is actively participating. He is involved with the stories around his birth, but this is his first active role, and he begins it by submitting to baptism. Gods and Kings aren’t suppose to submit to baptism, especially a baptism of repentance. Yet here Jesus is, in his first official act, humbling himself and entering the waters of baptism.
Matthew has made clear from the beginning of the gospel that Jesus is a king. The very first line in Matthew’s narrative, which also happens to be the first words of the New Testament, “A record of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.” Jesus is the Greek from of the Hebrew name Joshua which means God saves. Joshua was of course the great Israelite leader who ultimately led the people of Israel across the Jordan River to conquer and inherit the Promised Land. While others throughout history have been named Joshua, surely there is some foreshadowing in Jesus being the new Joshua who would lead the people of God to the Promised Land. Christ, is simply a transliteration of the Greek and means Messiah or anointed one. This is the one that God would send to re-institute the Kingdom. This is the one God would place the Spirit on and through whom God would do amazing works of righteousness. And finally, two very key members of Israel’s history were mentioned: David and Abraham. David, while not the first king, was the greatest king and was promised to have an heir who would always reign on the throne. Abraham, was the father of faith, and because of his faith was promised to be a blessing to the world. Any true king of Israel must come through these two lines.
Besides the genealogy, the birth narratives for Matthew are even portrayed as kingly episodes. Gone are the stories of nobody having room for the mother of the Lord and Jesus being placed in a manger. Gone are the first witnesses who were lowly shepherds. Instead, enter wise men from the East, foreign dignitaries, who come to worship the new-born king and offer expensive gifts. This new-born king is so important, his birth even threatens the power of Herod the Great, who tries to kill him.
Everything in the beginning pages of Matthew’s Gospel points to Jesus being a King. Which makes it strange that the first story he is actively involved in, the first story where he even speaks in the gospel of Matthew, is when he is coming to submit to a baptism of repentance. Kings don’t submit to baptism. Kings don’t accept humility.
Except, if we know the story of Jesus, we shouldn’t be surprised. Jesus has always accepted humility. We, who are not reading this story for the first time, know accepting humility is central to Jesus’s eternal calling. The incarnation is itself a humbling experience, Jesus is God but chooses to take on flesh and blood and be numbered with the creation. At the last supper, Jesus humbles himself and takes the position of a servant and washes the disciples feet. Or even on the cross, when Jesus accepts the cup the Father has for him and dies for the sake of the people. What it means to be Jesus is to accept the role of humility.
It’s no surprise then that Jesus accepts the place of humility and submits to baptism. Being a follower of God means that you can’t be in control. Being a follower of God means that God has to be supreme. Even Jesus submits to the Father’s will for his role as a human. In doing so he fulfills all righteousness.
Like Jesus, we too, if we want to be followers of God, must submit to the will of the Father. We must humble ourselves and place God on the throne. Sin happens when we try to be in control, when we grasp the fruit from the tree trying to be like God. But in repentance, we enter the waters of baptism to say “God, we die to self so we can live for you.” This becomes a turning point in a long journey of daily dying to self in order to live for God. It’s an attitude that we must embrace if we want to be disciples of Jesus, and followers of God. In accepting this life, this life of submission to the Father, we become like Jesus who acted this way in order to fulfill all righteousness.