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Matthew 3:13-17

Lesson Focus

Jesus proclaims his obedience to the Father through his baptism. The Spirit affirms his decision. We have a chance to do the same thing through our baptism.

Lesson Outcomes

Through this lesson, students should:

  1. Understand that in Jesus’ baptism, Jesus declares his intention to live in full obedience to the Father.

  2. Understand that the Dove descending upon him is a sign that God is with and for Jesus in his intention to be obedient.

  3. Understand that in our baptism, we also declare our intention to be obedient and that we receive the Spirit to help us obey.

Catching up on the Story

Matthew provides us with one of the fuller accounts of Jesus’ birth and childhood. At this point in the narrative, we are ready to meet the adult Jesus for the first time. Of course, we have been introduced to him through a genealogy, his birth story, the visitation of the Wise Men, the attempt by Herod to kill all the baby boys his age, his escape to Egypt, and his subsequent return.

We even begin to hear more about Jesus as John the Baptist arrives on the scene. John is “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord…” (3:3). All of this, even our introductions to Jesus as a baby, stand in the same vein as the Old Testament’s prophetic longing for the Messiah. We know and hope a Messiah is coming, but we do not know exactly what he will be like. That changes with today’s passage.

Today is the First Sunday after Epiphany, which formally began on January 6. We have traveled through Advent, the time of hopefully and expectantly waiting for Jesus’ coming, and Christmas, the two Sundays we celebrate Jesus’ birth. As important as they are, both seasons are just stops along our journey toward really and truly knowing who Jesus is.

Epiphany is when things start to get fun. As the name implies, the Season of Epiphany (from now until Lent begins) is the time of exploration and revelation about the nature and character of this Jesus fellow. Each week we will discover something new about Jesus. So now, we turn our attention toward the first time we meet the adult Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew.

The Text

A quick word before we begin to look at the passage in depth. Throughout this study and in the following weeks, I will offer an expanded and sometimes paraphrased translation of the text. The goal is to illuminate the nuances of the original Greek in a way our standard translations do not do. To be sure, those who render our standard translations are experts in their field, but often readability is stressed over a fuller meaning in their translations. I have sought help from lexicons (a fancy word for dictionaries) and commentaries. For this week’s lesson and future lessons from Matthew this Epiphany, I have found Frederick Dale Bruner’s Matthew: A Commentary. Volume 1: The Christbook, Matthew 1-12, particularly helpful. Unless otherwise noted, scripture quotations will be my own.

In Matthew’s Gospel, we have already met John the Baptist. If you will remember, he is Jesus’ cousin and the one sent to prepare the way for Jesus’ ministry. He begins his ministry baptizing, dunking folks in the River Jordan as a sign of their repentance. Repentance is their turning from going in a direction away from God to moving toward God.

John is not afraid to call out those who believe they are going in the right direction but are not: namely, the Pharisees. Obedience, the result of which is fruitfulness, is primarily on John’s mind. Those who are baptized and show the true signs of their baptism will bear good fruit.

John knows, however, the baptism he has practiced, the baptism with water, is not the final baptism. One is coming, he declares, who is more powerful, and who will baptize with the Holy Spirit. Finally, the day John anticipated arrives. Jesus comes to him while John is at the Jordan River.

Don’t Worry About It – Matthew 3:13-15

John is at his normal place for baptizing at the Jordan River when Jesus arrives from Galilee. We do not have Jesus’ verbal request for baptism at the hands of John, but it is clear what Jesus has come requesting. At first, John puts up a protest. In the previous section, we have just heard John say he considers Jesus way above him in terms of power and importance. He is just the lowly herald of the King’s coming. If anything, John is the one who needs to be baptized by Jesus!

Jesus persists. He responds with two words in Greek (aphes arti) which our normal translations render as “Let it be so now” (NRSV), but could be read in this way, “Forget about it for now….” Or, “Don’t worry about it at this moment…” Or finally, “Now, let it go….” Jesus never answers John’s question; he only postpones it for the present time because more important things are happening (Bruner, 102).

Of course, we must stop and try to answer John’s question. If John’s baptism was for repentance and the forgiveness of sins, why would Jesus insist on receiving it? It certainly was not so Jesus could repent and be forgiven of his sins. While Matthew never explicitly states that Jesus was without sin, we find those statements in other places, such as John 8:46, 2 Corinthians 5:21, and Hebrews 7:26.

Matthew primarily understands Jesus’ baptism as a public pronouncement of his obedience to the mission of God. Righteousness in Matthew is always wrapped up in obedience. For John and Jesus to “fulfill all righteousness” is to be completely obedient to the will of the Father. Notice the “us” in verse 15: it includes John in Jesus’ obedience. Jesus never intended to be a Lone Ranger. From the very beginning, Jesus includes us in his mission, even in the parts where it seems we do not belong. Additionally, it shows Jesus’ solidarity with sinful humanity, even though he is without sin.

Jesus deliberately declares his intention to live a life of complete obedience to the Father. He intends to do the entire will of God. Additionally, Jesus’ baptism transforms John’s baptism into Christian Holy Spirit baptism (Bruner, 102). The gift of the Spirit is, of course, what enables us to live a life of full obedience. Jesus’ baptism and ours, too, are both the public declaration of our intentions toward obedience and the beginning of our ability to do so through the power of the Holy Spirit.

In our baptism, we are simultaneously promised that we can live in complete obedience to the will of the Father and given the means to be obedient. Some have likened it to Christian marriage.

“Christian baptism is like Christian marriage. Both include a promise to be faithfully joined (the ethical component), and both bring about the joining (the sacramental component). In both Christian baptism and Christian marriage, a disciple promises to be a real Christian in fidelity to another, and just as importantly, the disciple is also joined to a person who will help the disciple be faithful (Bruner, 104).”

This is My Son, the Beloved – Matthew 3:16-17

We move quickly into the aftermath of Jesus’ baptism. As Jesus comes up out of the water, the heavens are opened, and the Spirit of God, God’s Holy Spirit, in the form of a dove, is seen descending upon and arriving on Jesus. The NRSV translates the Spirit’s movement toward Jesus as “descending” and “alighting.” Here, “alighting” could be better translated as “arrive.” God’s Spirit comes down from the split heavens and arrives at Jesus. Arrival denotes that Jesus is the Spirit’s ultimate destination. The Spirit will not move on from Jesus but remain with him throughout his ministry.

It is important to understand that this event is not just a vision but a visible event (Luz, 143). This needs to be a visible event because those who would have witnessed it would have understood the Spirit’s descent and the heavens opening as a manifestation indicating that God was about to act decisively and tangibly through the one on whom the Spirit rested. The Spirit has already been with Jesus, but now those who witness it can begin to understand that something special and unique is about to happen.

This revelatory event is not just visual; however, it is audible as well. As the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus, we are told a voice from Heaven was heard saying, “This is my beloved Son with whom I am well pleased.” The voice of God confirms Jesus’ mission and direction. The phrase itself is an echo of two different Old Testament texts, Psalm 2:7 and Isaiah 42:1-4. Both passages concern a servant whom God will establish to do God’s will and work in the world. The reference would not have been lost to those who witnessed this event. Jesus, through his baptism, marks his commitment and intention to the God of Israel to do his will and work. In response to Jesus’ obedience, God affirms Jesus as the one who is expected, the Messiah.

So What?

Every year, around this time, we look at one of the passages describing for us Jesus’ baptism. This year is no different. With such a familiar story, it can be easy to think that we already know what the passage is about. It is easy to miss engaging with the story again in light of our changed circumstances. Whether you realize it, you are a different person than last year when we read a similar passage. We hope that you have allowed this passage to speak to you in a new way this year.

As we have looked at Matthew’s depiction of this familiar event, one of the things we have noticed is that, for Matthew, there is a significant connection between obedience and the righteousness that Jesus talks about. Jesus is baptized not because he needs to have his sins forgiven but because he wants to declare his intention to be fully and completely obedient to the will of the Father. Because we know the end of the story, we know what that obedience will require, an incredible act of self-sacrificial love for all creation.

As Jesus declares his intention to be fully and completely obedient to the will of the Father, two other things happen. First, we get the Holy Spirit descending upon Jesus, declaring that Jesus will not be left alone in his mission of obedience. Then, we hear the very voice of God proclaiming that he is indeed very pleased with Jesus’ intention. In this scene, we get the entire Trinity together, declaring, in a unity of purpose and movement, the way toward our salvation.

This Sunday is not only a day for us to have something about Jesus revealed to us; it is a day that calls us to live like Jesus, remembering our baptism and our declaration to live in full obedience to the will of the Father. For in the same way that the Spirit rests on Jesus after his baptism, the Spirit begins its work in us as well, helping us to learn and discover what it means to be obedient to the Father, all the while empowering us to do so.

If you have not been baptized, now is the time to do so. Declare your intention to live a life of obedience to the Father! If you have been baptized, remember your baptism. You do not need to be re-baptized; only recommit yourself to Christlike obedience and call to the Spirit to help you learn and live! The wonderful thing about our faith is that we are never left alone to live life to some unattainable expectation. We are always, and it begins with our baptism, given the means to live as we ought.

Discussion Questions

Read the text aloud. Then, read the text to yourself quietly. Read it slowly, as if you were very unfamiliar with the story.

  1. Have you been baptized? Why or why not? What happened at your baptism?

  2. What was John’s baptism about? Why did people come to him for baptism?

  3. Why did John resist baptizing Jesus at first?

  4. If Jesus was without sin, why did he come to John for baptism? Statements about Jesus’ sinlessness can be found in the following places, John 8:46, 2 Corinthians 5:21, and Hebrews 7:26.

  5. Jesus says in verse 15, “For it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” What does he mean by this? For Matthew, what is “all righteousness?”

  6. Why might it be important that we hear or see all three members of the Trinity at Jesus’ baptism (We hear the Father’s voice, we see the Spirit in the Dove and the Son in Jesus)? What does that say about the commitment of the Trinity to Jesus’ mission of salvation?

  7. How is Jesus’ baptism a model for our baptism?

Works Cited

Frederick Dale Bruner, The Gospel of John: A Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI.: Eerdmans, 2012), 83.

Ulrich Luz, Matthew 1–7: A Commentary on Matthew 1–7, ed. Helmut Koester, Rev. ed., Hermeneia—a Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2007).