Commentary: Matthew 3:13-17
Matthew 3:1-16 opens the public life of Jesus by reporting on the ministry of John the Baptist as a preacher of repentance and proclaimer of the coming kingdom of God. His hearers accept both these realities when they receive baptism in the Jordan river. Moreover, they also profess faith in the coming judgment by the messiah (although the term is never used by John).
At this point, today's gospel begins. It presents Jesus as one of those who came to be baptized by John. The following scene at the beginning of chapter 4 will have Jesus prepare himself for preaching the kingdom by going out into the desert where he will be tested. John's baptism for sins was not needed by Jesus, as John clearly recognizes in the reading, but it serves to link Jesus to the work of John and to signal the reader that Jesus will go even further in his proclamation of the kingdom. It increases our eagerness to know what this Jesus of Nazareth is all about!
Elements of Structure
Today's passage in Matthew is from the early church's common kerygma, or basic preaching, about the ministry of Jesus. It is found in all four gospels (see Mk 1:9-11; Lk 3:21-22; Jn 1:29-34). Each has differences in the details, however. Matthew particularly differs from Mark by indicating that John tried to prevent the baptism when he recognized the sinlessness of Jesus. Also unique to Matthew's account is Jesus' reply concerning his duty to fulfill "God's demands" (NAB) or "all righteousness" (NRSV). Thus, verses 14-15 are additions to what Mark and Luke report. This suggests that structurally, the original kerygma was the simple announcement that Jesus was baptized by John in the Jordan, that he alone, or he and the crowd both, heard the voice, and that John recognized Jesus' role as a result. Matthew has enlarged this somewhat to match his elaborate infancy accounts of chapters 1 and 2 in which Jesus and John were cousins and connected in the mystery of their births. Since the two undoubtedly knew one another, John would surely recognize the special mission of Jesus at this encounter by the Jordan.
The other key structural element is the quotation in verse 17 of Isaiah 42:1 (which is also used as part of the first reading). In order to understand the nuances of the baptism scene we need to recognize that this verse is part of the first "servant song" in Isaiah 42:1-7 and that the servant theology of Isaiah 40-55 was an important source for the early Christian interpretation of Jesus' mission. We also should note the slight but significant differences between Isaiah's words and Matthew's quoting of them. "Servant" becomes "son" while the second half of the Isaian verse is only hinted at in the remarks, first that "God's demands" (i.e., "righteousness," a close friend of "justice") must be done; and secondly, that the "spirit" descended on Jesus. These will be discussed in detail in the following section.
Message and Exegesis
The short account of Jesus' baptism opens rather abruptly with the notice that Jesus had come from Galilee. He was not part of John's followers or aligned with any of the movements that were associated with the Essenes at Qumran or the parties of Jerusalem. Jesus rather entered the stage as an unknown man with a mission. The succinct description suggests that Jesus very purposefully chose to start this way. He did not come to discover what John was about, but to signal his own beginning as a preacher of the kingdom of God who would support what John did even as he went well beyond it. As noted above, John's reluctance to baptize Jesus is Matthew's way of showing that the special divine vocation given to John at his birth was tied to recognition of his cousin Jesus' greater role. John's gospel emphasizes the same point but in a different way.
John's baptism has been presented in verses 11-12 as an "eschatological" inauguration of God's kingdom—i.e., as a final act in God's taking control of the world's destiny which demands a decision on our part to accept it or reject it (with the risk of being condemned). John's question to Jesus shows he considers himself secondary to this one who is to come, the Elijah who announces the messiah. The emphasis falls not so much on the repentance that is required but on a call to recognize that the kingdom is here. Jesus would be the one who comes with the Holy Spirit and fire.
Verse 15 has always been difficult to interpret. What are "God's demands"? Most probably they are the prophecies of the Old Testament that must be fulfilled by the messiah. In this case, the most important one is announced immediately. Verses 16-17 quote part of Isaiah 42:1 and hint at the rest. The descent of the "Spirit" like a dove from the heavens echoes the day of creation in Genesis 1:2 when God turned darkness and chaos into light and created a world of blessing. This same spirit of a new creation also was with the servant to give him the power to speak God's words and to be a witness to the nations. Thus in both Genesis and Isaiah the spirit and the "word of God" are closely linked. For Matthew, too, the word of Jesus that will be the Gospel is all important for the reader to heed.
Jesus himself, like the servant, will always heed God's word and humbly submit to the divine will. The change to "son" in verse 17 carries the same sense of total fidelity as the original "servant" does, but adds further echoes of other important scriptural prophecies of the messiah: Psalm 2:7, which declares the messianic king to be God's son and the victor over all nations; Exodus 4:22, in which Israel will be God's first-born son who serves only the Lord; and Genesis 22:2, in which Isaac, the beloved and only son, willingly accepts being sacrificed by his father Abraham. God's favor includes both the messianic mission of Jesus to save all nations, not just Israel, and also to be glorified by God in love by accepting suffering and death to accomplish this mission.
Lawrence Boadt Washington Theological Union Silver Spring, MD