In a Nutshell…
Read the passage here.
By way of introduction, I want to pick up a couple of points from last week’s sermon.
The first is the [over-arching] notion of fulfillment. Once again, one of the things that Matthew is showing us is how Jesus is the fulfillment of the O.T. That is to say that Jesus is the fulfillment (or the completeness) of God’s intention for the redemption of creation through Israel.
A second item I want to pick up is that of the political/social situation of Israel. We’re reminded that after years of exile and political domination (Assyrians, Babylonians, Greeks, and Romans), the Jewish people were longing for the promised restoration. They were looking towards various individuals who claimed (or were thought) to be the Messiah. And alongside of that, we have the situation with Herod, the commodification of the High priesthood, and the general decline of the temple system.
It’s in this context that we get the rise of groups like the Sadducees, the Pharisees, and the Essenes. I won’t re-iterate what was said, except to point out the fact that there were various groups and figures trying to claim authority as to how to be righteous, and so bring about (so to speak) the kingdom of God.
The final point that I want to pick up is John the Baptist’s condemnation against the Sadducees and Pharisees who were there. Essentially he tells them that (in Paul’s words) not all who are descended from Israel are Israel.
So our passage today follows John’s interaction with these religious leaders and, in contrast, recounts Jesus’ baptism.
Now one more thing I want to talk about from last week’s passage (re: John the Baptist) is the notion of repentance. John tells the Sadducees and Pharisees:
“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8 Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. 9 And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. 10 The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”
11 “I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you withthe Holy Spirit and fire. 12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”Matthew 3:7-12
We’ve talked about repentance before, so I won’t go into it too deeply. However, it’s worth noting that the Greek word for repentance is metanoia. Metanoia, literally, means a change of mind. Frequently, when we use the word repentance, we mean something like “feeling sorry.” We even use that phrase in various evangelistic approaches – “tell God that you’re sorry;” “God, I’m sorry for my sin.” There’s certainly a sense in which repentance, metanoia, means remorse. However, the greater sense of the word means something along the lines of a changed worldview (which naturally should result in a changed way of living). John makes this explicit with his phrase, “produce fruit in keeping with repentance.”
Therefore, in the context of the religious leaders, this seems to mean something along the lines of, “You need to change the way you understand God and God’s kingdom.” Projecting (my own thoughts and opinions), perhaps it means something like, “You need to live in such a way that God is allowed to be God; you need to pursue a kingdom that is actually God’s kingdom (and not your own).”
And it’s this that sets the stage for Jesus entering the scene. This is Jesus’ first appearance (so to speak) since he was an infant. And his first public appearance in Matthew is to submit to baptism.
All of the Gospel writers mention Jesus’ baptism (though in John, it’s referred to rather than depicted). And it’s worth noting that Matthew is the only gospel writer who includes a rationale for Jesus’ baptism. Verses 13-15 say:
13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John. 14 But John tried to deter him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”
15 Jesus replied, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” Then John consented.Matthew 3:13-15
So John’s surprise at Jesus’ desire to be baptized is understandable. Because he has just told us that his is a baptism of repentance. And what on earth would Jesus have to repent?
There’s a further cultural question of authority here. Because, culturally speaking, the expectation would be that the person who was baptized was under the authority of the baptizer. So Jesus being baptized would raise questions of “who was the higher authority?” In other words, people might naturally wonder if they should be following John instead of Jesus.
Matthew’s account of this story, then, serves to tell us precisely that this is not what’s going on. John himself acknowledges that it is he that should be baptized by Jesus – it’s Jesus who has the authority here.
Jesus isn’t submitting to the authority of John; nor is he confessing a need to repent (especially not in the sense that we often use the word – as discussed). Rather, Jesus is being baptized in order to “fulfill” all righteousness.
Then, in what sense is Jesus fulfilling all righteousness? In short, there seem to be three main views regarding this.
Firstly, there’s the idea that Jesus is meeting some sort of religious requirement or statute. This view doesn’t seem to have a lot of support in the major commentaries (though it’s not excluded – Ulrich Luz, Hermeneia; however, even Luz refers not to a specific statute or scripture, but “the entire divine will”).
Secondly, some feel that the idea of “to fulfill” has to do with fulfilling scripture. As we have already seen, Matthew frequently points to Jesus as fulfilling scripture. Now it’s worth noting that, as far as I can tell, we don’t have in mind a specific scripture (saying, for example, that the Messiah will need to be baptized). Rather, what’s usually referred to is the notion that Jesus takes on the role of Israel. It’s Israel that needs to repent, it’s Israel that needs to turn from her wicked ways and return to God. Jesus, in the same way that he takes on the sins of the nation (as in many references in Isaiah), here takes on the role of Israel.
The third perspective is in some way related to both. As we said, Jesus in his baptism (and elsewhere through Matthew) takes on the role of, or identifies with, Israel. Baptism, and there isn’t universal agreement regarding the origins, the symbolism, or purpose of baptism, often functions as an initiation rite. By being baptized, one becomes, for example, a member of the Essene community. And as we’ve already seen (or suggested), John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance. It’s a baptism of leaving behind an old way of life, a particular worldview, and entering in to a new one. In baptism, one dies to his or her old way of life, and comes out of the water into new life. In our baptism, we leave behind the life of the world (which can be defined quite widely) into the kingdom life.
So, in short, I think that what’s happening in Jesus’ baptism is that he is fulfilling all righteousness by representing Israel – as a type, so to speak – leaving behind the old life, the old understanding and assumptions of the kingdom of God, and entering into (and opening up) the new kingdom, the true kingdom of God.
So by contrasting Jesus’ baptism with the encounter with the Sadducees and Pharisees, maybe what Matthew is doing is reminding his readers of why they turned to Jesus in the first place. Maybe what we have in Matthew, what he’s trying to address, is a situation where many years after Jesus died – this Jesus who was believed to be the Messiah, the one who would restore Israel to “glory” – things haven’t seemed to have gotten any better. People aren’t seeing the kingdom that they had hoped for, or thought that they were supposed to see.
Into this context, Matthew is again pointing to Jesus as the fulfillment of God’s promises. Matthew is pointing to the fact that, in Jesus, our entire concept of Kingdom, of what God is doing, has to change – is changed. And, as Chris reminded us, faithfulness to God’s purposes, continued trust that Jesus is the Messiah, doesn’t mean that things are all of a sudden going to get better. We will still wrestle with kingdoms, powers, and principalities. But we leave all of those behind, we die to them, in order to enter into the new kingdom.
All of this is highlighted by the closing verses in this short scene. Matthew tells us what happened when Jesus was baptized:
16 As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, 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, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”Matthew 3:16-17
This scene is basically identical with the account in Mark and Luke:
Luke 3:21 When all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too. And as he was praying, heaven was opened 22 and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”Luke 3:21-22
Mark 1:9 At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. 11 And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”Mark 1:9-11
As you can see, whereas Luke and Mark report the “voice from heaven” speaking in the second person – speaking to Jesus – Matthew reports the voice, that is the voice of God, speaking in the third person – speaking, presumably, to the crowds gathered.
Very simply, what Matthew does is turn, what could essentially be conceived of as, a personal affirmation into a public proclamation.
Now it’s of note that it’s commonly recognized that the baptism passage makes strong allusions to Old testament passages. There are a number of passages that might be alluded to (the parting of the heavens – Ezek 1:1; the Spirit descending like a dove – Gen 8 (Noah’s dove); etc.). The part that’s interesting for our purposes is the phrase, “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” This likely seems to be an allusion to Isaiah 42, which says:
“Here is my servant, whom I uphold,Isaiah 42:1
my chosen one in whom I delight;
I will put my Spirit on him,
and he will bring justice to the nations.
Now this is only a best guess that this is the O.T. passage in mind, not a certainty. But what’s noteworthy about the use of this passage is that it’s one of the suffering servant passages in Isaiah. And we don’t have the space to get into a detailed discussion of the suffering servant. But what we see is a servant of God whose rule is entered into through suffering.
In other words, the allusion to Isaiah 42 seems to reinforce the theme that, not only is Jesus confirmed to be the chosen one of God, but that the kingdom that he is bringing is different from what has been expected.
So what the voice from heaven seems to be doing is affirming explicitly what Matthew is demonstrating implicitly through the baptism episode: that Jesus Christ is the son of God, the Messiah. And that the kingdom that John says has come near is not the kingdom of the Sadducees, the Pharisees, or of any other pretender, but the kingdom of Christ.
So What Now…?
The people of Israel were expecting a Messiah of a certain kind. And the people who followed Jesus were hoping that he was the Messiah. And after Jesus died, after Jesus rose again, and after 30 or 40 years of pretty much nothing changing, they had to be asking, “where is this kingdom that we were promised? Did we follow Jesus in vain?” And a lot of what Matthew is going to explore through the gospel is precisely the notion that we do not follow Jesus in vain, that the kingdom has come near, but that Jesus is bringing a different kind of kingdom. He’s bringing a different kind of kingdom because everyone was expecting the wrong kingdom.
The baptism of Jesus, then, stands as a paradigm or an archetype – not just an example, but an entirely new way of viewing, entering into, and doing life – of understanding kingdom. And the question that we have to ask, as we continue our way through Matthew, is whether we are willing to enter into, whether we want to be part of, the kingdom of Christ.