Biblical Commentary
(Bible study)
Matthew 3:13-17




Chapter 3 opens with John the Baptist preaching repentance and baptizing in the wilderness of Judea (3:1-12). He rejects Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism because of their unworthiness (3:7-10), and attempts to reject Jesus as a candidate for baptism because of his super-worthiness (v. 14).

A towering prophet in verses 1-12, John the Baptist is reduced to a subordinate figure in the presence of Jesus.

This account of Jesus’ baptism is followed by his temptation in the wilderness (4:1-11), the beginnings of his ministry, and the call of his first disciples (4:12-25). His baptism, then, is preparation for that which follows—a ministry filled with conflict that will lead to the cross and the open tomb..

In this Gospel, Jesus’ ministry opens with his baptism and will close with his commissioning the disciples to baptize all nations (28:19). In so shaping his Gospel, Matthew reveals the importance of baptism to himself and the early church.


Matthew uses the Gospel of Mark as one of his sources, adding material from other sources as well. Matthew adds two important pieces to Mark’s brief account of Jesus baptism:

• First, he notes, “Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him” (vs. 13), making it clear that Jesus has the initiative.

• Second, “John would have hindered him,” but Jesus insists on being baptized “to fulfill all righteousness” (vv. 14-15).

John was not the first to baptize people. Jews baptized proselytes into their faith, but did not baptize other Jews. Jews couldn’t imagine themselves as needing baptism.


13Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him. 14But John would have hindered him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and you come to me?” 15But Jesus, answering,said to him, “Allow it now, for this is the fitting way for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he allowed him.

“Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him” (v. 13). Matthew tells us nothing of John prior to his baptism for repentance in this chapter, but Luke tells us of the annunciation to Zechariah, John’s father (Luke 1:5-24) that parallels the annunciation to Mary (Luke 1:26-38). He tells us of the pregnant Mary’s visit to the pregnant Elizabeth (Luke 1:39-45), who is Mary’s relative (Luke 1:36). He also tells us of Elizabeth, filled with the Spirit, speaking of Mary, her junior in age and status, as “the mother of my Lord,” and acknowledging that “when the voice of your greeting came into my ears, the baby leaped in my womb for joy!” (Luke 1:44). We know, therefore, that Elizabeth and John knew from the beginning that Jesus enjoyed a special status before God. While the scriptures tell us nothing of the boyhood relationship of Jesus and John, we can assume that they were well acquainted before Jesus came to John for baptism.

At the time of Matthew’s writing, John’s disciples are still present and are sometimes in conflict with Jesus’ disciples. Matthew establishes early on that Jesus is the greater and John the lesser. We find the same emphasis in all four Gospels (Mark 1:7; Luke 3:16; John 1:6-9, 15, 19ff.)

“But John would have hindered him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and you come to me?'” (v. 14). We are as surprised as John that Jesus presents himself for baptism. John proclaimed a baptism of repentance (3:2), and those being baptized confessed their sins (3:6). Jesus has nothing to repent and no sins to confess.

“Allow it now, for this is the fitting way for us to fulfill all righteousness” (v. 15). These are Jesus’ first words in this Gospel, heightening their importance.

Righteousness is a major theme in this Gospel:

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness” (5:6).

“Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, there is no way you will enter into the Kingdom of Heaven” (5:20).

“Seek first God’s Kingdom, and his righteousness” (6:33).

“John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you didn’t believe him” (21:32).

“this is the fitting way for us” (v. 15b). Note the word “us”. It is right, not only for Jesus to fulfill all righteousness, but also for John. In Jesus’ baptism, both honor God’s will.

What does Jesus mean by “to fulfill all righteousness” (v. 15c)? In this Gospel, righteousness is doing the will of God. While that entails observing Torah law, Jesus makes it clear in the Sermon on the Mount that true righteousness involves more than rote observance. It requires moving beyond the letter of the law to honor the spirit behind it (5:21-48).

In this Gospel, Jesus speaks often of “the law or the prophets” (5:17; 7:12; 11:13; 22:40) and of prophets generally (5:12; 13:17, 57; 23:29-37; 26:56). The role of the prophets was to help the people move beyond the letter of the law to the spirit behind it—and thus to attain true righteousness.

In any event, it is clear that Jesus sees his submission to John’s baptism as God’s will. He is fulfilling all righteousness by faithful obedience to his role in God’s plan of salvation:

• The initial phase of that plan required Jesus to empty himself of his Godly majesty to be born in human likeness (Philippians 2:7).

• This phase requires Jesus to submit to a baptism for repentant sinners. Such a baptism would be inappropriate for Jesus, except that in his baptism Jesus establishes his identity with the sinners whom he has come to save.

• The final part of God’s plan will involve Jesus being “obedient to death, yes, the death of the cross” (Philippians 2:8).

• But at this moment—the moment at which Jesus begins his public ministry—the plan requires Jesus to submit himself to John for baptism so that he might receive the anointing of the Holy Spirit and God’s word-from-on-high announcing Jesus’ unique sonship. Given that Jesus is John’s superior, this requires Jesus to humble himself—just as he humbled himself in the Incarnation and as he will humble himself at the cross.

“Then he (John) allowed him” (v. 15d). As noted in v. 14, John is uncomfortable with this role reversal, but his part in fulfilling “all righteousness” is to do Jesus’ bidding—which he does. In this Gospel, Jesus’ words have power. He calls John to baptize him, and John does. He commands Satan to go away, and Satan leaves (4:10-11). He calls fishermen to follow, and they do so (4:19-22) (Bruner, 86).


16Jesus, when he was baptized, went up directly from the water: and behold, the heavens were opened to him. He saw the Spirit of God descending as a dove, and coming on him. 17Behold, a voice out of the heavens said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”

“Jesus, when he was baptized” (v. 16a). Matthew does not describe the baptism itself so much as the eschatological signs that followed it (the heavens opened and the Spirit descending).

went up directly from the water: and behold, the heavens were opened to him. He saw the Spirit of God descending as a dove, and coming on him” (v. 16b). In one of the grand reversals of the Gospels, Jesus goes down into the water (implied by “(he) went up directly from the water”), and the Holy Spirit descends (comes down) upon him. Jesus began life by emptying himself of his heavenly glory to be born in human form (Philippians 2:7). Now the Holy Spirit descends to meet Jesus in his earthly home.

This does not mean that the Spirit of God has not yet been active in Jesus’ life. Matthew has already told us that Mary conceived Jesus by the action of the Holy Spirit (1:18, 20).

In the temptation that immediately follows Jesus’ baptism (3:13-17), Satan will take Jesus to the pinnacle of the temple and to a high mountain, where he will tempt Jesus with promises of greatness. However, while Satan’s way is prideful self-service, God’s way is humble service to others. God’s way is not easy. In this Gospel, Jesus will call us to the narrow gate and the hard road that lead to life and warn us of the wide gate and easy road that lead to destruction (7:13-14). He will tell us that the first will be last and the last will be first (19:30).

All four Gospels report the descent of the Spirit, which will empower Jesus throughout his ministry. Noah’s story (Gen 8:8-12) established the dove as a symbol of peace—of shalom—not of power. Nonetheless, it will be by the power of this gentle Spirit that Jesus will attack Satan’s forces (Hare, 22).

Behold, a voice out of the heavens said” (v. 17a). Finally, we have all three members of the Godhead present at Jesus’ baptism—the Son, the Spirit, and now the Father.

This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (v. 17b). These words come from Psalm 2:7 (“You are my son. Today I have become your father”) and Isaiah 42:1 (“Behold, my servant… in whom my soul delights”). They validate the person of Jesus and the ministry that begins with his baptism. Any parent whose son or daughter has made them proud can identify with the Father’s pride in the Son. Any son or daughter who has received a parent’s praise knows the power of such praise.

Mark reports the voice as speaking to Jesus, “You are my beloved Son” (1:11). Matthew’s wording, “This is my beloved Son,” suggests a public proclamation, heard by John and, presumably, others. The voice makes it clear that Jesus is the one who was promised. This Son of David (1:23; 2:15) is also the Son of God.

At the Transfiguration, on the only other occasion in the synoptic Gospels where God speaks directly to people, God speaks similar words, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. Listen to him” (17:5). A similar validation took place at the birth of Jesus, when the angel told the shepherds, “to you, this day, in the city of David, a Savior, who is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:11).

At Jesus’ baptism, the Spirit of God descends on Jesus (v. 16) and the Father declares that Jesus is his Son (v. 17). Immediately after Jesus’ baptism, this same Spirit will lead Jesus “into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil” (4:1), and the devil will introduce the first two temptations by saying, “If you are the Son of God” (4:3, 6).

“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 (14:33; 16:16; 26:63-64)” (France, 124).

SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.


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Copyright 2012 Richard Niell Donovan