Commentary on Matthew 3:13-17
The account of Jesus’ baptism is found in all four Gospels. Only Matthew records the dialogue between John and Jesus, in which John initially expressed a reluctance to baptize Jesus (3:14), arguing that it should be the other way around because Jesus was superior to him (3:11).
In order to understand where John was coming from, it is helpful to consider briefly the meaning and possible origin of the practice of baptism. How did John come up with the idea of baptizing people in the Jordan? Several sources of influence have been proposed:
- Jewish ritual cleansing by immersion in a mikveh, or ritual bath, was practiced as a form of purification by the time of John and Jesus. These were not a one-time cleansing but repeated when necessary.
- The Essenes at Qumran participated in frequent ritual washings as a means of purification, even though they were living in the desert where water supply was extremely limited. Was John ever a part of this community?
- When gentile proselytes converted to Judaism, they underwent ritual cleansing as part of their initiation. The caveat, though, is that extant evidence of proselyte baptism post-dates the time of John.
Although none of the above proposals fits John’s baptism exactly, they are all worth some consideration, as they all have something to do with purification. The purpose of John’s baptism was also for repentance and the forgiveness of sins (3:2, 6).
The people who came to the Jordan to be baptized by John confessed and repented of their sins, in order to prepare themselves to receive God’s forgiveness and salvation. While one might think this was a very good idea, the dynamics of honor and shame in the ancient Mediterranean world would have made this a challenging thing to do. At that time, any dignified person, especially a man, would do anything he could to amass honor and avoid shame. Therefore, coming to John for baptism and confessing one’s sin in public would not bode well for one’s reputation. God’s approval would come at the cost of losing face and social honor.
Behind John’s objection were two possible reasons. First, John deemed himself to be far inferior in rank, unworthy to even carry Jesus’ sandals. So how could the lesser baptize the greater? Second, unlike everyone else who was coming for baptism, Jesus did not need to repent. While Jesus’ sinlessness is not explicitly stated in Matthew, Paul asserts that Jesus “knew no sin” (2 Corinthians 5:21), and the author of Hebrews speaks of Jesus as “one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15). As such, John’s protest was legitimate.
Yet Jesus’ reply was somewhat cryptic. He said, “It is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness” (3:15). In Matthew, the notion of righteousness has to do with obedience to God’s law (5:17-20; 6:1) and seeking God’s righteousness (5:6; 6:33; see also 5:10). What, then, is the connection between righteousness and Jesus’ baptism?
The concept of righteousness, especially in the Old Testament, is not limited to moral uprightness. More importantly, righteousness is a relational concept. For example, Abraham “believed the LORD, and the LORD reckoned it to him as righteousness” (Genesis 15:6). Abraham was righteous because he trusted God, not because he was morally perfect. Human righteousness entails being put in a right relationship before God, as Habakkuk states, “The righteous live by their faith” (Habakkuk 2:4). God’s righteousness, then, is expressed in his covenantal faithfulness and salvation for Israel (see also Isaiah 46:13; Psalm 143:11).
John’s baptism is a call to repentance, a preparatory step in restoring one’s relationship with God, that is, to become righteous again. Jesus, therefore, was not coming for baptism for his own sins, but he came in solidarity with the sinners whom God had sent him to save. Apart from being God’s eschatological agent of salvation, Jesus was at the same time the Davidic King and representative of the Jews before God. So he humbled himself alongside his people to wait on God’s mercy. Because of Jesus’ mediatory role, John finally consented to baptize him.
The text does not explicitly describe Jesus’ immersion into the Jordan, only the theophany as he came up from the water. At this Trinitarian moment, God the Father spoke through the clouds about his Son, on whom the Spirit descended in the form of a dove.
What the voice from heaven said was essentially identical across the three Synoptic Gospels with one key difference. In Mark and Luke, God addressed Jesus directly, “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased” (Mark 1:11; Luke 3:22), whereas in Matthew, God made an announcement, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17). Jesus was being commissioned to his messianic task in Mark and Luke, but he was introduced to Israel in Matthew.
This declaration is laden with meaning. First, Israel’s king was viewed metaphorically as God’s son (see also 2 Samuel 7:14; Psalm 2:7), ruling Israel on God’s behalf, and leading the nation to live as obedient children of God. For Jesus, though, “Son of God” not only points to his messianic status, but his unique conception by the Holy Spirit as well. Second, Jesus was God’s beloved like how Isaac was the “only son … whom [Abraham] loved” (Genesis 22:2). Just as Abraham was told to sacrifice Isaac, God would also lose his Son to death. Third, Jesus was identified with the servant of the Lord, about whom God says, “Here is my servant, … in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him” (Isaiah 42:1).
The Christ Hymn of Philippians 2:5-11 says it all. Like the people at the Jordan, we too must respond to God’s voice in awe and in gratitude, giving Jesus the worship worthy of his divine status, and the heartfelt thanks for his humility and faithful obedience to his Father.