Commentary on Matthew 3:1-17
Anticipating a big event is often half the fun.
There can be something deeply satisfying about getting ready for an important visit, a significant holiday, or a major milestone. John the Baptist has a significant role in the Gospels because he anticipates Jesus. In this Matthew text, we hear how John prepares the Jewish people for the arrival of the kingdom and its king. And we see here a brief but momentous interaction between John and Jesus before Matthew turns to Jesus’ public ministry (4:17-16:21).
As we turn to Matthew 3 from Matthew 1-2, we transverse about three decades in the storyline of the Gospel — from Jesus’ infancy (1:18-2:23) to the time just prior to his public debut (4:12-17). Matthew 3 begins by introducing us to John the Baptist, who comes into the area of the Judean wilderness with a preaching ministry focused on calling Israel to repentance in light of the arriving “kingdom of heaven” (3:1-2). This is the first reference to “the kingdom” (basileia) in Matthew.
Kingdom language would have signaled John’s listeners that the long-awaited time had arrived; God’s promises to return to and restore God’s people were now beginning to be fulfilled (see Isaiah 40:1-11). It is no coincidence that Matthew cites Isaiah 40:3 to describe John as “a voice crying in the wilderness…prepar[ing] the way of the Lord” (NIV). This hallmark text in Isaiah announces the “good news” of God’s return to Zion (Isaiah 40:9) and later that same good news will be identified with the proclamation that Israel’s “God reigns” (Isaiah 52:7). While John’s proclamation of the coming kingdom happens prior to Jesus’ public ministry, Matthew communicates that the heart of their message is the same by using identical language for their preaching at 3:2 and 4:17 (see also 10:7).
The response sought by both John and Jesus is repentance: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matthew 3:2; 4:17). In John’s call for repentance (3:2, 8, 11), he follows a long line of prophets who were sent to turn Israel back to God and God’s covenant with them (see also Isaiah 44:21-22; Jeremiah 15:19-20; Ezekiel 14:6; Zechariah 1:2-6). John’s call to repent falls on receptive ears (Matthew 3:5-6). It is only Jewish leaders who are chastised by John for their seeming interest in his message without any “fruit” of repentance (3:7-8). This clear distinction between the Jewish people and their leaders will continue across Matthew’s narrative (see 21:1-46).
While John and Jesus share the same essential message, the way John the Baptist frames the ministry of his successor does not entirely fit Matthew’s portrait of Jesus’ Messianic work. John speaks of Jesus’ ministry as one characterized by judgment (3:11-12). Yet when Jesus commences his Galilean ministry, it is filled primarily with compassionate healings (John 8-9) and teachings about kingdom blessing and covenantal loyalty (John 5-7). The juxtaposition of these two portraits is jarring enough that John will inquire from his prison cell if Jesus really is “the one who is to come” (11:3). Jesus replies with lines drawn from Isaiah 35:5 and 61:1 to show that his healing ministry (just narrated in John 8-9), even if unexpected, is exactly what God’s Messiah should be doing.
When John tries to dissuade Jesus from being baptized, Jesus justifies his desire for baptism: “for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness” (Matthew 3:15). Matthew routinely emphasizes Jesus as the fulfillment of Jewish hopes, their story, and their Scriptures (already at 1:22-23; 2:15, 17-18, 23). Here, fulfillment language is combined with the first of seven occurrences in Matthew of dikaiosyne, a covenantal term that here likely speaks to God’s covenantal promises to Israel now being fulfilled; i.e., “what is fitting to fulfill God’s promised redemption.”
Matthew highlights his Christology in this baptism scene, while also providing an incipient Trinitarian moment, with the divine voice affirming the Son while the Spirit comes to rest upon him (3:16-17). Christologically, Jesus is portrayed as beloved and faithful son of God (“with whom I am well pleased; see Isaiah 42:1; Matthew 12:18), a nod to Matthew’s Israel Christology already begun at 2:15. Jesus’ empowerment by the Spirit, mentioned at 3:16 and 12:18, is reaffirmed at 4:1, when the Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness.
The rich theological threads of this passage invite reflection and contextualization from a number of angles. The same Spirit that comes to rest on Jesus also empowers those who follow Jesus: “[Jesus] will baptize you with the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 3:11; see 10:20). Important as it is to maintain the uniqueness of Jesus as Messiah and Lord (see 20:28), it is crucial that we hear how Jesus, as representative Israel and so representative humanity, faithfully fulfilled his mission by the power of the Spirit. This gives us hope to live faithfully with God, listening for God’s affirmations toward us of “beloved” and “I am well pleased.”
As we consider how to preach, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” in our contexts, it is important to keep carts and horses in their proper order. The call to repentance in Matthew 3 arises precisely in light of the divine work to bring the benevolent reign of God to bear in the world. Divine initiative has always preceded and been the basis for human response: “…return to me, for I have redeemed you” (Isaiah 42:22b; see Ezekiel 36:26-27). Understanding and pursuing repentance, and really all divine invitations, as response versus initiation frees us up from being the masters of our faith to being grateful recipients. As Søren Kierkegaard expressed the initiating work of God,
When we awake in the morning and turn our thoughts to you — you are the first, you have loved us first. Even if I arise at daybreak and instantly turn my thoughts to you in prayer, you are too quick for me; you have loved me first.
- Jeannine K. Brown, “Justice, Righteousness,” in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, eds. Joel B. Green, Jeannine K. Brown, and Nicholas Perrin (rev. ed., Downers Grove, 2013) 464-465.
- Quoted in Becknell, Thomas, and Mary Ellen Ashcroft, eds, The Beginning of Wisdom: Prayers for Growth and Understanding (Nashville: Moorings, 1995) 141.
PRAYER OF THE DAY
Righteous God, you sent your son Jesus to be baptized by John in the Jordan, so that all might hear the proclamation of your love. Make us voices of proclamation, so that all might know of your love through our words and our actions. We pray these things in the name of Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.
Christ, when for us you were baptized ELW 304
Crashing waters at creation ELW 455
Earth and all stars ELW 731
The Baptism of Christ, Peter Hallock