Matthew 3: 13-17
Parallel Mark 1: 9-11, Luke 3: 21-22
13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. 14 John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” 15 But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. 16 And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17 And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
Matthew’s careful narration of the ministry of John the Baptist reaches its climax with the baptism of Jesus, and just as the identity of John the Baptist and the content of his ministry pulls on the prophetic imagination, particularly from Isaiah in this short narrative of the baptism the hope of Isaiah mingles in with the poetic waters of the Psalms as we continue to wonder who this Jesus who meets us in the midst of the waters is. In the previous section I highlighted Isaiah 43: 1-7 where the people are reminded by the prophet Isaiah:
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flames shall not consume you. Isaiah 43:2
We heard John proclaim that one who was more powerful was coming after him, one who would baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire, and as we are introduced to Jesus, Matthew invites us into the water to wonder about this one who is coming after John. The day that comes after the announcement of Elijah in Malachi 4: 5-6 is the day of the LORD, could the coming kingdom of heaven and the day of the LORD truly be at hand in this moment Matthew narrates to us? In Matthew 1 we were introduced to a title for Jesus, Emmanuel: God with us, could this Jesus who stands amid the waters with the reconstituted people of Israel in some way be the God of Israel? Mark’s gospel may have made continual allusions and hints that in Jesus we were encountering more than just a Messiah but Matthew continues to link suggestively in ways that would be shocking to those attuned to hear the imagery of scripture referenced in this way that in Jesus we are somehow meeting ‘God with us.’
Jesus reenters the gospel by approaching John at the Jordan and journeying away from his home in Galilee and approaches John to be baptized with the people. Matthew’s short narrative spends longer on this scene than either Mark or Luke wanting us to hear John’s protest and identify Jesus as one who is greater than him, as one who should be baptizing him. Jesus’ response places him with the people of Israel, those who have come to the waters, those who have turned their hearts to God, those who are repenting and he enters into this space where they have come seeking God’s promised kingdom and is joined to their story. Jesus is not only linked to the story of Israel in the birth narratives, his narrative begins to take on the shape of their story and his identity is typologically joined to the identity and vocation of Israel. As Richard B. Hays proposes:
I would propose that Jesus’ acceptance of a baptism of repentance, performed at the Jordan River, is meant to signify his symbolic identification with sinful Israel (the people whom he will “save from their sins”), and the figurative beginning of that new Israel’s entry into the land of promise. (Hays, 2016, p. 116)
I think it is also important to realize that a continual theme throughout the scriptures is God’s desire to dwell among the people. The kingdom of heaven is being brought to earth rather than the citizens of earth being transported to heaven. God’s desire in the Exodus was to dwell among God’s people in the tabernacle at the center of the community and the sin of the Golden Calf threatened this because God’s anger at their betrayal posed a threat to the people, and yet God forgave and did dwell and go forward with he people. The entire birth narrative of Matthew suggests that this incarnation, to use the language Christians would assign to the birth of Jesus, is God in a new and unexpected ways coming to dwell among God’s people for the sake of the world.
Jesus’ answer to John the Baptist reintroduces us to the concept of righteousness. We first encountered Joseph as a righteous man and righteousness is far more important word to Matthew than to either Mark or Luke who rarely use this term. One the one hand, righteousness in the gospel is held as a contrast to sinners, sometimes in surprising ways, as Jesus will later say, “I have come to call not the righteous but sinners” (Matthew 9: 13) and yet the followers of Jesus are to, “strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness.” (Matthew 6: 33) Jesus becomes the fulfiller of what righteousness will look like and the one who can interpret how one is to live a righteous life. Here Jesus models righteousness in standing with the people who are striving for the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness, later in the Sermon on the Mount he will interpret how to approach the Torah (Law) and what the righteousness of the kingdom of heaven will look like. While Jesus has come to ‘save the people from their sins’ he is not leaving them alone in this, but instead he will walk with these new disciples and model and teach them what it means to hunger and thirst for righteousness, how they can embody a righteousness greater than the scribes and the Pharisees, and how they can seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness.
Matthew in his unique way wants to highlight this story in a way that accents it differently than Mark and Luke. One of the differences between Matthew and Mark is what happens to the heavens. In Mark’s gospel the heavens are ripped open (the word in Greek is schizomenos, the schizo root is where we get schizophrenia-a ripped open mind) but for Matthew they were opened a far less violent act. This may relate to Matthew’s belief that the creation itself cooperates in bearing witness to who Jesus is and what Jesus means, like the star at the birth and the convulsions in the heaven and earth at the crucifixion. This is a significant change because the schizomenos word forms a bookend for the beginning and end of Mark’s gospel and Matthew chooses to narrate the story without using this rare and noticeable word. There is an intentionality in Matthew’s narration of this scene and the way he carefully chooses vocabulary to fit his vision of what is occurring.
Additionally, in Matthew’s narration of this scene, we see the only gospel where the declaration of the voice from heaven being for everyone present and not only for Jesus. In both Mark and Luke, the voice declares, “You are my son”, but in Matthew the declaration is, “This is my son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Jesus may be the only one who sees the heavens open and the Spirit descend but the voice declares for those who have ears to hear that Jesus is given the titles of Son, Beloved and one with whom God is pleased. The proclamation in this form will be echoed at the Transfiguration in Matthew 17 and we are meant to hear the connection between these event that allow reveal who Jesus is. It also links us to the centurion’s declaration at the crucifixion that “This man was God’s Son.”
In this declaration of the voice we also hear the echo of another major scriptural current that will flow throughout Matthew’s Gospel, the poetic flow of the Psalms. Here the words go back to the words of Psalm 2 and its words lifting up God’s chosen leader and the close identification between God and that leader:
I will tell of the decree of the LORD: He said to me, “You are my son; today I have begotten you. Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession. You shall break them with a rod of iron, and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.” Now therefore, O kings, be wise; be warned, O rulers of the earth. Psalm 2: 7-10
Just as Isaiah was one of the major rivers flowing into the deep sea of Matthew’s Gospel, so the Psalms will be one of the other major bodies of water contributing its language and rhythms to the gospel and helping the evangelist to find language to describe who Jesus is and what he means. For the identity of Jesus is critical to those who will pass through the waters with him.
I continued the quotation of Psalm 2 longer than most writers, though most catch the allusion to this Psalm, because there is in this public declaration a challenge to the existing powers. The gospel is a political statement and the kingdom of heaven does challenge the underlying assumptions of any empire: whether Egypt, Babylon, Rome or even a modern world power like the United States. In Jesus’ day it was well known that Caesar Augustus, who reigned during Jesus’ birth, and Emperor Tiberius, who reigned during Jesus ministry, both made claims to be the son of a god. Later in the gospel when Jesus asks for a denarius (Matthew 22:19) it likely bore an inscription stating Caesar Augustus Tiberius son of the divine Augustus. Yet, Jesus being declared Son of God by God’s voice occupies this role in a way that Caesar cannot, Caesar’s divine right may be defended by the might of the empire but for Matthew’s gospel the voice of the God of Israel’s declaration is the only one that matters. A challenge to this vision of what God’s reign through the Beloved will look like will be encountered next in the temptation narratives of the following chapter.
Matthew also slightly modifies the language around the Spirit of God from Mark in a subtle but important way. In Mark’s gospel the Spirit of God comes down ‘into’ Jesus and the will ‘throw or cast out’ Jesus into the wilderness, but in Matthew the Spirit of God comes down and appears to Jesus and will later ‘lead’ Jesus into the wilderness. For Matthew it is important that Jesus remains in control and that the Spirit of God partners with Jesus rather than controlling or possessing Jesus (which you could argue for in Mark’s gospel).
This critical piece of the story once again points to who this Jesus is. It has been a topic introduced throughout the opening chapters and there have been multiple answers that continue to give richness to the answer Matthew wants us to hear. Yet, Matthew wants us to hear this close identification between Jesus and the God of Israel in an emphatic way that is reinforced throughout these chapters. As O. Wesley Allen can state:
What the angel declared to Joseph, what the magi understood the star to mean, what the prophetic texts confirm, and what John himself proclaimed is now summed up in God’s own voice. (Allen, 2013, p. 38)
Jesus’ identity will present a challenge to both the ruling authorities who desire to claim divine authorization for their own rule and it also reframes the Jewish expectation of the ruler who God reigns on God’s behalf. Matthew’s use of the Hebrew Scriptures stretches their imagination of how God comes to dwell with the people farther than the Psalms or the prophets would have dared, and yet it is the language of the prophets and psalms that underlies the proclamation of the evangelist. Matthew is making bold claims about who Jesus is and how he is related to God. Matthew’s carefully chosen words, along with the words of the other gospel writers, Paul and the other authors of the New Testament would give birth to the Trinitarian way in which Christians would talk about God. Yet, Matthew nor any other writer of the New Testament, would have developed the vast Trinitarian language that forms the creeds of the early Catholic and Orthodox church, that language evolved around the explanation of who Jesus is to a Greek philosophical mindset rather than the mindset immersed in the Hebrew Scriptures. Matthew is far more interested in letting the disciples of Jesus know that in Jesus they are somehow meeting God with them than attempting to describe how Jesus can be fully divine and fully human, or how Jesus, God and Spirit can be one being. Matthew would probably be ambivalent to these philosophical questions but instead would want us to know how the scriptures bear witness to the hope, promise and identity of Jesus and what it means for Israel and the rest of the world.