The baptism of Jesus. 3:13-17
Crowds had flocked to John the Baptist as he baptized beside the river Jordan and now Matthew recounts how Jesus joined the crowds and was himself baptized by John. This is an interesting story in that it pictures Jesus involved in an activity that seems quite unnecessary. Why would Jesus bother to be baptized?
v13. Jesus journeys from Galilee (Mark tells us specifically "Nazareth") to be baptized by John in the Jordan. Some suggest that Matthew wants us to see this as a private event, but the "then" is most likely indicating that the baptism took place while John was involved in his public ministry, v1-12. As Luke puts it, "when all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too."
v14. Although John, at this point in time, probably didn't understand that Jesus was the messiah (John the evangelist explicitly says he didn't, Jn.1:31-34), he certainly knew of Jesus - his wondrous conception and birth, and most probably his early life which was marked by a knowledge of the scriptures, Lk.2:41-52. Jesus and John were related and so John was certainly not ignorant of Jesus. John's reluctance to baptize Jesus is probably driven by a knowledge of his character. John is a humble man and so defers to a more worthy man.
v15. Jesus would regard John's objection as reasonable, but gains his consent with the statement, "It is proper for us to fulfill all righteousness." By "fulfill", Matthew means "accomplish" and by "righteousness" he means something like "conformity to God's will." As to what Jesus intends by these words, we are faced with numerous interpretations. The best approach is to link them to salvation history. Jesus, as the suffering servant representing lost Israel (in the end this means all believers - the righteous of faith), must undertake the journey through the sea, the test of the wilderness, the battle in the land, and the final victory over the powers of darkness in the city of Zion. Jesus must do this as the obedient son, on behalf of the disobedient sons. We should note that this is not the most popular interpretation. Most regard that the baptism of Jesus anticipates the "baptism" of his crucifixion.
v16. Immediately after leaving the water, the Spirit descends on Jesus in dove form (an image of Israel), or dove like. Matthew doesn't say whether it is a vision, or not. Luke says he descends "in bodily form." "He saw", refers to Jesus, but the Baptist too may have witnessed the event. God later speaks to all present, evidenced by the third person, "this is my Son", rather than Mark's "you are my Son."
v17. The Lord God breaks his silence and so ushers in the messianic age. The words join Isaiah 42:1 with Psalm 2:7 ("Your are my Son"). Jesus is announced as the suffering servant messiah and the Davidic king messiah, so defining his messiahship and how, as messiah, he will represent Israel. As the "beloved" Son he is the elect messiah, elect Israel, the chosen one.
The compromise of life
Life is filled with compromise and it's interesting to speculate whether compromise was ever part of Jesus' life. Did his humanity, rubbed beside our humanity, cause him to adjust his behavior? It is often suggested that his baptism is such an example. Consider three examples of compromise in the Christian life.
1. Being all things to all men that by all means we might save some
This is a compromise in matters of form. We do things which have little import in themselves, but which are important to others. Therefore, we act in a way that seeks not to cause offence; we act for the sake of the weaker brother.
2. Being as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves
This is a compromise in matters of degree. Choosing the best option, within a range of imperfect options, goes hand in hand with our participation in a sinful world.
3. Not everyone accepts this teaching, or it's better to marry than burn
This is a compromise in matters of the flesh. We are constantly forced to choose options which, although not evil in themselves, are not necessarily the best options. This is the problem we face by our being in the world, but not of the world.
It is possible to argue that Jesus' willingness to be baptized by John was an example of the first type of compromise. Jesus certainly didn't need a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. That's why John initially refused. Nor did his baptism preempt the forgiveness that is ours in the baptism of his death. Still, for our sake, passing through the waters in fulfillment of Exodus typology is a very powerful image of the dawning of the new age. If an image, rather than substance, then we could say it was an example of "all things to all men." Jesus payment of the temple tax in Matthew 17:24-27, is a perfect example of this type of compromise.
Mark 1:36-38 is a good example of the second compromise, and Jesus' request that the "cup" be taken from him at Gethsemane is an example of the third. It is no great mystery that with one foot in heaven and one foot on earth, compromise remains an inevitable part of our daily walk. Whether or not the baptism of Jesus is acted out for the "weaker brother", it does herald our participation in the new age through our identification with the one faithful Israelite.
1. The dove (possibly a sign of Israel), and the words of the Father (Psalm 2:7 and Isaiah 42:1, again referring to the Servant Israel), depict Jesus' particular messianic role. How does this role affect us?
2. Discuss the three types of compromise outlined above.