Matthew 3:13-17 – Baptism of our Lord
As I mentioned back in Advent 1 & Advent 2, Matthew is concerned about John’s role being perceived as too great before Jesus’ ministry begins. And so, here in the baptism scene we get a line that is not included in any of the other Gospels. John shows deference to Jesus with the quote, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” While this is a practical step for Matthew who is narrating proper authority, this is also a theological claim as well. Jesus must be baptized.
For centuries the question of “Why was Jesus baptized?” has been asked by theologians. John’s was a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. So why was Jesus baptized since he did not need repentance? Answers have run the gamut, but the most compelling I’ve found is Karl Barth’s rationale:
“His request was that he should be granted the baptism of repentance as one of the crowd which came to the Jordan. He did not set Himself over others, but, in expectation of the imminent judgment of God, he set Himself in solidarity with them. In this way He not only entered on His office but took the first step on the path which would inevitably end with what took place at Calvary.”
Emmanuel, God who is with us, came to be one of us. In solidarity with the people of God, Jesus is baptized. Recalling the conversation of scandal and righteousness from Advent 4, we could be scandalized that the Son of God, the Beloved, would be baptized by someone with no institutional authority. But righteousness is action that moves in accordance with the kingdom of heaven even when institutional practice would demand obedience and call this action scandalous. The kingdom of heaven is speaking through the prophet John, not through Herod, Jerusalem, or other religious leaders. The kingdom of heaven is found in the voice of a prophet who proclaims repentance and the incoming kingdom of heaven. And so, to have the transferring of that prophetic mantle, Jesus is baptized by John and a voice clarifies that transition by calling Jesus the Son of God and the Beloved. This fulfills the prophetic transition from prophet to prophet, John to Jesus.
But, more than any other Gospel, Matthew claims the importance of baptism for the church as well. Matthew refers to John the Baptist numerous times throughout the Gospel, but it is only here in ch 3 and at the very end of the Gospel in the Great Commission (28:19) that we hear about Baptism as a practice. Throughout generations of the church, we have taken the Great Commission and centered our liturgical traditions around it. We must baptize people with water and the name of the Triune God to fulfill this commandment.
However, I am not certain that Matthew was making a liturgical claim. Instead, I think the baptismal language may very well be connected to the baptism we experience in this Gospel. With language of baptism at the Great Commission, we transported back to the words of John the Baptist in ch 3. With this commission from Jesus we are hearing a connection to John’s prophetic witness which will be to call for repentance (3:7-10) and to “prepare the way of the Lord (3:3)” for the “end of the age” and the final judgment. Thus, this adds to the “readiness” language that we heard in the chapters leading to the crucifixion. To “be ready (24:44)” and to “keep awake (25:13),” does not mean to be staring at the sky and waiting for the return. To be ready and to keep awake means to continue in the prophetic witness and living lives worthy of repentance and bearing fruit for the world.
The power and importance of the role of John the Baptist and his prophetic witness here in chapter 3, is that that role and prophetic witness is passed along to the church at the Great Commission as the prophet Jesus transitions authority to the Church to be the next prophets of God. We become the prophetic voice and witness of God, continuing in the tradition of Moses, Isaiah, Elijah, John the Baptist, and Jesus, calling for the repentance of sins and proclaiming the coming kingdom of heaven.
Baptism is so much more than a rite of passage. But theology around baptism as means for salvation is problematic given that it directly contradicts theology of salvation by grace through faith (because baptism would be an action of works in that instance). So, why are we baptized?
Connecting our baptism with John the Baptist AND in connection with our baptismal promises is one of the most beautiful connections that I have found. John’s is a baptism of repentance and a proclamation of the coming kingdom of God. In our baptismal promises in the Lutheran tradition, we ask the guardian or the baptized,
to live among God’s faithful people,
bring them to the word of God and the holy supper,
teach them the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed, and the Ten Commandments,
place in their hands the holy scriptures,
and nurture them in faith and prayer,
so that your children may learn to trust God,
proclaim Christ through word and deed,
care for others and the world God made,
and work for justice and peace.
This is the Great Commission. This is the continuation of the prophetic witness.
What would it look like for us to embrace these baptismal promises as being connected to our being sent as prophets in the world?
What would it look like for us to see our connection with John the Baptist?
What would it look like for us to see the whole church as a prophetic witness in the world calling for the repentance of sins and proclaim the coming kingdom of God?
Additional Preaching Possibility
Reflecting on Barth’s quote above there is an opportunity to talk about Jesus’ life being like us and among us. Our Emmanuel, our God with us, will not refrain from doing anything that he asks us to do or that we go through. He is born like us, is baptized like us, he even undergoes the suffering of death in solidarity with us.
And if he will do each of these things that is asked of us, then we can trust in the path that he sets before us and the promises he gives us.
 Karl Barth, The Doctrine of Reconciliation, Vol. IV/2 of Church Dogmatics, trans. G. W. Bromiley, (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1958), 258.
 Matthew seems to fall outside of the Lukan tradition that connects him with the priestly tribe. John is not an institutional authority. He is a prophet of God and that’s all that matters.
 Evangelical Lutheran Worship, (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress, 2006), 228.