“Then Jesus came from the Galilee at the Jordan to John to be baptized by him. But John was forbidding Him saying, ‘I have need to be baptized by You, yet You come to me?!’ So, answering him, Jesus said to him, ‘Permit it at this time. For thus it is suitable for us to fulfill all righteousness.’ Then, he permitted Him. So, after Jesus was baptized, immediately He ascended from the water and behold! The heavens were opened to Him, and He saw the Spirit of God descending as a dove and coming upon Him. And behold! A voice from the heavens was saying, ‘This is My beloved Son in Whom I am well pleased.’”
This section immediately captures our attention because for the first time in Matthew’s gospel Jesus takes center stage. While rooted in the broader section of the King’s Anointing (3:1-4:11) this text stands out, and rightly so. We come to this text with the same anticipation as the Greeks who came to Philip, “Sir, we would see Jesus” (Jn. 12:21). As Matthew introduces Jesus, he does so with two main points in mind: (1) to present Jesus as an alternative to the Pharisees and Sadducees and (2) to present Jesus as the true Anointed One as indicated by the Triune Godhead. These two points collectively call the reader to repent and follow Jesus alone.
Jesus is Presented as Israel’s Alternative (vv. 13-15)
The dust up between John and Israel’s religious elite should be fresh in our minds as we read this portion. Matthew presented the Pharisees and Sadducees coming from Jerusalem to be baptized by John (v. 7) and now Jesus is coming from the northern region of Galilee for the same reason. John has reservations about baptizing bother parties, but for very different reasons. Yet, in the end, it is right to baptize the One while refusing the other. Jesus is presented as the correct and righteous alternative to the religious leaders of Israel.
Jesus’ Purpose (v. 13)
“Then Jesus came from the Galilee at the Jordan to John to be baptized by him.”
“Then” (τὸτε) presents the next sequence of events. It is not clear if this occurred immediately after John’s confrontation with the Pharisees and Sadducees. John’s account states that this happened the next day (Jn. 1:29). Matthew’s point is simple and two-fold: (1) Jesus came to John in the same context as the Pharisees and Sadducees; i.e., while he was at the Jordan baptizing the crowds, and (2) this event occurred after John’s startling rebuke in vv. 7-12 and thus must be read in connection with what has preceded.
While there may be some debate regarding the purpose of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to John (v. 7), there is none here. The preposition πρὸς with the articular infinitive (τοῦ βαπτισθῆναι) clearly states Jesus’ purpose was to be baptized by John (ὑπ᾽ αὐτοῦ). There is one specific reason why Jesus traveled from (ἀπὸ) Galilee to (ἐπὶ) the Jordan with the singular purpose of being baptized by John. As with the Pharisees and Sadducees, John is not comfortable with this arrangement.
John’s Pause (v. 14)
“But John was forbidding Him saying, ‘I have need to be baptized by You, yet You come to me?!’”
There are several points of comparison between this encounter and John’s words with the Pharisees and Sadducees. While John does not want to baptize either the hypocritical leaders or Jesus, he does so for two different reasons. John did not want to baptize the Pharisees and Sadducees because the repentance was a façade. He did not want to baptize Jesus because Jesus has no need to repent. It would be a mistake, however, to understand John’s concern as a simple desire to change places with Jesus, that rather than John baptizing Jesus with water regarding repentance Jesus should baptize John with water regarding repentance (v. 11). Matthew arranges his narrative with such care that we would fail in our duty as Christians not to take notice of it.
John has already warned the Pharisees and Sadducees of a greater One who will come after John and whose baptism is greater than John’s. While John baptized with water only in association with repentance, the Coming One will baptize with the Holy Spirit (those who repent) and with fire (those who continue in rebellion). John recognizes Jesus as the Coming One and questions why He should submit to an inferior baptism that does not accomplish but only associates. Would it not be better if John received the greater and eschatological baptism that Jesus will bring? Since the Coming One has come, is it not time for His baptism (i.e., eschatological, and eternal blessing and cursing)?
It is important to remember the logical chain between the command to repent and the reason of the kingdom. The kingdom assumes a conquest lead by a King. This King requires a new Covenant with His people. That Covenant requires repentance. If the King has arrived, then is it not time for the King to establish His Covenant and complete His Conquest?
Jesus’ Plan (v. 15)
These are the first recorded words uttered by Jesus who is the Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham. We would do well to pay attention. Jesus’ answer comes in two parts. First, he corrects John’s timing and identification of events while at the same time confirming John’s logic. Second, Jesus explains to John the reason why He must be baptized.
Jesus Corrects John’s Timing – “So, answering him, Jesus said to him, ‘Permit it at this time”: It is noteworthy that Jesus never corrects John’s logic. It is true that John has a need to be baptized by Jesus. The baptism of the Holy Spirit which fulfills the New Covenant promise (Jer. 31:31-34; Ezek. 36:22-32) is needed by John as well as all repentant Israelites and Jesus is the One who will provide it. Yet that is not what is needed now. The eschatological baptism of the Holy Spirit is not yet. The adverb ἄρτι emphasizes the present time (now) and thus implies that John’s expectations would prove accurate in the future. Yet for now, Jesus has something different in mind. Now it is necessary for John to stop hindering Jesus’ baptism and permit it.
Jesus speaks with an aorist imperative (ἄφες) which demands immediate obedience. The root ἀφίημι carries the idea of dismissing or releasing a person or obligation and has been translated in various ways ranging from “forgive” to “divorce”. The idea here is “let it go, John” or “allow it.” While in principle, John’s objections are valid. Yet, at this time in redemptive history it is necessary for John to baptize Jesus if they are to fulfill all righteousness.
Jesus Explains John’s Purpose – “’For thus it is suitable for us to fulfill all righteousness.’ Then, he permitted Him”: Γὰρ introduces an explanation of Jesus’ command and provides the reason why John must comply. “Righteousness” (δικαιοσύνη) describes what is objectively right, correct, fair, appropriate, whole, and sound. At the risk of demeaning Jesus’ words, He tells John that He must be baptized in order that they both do the right thing. It is correct, right, and appropriate that John baptize Jesus with water regarding repentance. That much is obvious from the text. The real question is why?
As already stated, John’s baptism is an act that demonstrates repentance and anticipates the promised aspects of cleansing, new heart, and permanent Holy Spirit that come with the New Covenant (Ezek. 36:25-27). While the waters of the Jordan did nothing to cleanse the people of their iniquity, the act demonstrated faith in God’s future cleansing. Is it not necessary that (a) Israel’s king also demonstrates this same faith? (b) That Israel’s substitute demonstrate solidarity with His people? (c) For Yhwh’s Servant to demonstrate submission and obedience? (d) That through His Messiah, Yhwh reveal the validity of this expectation and (e) That Yhwh would publicly affirm Him? All of this was accomplished in Jesus’ baptism by John, the forerunner of Messiah.
Once John understood that Jesus was not here to establish the kingdom through conquest but to identify with His people in order to fulfill the atoning role of Messiah, he permitted Him. It is not yet time to initiate the New Covenant that leads to the Kingdom. Now is the time to introduce Israel to her Messiah.
Jesus is Pronounced as Israel’s Anticipated Anointed One (vv. 16-17)
While closely connected, it is important to make a distinction between Jesus’ baptism and Jesus’ anointing. These two events certainly are joined to make a large picture but should not be conflated or confused. The term “Christ” (Χριστός) is the Greek translation of the Hebrew “Messiah” (מָשִׁיחַ), both of which mean Anointed One. To anoint is to pour/smear oil on someone as a way to identify and initiate them for a particular office of high rank and much prestige. This anointing comes after the baptism. In other words, the forerunner identifies Jesus with His task, but it is God who initiates Jesus by anointing Him. Jesus is correctly called Yhwh’s Christ/Messiah/Anointed One from this point forward.
Two scenes are presented for the reader, both marked by Matthew’s favorite interjection “behold!” (ἰδού). The combination of the two creates a clear picture of the Triune Godhead. First, Matthew draws attention to the anointing of the Jesus (God the Son) by the God the Holy Spirit. Then, Jesus’ anointing is affirmed by God the Father.
The Spirit Anoints (v. 16)
“So, after Jesus was baptized, immediately He ascended from the water and behold! The heavens were opened to Him, and He saw the Spirit of God descending as a dove and coming upon Him.”
This scene takes place immediately after Jesus’ baptism as marked by His coming up out of the water (ἀνέβη ἀπὸ τοῦ ὕδατος). Advocates of paedobaptism argue strongly against any mode of baptism being referenced here, stating that “from the water” means that Jesus walked out of the river onto the bank. Yet this interpretation fails to take (1) the temporal participle βαπτισθεὶς (after He was baptized), (2) the temporal adverb εὐθὺς (immediately), or Matthew’s word play with ἀναβαίνω and καταβαίνω (Jesus ascended out of the water while the Spirit descended like a dove) seriously. Matthew clearly connects this scene as occurring the instant Jesus was raised out of the water by John. The emergence of the initiate from the water after being immersed completes the baptism. It is this moment, after Jesus and John have fulfilled all righteousness by identifying Jesus with the nation He is to lead and die in place of in submission to the Father, that God anoints His Christ.
Matthew’s first “behold!” introduces a jaw-dropping scene. It would be a mistake to read “the heavens were opened” and think only that the sun shone more brightly or that the clouds parted. This is precise apocalyptic language that is reminiscent of other prophets when they saw visions of the heavenly realm (Ezek. 1:1; Acts 7:56; Rev. 4:1). It is as if the barrier between heaven and earth has been momentarily removed, as if a door has been opened between God’s throne room in heaven and His footstool, the earth.
As is his custom, Matthew relies upon his readers’ familiarity with the Old Testament as he presents this scene. Several Old Testament texts come to mind as we consider not only the significance of the Spirit’s anointing but also the form which the Spirit took when He anointed Jesus.
The Significance of the Spirit’s Anointing: The fact that the Holy Spirit or Spirit of God comes upon (ἐρχομαι + πνεῦμα + ἐπί) Messiah reminds the reader of various other places where specific people were selected by God for special and particular work and were thus empowered by God through His Spirit to accomplish this work. Whether the work of a skilled artisan (Num. 11:26), the strength to accomplish God’s wrath (Jud. 15:14), the sign of God’s selection as king (1 Sam. 10:10; 19:23), a sign of God’s prophet (2 Kings 2:15; Ezek. 2:2, 3:24), and the anticipation of God’s Messiah (Is. 11:1-2). God’s Spirit coming upon people in the Old Testament comes with power, wisdom, and ability to accomplish a specific task. The selection comes with divine ability. The same is true of this anointing. The Holy Spirit comes upon Jesus to identify Him as Yhwh’s selected Messiah but also to enable Him to perform the role of Messiah. God the Holy Spirit has identified and empowered David’s branch (Is. 11:1-2).
The Significance of the Spirit in the Form of a Dove: It is significant that Matthew records the form which the Holy Spirit took as He descended upon Jesus and came upon Him. Jesus saw and recognized the form of a dove, but Matthew’s readers need to understand why a dove? There are three main reasons which are combined into a single theological thrust. First, a dove (περιστερά/יוֹנָה) is first mentioned in Scripture as a messenger of peace (Gen. 8:8-12). It was a dove that brought back evidence to Noah that the world was not utterly destroyed. The dove is thus a messenger of hope and peace after wrath. Second, Yhwh allows for the poor to offer young pigeons/doves (περιστερά/יוֹנָה) if they cannot afford a larger animal when they offer burnt offerings (Lev. 1:14; 5:7-11; 14:22). A dove is therefore understood as an acceptable and accessible sacrifice. Third, a dove is used as a flighty and silly representative of the nation of Israel. Hosea likens the rebellious northern tribes to silly doves that refuse to stay put and obey God (Hos. 7:11). This “dove” language is combined with “son” when Hosea foresees the return of Israel to the land when Yhwh roars and calls them out of exile (Hos. 11:11).
These three concepts of messenger, acceptable and accessible sacrifice, and representative of Israel has already been combined in the person of Jonah (יוֹנָה – lit. Dove) who was commissioned to bring a message to Nineveh, was accepted as an appeasement for God’s wrath, and who perfectly represented the nation of Israel as Israel was at that time (i.e., rebellious and contrary). But something greater than Jonah is here. In Jesus we have a representative, not of Israel as Israel is, but of Israel as Israel should be. This one will be sacrificed in the place of the nation who is both acceptable to God and is accessible to all who believe. The perfect Israelite is commissioned and anointed in such a way that anticipates His preaching more than His conquest. With heaven’s opening, something very much like the anticipated invasion of earth has occurred. Yet this is not the invasion of heaven’s kingdom, not at this time anyway. However, this much we can say: the King has been anointed and now awaits the Father’s affirmation.
The Father Affirms (v. 17)
“And behold! A voice from the heavens was saying, ‘This is My beloved Son in Whom I am well pleased.’”
A second “behold!” initiates a second part of this heavenly invasion. It is as if the door to heaven remains open and so allowing the voice of God the Father to come through. This statement declared by the Father in His throne room regarding His Anointed Son. That Jesus and John heard this voice is beyond dispute, though it is unclear if anyone else heard these words and understood them. In this statement, the Father affirms the righteousness of Jesus’ baptism (identification, solidarity, and submission) and anointing (commissioning and initiation of Messiahship). The Father’s choice of words echoes several Old Testament texts and as such bring a depth of meaning revolving around two identities: (1) God’s Son (Ps. 2:7) and (2) God’s Servant (Is. 42:1).
Davidic Sonship from Psalm 2:7 – “I will surely tell of the decree of Yhwh: He said to Me, ‘You are My Son, today I have begotten You.’” This psalm of David looks ahead to a time when Yhwh and His Messiah stand victorious over a host of rebellious kings of the earth. Messiah is called Yhwh’s Son here in v.7 as a reference to two previous revelations: (1) Ex. 4:22-23 which expressly states that the nation of Israel is Yhwh’s son and (2) 2 Sam. 7:12-17 where Yhwh promises David a son who will rule from his throne forever. By calling Jesus His “Son”, the Father affirms that Jesus is the Davidic Messiah and right representative of the nation Israel who will one day destroy rebels and establish His rule.
Yhwh’s Selected Suffering Servant from Isaiah 42:1 – “Behold! My Servant whom I uphold, My chosen One in whom My soul delights. I have put My Spirit upon Him; He will bring forth justice to the nations.” Isaiah 42:1-4 is the first of four “Servant Songs”, the last of which reveals Yhwh’s Servant as a suffering servant (Is. 52:13-53:12). This initial Servant Song begins by revealing Yhwh’s pleasure or delight (εὐδοκέω/εὐδόκησις) that He has in this chosen Servant. The image of Yhwh’s Son and the allusion to Ps. 2 may mistakenly lead one to believe that Jesus is about to subdue the nations with a rod of iron. By connecting Him with Isaiah’s Servant there is no such mistake. This One will certainly crush rebellious kings, but not at this time. Now is the time where He will submit to the Father even unto death for the sake of His people. It is for this purpose that He has come and why He was given the name “Jesus”. It is His anointed duty to save His people from their sins. He will accomplish this by standing in their place as a vicarious substitute. It will be by His wounds that the nation will be healed (Is. 53:5). They will one day look upon this One whom they pierced (Zech. 12:10) and repent and believe.
This text provides at least two main ideas to chew on. First, this is one of the greatest texts that demonstrate the Trinity at work. God the Son submits to the Father while the Spirit provides the means to do the Father’s will and the Father stands to preside over and affirm the scene below. Second, over three hundred years of silence has been broken. Yhwh has spoken! His Messiah has come in humble submission to identify with His people. He has been anointed and empowered by God the Holy Spirit to accomplish His task. And He has been affirmed by the Father in this glorious task. Here stands Jesus of Nazareth as the Son of God, and Israel’s Messiah. It should not surprise us that what God plainly states is immediately questioned by the adversary.
 John Nolland, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2005), p. 153.  David Garland, Reading Matthew: A Literary and Theological Commentary on the First Gospel (New York, NY: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1993), p. 36-7.  D. A. Carson, Walter Wessel, and Mark Strauss, Matthew & Mark, Revised, vol. 9, 13 vols., The Expositor’s Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Academic, 2010), p. 137.  Charles Quarles, Matthew, Exegetical Guide to the Greek New Testament (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2017), p. 37.  R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Matthew’s Gospel (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Publishing House, 1961), p. 129.  Ibid, p. 130.  Leon Morris, The Gospel According to Matthew, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1992), p. 66.  Nolland, p. 156-7.