D. The Messiah Revealed as the Son of God (3:13–17)
13 Then Jesus arrived 1 from Galilee to join John at the Jordan in order to be baptized by him. 14 But John tried to put him off: 2 he said, “I am the one who needs to be baptized by you, and yet you are coming to me!” 15 Jesus replied, “Let it be so for now, for this is the right way for us to fulfill all that is required of us.” 3 Then John allowed him to be baptized. 4
16 As soon as Jesus had been baptized he came up 5 out of the water, and suddenly 6 heaven was opened, 7 and he saw the Spirit of God coming down like a dove and coming upon him. 8 17 And a voice was heard from heaven, saying, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am delighted.” 9
The first appearance of the adult Jesus in Matthew’s story takes place in the context of John’s baptism, with Jesus as John’s Galilean “follower” (see on v. 11) who receives baptism along with the repentant Judean crowds. The “debate” between John and Jesus in vv. 14–15 explores the paradox of this situation in the light of the fact already spelled out in v. 11 D. that Jesus is in fact John’s superior and himself the dispenser of a far more significant “baptism.” Later Christians would raise the more specifically theological problem of why a sinless Son of God should receive a baptism which focused on repentance and forgiveness; this problem is imaginatively tackled by the “Gospel according to the Hebrews” as quoted by Jerome, Pelag. 3:2, where Jesus responds as follows to the suggestion that he should be baptized by John: “What sin have I committed, that I should go and be baptized by him? Unless perhaps the very thing I have just said is ignorance [and therefore sinful].” But the specific issue of Jesus’ sinlessness is not raised as such here in Matthew. 10 The issue is rather a matter of relative status and of the contrast between the two baptisms. 11
Jesus’ enigmatic reply in v. 15 indicates that he sees a God-given appropriateness in his receiving baptism from John, but does not clearly explain why it should be so. Some suggestions will be discussed below. But for Matthew the importance of the event is not in the baptism itself, but in the revelation which follows it, which culminates in the declaration that Jesus is God’s unique Son, a theological position which has been assumed in 2:15 but is now brought into the open.
How open it was in the narrative setting depends on whether the revelatory events of vv. 16–17 are understood as phenomena witnessed by John and other bystanders or as an experience of Jesus alone (and therefore given to the readers as a privileged insight not available to people at the time). The latter reading seems clear in Mark 1:10–11, where we are told only of what Jesus himself “saw” and of a voice which addressed him in the second person. Luke 3:21–22 apparently envisages a more public event, in that he describes the opening of heaven and the descent of the Spirit as what “happened,” not just what Jesus saw, and describes the Spirit’s descent as “in bodily form like a dove,” though the voice from heaven again speaks to Jesus in the second person. John 1:32–34 tells us that John witnessed the descent of the Spirit. A further “objectifying” of the event is found in the early tradition of a light shining from the water to the dismay of the crowds (see p. 116, n. 4 ). Matthew’s wording of the first part of the scene is closer to Mark than to Luke in that he speaks of the descent of the Spirit as what Jesus saw (and there is no mention of “bodily form”), but closer to Luke in that heaven “was opened,” not just seen to be opened. More significantly, in v. 17 Matthew presents the voice from heaven as a third person statement about Jesus, as in the parallel revelation to the disciples in 17:5. 12 As such it was apparently intended for others (including John) to hear (as the addition of “Listen to him” in 17:5 suggests), though Matthew lays no emphasis on John or anyone else other than Jesus himself being the audience. It seems then that Matthew (like Luke but by different means) has adapted the account to allow his readers to see this as a public revelation of Jesus as the Son of God, while maintaining the focus essentially on the experience of Jesus himself. 13
13 We noted above (on v. 3) that Matthew has given the impression that John’s clientele came only from the south of Palestine and Perea, but that John 1:35–51 speaks of Galileans also among John’s followers. For Jesus to make a journey of some 70 miles from Nazareth to the area of John’s activity in a “foreign” territory would require significant motivation, and v. 15 suggests that Jesus was already aware of God’s special purpose for him, for which his baptism by John was an appropriate prelude. The wording of this verse indicates a firm sense of purpose.
14–15 This exchange, recorded only by Matthew, reflects the consistent NT conviction that John’s role was subordinate to that of Jesus, and therefore perhaps some apologetic embarrassment over the acknowledged fact that Jesus’ public ministry derived from his initial enrollment as a “disciple” of John and a recipient of his baptism. No indication is given of how John recognized Jesus as the “stronger one” whose coming he had predicted in v. 11 (contrast John 1:30–34, where John’s recognition of Jesus follows and results from the events at his baptism). His words perhaps imply, “I need your Spirit-and-fire baptism, not you my water-baptism.”
The substance of Jesus’ reply is clear enough: John is to overcome his scruples and carry out the baptism requested. Whatever may be their ultimate relationship, this is the right course “for now,” and Jesus will be, now as throughout the gospel, perfectly obedient to the will of God. But the explanation given does not spell out why this is “the right way for us to fulfill all that is required of us”. 14 The usage of dikaiosynē (which I have translated “what is required”) elsewhere in Matthew’s gospel indicates a basic meaning of the conduct which God expects of his people. 15 This might be taken to mean only that John’s baptism is a divinely instituted ordinance which therefore it is “right” for everyone to submit to. But the statement that it is “fitting for us” to fulfill this dikaiosynē indicates that Jesus is thinking of something specific to his own and John’s role rather than of a general principle: God requires him to be baptized by John. The word “fulfill,” normally used by Matthew in his quotation formula in connection with the completion of a scripturally authenticated pattern (see further on 5:17), also suggests that this baptism has a role in the carrying out of Jesus’ specific mission. 16
The most obvious way in which Jesus’ baptism prepares for his mission is by indicating his solidarity with John’s call to repentance in view of the arrival of God’s kingship. By first identifying with John’s proclamation Jesus lays the foundation for his own mission to take on where John has left off. Further, as Jesus is baptized along with others at the Jordan, he is identified with all those who by accepting John’s baptism have declared their desire for a new beginning with God. He thus prepares for his own role in “bearing their weaknesses” (8:17) and eventually “giving his life as a ransom for many” (20:28) through shedding his blood for their forgiveness (26:28). If he is to be their representative, he must first be identified with them. 17
This representative role is reminiscent of Isaiah’s “servant of Yahweh” who is to suffer for the sins of the people, and an echo of the “servant” prophecy in Isa 53 may possibly be discerned in the use of the term dikaiosynē here. 18 Isa 53:11 speaks of the servant as “the righteous one” who “will make many righteous” by bearing their iniquities, and the repeated Hebrew term yaṣdîq ṣaddîq perhaps prompted Matthew’s echoing dikaiosynē. 19 The verbal allusion is not certain, but the servant ideology forms an appropriate background to this saying of Jesus.
16 The significance of the baptism hinted at in vv. 14–15 is distinguished from the revelatory event which follows it, which takes place after Jesus has come out of the river. Three elements are combined in vv. 16b-17, the opening of heaven, the descent of the Spirit, and the divine proclamation. The opening of heaven is familiar elsewhere in the NT as an expression for a visionary experience (John 1:51; Acts 7:56; 10:11; Rev 4:1; 19:11). There is a significant OT parallel in Ezek 1:1 where Ezekiel, standing beside a river, also sees heaven opened and receives a theophanic vision and hears God’s voice commissioning him for his prophetic role and giving him the Spirit (Ezek 2:2). Isa 63:19 (EVV 64:1) asks God to tear (LXX anoigō, as here) the heavens and come down to redeem his people. The opening of heaven is the prelude to the divine communication which follows and especially to the visible descent of the Spirit.
The descent of the Spirit of God recalls well-known messianic prophecies in Isaiah which say that God will place his Spirit upon his chosen servant (Isa 11:2; 42:1; 61:1). 20 This is not to say that Jesus has hitherto been without the Spirit, since Matthew has attributed his birth to the Spirit (1:18, 20). But now as the Spirit “comes upon him” Jesus is visibly equipped and commissioned to undertake his messianic mission. 21 The one who is to “baptize in the Holy Spirit” (v. 11) must first himself be endowed with the Spirit. If the coming of the Spirit is to be visible, however, some visual form is needed.
When the Spirit comes upon people in Acts the evidence is in their subsequent behavior, speaking in tongues and preaching boldly (Acts 2:4; 4:31; 10:44–46; 19:6) rather than in any visible “descent,” but in Acts 2:2–3 we read of both audible and visible phenomena, wind and fire. This is the only occasion when we hear of the Spirit appearing in visual form “like a dove.” 22 Interpreters have scoured the OT and other literature (Jewish 23 and pagan) for references to doves which might explain the symbolism, but without finding any consensus (Davies & Allison, 1.331–334, list 16 options). The most promising suggestion is perhaps that which draws on Noah’s dove flying above the waters of chaos (Gen 8:8–12) 24 in combination with the metaphorical language of Gen 1:2 which speaks of the Spirit of God “hovering” or “brooding” (meraḥepet) over the face of the waters at creation; in the latter case no specific bird is mentioned, but the metaphor apparently depicts a bird-like motion (the only other use of the verb, in Deut 32:11, is of an eagle over its chicks). 25 Such an allusion would suggest a “new creation” typology underlying the baptism narrative. But there is no reason to assume that the species of bird here is significant, any more than it was in the imagery of Gen 1:2; the dove is simply a familiar bird, whose swooping flight formed an appropriate way of visualizing the descent of the Spirit (and so has been given an honoured place in Christian art ever since, especially in attempts to present the Trinity in a visual form).
17 The “voice from heaven” 26 in this verse, together with its repetition in 17:5, offers to Matthew’s readers (and, to judge by the third person form in which Matthew alone records it, also to the bystanders at the Jordan) the most unmediated access to God’s own view of Jesus. Following Jesus’ acceptance of John’s baptism as the will of God for him, it declares both God’s pleasure in that obedience and also, more fundamentally, his own unique relationship with God.
The words of the declaration are usually understood to be derived from one or more of Isa 42:1; Ps 2:7 and Gen 22:2. 27 Isa 42:1 introduces a new figure in the prophecy with the words “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one, in whom my soul takes pleasure,” and goes on to say that God has put his Spirit upon him, which links closely with what we have seen in v. 16. The wording of v. 17 does not echo the LXX version of Isa 42:1, but when Matthew later gives a full quotation of that passage (12:18) he will use a Greek version which is closer to this verse; 28 the final clause “with whom I am delighted” closely reflects the Hebrew rāṣtâ napšî of Isa 42:1. But Isa 42:1 does not provide the key term “son.” 29 This is usually explained as an echo of Ps. 2:7 in which God addresses his anointed king, “You are my son; today I have begotten you,” but while the second person version in Mark and Luke readily suggests such an echo, in Matthew’s version it is only the words “my son” which are in common. 30 In Gen 22:2, however, we have “your son, your only son, whom you love,” and the LXX version uses agapētos for the “only” son, thus offering a suggestive source for the wording of most of the divine declaration here. A combined allusion to Isa 42:1 and Gen 22:2 might thus account quite adequately for the OT background to the wording in its Matthean form.
But these words of God are not presented as an OT quotation, and it is questionable how far we are justified in seeking specific textual sources for every word. The link with the descent of the Spirit certainly makes an echo of Isa 42:1 strongly plausible, so that Matthew’s readers would learn to see Jesus in the role of the “servant of Yahweh” who would die for the sins of the people (see above on v. 15). Matthew will return to Isa 42:1–4 when he quotes it in full in 12:17–21 to show how Jesus puts into practice the non-violent style of the servant’s work. It is also possible, though less likely, that some readers who knew the Genesis story well might have noticed the echo of the phrase “beloved son, whom you love” and reflected that God was now going to give up his own son to death just as he had once asked Abraham to do. 31 But neither of those allusions is the main point of v. 17. God is not quoting the OT, nor setting a puzzle for scripturally erudite hearers to unravel. He is declaring in richly allusive words that this man who has just been baptized by John is his own Son in whom he delights. From this point on Matthew’s readers have no excuse for failing to understand the significance of Jesus’ ministry, however long it may take the actors in the story to reach the same christological conclusion (14:33; 16:16; 26:63–64). It will be this crucial revelation of who Jesus is which will immediately form the basis of the initial testing which Jesus is called to undergo in 4:1–11: “If you are the Son of God …” (4:3, 6). And there, as in the account of the baptism, Jesus’ sonship will be revealed in his obedience to his Father’s will.
1 See p. 96, n. 1 above for the verb παραγίνομαι, used here for the last time by Matthew to introduce an important new character onto the scene. Whereas in v. 1 it indicated the “appearing” of a prophet with a new mission in an uninhabited place, by now that place has become more frequented, and Jesus “arrives” to join an existing movement.
3 For the possible implications of this enigmatic reply see comments below. The translation attempts to capture as idiomatically as possible the twin ideas of “fittingness” in πρέπον ἐστίν and of “meeting God’s requirements” which is the primary sense of δικαιοσύνη in Matthew.
4 See B. M. Metzger, Textual Commentary 10–11, for a textual tradition going back to the second century which adds here that “When Jesus was being baptized a great light shone from the water so that all who were gathered there were afraid.” This addition to the story, while clearly not original, testifies to a developing tendency to read Jesus’ experience at his baptism as a spectacular public event rather than a private revelation to him alone as in Mark.
5 Matthew has εὐθύς, “immediately,” qualifying ἀνέβη, “he came up;” it functions in the sentence not so much to indicate an unusually prompt emergence from the water but rather to alert the reader that something remarkable is about to happen. (Davies and Allison, 1.328, take the placing of εὐθύς as an error by Matthew in editing Mark, where it apparently qualifies ὄδεν.) I judged that εὐθύς was better left untranslated where it occurs, and instead have aimed to produce the same effect by using “As soon as” at the beginning of the sentence and “suddenly” for ἰδού in the next clause.
6 As in 1:20; 2:13, 19 (see p. 46, n. 19), this is an attempt to capture the force of ἰδού. Stylistic considerations have led me not to repeat “suddenly” in v. 17, where the construction is different in that ἰδού functions (vividly but not very literally: cf Rev 1:12, βλέπειν τὴν φωνήν) as the main verb of which the subject is φωνή, so that I have represented it there by a verb, “was heard.”
7 Most later MSS and versions add “to him,” which would imply a private vision as in Mark 1:10, “he saw heaven torn apart,” rather than an objective event as in Luke 3:21, “it happened that heaven was opened.” The textual arguments are evenly balanced, but in the comments below I will argue that Matthew leans toward the Lucan reading of the event.
8 Manuscript and versional evidence is divided over whether the “and” should be omitted. Most Greek MSS include it, and there is no evidence for the feminine form ἐρχομένην which would be required if the participle directly described the dove “settling” on him. Since the neuter participle must have the Spirit as its subject on either reading, the presence or absence of the καί is essentially a stylistic matter, and I have followed the majority of witnesses in preferring to retain it.
9 ἐν ᾧ εὐδόκησα, literally “in whom I found pleasure,” an expression of warm approval and love. The aorist tense reflects the tense of the phrase in Isa 42:1 on which these words are based (see comments below); it expresses a settled opinion rather than a temporary pleasure (pace Gundry, 53, who explains it as “referring to God’s pleasure in the baptism of Jesus”).
10 Gundry, 51, imaginatively finds such an idea implied in v. 16: Jesus came up “immediately” from the water (see n. 5 above) because he did not “stay in the river to confess his sins. He had none.” Subsequent interpreters have not been convinced.
11 For some expressions of post-NT Christian embarrassment over the fact of Jesus’ baptism see J. E. Taylor, John 262–263. The survey of the history of exegesis by Luz, 1.174–176, explores more widely “attempts out of embarrassment to set the text into a ‘high’ Christology of the church.”
12 D sys c and one OL MS have the second person form as in Mark and Luke, but it is more likely that this is a case of synoptic assimilation than that an original second person text was conformed in the vast majority of early MSS and versions to 17:5.
13 J. D. G. Dunn, Jesus 62–65, discusses the significance of the event of Jesus’ baptism from the point of view of Jesus’ own spiritual awareness, with the focus on the twin themes of “Spirit and sonship.”
15 The detailed discussion by B. Przybylski, Righteousness, has firmly established this meaning. Note especially his conclusion from a study (pp. 78–99) of the seven uses of δικαιοσύνη in Matthew: “Righteousness is seen as God’s demand upon man. Righteousness refers to proper conduct before God.” (99) Cf. D. Hill, Greek Words 125–130, who concludes that here the term “bears its Septuagintal meaning of ‘righteousness of life’ through obedience which is in accordance with the divine will.” (127) R. Mohrlang, Matthew 113–114, argues that δικαιοσύνη in Matthew “embraces both being and doing”, motivation as well as action, but agrees that it remains “a strictly ethical concept” in contrast to the Pauline soteriological use. See, however, D. A. Hagner, in M. J. Wilkins and T. Paige, Worship, Theology and Ministry in the Early Church 101–120, for an attempt to modify the growing consensus around Przybylski’s view by emphasizing also the place of grace in Matthew’s theology; here Hagner finds the primary reference of δικαιοσύνη to be to “God’s saving will.” (ibid. 115–117)
16 J. P. Meier, Law 79–80, argues for taking πληρῶσαι πᾶσαν δικαιοσύνψην “in a prophetic or heilsgeschichtliche sense.” The same point is rightly argued by Hagner, 1.56, though it is a pity that he feels it necessary to do so by denying that δικαιοσύνη here means “moral goodness.” It is surely “morally good” to do what God requires of one in a given situation. His objection that baptism as such “cannot be thought of as fulfilling all righteousness” misses the point of Jesus’ saying in its dialogue context, which is not that “the act is positively described as the fulfilling of all righteousness” but rather that if we are to fulfill all that God requires then even this (apparently inappropriate) act must also be included. To recognize the salvation-historical focus of this saying does not therefore demand that we exempt this use of δικαιοσύνη from the general Matthean sense established by Przybylski.
17 J. A. Gibbs, CBQ 64 (2002) 520–526, building on his argument that Jesus is addressed as “son” in v. 17 because he takes the place of God’s “son” Israel, argues that the baptism presents “Israel standing with Israel.” He discerns a development through the three passages which present Jesus as God’s “son” Israel in 2:13–15 (“very much like Israel”), 3:13–17 (“distinguished from Israel”) and 4:1–11 (sharply contrasted with Israel).
18 See my Jesus and the OT 124–125. Carson, 107, objects that this suggestion “reads Paul’s use of ‘righteousness’ back into Matthew,” but the term is drawn from Isaiah, not from Paul, and Carson himself goes on to agree that the saying does in fact refer to Jesus’ fulfillment of the role of the Isaianic servant.
22 It is sometimes rightly argued (e.g. by L. E. Keck, NTS 17 (1970/1) 63–67) that ὡσεὶ περιστεράν may indicate not the visual form in which the Spirit was seen but rather the manner of the Spirit’s descent. A “dove-like manner” is however not easy to define (Keck’s suggestion that it refers to “the gentle flight of a dove” does not tally with the experience of those who have contended with the pigeons in Trafalgar Square; cf J. E. Taylor, John 274–275, for a similar experience), and in any case some visual form must have been required to make the descent of the invisible Spirit visible, so little is gained by this suggestion. Luke’s σωματικῷ εἴδει indicates that he did not take the dove imagery purely adverbially.
23 Appeal is sometimes made to the rabbinic use of the dove as a symbol of Israel (b.Ber. 53b; b.Šabb. 49a; Cant. Rab. 1:15, 2; 2:14, 1; 4:1, 2), but why should the Spirit resemble Israel? The use of this imagery in the OT (Hos 7:11) is not encouraging: Ephraim is a silly dove ready to be caught. The use of “my dove” for the bride in Song 2:14; 5:2; 6:9 also provides no obvious basis for reference to the Spirit.
24 The link between the flood and baptism in 1 Pet 3:20–21 might support such an association. Keener, 132–133, notes the typology of the new world after the flood “as a prototype of the coming age.”
25 The identification of the “hovering” Spirit as a dove is made by R. Ben Zoma in the late first century a.d. (b.Ḥag. 15a) Cf. b.Ber. 3a, a second-century reference to “a divine voice, cooing like a dove.” Tg. Cant. 2:12 interprets the voice of the turtle-dove as “the voice of the Holy Spirit.”
26 Sometimes described as a bat qōl, a rabbinic term for a supernatural communication. The bat qōl was in rabbinic thought only an echo of the voice of God, and many recent commentators therefore declare the concept inappropriate here, where there is no reason to believe that Matthew intends us to understand anything less than a direct declaration by God himself about his Son. See to the contrary, however, Keener, 133–134.
27 A further allusion to Exod 4:22–23 is suggested by P. G. Bretscher, JBL 87 (1968) 305–311. This would depend on Jesus being seen as inheriting the status of Israel as God’s “firstborn son.” But the verbal links are not impressive.
28 It includes both ἀγαπητός, “beloved” and the same tense of the verb εὐδοκέω, “take pleasure in,” neither of which is in LXX.
29 J. Jeremias, Theology 53–55 (cf. TDNT 5.701–702), argued that this too derived from Isa 42:1, since παῖς can mean “child” as well as “servant.” But “child” is not the same as “son,” and παῖς is not normally used in that relational sense (except possibly in John 4:51). There is a comprehensive response to Jeremias by I. H. Marshall in NTS 15 (1968/9) 326–336.
30 J. A. Gibbs, CBQ 64 (2002) 511–520, disputes any echo of Ps 2:7 here, and derives the term “son” from the Matthean theme of Jesus as the fulfillment of God’s “son” Israel, a n allusion which he traces especially to Jer 31:20 (LXX 38:20, where Ephraim is described as ὸς ἀγαπητός … ἐμοί).
31 Some interpreters take the possible echo of Gen 22:2 here as evidence that Matthew was relating Jesus’ mission to the Jewish Aqedah doctrine, which saw the binding (ʿaqedâ) and submission of Isaac as the vicarious basis for Israel’s redemption. See e.g. the versions of Gen 22 in Tg. Ps.-J. (see J. Bowker, Targums 224ff); Josephus, Ant. 1.232; Ps.-Philo 18:5; 32:2–4. G. Vermes, Scripture 193–227, argues that this theology was current in the first century a.d.; see however the cautionary comments of E. P. Sanders, Paul 28–29, and the fuller discussion by P. R. Davies and B. D. Chilton, CBQ 40 (1978) 514–546. The Christianized T. Levi 18:6–7 apparently understands Jesus’ baptism in the light of Gen 22, but without obvious Aqedah connotations.