Jesus, John the Baptist, and Redemptive-History (Matthew 3)

Jesus does not submit himself to John’s baptism as a mere example to be followed, but to propel redemptive-history forward in himself as the true Israel.

But we may be able to say more than this, for Jesus himself undergoes John’s baptism with water for repentance. As the true Israel (cf. 2:15), he makes a true confession of sins, not for his own sins, but vicariously for the sake of his people he came to save. In fulfilling all righteousness.

 

As we read about in Matthew 3, John the Baptist breathed in an “atmosphere surcharged with the thought of the end.”[1] In his mind his baptism was the final opportunity before “water” would be eschatologically outmoded by “the Holy Spirit and fire.” He thought that the time for repentance would reach its terminus with the appearance of the Christ—then water would be superseded by the Holy Spirit and fire, no longer for repentance but for final salvation and judgment.[2]

Jesus, however, steps onto the scene and rather than enacting a redemptive-historical transition to his eschatological baptism, he comes to be baptized by John. But John protests. Now his protest was not for them to reverse roles as if Jesus was simply to administer John’s own baptism of water. Rather, John believes that it was now time for his baptism to be superseded by the eschatological baptism of Christ.[3] In John’s eyes, the appearance of the Messiah alone was enough to transition redemptive-history into the eschatological era of the Messiah. His protest reveals he was ignorant of what must first be fulfilled in order for this to happen. This confusion over the timing and nature of Christ’s coming will persist with John and his disciples (9:9–13; 11:2–6).

In order to correct John’s redemptive-historical misunderstanding (or mistiming), Jesus responds, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness (Ἄφες ἄρτι, οὕτως γὰρ πρέπον ἐστὶνἡμῖν πληρῶσαι πᾶσαν δικαιοσύνην, 3:15). The first clause (“Let is be so now”) affirms that John was correct to expect a redemptive-historical transition, but it was not yet time—more than just the appearance of the Christ was necessary. It was thus fitting for Jesus to be baptized now (ἄρτι) because he and John had not yet fulfilled “all righteousness” (πᾶσαν δικαιοσύνην). If Jesus’ words are responding to this larger redemptive-historical timing issue, then it would seem natural to understand “all righteousness” here as including, but also going beyond his baptism to encompass all that he accomplishes in his life, death and resurrection. For it is only after these accomplishments that the transition John anticipated takes place and Christ commissions his disciples to baptize the nations in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit(28:19).[4] Jesus, therefore, does not submit himself to John’s baptism as a mere example to be followed, but to propel redemptive-history forward in himself as the true Israel who repents not for his own sins, but for the sins of his people whom he came to save (1:21).

[1] Geerhardus Vos, Biblical Theology, 318.

[2] On the Holy Spirit and fire pertaining to salvation and judgment, respectively, see Herman Ridderbos, Matthew, 54. The same juxtaposition can be found in Ezek. 36:26–32; Joel 2:28–31; Zech. 12:9–10.

[3] Herman Ridderbos, Matthew, 57.

[4] It seems this is the same eschatological baptism expected by John, but now expanded to include the Father and the Son, possibly corresponding with the revelation of the Son by the Father and the Father by the Son (so 11:25–27).

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