What the Baptism of Jesus Means

By Christian Bergmann

The prophet Isaiah – ever mysterious – sets forth for us a powerful and compelling vision of the kind of Messiah God intents to send his people. He will be someone who “shall bring forth justice to the nations, not crying out, not shouting, not making his voice heard in the street. A bruised reed he shall not break, and a smouldering wick he shall not quench, until he establishes justice on earth” (Isaiah 42:1-4).

It is a fascinating passage and one that (once again) leads me to think that there is a sense in which we can over-spiritualise Jesus.

By that I mean: particularly in the West, we don’t view Jesus through Jewish eyes. Instead, we tend to view him through a particular kind of Western spirituality that sees the purpose of Jesus as coming “from heaven” and “to earth” in order to take us all back “to heaven” – as if the earth was the problem all along!

The Jewish understanding of creation and the Messiah was much more interesting. As Isaiah said, they understood the Messiah to have justice as being of central concern. He would be someone who would right the wrongs of this world, who would vindicate Israel, who would gather together the nations in right worship around the presence of the Lord. The Jewish understanding of justice would also be quite different from what we think it to mean today. For ancient Israel, justice began in covenant worship – in being in right relationship with the Lord. Everything else flowed from this. And if you read the Old Testament, what you’ll find is that as Israel turns to other gods, to pagan deities, to false worship, injustice begins to abound.

The prophet Isaiah also says something interesting: "Here is my servant whom I uphold, my chosen one with whom I am pleased" (42:1).

What does this remind you of?

It should remind you of the baptism of Jesus.

What do we read in that passage? "On coming up out of the water he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit, like a dove, descending upon him. And a voice came from the heavens, 'You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.'" (Mark 1:10-11).

This is not simply the revelation of the Trinity. If we understand this firstly through Jewish eyes, then this should sound to us like Messiah-language.

It was the revelation of Jesus as the Messiah. As the one who would bring justice to the nations. As the one who would, as the prophet Isaiah goes on to say in the same passage, "open the eyes of the blind, to bring out prisoners from confinement, and from the dungeon, those who live in darkness" (42:7).

It also means that Jesus is the one who would bring about right worship.

This is a powerful lens through which to view our own baptism. It is, first and foremost, the setting of ourselves in right relationship with God. And around this reality, everything must revolve. It must be central. Because this is the beginning of our covenant relationship, our covenant worship, our covenant bond with the Maker of heaven and earth.

Maybe this is a good lens through which you can also rejuvenate your relationship to the sacraments. Don't see them primarily as rituals or ceremonies or a kind of divine washing machine that makes you clean whenever you've sinned. See them primarily as covenant bonds with your Maker. See them as the Sacraments that Jesus instituted to bring the world into right worship, right order, and right justice. If you see them as that, then it changes everything.