Commentary on Matthew 3:13-17
Two related questions need to be addressed for interpreting this passage: Is it about our baptism or is it about Jesus’ baptism?
If the latter, another question emerges: why does Jesus need to be baptized? The first question is driven by concerns to make the scene relevant to parishioners; the second question is difficult, if not impossible, to answer, when it is freighted with anachronistic theological convictions about Jesus being divine and sinless.
In response to the first question, I suggest the scene is not about our baptism. The Gospel does not use Jesus’ baptism as the basis for urging disciples to be baptized like Jesus. When the Gospel does address the baptism of Jesus’ followers, it does so on the basis of the command of the risen Jesus, not by appealing to Jesus’ own baptism (Matthew 28:19).
Concerning the second question, it is important to remember that Matthew’s Gospel, written near the end of the first century, precedes fourth and fifth century Christological formulations by several hundred years. Questions of Jesus’ sinlessness or divinity are not yet to the fore. This recognition allows us to hear the Gospel according to Matthew and to interpret the scene in terms of its place in the Gospel’s narrative.
So why in Matthew’s account is Jesus baptized? Attention to four factors frames an answer.
The Context of Jesus’ Baptismal Scene
Jesus’ public activity does not begin until Matthew 4:17 (see the 3rd Sunday after Epiphany). The chapters prior to 4:17 establish Jesus’ identity as God’s agent whose public activity, commencing at 4:17, enacts God’s will and reign. By Matthew 3 Jesus has been
- contextualized in God’s life-giving, ruling activity among Israel and the nations (1:1-17),
- divinely commissioned from conception to manifest God’s saving presence (1:18-25),
- born of Mary (1:25-2:1),
- threatened by the murderous King Herod (2:1-23),
- homaged by the magi (2:1-12),
- neglected by the Jerusalem leaders (2:3-6),
- protected by Joseph (2:13-23),
- attested by the scriptures (2:1-23),
- guided by God (2:1-23),
- and witnessed to by John (3:1-12).
These chapters have established Jesus as God’s anointed agent (Christ), son of David and Abraham, Emmanuel, king of the Jews. In his baptism, Jesus, in his first action as an adult, affirms this identity and commission. God bears witness in verbalizing Jesus’ identity as God’s son or agent (Matthew 3:13-17). In the subsequent scene, the temptation, the devil tests Jesus’ commitment but Jesus remains resolute in his identity as God’s agent (Matthew 4:1-11).
John’s Baptizing Activity
John’s baptizing activity provides the occasion in which Jesus expresses this commitment and confirmation of his identity. John’s baptism of repentance calls people to a way of life that expresses commitment to God. This baptism occurs in the Jordan, the river that the people of Israel, God’s children, crossed (see Matthew 2:15 citing Hosea 11:1). They entered into a new communal life to be shaped by God’s will instead of oppressive Egyptian power and punitive wilderness wanderings. Like others (Matthew 3:5-6), Jesus receives John’s call to repent, confesses sin, and commits to God’s will. But the scene moves the focus beyond John’s concerns. It does not mention Jesus’ sin. Instead, the exchange between Jesus and John, and then God’s declaration of Jesus’ identity, take center stage.
John and Jesus Talk
The conversation between John and Jesus, missing from Mark and Luke, clarifies the significance of Jesus’ baptism (Matthew 3:15). John protests Jesus presenting himself for baptism. The narrative does not account for how John recognizes Jesus (Matthew 3:11-12) since subsequently he does not seem to know for sure who Jesus is (Matthew 11:2-6).
Jesus imposes his authority with his demand for immediate baptism (“Let it be now”). He follows this with an explanation (“for,” Matthew 3:15). The verb “fulfil” (four times previously: Matthew 1:22; 2:15, 17, 23) signals that the circumstances of Jesus’ life accord with and enact God’s will. Jesus’ baptism expresses his commitment to live God’s will which we know from Matthew 1 means being the agent of God’s saving presence (Matthew 1:21-23).
The language of “all justice” or “righteousness” expresses actions that are consistent with or faithful to a relationship or commitment. God is just or righteous, for example, when God acts consistently with God’s covenant commitments to deliver the people from exile in Babylon (Isaiah 46:13). To act justly/faithfully/righteously, whether God or humans, is to act in accord with God’s will. Jesus’ baptism, then, signifies his commitment to act faithfully to his God-given commission to manifest God’s saving presence that the angel announced to Joseph concerning Jesus’ conception (Matthew 1:21-23). Jesus’ commitment to enact God’s saving purpose faithfully is the “fruit” that John calls for — turning or committing to God’s purposes (Matthew 3:8). So, John consents to baptize Jesus (Matthew 3:15b).
God confirms Jesus’ identity and commitment by sending the empowering Spirit and declaring Jesus’ identity (Matthew 3:16-17). The climax of the scene is not the baptism itself but the vision and audition Jesus encounters as he comes up from the water.
The opened heavens is Bible-talk for divine revelation (compare Ezekiel 1:11; Revelations 4:1). Jesus sees the Spirit descending on him from heaven, the dwelling place of God. God reciprocates Jesus’ expression of commitment by equipping Jesus for ministry. The Spirit comes on various Biblical figures to equip them for divine service: for example, Gideon (Judges 6:34), the Davidic king (Isaiah 11:1), and God’s servant (Isaiah 42:1; 61:1).
The Spirit is imaged as a dove. Many have seen a link with the Spirit hovering over the waters at creation (Genesis 1:2), suggesting a new act of creation. But the Genesis scene lacks a bird image. More promising is a link with omens involving birds in Roman traditions that effect divine communications (the dove was Zeus’ messenger) and signify the destinies of powerful imperial figures.
Using the third not second person address, God declares Jesus’ identity and destiny as God’s son or agent. God expresses love for him and announces that God has “chosen” him (a better translation than “well pleased”) for this role. How Jesus will manifest God’s saving presence (Matthew 1:21-23) will be narrated after Matthew 4:17.