Examining Matthew 3:13-17

Tara Ingrid Ludmer


1 March, 2000

New Testament Studies 260-312B

Augustine Stock believes that the introductory verses of the book of Matthew work as a series of affirmations of Jesus’ nature. First Matthew’s own attestation that Jesus is the Christ, in Mt 1:1, then the attestation of the angel that Mary’s son is the fulfillment of prophecy in Mt 2:22-23, then the attestation of the Magis, then of John the Baptist, and then, finally, in Mt 3:17, of God Itself (Stock 56). According to this structure, verses 3:13-17 have the form of a conclusion. My essay will try to show how these verses are not only a conclusion but a nodal point: both the end of the introduction to the character Jesus and the assertion of his identity, and the beginning of Jesus’ doings and sayings. For example, although Mt 3:15 is part of the conclusion of the first part of the book of Matthew, because it is the first time Jesus speaks, it is also the beginning of the second part. I would like to explore how the passage, Matthew 3:13-17, functions a juncture that both concludes the introductory narrative and begins the story of Jesus’ teachings and the cosmic significance of his life and death.

This passage continues and concludes threads from earlier verses and brings them to a culmination. For example, the physically closest continuation is that of the story of John the Baptist. Matthew 3:13-17 fulfills John’s prophecy that another one more powerful will come and baptize the people (Mt 3:11). John has prophecied, and the prophecy has come to pass – this is one closing.

It is also the closing of actual baptizing in the gospel, which began in Mt 3:6. Baptizing, at the hands of John, starts with the people, "from Jerusalem and all Judea (Mt 3:5)," and ends with Jesus. In this sense, Jesus’ is the ultimate baptism – and a conclusion. This is problematic for understanding baptism. Earlier in Matthew, baptism is explicitly connected to the confession of sin (Mt 3:6), but Jesus has no sin to confess. Stock suggests that through his baptism, Jesus identifies himself with sinful humankind (49), and Plummer suggests that Jesus is baptized into his public life of ministry (31). Another understanding is that in this magnificent conclusion of actual baptisms is the beginning of the teaching of what baptism really means. How can we learn about the significance of baptism?

Immediately after Jesus’ baptism, "a voice from heaven said ‘This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.’" God acknowledges Jesus. Later in Matthew, Jesus teaches, "Whoever acknowledges me before men, I will also acknowledge him before my Father in heaven. But whoever disowns me before men, I will disown him before my Father in heaven. (Mt 10:32-3)" Just as Jesus’ baptism leads to God’s claiming of him, so the peoples’ baptism will lead to God claiming them, through Jesus. This teaching finds its culmination at the end of Matthew, where Jesus tells his disciples to, "go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit (Mt 28:19)." Concerning our passage, Jerome wrote about the remarkable coming together of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit in the baptism of Jesus (96). At the end of Matthew, Jesus brings together the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and the baptism of all the members of all nations. In this way, Jesus’ baptism is certainly an ultimate baptism and a model for all people. In this relationship between Jesus’ baptism and the baptism of everyone else, we can better understand what Jesus means when he tells John that his baptism is proper, "to fulfill all righteousness (Mt 3:12)."

Another very fascinating example of a simultaneous concluding a story and beginning it is the manifestation of the Holy Spirit. Matthew writes that the Spirit of God descended, "like a dove (Mt 3:16)." Whether the dove-ness of the Holy Spirit is its actual physical form, as implied in Luke 3:22 and John 1:32, or is in some metaphorical way like a dove is not so important. Why is the Holy Spirit described as a dove in this nodal juncture of the text?

The Holy Spirit’s appearance as a dove is its second appearance so far. In its first appearance it is described as having caused Mary’s conception (Mt 1:20). Considering one strain of dove-language in the Bible adds to our understanding of the Holy Spirit and of Jesus’ conception: "Ah, you are fair. Your eyes are like doves (Son 4:1)," and, "Let me in, my own, my darling, my faultless dove! (Son 5:2)" The love that the dove is associated with here can perhaps be understood to tell us about the loving nature of Jesus’ conception. In this way the dove-ness of the Holy Spirit is part of the introduction, completing an understanding of the beginnings of Jesus. But doves are also associated with mourning and sadness, for example, "I moaned like a dove… My Lord, I am in straits (Isa 9:14)," and, "Her handmaids escort her as with the voices of doves, beating their breasts (Nah 2:7)." This other aspect of the dove marks the beginning of the tragedy of Jesus’ martyrdom which we will learn more about later in Matthew. In Matthew itself, Jesus will associate the dove with innocence (Mt 10:16) in his instructions to his disciples. By alighting upon Jesus as a dove, perhaps the Holy Spirit is marking for us Jesus’ innocence and his tragicness. A final fascinating aspect of the dove is its role in the story of Noah. The dove does not return to him, and this marks the beginning of a new and better age on Earth. Now, perhaps that dove who did not return to Noah is returning, and as Plummer suggested, is able to" find a rest (33)," marking the beginning of another new and better age.

Finally, as I wrote in the beginning, God’s acknowledgement of Jesus is the concluding of a series of acknowledgements, and the greatest, of course, because God is the greatest. It is the end of the introduction, but it is also the beginning. Stock pointed out the resonance between God’s naming of Jesus here, "My son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased (Mt 4:17)," and God’s naming of Isaac to Abraham, "Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love (Gen 22:2)," and sacrifice him (Stock 56). Abraham is willing, even binds Isaac and raises his knife to Isaac’s throat, but the Lord stops him. For being willing to sacrifice his son however, the Lord praises Abraham and tells him, "because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you (Gen 22:16)." Thus, even as God’s proclamation here concludes Jesus’ introduction, it also foreshadows that God will also not withhold his son.

Even as the introduction reaches a crescendo in the magnificent declaration of God, Matthew tells us that the story only beginning. This passage is an effective and beautiful juncture. In the form of a conclusion, Matthew’s passage shows us how baptism is a beginning.

Works Cited

Holy Bible. Trans. New International Version. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1984.

Jerome, Saint. Commentaire sur Saint Matthieu. Trans. Emile Bonnard. Paris: Sources Chretiens, 1977.

Plummer, Alfred. An Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel. New York: Charles Scibners and Sons, 1917.

Stock, Augustine. The Method and Message of Matthew. Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1994.

Synopsis of the Four Gospels. Trans. Kurt Aland. Ed. Kurt Aland. USA: United Bible Societies, 1982.

Young’s Analytical Concordance to the Bible. Grand Rapids MI: E. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1955.