The back story to Matthew’s account of Jesus’ baptism

Like many others over the Christmas period, I went with my family to see the final episode of the nine main instalments of the Star Wars saga, the Rise of Skywalker. I wanted to enjoy it, but after an hour caught myself wondering ‘When is this going to end?’ It didn’t feel as though there was an engaging plot; I wasn’t that caught up with the characters; and as the film went on I realised I had a constant feeling of déjà vu. Just about every interesting scene appeared to be lifted from one of the previous films!

It appears that I am not the only one to have noticed it; this list offers 23 ‘Easter eggs‘ (a new film term to me, meaning something hidden to be found), which even includes some punctuation on the opening scrolling text, whilst this site lists 31 references to earlier episodes and related computer games based on the franchise. It is interesting to note how this is a feature of the many film sequences that now dominate cinema. Done well, it can create a sense of integration between films, and it serves to consolidate the ‘insiders’ of dedicated fans who will spot all the references and share the joke, as it were.

This Sunday’s lectionary reading in Year A is the baptism of Jesus from Matt 3.12–17. It is a short and compact reading, and needs careful reading in its own right. But it only fully makes sense if we know something of the Old Testament backstory and can, as ‘insiders’, spot the key allusions to it.


Our reading begins by announcing that ‘Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan…’ Matthew has so far only indicated that John the Baptist has drawn followers from ‘Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan’ (Matt 3.5); we need to cross-reference with the Fourth Gospel, and meet John’s disciples from Galilee in John 1.35–51, to know that his ministry reached further. But Matthew gives the impression that this is a determined decision by Jesus, crossing territories from Galilee through the Decapolis and Perea, to join John’s eschatological renewal movement that is looking for the imminent coming of the kingdom of God.

Matthew is alone in recording the exchange between John and Jesus, in which John is reluctant to baptise Jesus. In the compressed narrative, we are not told why or how John recognises who Jesus is, but his objection is rooted in his earlier sayings about ‘the one who is to come after me’ in Matt 3.11. John appears to be saying ‘It is I who need your baptism in the Holy Spirit and fire, rather than you who needs my baptism in mere water!’

John’s earlier language could be interpreted to mean that Jesus will initially come as one of his disciples. The language of ‘coming after’ (Gk ὀπίσω, opiso) is language of discipleship, and is used by Jesus in his rebuke to Peter in Matt 16.23 ‘Get behind me, satan!’ meaning ‘Get in line as a disciple’. But Matthew appears to be using it only in a temporal sense here, so we should probably not read too much into it.

Later Christian reflection struggles with the idea of Jesus as the ‘one who knew no sin’ (2 Cor 5.21) undergoing a ‘baptism of repentance’; the lost ‘Gospel of the Hebrews‘ (quoted by Jerome, Pelag 3.2) imagines Jesus actually sinning by questioning whether he should in fact be baptised by John! Matthew’s answer comes in Jesus’ actual response that ‘it is fitting for us to fulfil all righteousness’. There are several things to note here.

First, Matthew uses ‘righteousness’ (Gk δικαιοσύνη) on seven occasions (Matt 3.16, 5.6, 5.10, 5.20, 6.1, 6.33 and 21.32), and it consistently seems to indicate the concrete, human ethical response to the demands of God. This is a very different sense from the theological use of the term in Paul.

Secondly, Jesus here talks about ‘fulfilling’ all righteousness. As we have seen earlier in Matthew, fulfilment language usually connects events to the previous salvation history of God’s people, and the way that Jesus is bringing that to completion.

Thirdly, Jesus invites John to share in this action; it is the two of them together must do this, not simply Jesus on his own. This then brings to mind the succession narratives in the OT—Joshua taking up and completing the task that Moses began in leading the people of Israel, Elisha taking up the mantle of Elijah and asking for a double portion of his spirit. As we noted previously, for Matthew John is not the end of the ‘old’, but the beginning of the ‘new’, and Jesus will complete the work of calling people to respond in repentance and faith to the coming of the kingdom that John began.

But for Matthew, Jesus’ ministry of healing and deliverance is about his identification with them. We will read in Matt 8.17 that his ministry fulfils words from Is 53.5: ‘He took up our infirmities and bore our diseases’. Later, we will read that he will ‘offer his life as a ransom for many’ (Matt 20.28) and will shed his blood for their forgiveness (Matt 26.28). Jesus cannot represent the people unless he identifies with them, and this identification begins with John’s baptism as Jesus demonstrates his solidarity with this movement who are preparing for God’s kingship over his people.


Contrary to all artistic depiction (including the mosaic above from Ravenna), what happens next occurs after Jesus has ‘gone up out of the water’, in other words, once he has left the river and is on the bank once more.

In Mark 1.9–10 the focus is on Jesus’ experience: he saw heaven opened and the Spirit descending, and the divine voice addresses him. In Luke, the divine voice is still addressed to him, but the opening of heaven and descent of the Spirit ‘bodily’ appears to be a public event. Matthew’s account leans more to Luke than Mark; we are to ‘behold’ the sudden opening of the heavens, and the divine voice affirms Jesus to the crowd.

The language of ‘my son, my beloved, in whom I delight’ take us back to at least two significant OT passages. The first is Gen 22.2, where God calls Abraham to offer his ‘son, whom you love’ as a sacrifice; the end of that narrative is the fulfilment of Abraham’s claim that ‘God will provide the sacrifice’. The second is the Servant Song in Is 42.1, where God’s servant ‘in whom I delight’ will be anointed with God’s Spirit, will bring justice to the nations, and has been called ‘in righteousness’ (Is 42.6). Matthew will go on to quote this passage explicitly in Matt 12.18.

But the whole episode suggests a range of other OT passages as well, some more strongly signalled than others. The combination of a dove and the Spirit over the water reminds us of the beginning of creation, when the Spirit of God broods over the chaotic deep. Do we have here a suggestion that Jesus is the one who brings the new creation (2 Cor 5.17?)

A dove also comes across the water in the account of Noah and the flood in Genesis 6–9. Noah’s father believed that Noah would bring people ‘rest’ and relief from the curse of sin (Gen 5.29), and he leads a faithful remnant, rescuing them from the judgement of God on the sin of the world after the ‘heavens were opened’ (Gen 7.11). Could Jesus be the one to rescue us from judgement, and give us true rest (Heb 4.1–11)?

Ezekiel (Ezek 1.1, 2.2) stands by a river, sees heaven opened, and receives a vision of God in which he is commissioned for is prophetic ministry promising God’s people a return from exile. Is Jesus the one who will finally bring his people home?

Passing through the waters of the Jordan was a key moment in the saga of God’s deliverance from slavery in Egypt, when they finally completed their journey and entered the promised land (Joshua 3–4). Is Jesus (his name being the Greek version of Joshua) the one who will finally deliver God’s people from all their slavery to sin, and complete the promise of God’s deliverance?


It might be challenging to spot all these ‘Easter eggs’, and there is a large question as to whether Matthew is pointing us in these directions, or whether we find them by standing back and seeing connections between the different elements of the biblical narrative. And these connections are certainly not designed to create ‘insiders’ who are the only ones to get the ‘joke’. But when we are reminded of these other episodes in the life of God’s people, we can see how they are brought to completion in the ministry of Jesus—then and now.

God is not quoting the Old Testament, nor setting a puzzle for the scripturally erudite hearers to unravel. He is declaring in richly allusive words that this man who has just been baptised 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. (R T France, NICOT, p 124)


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6 thoughts on “The back story to Matthew’s account of Jesus’ baptism”

  1. I thought this last Star Wars film was one of the better ones, and I certainly enjoyed it. Though as ever a little too long.

    Ian, you reference Noah. Do you think that story is literally true (either world-wide or local flood) or myth? If a myth, or possibly a reworking of another myth, is it acceptable for the NT writers, and Jesus himself, to use it as if it happened?

    Peter

    Reply
      • In some people’s minds, yes. But to express a truth does not require what you are quoting to be real.

        To illustrate, if I quoted Spock from Star Trek VI, “… if you eliminate the impossible whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” It seems to me this statement is true. But Spock is quoting Sherlock Holmes. So we have a statement of truth from the words of 2 fictional characters. Clearly a real person, Arthur Conan Doyle, wrote those words, but he has a fictional character speak them in a book, and many years later requoted by another fictional character in a different fictional story. But the statement is still true.

        For this reason, I dont have a problem with the flood story being fiction (or myth as others prefer to call it). I very much doubt a world-wide flood happened a few thousand years ago (though at one point the earth was covered with water, but that was millions of years ago) but I think a local catastrophic flood could have occurred around the Black Sea, though Im not sure the Noah story even in this context is feasible.

        But I wonder if Jesus, being a 1st century Jew with limited knowledge, believed it to be reliable history, or did he have a more nuanced view of the Old Testament?

        Reply
        • Hiya Peter
          Everyone had floods with global warming and melting glaciers. The coastlines only really finally stabilised about 8000 years ago. Until relatively recently anthropologists and historians were rather patronising about oral records of ancient history but developments in marine exploration have revealed that, for example, the ancient natives of Australia really did have magnificent hunting grounds with mega-fauna that had been lost when the seas rose, a number of fabled submerged cities really did exist etc If one treats the earlier parts of Genesis as deep oral history retold in the language and poetry of the transcribers we have some quite remarkable factual elements embedded in them along with the theological interpretations.

          http://www.bbc.com/earth/story/20160118-the-atlantis-style-myths-of-sunken-lands-that-are-really-true

          https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b07sy5y4

          Reply
  2. The Baptism:
    “It is like a mini coronation.”
    This was a snippet caught listening today to part of scene-setting by Sinclair Ferguson in his series of talks on the Sermon on the Mount.
    To expand: in the Kingdom of God context, there is the ultimate anointing by Holy Spirit, of the ultimate Son, the ultimate pronouncement of authority, and command to listen to him, carrying the heavy implication of obedience.
    Series available on Christian Institute site, resources. Text is displayed.

    Reply

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