Bible Book List
Matthew 3 - IVP New Testament Commentaries

God Honors His Humble Son

Given the embarrassment of some early Christian traditions that Jesus accepted baptism from one of lower status than himself, it is now inconceivable that early Christians made up the story of John baptizing Jesus (E. Sanders 1985:11; 1993:94; Meier 1994:100-105; pace Bultmann 1968:251).

Although Jesus alone did not need John's baptism-he was the giver of the true baptism (3:11)-he submitted to it to fulfill God's plan (3:14-15). In a traditional Mediterranean culture where society stressed honor and shame (Malina 1993), Jesus relinquishes his rightful honor to embrace others' shame. After Jesus' public act of humility, God publicly honors Jesus as his own Son (3:16-17; compare 2:15)-that is, as the mightier One whose coming to bestow the Spirit John had prophesied (3:11-12).

John Recognizes Jesus as the Ultimate Baptizer (3:14)

Why would the fire-baptizer seek baptism like an ordinary mortal? Whereas John recognizes Jesus' superiority, Jesus humbly identifies himself with John's mission: It is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness (Meier 1980:26-27). Although John undoubtedly recognized the Spirit's empowerment in his own ministry (Lk 1:15-17), he recognized that Jesus had come to bestow the Spirit in fuller measure than even he as a prophet had received, and he desired this baptism (Mt 3:11; compare 11:11-13).

Various schools of thought today dispute exactly what the New Testament writers meant by Spirit baptism; some think the term refers to conversion only, and others only to a subsequent experience. It may be that John applied the expression to the entire sphere of the Spirit's work in our lives, including both conversion and subsequent experiences of empowerment (see Keener 1996:17-78), in which case both main schools of thought would be correct. But regardless of our view about the specific meaning of his language, most of us fail to grasp the power God has provided us. If Jesus has bestowed on us even more spiritual power than he bestowed on John and the Old Testament prophets, today's church should be trusting God for a much deeper empowerment in our life and witness than most of us currently experience.

Jesus "Fulfills All Righteousness" by Identifying with His People (3:15)

As noted above, on behalf of others Jesus voluntarily accepted a lower status than he deserved. Since "fulfilling righteousness" elsewhere in Matthew may pertain to obeying the principles of the law (5:17, 20; compare, for example, Sib. Or. 3.246), Jesus presumably here expresses his obedience to God's plan revealed in the Scriptures. But Jesus sometimes also fulfilled the prophetic Scriptures by identifying with Israel's history and completing its mission (Mt 2:15, 18). This baptism hence probably represents Jesus' ultimate identification with Israel at the climactic stage in its history: confessing its sins to prepare for the kingdom (3:2, 6).

If this suggestion is correct, then Jesus' baptism, like his impending death (compare Mk 10:38-39 with Mk 14:23-24, 36), is vicarious, embraced on behalf of others with whom the Father has called him to identify (Lampe 1951:39). This text declares the marvelous love of God for an undeserving world-especially for us who by undeserved grace have become his disciples. Jesus' example also calls us to offer ourselves sacrificially for an undeserving world as he offered himself for us. In a world that regards moral boundaries as impractical, where nothing higher than selfish passion guides many lives around us, Jesus reminds us of a higher mission and purpose for our lives. By submitting to baptism by one of lower rank who was nevertheless fulfilling his calling, Jesus also models humility for us.

God Declares His Approval of Jesus (3:16-17)

After Jesus submits humbly to others in God's plan, God publicly acknowledges Jesus' own rank. First, heaven was opened, reflecting biblical language for God's revelation or future deliverance (Is 64:1 [LXX 63:19]; Ezek 1:1; Kingsbury 1983:64; Schweizer 1970:37; compare Joseph and Asenath 14:2/3).

Second, Jesus saw the Spirit descending like a dove and lighting on him. The background for this sign of God's approval may require further comment. Scholars have often suspected that the dove has symbolic value and have proposed a variety of possible backgrounds for it. Jewish use of the dove to symbolize God's Spirit (Abrahams 1917:48-49; Barrett 1966:38) is both rare and late, as is the rabbinic comparison of the brooding Spirit in Genesis 1 with a dove (Taylor 1952:160-61). More frequently the dove represents Israel (as in Ps-Philo 39:5; b. Sabbat 49a; 130a); but while Jesus identifies with Israel in the context (as in Mt 2:11), this passage portrays the Spirit, not Jesus, as a dove. Genesis 8:8-12 probably provides the most suitable background (see also 4 Baruch 7:8): here the dove appears as the harbinger of the new world after the flood, which other early Christian literature employs as a prototype of the coming age (Mt 24:38; 1 Pet 3:20-21; 2 Pet 3:6-7). Jesus is the inaugurator of the kingdom era that John has been proclaiming.

Third, God shows his approval of Jesus by a voice from heaven, a concept with which Matthew's Jewish audience was undoubtedly familiar. Many Jewish teachers considered this bat qol the primary source of revelation apart from Scripture exposition while the Spirit of prophecy was quenched. The Gospels show that three voices-Scripture, a prophetic voice in the wilderness and the heavenly voice-all attest Jesus' identity. The heavenly voice alone would have been inadequate, but here it confirms the witness of Scripture and a prophet. Jesus is not a mere prophet but the subject of other prophets' messages.

The fact of the voice is important, but what the voice says is most important, for this is what officially declares Jesus' identity to Matthew's biblically informed implied audience. The voice rehearses ancient biblical language, probably adapting Psalm 2:7 ("You are my Son") into an announcement to the bystanders (This is my Son). Psalm 2, originally an enthronement psalm, is here used to announce in advance Jesus' messianic enthronement. The second proposed biblical allusion here, Isaiah 42:1, is more controversial, despite its many proponents. But whether or not Mark saw Isaiah's servant as background here, Matthew surely did, for he reads the wording of this voice's recognition oracle into his own translation of Isaiah (Mt 12:18). Jesus' mission includes suffering opposition as well as reigning, and so does the mission of his followers (5:11-12; 10:22; 16:24-27; 19:27-29; 24:9-13).

The Father's acclamation of the Son may suggest various principles to Matthew's readers. First, it reveals how central Jesus is to the Father's heart and plan; no one can reject Jesus and simultaneously please the Father. Jesus is not one prophet among many, but God's ultimate revelation; that he is God's "beloved" Son underlines the magnitude of God's sacrifice (compare Jn 3:16). Though in many contemporary circles worship properly exhorts and encourages the people of God (Col 3:16), we also need the kind of worship that tells Jesus how great he is, praising him for what he has done and for who he is (Ps 150:2).

Second, the Father's acclamation reveals that the meek Jesus is also the ultimate ruler who will usher in justice and peace. The beginning of his story tells his persecuted followers the end of the story in advance, providing us firm hope for the future.

Finally, the voice reveals Jesus as the Son obedient to the point of death, who willingly divests himself of his proper honor by identifying with us in baptism and death. We who often trifle with obedience in the smallest matters-for instance, the discipline of our thoughts or words for God's honor-are shamed by our Lord's obedience. May we worship him so intensely that his desires become our own and we, like our Lord, become obedient servants with whom the Father is well pleased.

Previous commentary:
Warnings of a Wilderness Prophet

About this commentary:
IVP New Testament Commentaries are made available by the generosity of InterVarsity Press.