Gospel (A): Matthew 3:13-17

A Public Act

How do you prepare to step out into the public spotlight? How do you act once you are out in public view?

Parties and performances are the usual ways individuals are introduced into public view. Once in the public's eye, people are expected to perform certain rituals with ease, whether it's small talk or demonstrating a sports talent or a musical ability.

How is one introduced to a public ministry? What ritual would prepare the person for the public eye? What activities would prepare the public for a new minister? In the case of Jesus, the ritual was John's baptism.

Popular Translation

13 Jesus left Galilee and went to see John in the Jordan River valley. Jesus wanted John to baptize him. 14 John kept trying to talk Jesus out of it. "Why do you want me to baptize you?" John told Jesus. "I need to baptized by you!"

15 "Do it this way, now," Jesus answered. "This is what God really wants."

So John baptized Jesus. 16 Afterwards, Jesus immediately came out of the water. The clouds parted. And he saw God's Spirit come down and rest on him like a dove. 17 Then, a voice from heaven spoke, "This is the Son I love!" the voice said "I really like what he is doing!"

In five brief verses, Matthew bridged from the private to the public life of Jesus. Jesus was baptized by John in the Jordan. Thus he began his public ministry with a sign of repentance and God's power.

Literal Translation

13 Then Jesus arrived from Galilee to the Jordan (coming) toward John, to be baptized by him. 14 John kept trying to dissuade him, saying, "I have the need to be baptized by you. And you come to me?" 15 But answering, Jesus said to him, "Allow (it for) now. It is for us to fulfill all righteousness." Then (John) allowed him. 16 Having been baptized, Jesus immediately came up out of the water. Look! The heavens were opened [to him] and he saw [the] Spirit of God descending as a dove and resting on him. 17 Look! (There was) a voice out of heaven, saying, "This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased."

3:13 The verb "arrived" indicated a final point. That point was not the Jordan, but the person of John the Baptist. In Matthew, Jesus made the journey with the sole intent of being baptized by John.

3:14 "John kept trying to dissuade him" is literally "John was preventing him." The verb "prevent" was in the "imperfect" which indicated continual action (hence, "kept trying..."). In context, John's protestations were fruitless.

3:15 "It is for us to fulfill all righteousness." "righteousness" is equivalent to God's will. Many scholars have seen the connection between the righteousness of God in the Torah and humanity's cooperation in salvation. "Thus says the Lord: "Keep justice, and do righteousness, for soon my salvation will come, and my deliverance be revealed." (Isaiah 56:1 RSV) Because there was an intrinsic connection between God's activity and human response, his righteousness referred to both. In theological terms, then, the "righteousness" of God was the offer and acceptance of his grace. In Jesus' statement, he identified with God's initiative and affirmation of his people. His baptism would confirm his status as "the one, true mediator between God and man."

3:16-17 These verses echoed Ezekiel 1:28-2:2:

Like the appearance of the bow that is in the cloud on the day of rain, so was the appearance of the brightness round about. Such was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord. And when I saw it, I fell upon my face, and I heard the voice of one speaking. And he said to me, "Son of man, stand upon your feet, and I will speak with you." And when he spoke to me, the Spirit entered into me and set me upon my feet; and I heard him speaking to me. (RSV)

3:17 The adjective "beloved" can also be translated as a title: "the Beloved One." The clause "in whom I am well pleased" can refer to divine delight or divine election. God was pleased because Jesus accepted the divine commission.

Unlike the other gospel's, Matthew recognized the problem of the lesser (John) baptizing the greater (Jesus). [3:13-15] This, of course, was a question of spiritual stature, not public recognition. Until the time of John's arrest, Jesus was a minor public character. Many biblical scholars even insist that Jesus was a disciple of John. So, Jesus might have been baptized by John in order to join John's followers.

Matthew gave two reasons for Jesus' baptism by John. First, John's baptism was to "fulfill all righteousness." In other words, Jesus' baptism was God's will. This was the way Jesus would be introduced to the public. Jesus began his ministry as a repentant sinner just like the rest of John's followers (and us).

Second, the baptism of Jesus had powerful effects. Matthew, like the Mark and Luke, recorded three events as Jesus rose from the water: the sky opened, the Spirit descended, and a heavenly voice spoke. [3:16-17] All three were remnants of God's power in the baptism. Like ripples a tossed rock causes in a calm pool, the open sky, the dove, and the voice were "ripples" from THE public event of the baptism.

Each of the "ripples" has a distinct meaning. The heavens opening (being ripped open, if the Greek is taken literally) meant that the God's realm and the earth were no longer separated. God was one with his people. The kingdom of God was now present.

The descent of the Spirit had a specific purpose: to call and equip Jesus for a public ministry. The Spirit called Jesus to ministry that would unite people to God. And the Spirit gave him all the gifts necessary for that ministry. In our baptism and confirmation, the Spirit gives us the same calling and the same gifts. We are to bring others to Christ in private and public ways.

The voice from heaven focused upon Jesus of Nazareth. Obeying the will of the Father, Jesus could now be publicly proclaimed "God's Son," a royal title in Israel's history. In other words, the voice revealed Jesus as the Messiah, God's Anointed. The dual modifiers ("beloved" and "well pleased") emphasized the love relationship between the Father and his Son.

Catechism Theme: The Baptism of Jesus

1224 Our Lord voluntarily submitted himself to the baptism of St. John, intended for sinners, in order to "fulfill all righteousness." Jesus' gesture is a manifestation of his self-emptying. The Spirit who had hovered over the waters of the first creation descended then on the Christ as a prelude of the new creation, and the Father revealed Jesus as his "beloved Son."

In the discussion of Christ's baptism, the Catechism constantly refers to his "self-emptying" and God's power. As the instrument of God's will, Jesus emptied himself so God's power could be made present. By humbling himself to be baptized by John, Jesus showed his deference to the Father's will. God's will would lead to the death of Jesus, and reveal God's power in his resurrection.

To truly be God's instruments, we must be willing to empty ourselves. "Me, first" must become "We, together." "Right now" must become "Your will be done." "I want" must become "what is best for all." Emptying ourselves does not mean losing our identity, our purpose, or our passion. It means seeing the bigger picture and putting others needs on par with our own. When we act as if "we love others as ourselves," we open ourselves to God, align ourselves with his will, and become his instruments.

Baptism calls us and empowers us to empty ourselves. Like Christ, our humility can openly declare our trust in God the Father. We are followers of Christ because we act like Christ.

How have you acted like Christ? Or seen others act like Christ?

Public baptism does not make us spiritually better than any one else. But it does empower us. God is now one with us (the heavens torn apart). The Spirit calls and equips us to witness to others (the descent of the Spirit). And the Father now declares we are his beloved children Baptism enables us to truly be followers of Christ.

Reflect on your status as a baptized Christian. How is God with you now? How does he empower you to witness to others? How does he declare you are his "beloved" child? Use this week to reflect on the answers to these questions.