January 9 – Matthew 3:13-17
This week we start our long journey through the book of Matthew—our last week will be the Sunday after Easter. In one sense, we already began through our Advent series, but here in Matthew 3 we’ll start at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, focusing on the entirely unexpected King and his Kingdom. Here is the Sovereign of the Universe, but where we might anticipate a conquering warrior, or a divine being flanked with angelic forces, instead we find a thirty-year old Palestinian being dunked in a river by a dude who regularly eats bugs (Matt. 3:4). This passage sets the tone for all of Jesus’ unexpected ministry, and clues us in on the wondrous, upside down work of Jesus’ kingdom.
To get a sense for all these connections we’ll read a bit more context for our discussion this week, including verses 1-6 and 11-17. That’ll start us at the beginning of John’s ministry, when he came preaching and baptizing. And what did he come preaching? “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”(1:2) All of John’s prophetic ministry was an announcing of the kingdom, preparing the way for Jesus’ own ministry. Think of a man running through a crowd, yelling to make way for a king riding through on a horse. That’s precisely John; he’s there to catch everyone’s attention, clue them in on what was going on, and call them to action.
That call to action was baptism. This is easy to miss, but John was an Old Testament prophet, so he was calling the people of Israel to an action that is entirely connected to what was going on prior to Jesus’ appearance. That was a call to repentance, a recognition that God’s people had failed to worship him alone, had been exiled to Babylon six centuries prior, and even though they had come back, things still weren’t looking good. Israel had returned to the land, but they hadn’t yet returned to the Lord, so John was preaching and calling them to repent and return to faithfully following the Lord.
That’s why it’s totally bananas that Jesus comes to him to be baptized. When did Jesus fail to worship God alone? When was he exiled? When did he come back to Israel but stay distant from the Lord? He’s the only Israelite alive at the time who had no need to go to John and be baptized. That’s why John balks when he sees Jesus, saying “I need to be baptized by you!” John is well aware that Jesus is the one coming after him who is mightier than he, whose sandal John isn’t even worthy to untie (see John 1:29-34).
But as Jesus says, this was to “fulfill all righteousness.” At least two things are going on there. First, Jesus is obeying John’s prophetic call to the people of Israel; God was telling the people of Israel to be baptized as part of John’s ministry, and so Jesus was doing what everyone else was doing. But on a second and deeper level, Jesus is fully identifying with the sinners he’s here to save. Jesus didn’t come to earth to Bible thump sinners and tell them to repent. He united himself to them. By the time he’s on the cross we see this in the full, that though he never actually committed sin himself, he became in every other way a sinner so that our sin might be paid for in him and so that his righteousness might be given to us.
That’s to say, Jesus being baptized is confounding for some of the same reasons Jesus on the cross is confounding. Here is a God-King doing nothing we would expect him to do. And yet because he fulfills righteousness we can have a perfect righteousness offered to us through his death. And because of his identification with us, we can look at Jesus here in Matthew 3 and know that he is heartwarmingly ours, our savior who came all the way to earth that he might be with us. His baptism wasn’t a ritual to check off his righteousness list but a way for him to be with us in our brokenness and need for salvation so that we might be with him in his resurrection and life.
Questions for Discussion
• Could someone read Matthew 3:1-6 and 11-17 for us?
• What stood out to you in this passage?
• How did John’s ministry connect to the start of Jesus’ ministry?
• Jesus’ baptism is the start of his preaching and teaching ministry; how does this section help us understand Jesus’ work on earth?
• In what ways do you think Jesus’ baptism was surprising to John and others present?
• Jesus is the king of the kingdom John announces in verse 2; what are some ways Jesus defies your expectations of a king?
• How can this passage cultivate our appreciation for King Jesus?