Matthew 3 – The Baptism of Christ
This post is part of an on-going series meant to compliment the wonderful commentary provided in D.A. Carson’s For the Love of God, Vol 1, which tracks along with the M’Cheyne reading plan. The links to both the reading plan and a free PDF of Carson’s book are available here.
This week, as we started reading through the Scriptures for 2017, we read of Jesus’ baptism in Matthew 3. Matthew’s Gospel focuses, from the very start, on the connection of Jesus to his Jewish roots, both through his ancestry and his fulfillment of Scripture. Matthew 3 is important as it contains the very first action on Jesus’ part; every fulfillment and action was completed with a passive and infant Jesus. Matthew, in chapter 3, then fast-forwards his narrative decades to the baptism of Jesus. It is not an understatement to see the first action of this long awaited savior as important. But why does Matthew place such importance on the baptism narrative?
- First, it demonstrates Jesus’ identification with sinners. John is clear, the baptism that he performs is a baptism of repentance (3:2, 8, 11). Yet Jesus comes anyway. John understands the oddity of this, stating clearly that the roles of the two are seemingly reversed (3:14). Jesus waves John’s concerns away. We should not read in this an admission of guilt, but an identification with the guilty. Jesus is not afraid to be labeled a “friend of tax collectors and sinners” (11:19).
- Second, it demonstrates Jesus’ identification with Israel. Not only does the genealogy imply the grave importance of Jesus, but Herod’s wrath provides the opportunity for Jesus to flee to Egypt, in an apparent replay of the Exodus itself.1 The motif of Jesus-as-Israel continues here, as Jesus is baptized in the water after leaving Egypt (cf. 1 Cor 10:1-5). Jesus, as Matthew seems to imply, is the real and true Son of God, Israel (cf. Exodus 4:22-23; Jeremiah 31:20; Isaiah 42:1ff).
- Third, it demonstrates Jesus’ identification as the King. There is a strong connection to Psalm 2 in God’s statement “This is my beloved Son.” Psalm 2 is an enthronement Psalm – declaring that God has put a King in Jerusalem, one who is indeed his Son. The baptism is Jesus’ anointing with the Spirit as King. While Herod has shown himself to be a false-pagan king, Jesus is the true King of all.
- Fourth, it demonstrates Jesus’ identification with God. While it does not yet imply full divinity (although it hints strongly at it), the declaration that Jesus is indeed God’s Son is of vital importance. He is God’s solution to his peoples’ plight and sin, God’s promised Messiah, God’s own specially selected King. Although to many he seems simply a likable hometown carpenter (cf. 13:53-56; Isaiah 53:2), Jesus is the one sent from God to free his people from their bondage, the rightful King who will defeat Israel’s enemies.
These are themes that run richly through Matthew’s Gospel, and have already made a somewhat subtle appearance in the genealogy, growing more forceful as the narrative moves forward. It is not merely a way to cement the church’s practice of baptism to Jesus, although it helpfully does do that. Rather, it sets the foundational themes of our baptism, but in reverse. Jesus, in his baptism, identifies with us. The declaration identifies him as God’s chosen King. Our baptism, the public demonstration of our faith, identifies us with him; indeed the NT goes so far as to declare that we are in him. His son-ship is ours; his kingdom ours, his righteousness ours.
“So let no one boast in men. For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world of life or death or the present or the future – all are yours, and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s” (1 Corinthians 3:21-23)
1 Interestingly, Matthew seems to place his quotation too soon (2:15), as Jesus’ return to Israel from Egypt doesn’t take place until 2:20-21. Yet, perhaps this is inverted for a reason. Herod, like Pharaoh before him, murders the innocent firstborn sons of the Israelites (2:16-18; cf. Exodus 1:15-22). Israel is no longer Israel, but more like the heathen Egyptians. Therefore, being called out of Egypt was not just literally fulfilled by returning from Israel, but it is fulfilled figuratively as Jesus flees the evil heathen King that would seek to take the firstborn’s life. In other words, it is fulfilled even in his flight from Israel. All the more reason to see Jesus here as the actual Israel, not the pseudo-nation, truly ruled by Rome, and under the governance of a pagan child-killing monster.