Baptism, a rite of repentance, cleansing, and new life, predates Christianity. Some Jewish groups practiced baptism. John the Baptist was Jesus’ forerunner who proclaimed that the reign of God was near and beckoned people to repentance and baptism. So far in Matthew, Jesus has been identified as king (Matthew 2:2), Messiah (Matthew 2:4), and “my son” (that is, the Lord’s Son – Matthew 2:15). IN Matthew 3:13-17, we will hear again “my Son, the Beloved.” This passage also continues Matthew’s message that Jesus comes as fulfiller and fulfillment of God’s purposes (Matthew 3:15).
Jesus goes to John to be baptized. This presents a problem for John and for us. Both John and we recognize that Jesus is greater than John. We may be troubled that John’s proclamation is one of repentance. We do not see Jesus having to repent or having to come to John for baptism. John objects. Jesus’ response is that He must be baptized by John “in this way to fulfill all righteousness” (Matthew 3:15). Jesus may not “need” baptism. He does what is right in God’s eyes. Because he has come to be with us in all that we are, Jesus is baptized in accord with God’s will.
The opening of the heavens shows relationship and communication between heaven and earth, the divine and the human, God and people. The Spirit of God, God’s voice and breath speaking from heaven, pronounces the appropriateness of this baptism. The Spirit affirms God’s pleasure and Jesus as God’s Son.
Jesus’ identity is affirmed repeatedly. John recognizes Jesus’ greatness. The voice from heaven afforms that this is God’s Son. Jesus’ identity is also affirmed in his participation in baptism. Jesus’ baptism does not signify the forgiveness of sins, which he will accomplish for us. Jesus’ baptism witnesses his faithfulness both to God and to us. Jesus does what is pleasing in God’s sight and shows us what it means to live according to God’s will.