Commentary on Matthew 3:13-17
The Gospel lesson for this day presents the second of seven pericopes in Matthew’s Gospel dealing with John the Baptist:
- 3:1-12 the ministry of John is reported
- 3:13-17 John baptizes Jesus
- 9:14-15 John’s disciples ask why the disciples of Jesus don’t fast
- 11:2-15 John questions Jesus’ identity and Jesus speaks of John’s role
- 14:1-12 John is murdered by Herod
- 17:10-13 Jesus speaks of John following the Transfiguration
- 21:23-27 Jesus refers to John when his own authority is questioned
A study of these texts reveals that John is an unusually significant figure in this Gospel; he is very much the forerunner of Jesus, to the point that the content of his preaching is word-for-word identical with that of Jesus (cf. 3:2; 4:17) and is echoed in apostolic proclamation as well (10:7). Matthew understands John to be a bridge figure between the old covenant and the new – he brings the era of promise to a close and initiates a new era of fulfillment. The story in today’s text presents a “passing of the baton” from John to Jesus.
John tries to prevent Jesus from being baptized. Why? Many Christians have probably thought it is because his baptism was one of “repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (see Mark 1:4) and, so, would have been superfluous for the sinless Jesus. But such thinking may be foreign to Matthew. John was calling Israel to repentance and, though individuals might have personal peccadillos to confess (3:6), the primary focus was probably on the sins of the nation. Jesus and others were baptized by John to symbolize a new birth for that nation, a cleansing for the people of God.
John’s objection to baptizing Jesus is related to a difference in status. John recognizes Jesus to be the “more powerful” one, the one he has been talking about for some time (3:11). John himself stands in need of what Jesus has to offer: a greater baptism of Spirit and fire (3:11); this is probably what he means when he says, “I need to be baptized by you” (3:14). John’s water baptism is one of repentance, which prepares the way for the messianic judgment that establishes God’s righteousness. Jesus’ response picks up on precisely that theme: they must do what is proper to “fulfill all righteousness” (3:16). These are the first words that Jesus speaks in Matthew’s Gospel and the saying is a bit mysterious. We may at least gather that God has a plan for making everything right and that Jesus is committed to being obedient to that plan. Why did he have to be baptized? That’s a minor question. The big one is, why did he have to die on a cross? Matthew grants that neither makes sense from a human point of view: thus, John tries to prevent Jesus’ baptism and Peter tries to prevent Jesus’ death (16:22).
The real focus of this story, however, is on the descent of the dove and, especially, the voice from heaven. Matthew’s Gospel is, of course, about God–every Gospel text in the Series A lectionary is about God–but most of the time God is in the background. People talk about God, and the thoughts of God are often revealed through prophets or angels or through references to scripture, which is “the word of God” (15:6). But there are only two texts in Matthew in which God actually speaks directly, as a character in the story (3:13-17; 17:1-9). One is read on the Baptism of Our Lord, the first Sunday in the Epiphany season; the other is read on the Transfiguration of Our Lord, the last Sunday in the Epiphany Season. These weeks we call Epiphany are literally framed by two divine pronouncements. What’s really interesting is that both times that God chooses to speak aloud from heaven, God says almost exactly the same thing: Jesus is God’s beloved Son and God is pleased with Jesus (3:17; 17:5).
The single most important thing that Matthew’s Gospel wants to say about Jesus is this: Jesus is the Son of God. This is the confession that gives birth to the church (see 16:16-19). It is hidden truth that must be revealed by the father in heaven (11:25-27; 16:17). Why is this so important? For Matthew, the divine sonship of Jesus is what establishes him as one in whom God is present (1:23). But hasn’t God been present in people before — kings, judges, prophets? No, not like this. God is present in Jesus in an absolute sense, so much so that people worship Jesus (see Matt 2:11; 8:2; 9:18; 14:33; 15:25; 20:20; 21:16; 28:9, 17; in all these verses the Greek word is proskyne´ō. Radically monotheistic Jews who believe that people should worship no one–no prophet, no king, no spirit, no angel, not even the messiah–no one but the Lord Yahweh (see Matt 4:10) are now worshiping Jesus. How is that okay? Matthew would say, because Jesus is the Son of God, and God is so present in him that worshiping Jesus counts as worshiping God.
The season of Epiphany focuses on the worship of Jesus, in whom God is made manifest to us. The revelation of his glorious divine sonship begins with baptism — the revelation to the world began with the baptism of Jesus and the revelation to us typically begins with our baptism. Some such analogy was no doubt intended by Matthew: when we are baptized, we too receive the Spirit and we too are identified as beloved children of God. We are baptized with Christ and into Christ, so that God’s plan of righteousness might be fulfilled in us and through us.