Commentary on Matthew 3:13-17
Water is one of the most powerful elements on the face of the planet.
The flow of water over the ground for an extended period of time will result in a riverbed and possibly, over a significant enough period of time, a river valley. Water is important to industry, fishing, recreation, boundaries, crop irrigation, and transportation routes. In homes, water is used for cleaning, bathing, and preparing meals.
Our body weight is made up of about sixty percent water. Our health and survival is determined in many ways by water and hydration. Science and experience has shown us that a person can survive without food for about three torturous weeks. But humans can only survive approximately three days without water.1 We need it for life.
Water is powerful and fragile at the same time. Seventy percent of the earth is covered by water and it is one of the most important natural resources we have. The lack of availability of clean water is one of the causes of poverty and disease in the world today. Questions related to water rights and pollution are part of the modern ecological movement. Water is vital to the sustenance of humans, animals, and vegetation. Care for the Earth’s water supply is essential to the continued survival of the planet.
Images of water are part of the Hebrew and Christian texts. Genesis 7 provides us a glimpse of water as both deliverance and destruction. Water is the means of deliverance of the Israelites from their captors in Exodus. Isaiah 35 and Amos 5:24 depict God’s justice in water imagery. John 4 provides the story of living water and the Samaritan woman at the well. Jesus is found teaching and travelling along water, he utilizes it for healing, and he uses the image of water as a teaching tool. And the images go on and on.
Water in this passage is for the purpose of baptism (verses 13, 16). Jesus arrives at the Jordan River to be baptized by John, who feels unworthy to perform the baptism (verse 14). In the waters of baptism we are connected to God, to our community, and to all of salvation history. In the waters of baptism we are infused with the Spirit to do God’s will.
Jesus submitted himself to baptism, despite the fact that he was sinless according to most traditions (verse 15). He was embodying a behavior he would later command his followers to do as they took up his cross to follow him.2 Baptism is an important sacrament in the life of the church. For many it is a cleansing of sins, for others it is an entry rite into membership in the community of faith, and for others still of the faith it is a dying to sin and rising in faith and righteousness.
Through the revelatory events of this text, the opening of the heavens, the descent of the dove, and the affirmation of Jesus and his coming ministry, we see that this is no ordinary baptism (verses 16-17) This baptism is different. In it we get a clear sense of who Jesus is as God acknowledges Jesus from the heavens as “my Son” (verse 17). It is a profoundly important moment as Jesus is about to encounter the testing in the wilderness (4:1-11) and the beginning of his public ministry (4:12-17). We hear the affirmation of Jesus and witness the preparatory act for completing the tasks before him. And we also hear God who says to anyone being baptized, “I love you,” “You are mine,” and “I am pleased with you.” Powerful affirmations to receive from our Creator.
Jesus submits to this baptism as a fulfillment of God’s righteousness (verse 15). Some believe this act was not only a modeling of submission and a consecration to his coming mission, it was also an act of being in “solidarity with sinners.”3 Standing in solidarity with those who often feel unworthy of God’s love and grace is a powerful act that is vividly portrayed in this text and throughout the ministry of Jesus.
As a pastor, you will baptize numerous persons over your career. You will baptize infants with smiling parents standing by your side. You might baptize youth in a river near your church or in a water trough at an outdoor worship service. You will baptize adults who have come to faith. In my own ministry, I have baptized persons with water from the Jordan River, from Russia, and from a local river. I have been the parent watching my son being baptized by my own father and I have baptized a father and his infant daughter he just met after returning from military service in Iraq. All of these moments are part of the sacramental life of the church.
Being part of these moments as pastor, parent or congregant means witnessing the magnitude of God’s redeeming love and abundant grace in the baptismal waters and rite. Witnessing the coming of the Spirit in this text (verse 16) reminds us that the Spirit comes to all those baptized to empower persons for ministry in the service of God in a variety of ways.
Infant baptism is the primary baptismal practice in my tradition, but for others believer’s baptism is preferred. As a Methodist, we sprinkle candidates with the baptismal water. Other traditions utilize pouring or immersion. Some have deeply rooted feelings about the modes of baptism. While sprinkling is part of my tradition, the baptismal axiom I favor is “the wetter the better” — splash audaciously.
Whatever the practice or mode, no matter how much water is used, and regardless of the location of the event — the Spirit, like the dove descending on Jesus in Matthew, is present in the act of baptism and infusing the baptized with the possibilities of a new beginning to follow Jesus and do God’s will (verse 16). And that is more powerful than any flowing water on the face of the Earth.
2 “Baptism” in Wesley Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version (Nashville: Abingdon, 2009), 1165.
3 Douglas R. A. Hare, Matthew (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1993), 21.