Ancient Judaism was a mystical religion, somewhat different from the way we experience much of the Jewish faith today. The baptism of Jesus by John in the river Jordan is certainly part of that mystical tradition. The baptism itself was a prophetic action. That means that it was an historical event that revealed a deeper, more spiritual reality and that it continues to unfold its meanings anew for anyone who encounters it over the following generations. Jesus’s baptism was a watershed event in the understanding of the earliest Christians. For this reason, all four evangelists report it. From their perspective, this event comprises the first chapter of the story of Jesus. We could rightly interpret the infancy narratives as a kind of preface to the story. With Jesus’s baptism, the real story begins.
Matthew is the only evangelist to confront what is certainly the most obvious question concerning this event: namely, since Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, what was he doing presenting himself to John, asking to undergo John’s baptism of repentance for sin? What did Jesus have to repent for? Matthew alone suggests that John the Baptist himself recognized the incongruity, and exclaimed that it was he, a sinner, who should be baptized by Jesus, the sinless one. Jesus’s response to John is telling. His words lift the moment out of the everyday, beyond the common understanding of the washing as a cleansing, and into the realm of the prophetic gesture. The prophetic gesture is an action that causes wonder. On the surface, a prophetic gesture makes no sense and causes the observer to question more deeply. As such, the more deeply it’s questioned, the more meaning is revealed.
Jesus’s response to John’s hesitation—“Allow it now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness”—is fairly straightforward. In effect, he’s telling John, “Don’t worry about it. Just do it.” And so, John goes ahead with the baptism.
Once again, Matthew is the only evangelist who focuses exclusively on Jesus’s inner transformation. Mark, Luke, and John all focus on the observers: John the Baptist and the surrounding crowds. For Matthew, the baptism is Jesus’s own personal spiritual experience and serves as a confirmation of everything Jesus had already discerned about himself and his life’s purpose. The image of the heavens opening and the Spirit of God descending on him as a dove was a kind of periphrasis—a circumlocution—describing a very private and personal understanding. The dove, in Jewish spiritual literature, was the symbol of love. Here, as ever, although love masquerades as a noun, it is, in fact, always and everywhere a verb. The heavens opening and the Spirit of God descending upon Jesus as a dove describes what Jesus is experiencing in his loving connection and bond with the Father. It’s a bond forged by his willingness to do the Father’s will—for righteousness’s sake. It’s reminiscent of Isaiah’s description of his own vocation, when he said, “The spirit of the Lord Yahweh is upon me, because Yahweh has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the afflicted, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, release to the prisoners, to announce a year of favor from Yahweh and a day of vindication by our God; to comfort all who mourn; to place on those who mourn in Zion a diadem instead of ashes, to give them oil of gladness instead of mourning, a glorious mantle instead of a faint spirit” [Isaiah 61:1-3].
Further confirmation comes in the final two lines of today’s gospel reading. “And a voice came from the heavens, saying, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.’” As I researched today’s gospel, I came across something I’d never encountered before. It’s a concept from Jewish mystical writings called בת קול (bat qol). Literally, the phrase means “daughter of voice.” It’s interpreted as resonance. In prophetic times, the בת קול went silent when the Lord God spoke his name [Deuteronomy 5:22]. It was silent when the prophets of Ba’al called upon their god—lest it seem that anyone was answering [1 Kings 18:29]. The בת קול is “the reverberation or hum, caused by the motion of all things, which fills the whole world, and which accompanies the human voice and every other sound.” It is the music of the stars and the vibrations of the planet that speak to Jesus and remind him of the words of the Prophet Isaiah from today’s first reading. It speaks to him of his destiny as the Suffering Servant of Yahweh—in total contrast to the expectations of the people of Israel at the time who were anticipating a Messiah who would rule with political power and social prestige.
It’s no coincidence that we move from this moment of Jesus’s baptism where his earthly ministry begins directly into the temptations in the desert. In fact, the temptations of wealth, power, and prestige are with him always, even to the shouts of his tormentors on Calvary, “If you are the Son of God, come down from that cross, and we will believe in you.” From this moment of his baptism onward, the בת קול will always be with him, reminding him that the loving spiritual connection he shares with the Father is with him always, regardless of all the evidence to the contrary.
Now, an important reminder: everything that the gospels tell us about Jesus is meant not just for him, but for us, too. We’re not simply followers of Jesus, like the followers of Confucius, Lao Tzu, or Mohammed. We’re adopted daughters and sons of the Father, and so, co-heirs with Christ of the Holy Spirit. The heavens are open also for us and the loving bond of the Spirit of God is alive and active within us. If we would only just listen, we, too, would hear the בת קול. And if we do whatever we can as Jesus did to “fulfill all righteousness,” then the בת קול would be speaking to us as it spoke to Jesus, saying, “This is my beloved daughter, this is my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased.”
 Kaufmann Kohler, Ludwig Blau, “BAT ḲOL,” The Jewish Encyclopedia,