Brian P. Stoffregen Exegetical Notes at

Matthew 3.13-17
Baptism of Our Lord - Year A

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Throughout the opening chapters of Matthew, Jesus is given different titles from different sources. Genealogically, he is "son of David, son of Abraham" (1:1). Angelically, he is "Jesus" (the savior), conceived from the Holy Spirit (1:20-21). Prophetically, he is "Emmanuel" (1:23), "Ruler" (2:6), "my son" (2:15), "a Nazorean" (2:23). Magi-ically he is "king of the Jews" (2:2), which leads to the term "Messiah" by Jewish religious leaders (2:4). John the Baptist calls him "the more powerful one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire" (3:11).

Now, in our text, it is God who declares Jesus to be "My son, the Beloved. The one in whom I am well pleased" (3:17). This is the declaration from the authority above all other authorities. While all the other names and titles are correct, without this divine attested title and relationship, we will not have the full picture of who Jesus is.


Verses 1 and 13 of chapter 3 are connected by the term paraginetai (he arrived) and proceeded by a time reference "in those days" (v. 1) and "then" (v. 13). As John the Baptist mysteriously appeared in the wilderness, so does Jesus. John appears to proclaim and baptize. Jesus appears -- and Matthew makes it clear that Jesus' purpose is to be baptized by John.

Verses 13b-15 are found only in Matthew. They have the tone of an apologetic -- possibly countering arguments that John must be the superior one because he had baptized Jesus. That is the normal assumption between a baptizer and baptizees.

These verses also present an opposition between John and Jesus. John tries to prevent Jesus from being baptized. The verb (diakoluo) is imperfect, implying a continued action in the past ("was preventing") -- it could have been an extended argument: "But I won't do it." "I've come to be baptized." "But I won't do it." "I've come to be baptized." "But I won't do it."

This is the only occurrence of this word in the NT. The related word koluo is used once in Matthew at 19:14 where the disciples are preventing little children from coming to Jesus. Both these "preventative" measures reflect the culture of the time: learned teachers didn't association with children and inferiors didn't baptize superiors. In both these instances, the opposite of "preventing" is aphiemi = "allowing," "letting it happen" -- this is also the word commonly used for "forgiving".

John says that he has a need to be baptized by Jesus. John had just said that the stronger one would baptize in Holy Spirit and fire (3:11). Is this the baptism he seeks from Jesus? If so, John has the wrong timing. The coming fire and destruction of evil is not now. Now is the time "to fulfill all righteousness" or as the TEV translates it "to do all that God requires" or the CEV's "we must do all that God wants us to do." Now is the time for Jesus to be baptized by John. It is not the time for the baptism of Holy Spirit and fire.

Boring (Matthew, New Interpreters Bible) comments on the phrase:

Both righteousness and fulfillment are key Matthean theological themes. Righteousness here means, as often elsewhere, doing the revealed will of God. Here, fulfill seems to mean simply "do, perform," and the meaning is that it is necessary for both John and Jesus to do God's will, which includes the baptism of Jesus. The plural us links John and Jesus together as partners in carrying out God's saving plan (11:2-19). [p. 160]

Robert Smith (Matthew) has a slightly longer discussion and questions about righteousness:

At this point we have two choices. This righteousness is either a human work or it is God's gracious gift. Which is it?

Is righteousness an act of obedience produced by pious human beings? Or is righteousness another name for salvation or deliverance, as so often in the psalms (22:31; 40:10; 98:2-3) and prophets (Isa. 11:4-5; 61:10-11; Mic 6:5)? Is Jesus saying that he has arrived on the scene to model perfect righteousness, yielding perfect obedience to God's ordinances, observing the law of God to the utmost, beginning with a joyous submission to the divine summons issued in John's call to be baptized? Or does Jesus mean that he will be the strange tool by which God will lay healing hands on a broken world and make it "all right"? [pp. 56-57]


A sermon title I have used for this text is: "Christ's first temptation". John, by trying to prevent the baptism, tempts Jesus not to do all that God requires of him. He tempts Jesus to assume his proper position now: to be the more powerful one; to baptize with the judgmental Holy Spirit and fire; to meet John's need. I don't think that these are too dissimilar to the devil's temptations that occur immediately after the baptism (4:1-11) -- temptations for Jesus to use his power now, for his own glory; and avoid his emptying and eventually the pain and suffering of the cross.

What does God require of Jesus? Is it just the baptism? I think that baptism is only part of the picture of Jesus identifying with sinful humanity: the Sinless One is baptized for the forgiveness of sin; the Holy One eats/fellowships with unholy sinners; the Immortal One dies on a cross as a criminal. It is part of the emptying of himself -- the God who becomes truly human.

In fact, the "emptying," occurs even earlier in Matthew. We have been told that the child has been conceived from the Holy Spirit. We have been told that "Jesus" will save his people from their sins. We have been told that he will be called "Immanuel" -- God is with us. What happens to this very special child after his birth? He has to flee for his life. The one, who will save his people, has to be saved from Herod. The one who is "God-with-us" has to flee from the Promised Land. He (and his parents) are acting as people who have been emptied of power.

I think that John's "temptation" of Jesus presents a struggle for us and our churches -- especially concerning "meeting needs" vs. "doing all that God requires". There are churches whose motto is: "Find a need and fill it." I don't think that Jesus came simply to "meet needs." I don't think that God created churches simply to "meet needs," but "to do all that God requires." Jesus did not heal all the sick. He did not cleanse all the lepers. He did not remove and burn up all the evil on our planet. Jesus did not help every needy person.

When Jesus is at the house of Simon the Leper -- (did Jesus cleanse him of his disease or not?) -- a woman anoints his head with expensive ointment. The complaint is raised: "Why this waste? For this ointment could have been sold for a large sum, and the money given to the poor" (26:8-9). That is what "meeting-needs" people would say. Now was not the time to be concerned with the poor. They will always be with us. Now was the time to prepare Jesus for burial (26:12). Sometimes, in order to "do all that God requires" may mean ignoring some needs for a time. Is it proper for ministers to ignore phone calls and visitors during their devotional time? Or on their day off? Or when they are burnt out?

Another side of this issue is stewardship. While "giving to needs" is a part of stewardship, that's not the whole picture. As children of the giving God, we have a "need to give". I know of a congregation with enough endowment money that the members don't need to contribute financially to maintain their building or programs or pay salaries. (This has not been the situation in any congregation I've served.) Because there isn't such a need for a weekly offering, that doesn't mean the people shouldn't be giving regularly. Part of "doing all that God requires" is to give away part of our wealth -- regardless if the other needs it. (Certainly we would want to find places where our giving might do the most good.)

"Doing all that God requires" is difficult -- I think it is more difficult than "meeting needs". There is no simple prescription for "doing all that God requires". For some, it means becoming more humble, because they have gotten too proud. For others, it means becoming more forceful, because they are too meek. For some, it means going out and helping the needy, like in the Good Samaritan parable (Luke 10:25-37). For others, it means staying in and studying scriptures like Mary (Luke 10:38-42). A question raised by a consultant working with our council was, "What does it mean to be faithful?" (It can be applied both to individuals and to congregations.) Being faithful congregations is more than just meeting people's needs. It is more than institutional survival. It is more than being efficient and effective. It is more than conducting inspiring worship services. It is more than well-attended, enlightening Bible studies. It is struggling with all of these good and godly things; and through prayer, study, and conversations, discerning where God is leading a congregation now, at this time. However, I don't think the struggle ever ends.

We are also confronted with the fact that often what we think is the right (or righteous) thing to do, may not be what God considers to be right. In the first chapter of Matthew, we are told that Joseph is a righteous man and, because of that, he plans to divorce Mary quietly, so as to not expose her to public disgrace. Joseph thinks that he is doing the right thing, but it isn't what God wants, as the angel will tell him.

Similarly, I think, in our text, John knows the right thing. He should be, in fact, feels that he needs to be, baptized by Jesus; but that isn't what God wants.


Jensen (Preaching Matthew's Gospel) expands on Smith's idea of righteousness as making the world "all right."

Sinners and the world are made "all right" with God. Joseph Sittler often told the story of a time he was in Jerusalem and his car broke down. He took it to a mechanic to have it fixed. When the mechanic had finished and started up the engine to hear it running perfectly he said, "Zadik." Zadik is the Hebrew word translated as righteousness. In this context it means simply: "it works." Sinners and the world are made to "work" in and through the ministry of the One who fulfills all righteousness. [p. 58]

Using the image of "making the world all right" for righteousness -- then wherever there are human needs, the world is not all right, and it needs "fixing". Thus, somewhat contrary to what I wrote above, taking care of human needs is precisely what God would have us do in making the world "all right."

In addition: Matthew uses the same word for need in the following statements from Jesus. They indicate that God and Jesus are very concerned about human needs:

When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. [6:7-8]

Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. [9:12b]


In the second part of our text, verses 16-17, there are only minor variations from Mark. The boundary between earth and heaven is opened. The Holy Spirit comes, not as a destroying fire, as perhaps John expected, but as a dove (of peace?). A voice from the heavens speaks. In Mt, this annunciation is in the third person, "This is" -- apparently addressed to the bystanders -- or at least to Mt's readers. In Mk and Lk, it is second person, "You are" -- apparently addressed to Jesus, which we overhear. Mt's account is more like an epiphany directed to the people, than a divine call directed to Jesus.

Now that the people have been given this knowledge about Jesus, what are they to do with it? It may be that Jesus' first words spoken in Matthew (3:15) are closely related to his last words -- the great commission (28:18-20) -- that, whatever fulfilling righteousness means, it begins with baptism -- both for Jesus and for anyone wishing to be his disciple.

At Jesus' baptism, the Father, the Son, and the Spirit are all present -- and into this trinity we are to baptize.

It is God who tells us who Jesus is and so we are to go and baptize and teach this truth to all nations.


God's words are a mixture of Psalm 2(:7b), an enthronement psalm where God promises the newly crowned king the power to "break [the nations] with a rod of iron, and dash them into pieces like a potter's vessel" (8-9) and Isaiah 42:1-4, the first suffering servant song.

Three times Matthew uses the term "beloved" (agapetos): at Jesus' baptism (3:17); at Jesus' transfiguration (17:5); and, as Matthew tells us, Jesus fulfills Isaiah (12:18-21). These are also the only three passages where Matthew uses "well pleased" (eudokeo). However, neither the word "beloved" nor "well-pleased" occur in the Greek of Isaiah 42:1! (Matthew memorizes scriptures about as well as I do. He seems to adjust it to fit his own purposes.)

Anyway, it would seem that Matthew intends a connection between the glorious events of Jesus' baptism and transfiguration, with the suffering servant of Isaiah 42.

Does God designate Jesus as the royal, powerful king or the suffering servant? The answer is: "Both." Jesus comes to "do what God requires." Sometimes this means exerting power over demons, diseases, and death; and sometimes this means washing feet as a servant or dying on a cross as a criminal.


As I mentioned above, Matthew uses eudokeo three times in his gospel. (The noun form, eudokia, is used only at Mt 11:26.) What pleased God about Jesus? Up to this point in the gospel, Jesus hasn't done anything, so, at least as Matthew presents it, it isn't Jesus' good deeds that brought about God's pleasure in him -- he hasn't done any yet (in the narrative).

The verb in all three instances is aorist, suggesting that it refers to something specific that pleased God. On one hand, we might say that simply because Jesus is God's son brings pleasure. Yet, I have two sons, and as much as I love them, there are times I am not well-pleased with them. The fact of their sonship doesn't automatically bring pleasure.

In our text, the specific thing Jesus is doing is coming for baptism. The more general thing he is doing is "fulfilling all righteousness." He is doing what his Father would have him do.

The next time this word is used (12:18), it is a (semi-) quote from Isaiah 42:1-4, 9. (The LXX does not use eudokeo, but prosdexomai.) This quote, about Jesus being the Lord's servant, comes right after the Pharisees have begun to conspire against him, "how to destroy him" (12:14). Is it legitimate to say that what pleased God is that Jesus had so angered the religious leaders that they want to kill him? Perhaps, in better words, that Jesus is so committed to doing what the Father wants him to do, that he will not let the threat of death deter him. In a similar way, he would not let John's objections keep him from being baptized.

Finally, God speaks the same word at Jesus transfiguration (17:5). Along with expressing his pleasure in Jesus, the voice also commands the disciples, "Listen to him." 16:21 states: "From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised." Peter will not listen to this. He takes Jesus aside and rebukes him. We might say that in this scene, Jesus will not let Peter's objections keep him from facing his fate in Jerusalem.

If we throw in Matthew's use of the noun (11:25-26) -- At that time Jesus said, "I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants;] yes, Father, for such was your gracious will [Or for so it was well-pleasing in your sight; lit. thus it was well-pleasing before you] -- God seems to be pleased with turning everything upside-down. The superior is baptized by the inferior. The Son of God is a servant. The Savior of the world will not save himself from death.

I wonder, "How willing are we to seek God's good-pleasure if it means emptying ourselves and suffering at the hands of others?"


Another sermonic approach to this passage might deal with the question: "Why did Jesus come to be baptized?"

He was sinless. He didn't need to repent. He was born as the Son of God. He didn't need adoption. He was miraculously conceived by the Holy Spirit. He didn't need the gift of the Spirit.

Let me suggest three reasons why Jesus came to be baptized.

  1. Jesus is obedient to God -- doing all that God requires. Luther, even with all his wonderful theological reflections on the benefits of baptism, begins his discussion in the Large Catechism with the fact that God instituted it and commands it, so then it can't be useless. We need to be baptizing communities because God commands it and we respond in obedience to God's commands. Could this argument also be used with children receiving communion? Obedience is more important than understanding? [This is defining "righteousness" as our obedience to God.]

  2. Jesus' baptism ushers in Christian baptism as opposed to John's baptism for repentance. If we consider Jesus' baptism a model for Christian baptism, it not only washes away sins, but also brings the Holy Spirit and the declaration of God's parenthood. In addition, it marks the beginning of Jesus (and our) public ministry (which starts with the temptation/testing). [This is defining "righteousness" as a gift from God, which "fixes" our "broken" relationship with God.]

  3. Jesus identifies with sinners and like sinners needed this sign of assurance. Jesus' baptism didn't make him God's son, but gave the audible assurance that he was indeed the Son of God. Jesus' baptism didn't give him the Holy Spirit, but gave him the visible assurance that he was filled with the Holy Spirit. I don't believe that God needs baptism to save people, but baptism gives the audible and visible assurance that God has washed away sin and claimed us as children and empowered us with the Spirit to go out and do all that God requires. I find it interesting that when Luther felt tempted by the devil, he didn't shout, "I believe," but he shouted "I am baptized" (actually in Latin or German, not English). His assurance wasn't his faith, but baptism -- and he states it in the present tense! Perhaps the human Jesus needed the same assurance before beginning his journey to the cross with the temptations in the wilderness.

Brian Stoffregen
Faith Lutheran Church, 1000 D St., Marysville, CA 95901