The title “servant of God” (Hebrew, ebed) in Isaiah, which appears in a number of “Servant Songs,” is a complex one. When ebed was translated from Hebrew to Greek in the Septuagint, it was translated in roughly equal numbers as pais (“child”) and as doulos (“slave” or “servant”). In the case of Is 42:1, where the Hebrew reads “Here is my servant” (ebed), the Septuagint has “Jacob is my child” (pais) and adds “Israel is my elect one.” The servant who “will bring forth justice to the nations” and who has been given “as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations,” is identified clearly with the nation of Israel.
When the early Christians, who were themselves Jews, reflected on the “Servant Songs” in the light of Jesus’ life, they saw their Messiah as the servant, not Israel—as in Mt 12:18, where the translation of Is 42:1 designates Jesus, not the nation, as “my child” (pais). But how could one man, even the Son of God, be “a light to the nations”? How would life, God’s salvation, be brought to the world by this singular servant?
The first thing Jesus did in his public ministry was to align himself with John the Baptist’s call to repentance and reconciliation among God’s people. Jesus entered into solidarity with Israel, responding to John’s call for the baptism of all Israel to prepare for God’s coming kingdom.
Jesus saw the baptism for the forgiveness of sins as the means by which his own ministry would begin, both at personal and community levels. For Jesus, the baptism was the mysterious start of his mission, an act in unity with fallen humanity but also the point at which the heavens opened, the Holy Spirit descended on him, and a voice from heaven spoke, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Jesus’ own mission was now to start.
At the ecclesial level, Jesus was baptized “when all the people were baptized,” not only as a sign of solidarity with Israel but also to prepare them for the baptism of the Holy Spirit, which John had told the people the coming Messiah would bring to them. The people were ready, wondering whether John himself might be the Messiah.
John’s baptism was, therefore, the necessary sign that another baptism of water and spirit was coming with the Messiah. A new people of God was being constituted. Jesus, the servant of God, was not after all alone as a light to the nations. A new Israel would walk with him, baptized with water and the Holy Spirit.
In the Acts of the Apostles, though, Peter is brought to an even newer realization that not only is baptism the means by which the new Israel would walk into God’s kingdom with the Messiah, but that baptism was the means by which every nation would come to constitute with Israel this new people of God.
Peter’s insight came when he met Cornelius, a Roman soldier, and a group of other Gentiles in Cornelius’s home. Peter had been brought to them through a series of revelatory events by which he came to realize that baptism was not just for Jews but for everyone in every nation. Peter’s shocking admission—“I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him”—is also the realization that the light to the nations includes the nations in baptism.
Peter, in the joy of this realization, offered baptism to the gathered Gentiles then and there, when the Holy Spirit descended on them. This fulfilled John’s promise, too, that the Messiah would come with water and the Holy Spirit. Jesus’ ministry, which began with his own baptism, would now be brought to all by means of baptism. It was not, Titus says, due to any righteousness on our own part that salvation came to us, “but according to his mercy, through the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit” (Ti 3:5). When the light of the nations appeared, it was always clear that salvation needed to be brought to all. This was the work of one man, who handed on the task to many to bring it to completion, to offer life for the world.