Moving on from John’s assertion that the coming Christ will baptize Israel “with the Holy Spirit and fire”, we come directly to the account of Jesus’ own baptism. As Matthew tells the story, Jesus comes out of the water, the heavens are opened to him, he sees “the Spirit of God descending as a dove and coming upon him”, and a voice is heard from heaven saying, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matt. 3:16-17; cf. Lk. 3:21-22; Mk. 1:10-11; Jn. 1:32). There are some small differences between the accounts that do not greatly affect our reading of the passage.
It’s very difficult to know what manner of seeing and hearing is involved here—or, for that matter, who was doing the seeing and hearing. But the meaning of the event is not difficult to establish. The voice from heaven appears to have in mind Isaiah 42:1:
Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.
If we accept that this is not merely a free-floating prooftext, in the manner of popular evangelical sermonizing, but provides access to a significant narrative, it is apparent that Jesus is cast as restored Israel, the servant in whom YHWH will delight, who will be the means by which the justice of God will be established throughout the earth and not merely amongst the people of the covenant (Is. 42:1-9). Jesus is baptized not as an isolated messiah but as one who identifies with repentant Israel, with the community through which YHWH will be made known amongst the nations.
Psalm 2:7 is also sometimes thought to have influenced the direct address that we find in Luke and Mark: “You are my Son; today I have begotten you.” But the thought of kingship seems less relevant here than the Isaianic servant motif with its direct connection with the Spirit.
So it is significant that Jesus is then said to have been “full of the Holy Spirit” and “led by the Spirit” in the wilderness for forty days. When Israel was tested in the wilderness, the people repeatedly rebelled against YHWH. But Jesus, as obedient Jacob, as the Son or servant with whom YHWH is well pleased, overcomes the testing by quoting what should have been Israel’s faithful response, when they were hungry and thirsty in the wilderness (Deut. 6:13, 16; 8:3). This is the work of the renewing Spirit of God, who is re-creating his people in this fashion.
We should also take account here of Jesus’ application of Isaiah 61:1-2 to himself when he reads from this passage in the synagogue in Nazareth in Luke 4:16-21:
The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor…. (Is. 61:1-2)
At this point Jesus is very clearly understood as the one who has received the Spirit of God for the purpose of bringing good news to Israel—not to the whole world but specifically to those who mourn over the wretched condition of Jerusalem—that the day of healing and liberation is at hand. Jesus, as the representative of an ideally obedient community, has been given the Spirit for the purpose of bringing Israel’s story to some sort of climax. This is quite unaccountable on the basis of later Trinitarian and charismatic theologies.