Commentary on Matthew 3:13-17
As if on cue, Jesus sets foot on the stage immediately after John’s contrast of his baptism and the superior baptism which is to come.
Matthew makes it amply clear that this superior figure of judgment and power is none other than Jesus by linking John’s prophecy and Jesus’ public debut.
The last thing we hear about Jesus prior to this encounter with John is the move of Jesus’ family to Nazareth after the death of Herod (2:23). After leaping over much of Jesus’ childhood and early adulthood, Matthew introduces John the Baptist nearly exclusively to point forward to Jesus’ narrative reappearance. That is, John’s narrative function is solely to “prepare the way of the Lord” (3:3).
“John would have prevented him…”
That Jesus would have allowed John to baptize him apparently poses some theological problem for John the Baptist and even Matthew. Does Jesus need to seek repentance through John’s baptism? If John is incapable of even carrying Jesus’ sandals, why would Jesus seek John’s baptism? If Jesus would bring a baptism of “Holy Spirit and fire” (3:11), why does he need a baptism with mere water? If Jesus would preside over the judgment of the world, why would he need to seek repentance?
It is thus little surprise then that these narrative and theological tensions lead to John’s hesitation. What possible purpose could Jesus’ baptism by John serve? If anything, John is the one in need of Jesus’ powerful baptism, not the other way around.
“To fulfill all righteousness…”
And yet Jesus’ baptism is requisite according to Matthew. This is Jesus’ first public act and thus unquestionably important in the Gospel narrative. After all, the first two chapters of Matthew narrate events which happened to and around Jesus. He is but a child in the travels from Bethlehem to Egypt and finally Nazareth. Now that Jesus acts directly, now that he has stepped foot onto the narrative stage as an adult, what tone does this scene set? Why is this first step in Jesus’ earthly ministry so significant?
Two elements of Jesus’ response strike me as particularly important.
First, is that Matthew indicates that this baptism is a collaborative effort: “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness” (3:15). John must concede to baptize Jesus; Jesus must seek the baptism of John. Together, their obedience to God’s plans is a step on the path of righteousness.
Second is the aim of “fulfill[ing] all righteousness.” What might this mean? The Greek term is incredibly difficult to define, and even more difficult to comprehend theologically. The term can encapsulate complex notions of justice, uprightness, correctness, innocence, and redemption. In Matthew, Joseph is called righteous when he intends to end his relationship with Mary quietly (1:19). In the Sermon on the Mount, those who yearn for righteousness and are oppressed because of their pursuits of it, will receive God’s blessings (5:6, 10). Overall, righteousness is an interior quality (23:28) but also a matter of external practice (6:1; 25:37).
Thus, “to fulfill all righteousness” likely means acting in obedience to God in a way that coordinates internal dispositions and external action. Jesus’ first steps in public ministry are a combination of a compliant spirit and a powerful, public display of his obedience to God’s call.
“…with whom I am well pleased.”
That Jesus’ baptism is essential and a step of righteousness is confirmed by the divine voice. God’s approval is unequivocal. Jesus is reaffirmed as God’s child as he begins his journey to the cross. Moreover, God’s love for Jesus is reaffirmed as well. Though Jesus’ life will be characterized by temptation and suffering, God’s love is no less real. God’s approval of Jesus is multifold. He and John together have acted in obedience to God at this moment, and now Jesus will certainly not divert from the straight path laid before him.
This is the first of three times in Matthew in which God expresses his direct approval of Jesus in these terms. In Matthew 12:14, conspiratorial forces surround Jesus and begin threatening his life. Jesus flees the threat but continues to heal everywhere he goes. 12:17-21 sees in all this a confirmation of the Isaianic oracle which is the first reading this Sunday. Once again, God’s soul is pleased. Finally, God’s voice again commends Jesus’ fealty during the transfiguration scene (17:5). This is the consistent witness of God concerning the Son, a witness further confirmed in the resurrection and perpetuation of the body of disciples in all the nations.
John plays a dual role in these verses. Having proclaimed the power of the one who is to come, he is also faithful to concede to a baptism whose necessity he may not fully understand. In submitting himself to John, Jesus combines great power and acquiescence. Jesus is not a king who won’t deign to tread the humble paths of his servants. Jesus’ hold on his power is not so tenuous that he must zealously hold on to it at all times. For Jesus, power and humility, authority and submission, power and relationship are not at odds.