Matthew 3:13-4:17

The Text

Then there presented himself Jesus from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be immersed by him. John was preventing him, saying, ‘I myself need to be baptized by you, and you yourself come to me?’ But Jesus answered him, ‘Let it be just now, for in this manner it is proper for us to fulfill all justice.’ Then he let it go. And immersed, Jesus immediately rose from the water, and the heavens opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, in whom I delight.’

Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tried by the devil. He fasted for 40 days and 40 nights, and afterwards he was hungry. The tester approached and said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become bread.’ But he answered, ‘It is written, “One does not live by bread alone, / but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”‘

Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the Temple, saying to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written,“He will command his angels concerning you,” and, “On their hands they will bear you up, / so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.”’ Jesus said to him, ‘Again it is written, “Do not put the Lord your god to the test.”’

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, ‘All these I will give you, if you will fall down and pay homage to me.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Away with you, Satan! For it is written, “Worship the Lord your god, and serve only him.”’ Then the devil left him, and angels approached and waited on him.

Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the lake, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:

‘Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali,
   on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—
the people who sat in darkness
   have seen a great light,
and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death
   light has dawned.’

From that time Jesus began to proclaim, ‘Be changing your mind, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’

A Reading

I mentioned last time the need to resist our modern editors’ chapter breaks and subheadings. These often break up the text in ways that influence our reading, namely, to read passages in isolation from others that may be more fruitfully read together. My transgressing the artificial boundary of chapter four is by no means incidental. I suspect that these two scenes, the baptism of Jesus and the temptation of Jesus, absolutely need to be read in mutuality in order to be understood for their respective significance, a relationship whose tightness is indicated by 4:1’s pickup from 3:17,Then Jesus was led . . .’*

That said, we begin in 3:13 following the introduction of John, as an ambiguous deferment of our messianic expectations, and his vague reference forward to the Messiah whose public service John’s water-immersions prefigure. Remember that in 3:1 ‘Matthew’ slipped John in as the unexpected subject of the language of public appearance; our theory of the writer’s intentions is perhaps confirmed when 3:13 delivers us the same formula, this time as we’d been waiting to hear it: ‘Then there presented himself Jesus.’ Take a moment, then, to recognize the significance of this verse, which is not just the first appearance of the adult Jesus in our story, now over three chapters in, but is the first public (read: politically relevant) appearance of ‘Matthew’s purported Messiah, which has been delayed for as long. Just so, if this is finally the Messiah emerging into the public scene beyond his kinship ties, let your expectations run wild! What ought we to expect as the first ‘public’ act of this candidate Messiah?

Surely it is not to be immersed by John as with the droves from all over Judea. If we have doubts, John himself objects to this as wholly backwards. To be sure, there is merit to the pragmatic explanation. John was apparently no small public figure at this point, and so as not to appear his rival but rather to carry the support of John’s followers it would be important to receive the baton from him in some public ceremony. Receiving John’s ritual cleansing at once credits legitimacy to John’s ministry and garners legitimacy from it. Yet this line of reasoning doubles down on the difficulty originally presented. If Jesus is merely crediting legitimacy to John’s baptism, which is necessarily a ‘baptism unto repentance’ (3:11), he cannot merely be crediting it legitimacy without receiving it as a baptism-unto-repentance, unto repentance. What repentance is the would-be Messiah in need of? It is not merely that receiving a ritual cleansing is beneath Jesus or that immersing Jesus is above John’s station; it is as much that John’s immersions are about preparing other, wayward Israelites for the Kingdom Jesus himself is to inaugurate.*

Jesus’ explanation sounds profound and ambiguous. Whatever is meant by the fulfillment of ‘all justice,’ it is enough for John. Yet subtly, it is not the disputed immersion that is given narration but the peculiar event that followed. It has two components: an anointing and an evangelization. (1) If the lighting of the Holy Spirit upon Jesus is seen as a picture of anointing, it does fulfill a basic expectation, and despite a history of terrible renderings of the Trinity in Western art, we are by no means constrained to take ‘like a dove’ to mean ‘in the appearance of a dove’ so much as ‘in the manner of a dove,’ which says as much about what it’s like as what it’s not like. We might remember how Yhwh didn’t appear to Elijah as well as how Yhwh did, the text going out of its way to tell us. In both, the power in which Gød comes is one of extraordinary gentleness, let us note. (2) That I call the second part an ‘evangelization’ might be surprising, even a stretch, but it gives us an opportunity to recall what a gospel (a euangelion) is: good tidings or the proclamation of good tidings such as accompanied the birth a new emperor insofar as that new ruler signaled a new era, a new god and, in the case of Caesar Augustus, a new ‘savior.’ Such would be eungelion to the empire (if not to everyone in the empire). While the words from heaven do not announce Jesus’ birth, they do accomplish a similar fact as a birth proclamation; both carry the effect of one with right to rule saying, ‘I have an heir,’ and, ‘you, the world, have my heir.’ At the same time, we again have to be careful not to read our developed theology back onto this point in the story, for ‘Matthew’ is here drawing most closely on the Hebrew imagination that knows ‘Son of God’ to be a Davidic title, as written in Psalm 2, to which this scene seems to allude: ‘He said to me, “You are my son; / today I have become your father’ (v. 7). Jesus is thusly being called royal, not necessarily divine.

That Yhwh is ‘well-pleased’ or ‘delights’ in Jesus might as well raise a question for us as well if we’re reading chronologically rather than retrospectively. Why is Yhwh well-pleased? In what does the Father delight? I’ve underlined Jesus’ conspicuous passivity up til now; he’s only just emerged into the public eye, and his campaign, if it’s begun at all, has so far consisted of one singular action: being ritually washed by someone who thought it would be inappropriate to do so. To be sure, we can (probably) rightly say that the Father is pleased in the mere person of Jesus, but we wouldn’t do wrong to let this bring our attention back onto the perplexing act of his receiving a ritual cleansing associated repentance. Neither should we cleanly separate personhood from action, and if there is anything revealed about who Jesus is at this point, it is hardly more than this singular action of his. What this action is, however, specifically what this repentance is, will have to await elucidation by the story’s next scene.

Again, 4:1 picks up on the heels of the preceding: Jesus is baptized into repentance, anointed and affirmed in his Davidic inheritance and led by that same Spirit into the wilderness. This ‘into the wilderness’ presumes either that John’s spot along the Jordan was not already in the wilderness, where he was characteristically found (compare 11:7), or perhaps interestingly that Jesus was taken deeper into the wilderness. In either case, it is explicitly for the purposes that play out next, that Jesus be tried. ‘Tried’ to me seems an especially good English word, because it contains at once the connotations of testing the strength of a thing, exposing a thing to evaluation and, of course, placing someone on trial. It may be that all of these are happening here, especially in considering ‘the devil’s alternate name (used by ‘Mark’ and ‘Job’ alike) of ‘the Satan,’ or, ‘the Adversary/Accuser.’ In Job, this is apparently not the figure of an evil rival of Yhwh but of a functionary within Yhwh’s court, whose charge it is to roam the earth (like the eyes of Yhwh? [2 Chron 16:9]) and prove (in the sense of testing the strength of metal) the worth of humans. Grant it, who ‘the devil’ is for ‘Matthew’ and what the text does with this character of the Hebrew cultural canon remains to be shown by here.

The devil’s first approach, to make bread from stones has at least two aspects to it. First, though, we should note that his formula, ‘If you are the Son of God . . .’ has weight behind it only because the devil assumes it to be true, not because he wishes Jesus to prove it to be true. We could restate it, ‘Since you are . . .’ I say this because Jesus, having just received this affirmation, would have no motivation to prove its veracity, least of all to himself; he does, however, have the temptation to be led along the logic that follows from that established fact of his Davidic inheritance and divine favor. Accordingly, the devil’s approach comes off somewhat softer and more reasonable than that of a horned and black-caped tempter. Observing the extreme hunger v. 2 mentions, the devil suggests in the guise of helpfulness, ‘Hey, since you’re Son of God and all, why not just make those stones bread?’ Bread in the wilderness is not, after all, out of character for Yhwh. There are many temptations that can be contained in the idea he presents, and breaking Jesus’ purposeful fast or instrumentalizing Yhwh’s power for one’s own ends may certainly be among them. Yet under a wider-angle lens, the temptation presented to Jesus’ mind would occur on remembering what only we well-fed moderns could have the language to call Israel’s national hunger epidemic. The offer is to make bread, but the temptation is to satisfy the national hunger, to win kingship with bread, to be the savior over purely physical needs. Considering the extremity of starvation in first-century Levant, it’s actually not the most heinous temptation, which is precisely why it’s a temptation. Jesus’ response, if we attend to Deuteronomy 8 from which he quotes, is less about divine revelation being sustenance than it is making the Deutronomist’s point about sustained dependence upon Yhwh.

The devil’s second approach follows the same formula but this time aims immediately at Jesus’ political strategy. If the last exchange offered Jesus a path to kingship by satisfying material needs, the second suggests a path perhaps by spectacularism or by being reckless. Like the last, it shouldn’t necessarily be taken on its face. Jesus surely wasn’t going to break his fast as though it didn’t occur to him eat, but might he feed others in that manner?; Jesus surely wasn’t going to throw himself from the Temple (why in the hell would he?!), but might he recall at some future point that piece of Scripture once quoted by the devil and play his campaign a little faster and looser in the powder keg of Roman Palestine? This too Jesus quashes, for now.

The third approach completes the progression of directness. In paraphrase, ‘You can have the power of the world’s kingdoms, if you submit to their power.’ Now, I tend to think that the devil here is quite a bit smarter than most readings give him credit and that he does not really expect Jesus to become a Satanist. Again, there is a temptation only under the surface of the words, and what I have been suggesting is that the real temptations are what are being placed in the messianic imagination of Jesus. Remember, ‘Matthew’ is not ‘The Adventures of the Messiah’ but ‘A Book of the Becoming of Jesus the Messiah’ (1:1), the messiah-ing of the Messiah and the Jesus-ing of the Jesus. What kind of Messiah and what kind of king is precisely in question starting about now and lasting the duration of ‘Matthew.’ Mistake not, then; this accuser doesn’t know the Scriptures only well enough to pull single verses out of context. This particular trial appears to be conscious the rest of our earlier referenced Psalm 2:7, which continues:

Ask of me, and I will make the nations your inheritance,
the ends of the earth your possession.
You will rule them with an iron scepter;
you will dash them to pieces like pottery. (vv. 8-9)

Surely this is the strength of force that the devil attempts to provoke to Jesus’ imagination of rule. Jesus of course need not bend the knee to the devil in order to assume this style of leadership over Israel, and just so the devil need not recruit Jesus’ obeisance in order to accomplish his ends; it is enough that Jesus’s messiah-ship take the form of an ‘iron scepter’ more than of a dove. It is enough that Jesus’ kingdom look like every other kingdom he could survey from that mountain. This would be ‘paying homage’ to the devil. This is the temptation, and it is this that provokes Jesus to dismiss the devil, whom he only now gives the ancient title ‘Accuser/Adversary.’

Yes, as is often pointed out, each of Jesus’ replies are citations of Scripture, yet it is at least as noteworthy that more specifically each reply refers back to, defers to, Gød. Finally, the angels that minister to Jesus only after the devil departs, as though continually on hand and having only been waiting for their cue, may call to mind a royal retinue; they may call to mind the ravens attending to Elijah. In any case this is the outcome of Jesus’ trial-by-prosecutor—not passing merely but persisting, having stood trial without bending.

The announcement of John’s imprisonment in v. 12 is significant to underline the political forces in play, if also to open a vacuum into which Jesus will swiftly step. Insofar as Jesus takes up John’s public position and carries it forward, we cannot forget that his predecessor ended his career ended as a political prisoner, thus casting a shadow ever before his way. The quoted text from Isaiah 9 is not without political content either, and without space to include the rest of the passage here, I urge the reading the verses that follow those quoted. Finally, that Jesus will indeed take up the public works of John and carry them forward toward messiah-ship is evidenced by v. 17 when Jesus begins to proclaim a line that should be familiar to us, that spoken verbatim by John in 3:2, ‘Be changing your mind, for the Kingdom of Heaven has come near.’ His message is thus identical.

We see, then, that Jesus’ receiving John’s baptism was not sufficient for him to carry on John’s ministry of proclaiming the ‘Kingdom of Heaven’; rather, Jesus had apparently first to endure the trial-by-prosecutor, to resist the temptations of a kingdom that would be other than heaven’s own, kingdoms of Rome and Greece and Babylon, of Constantinople, of Great Britain and of America.

Therefore I return us to the questions we drew out earlier: why Jesus was baptized and what it means, as I think we are now better resourced by the story to answer. What Jesus must repent of—better, what he must turn from—is not a particular sin or even sin per se but a particular way that stood before him and ready for him to enter into. Jesus must from the outset, in the very first moment of his public life, reject the form of every kingdom that preceded him and every manner of power to which kings avail themselves. From this moment, the Kingdom Jesus champions will be radically and substantially unlike any other. Jesus’ ritual washing, in this way, was at once the first act of and first entrance into the novel Kingdom; it was at once one among many of John’s baptisms and the first of the baptisms that the Messiah’s disciples will later enter by his command. In the waters of the Jordan, the Kingdom of Heaven is born onto the earth, by an anointing, by a proclamation, finally by a testing of its integrity. Only then, only now, can Jesus begin to build the Kingdom to whose rule he will ascend.

Bringing it Home

If this had been my longest installment so far, it’s not merely because it is the first in which Jesus really appears; it’s because I adore this text. It is my absolute favorite part of my favorite gospel, and I’ve still not said everything I would want to say about it. For consideration of space, I’ll let the above suffice for now, with the following addition regarding the above reading’s significance for us here and now, with the Kingdom instituted, its king enthroned, but not fully consummated.

That Jesus submitted to a baptism-unto-repentance, not out of pragmatism but out of faithfulness and earnestness, reveals the essential nature of his kingdom and of his kingship. Jesus is not a god who swooped down lightly into human trifles before passing as a token sacrifice and ascending to his ethereal kingdom. Far greater, he is Gød who became human to the extent of miring himself in humanity, to the extent that human kingdoms and their conceptions of power became nature to him, to the extent that his breaking from them could be described as ‘repentance.’ Yet he so mired himself by choice, that he could choose what and as his disciples must all later choose when casting their lots with his kingdom. It is a hard choice, as Jesus first of all knows, because the kingdoms of the earth have bread and tall towers, great armies and expansive territories, the power to accomplish and even to accomplish good, but the Jesus who would become Messiah, before he would become Messiah in ‘Matthew’s terms, says, ‘Here: I’ll go first.’

This is the one we follow. Let us follow him out of the kingdoms and into His kingdom. Amen.


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