ExeGreeksis | The Baptism of Jesus – Matthew 3:13-17

Academic Articles | Biblical Exposition | Theology

Published on April 26, 2021

This is the start of an ongoing series of Greek exegesis exercises I’ll be doing called “ΕχεGrεεκsις”—get it? I know, I know… very punny. (Exegesis = bringing out the meaning of a text)

This series may be a bit technical at times—but the point is to pull back the curtain a little on what goes on behind the scenes for translating our New Testament to English. I’ll analyze the Greek text, relevant manuscript variations and how they may affect translation. I also consider cultural and contextual insights which might help with our understanding of the text. Even for those who are not into the scholarly side of things, I’m hoping that this would perhaps give some sense of appreciation and awareness of the work that translators do to give us God’s Word in our own language. Since this is more of an analytical exercise—not as much attention will be paid to the application of the text, but rather the focus is on simply getting to the meaning of the text.

I have no clue if these sorts of articles will even interest anyone, but I have a love for the Greek New Testament, so here’s to hoping that at least some of my readers benefit from my nerdiness! So let me know if you appreciate these types of articles in the comments and I’ll be sure to do some more. I will start off each section with the Greek text from the Nestle-Aland Greek New Testament (28th Revised Edition) in bold, followed after by my own translation of the Greek in blue italics then followed by the analysis and commentary.

Matthew 3:13 Τότε παραγίνεται ὁ Ἰησοῦς ἀπὸ τῆς Γαλιλαίας ἐπὶ τὸν Ἰορδάνην πρὸς τὸν Ἰωάννην τοῦ βαπτισθῆναι ὑπ᾿ αὐτοῦ.

Soon afterward, Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan toward John to be baptized by him.

Τότε denotes to us something happening a short time after we read of John baptizing people and the discourse between John and the Pharisees in verses 4-12. Here, Jesus “receives baptism along with the repentant Judean crowds.”[1] Greek verbs work a little differently to English. Whereas in English, every verb has a temporal aspect to its tense (past, present, future), Greek verbs do not necessarily always denote time. Instead, the writers can use the various aspects of the Greek verbs to emphasize an action in the foreground. Think of it like highlighting something by bolding or italicizing it. The use of παραγίνεται (to come, arrive) in the present aspect seems to bring this verb to the forefront a little when compared to Mark and Luke’s account where they use the aorist aspect in their equivalent expression. Perhaps this highlights Jesus’ entry into the scene.[2] In English this could be more literally rendered, “Then came Jesus from Galilee” which may give more of a feel of ‘taking the stage’ to his entrance.

The grammatical construction describing Jesus’ entry is interesting, particularly the use of ἐπὶ τὸν Ἰορδάνην (upon/on/to the Jordan). The ἐπὶ could possibly be taken as Jesus coming “upon” the Jordan which would imply that he was either coming by boat or walking on water.[3] However, there is no reason in the context to assume this translation and also the parallel accounts of this passage in Luke 2:21-22 and John 1:29-34 don’t point out anything particularly special about Jesus’ mode of arrival to the scene. So the translation of ἐπὶ as “to” is preferred or perhaps “unto.” This is just one example of a pretty ordinary word in Greek which might be translated a few different ways, and the translators must make a decision on what is most appropriate.

A Man on a Mission

Τοῦ βαπτισθῆναι ὑπ᾿ αὐτοῦ, “to be baptized by him” implies intentionality by Jesus. That is, he went with the specific purpose of being baptized. This is in contrast to Mark’s construction of this account which reads, καὶ ἐβαπτίσθη εἰς τὸν Ἰορδάνην ὑπὸ Ἰωάννου—”and [he] was baptized in the Jordan by John” (Mark 1:9).[4]

“For Jesus to make a journey of some 70 miles from Nazareth to the area of John’s activity in a ‘foreign’ territory would require significant motivation, and v. 15 suggests that Jesus was already aware of God’s special purpose for him, for which his baptism by John was an appropriate prelude.”[5]

So it implies that it was specifically for this purpose that Jesus came to John, and continues Matthew’s concerns with showing Jesus fulfilling various requirements of the Messiah.

So, the translation should express Jesus’ intentionality in coming to John for this purpose. Jesus’ baptism raises certain theological questions as to “why a sinless Son of God should receive a baptism which focused on repentance and forgiveness.”[6] This will be picked up later in the following verses.

Matthew 3:14-15 ὁ δὲ Ἰωάννης διεκώλυεν αὐτὸν λέγων· ἐγὼ χρείαν ἔχω ὑπὸ σοῦ βαπτισθῆναι, καὶ σὺ ἔρχῃ πρός με; ἀποκριθεὶς δὲ  Ἰησοῦς εἶπεν πρὸς αὐτόν· ἄφες ἄρτι, οὕτως γὰρ πρέπον ἐστὶν ἡμῖν πληρῶσαι πᾶσαν δικαιοσύνην. τότε ἀφίησιν αὐτόν.

But John tried to prevent him saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and you come to me?” However, Jesus responded to him, “Permit it now. For in this way it is suitable for us to fulfil all righteousness.” Then he allowed him.

Δὲ (but) sets John’s will over Jesus’, who came with the purpose of being baptized. However, John objected that it should be the other way around. “A further contrast is brought out with the use of the emphatic pronouns for I and you.”[7] The verb, Διεκώλυεν (prevent) in the imperfect tense here is connotative, giving the sense of something attempted but not achieved, hence “tried to stop.”[8] The present participle λέγων (saying) gives the sense of action happening together with John’s attempted prevention of Jesus and opens off his dialogue where he explains his reasons for objection. It could perhaps be rendered, “John tried to stop him while saying...”

Why does he need to be baptized?

John had expressed his inferiority to Jesus in verse 11. After asserting his need (χρείαν) for Jesus to baptize him, he continues with a rhetorical question, “and you come to me?” which seems to imply disbelieve or incredulity on John’s part. He can’t understand why Jesus would need to be baptized by him. R.T. France points out that perhaps there was “some apologetic embarrassment over the acknowledged fact that Jesus’ public ministry derived from his initial enrolment as a ‘disciple’ of John and a recipient of his baptism.”[9] Why would the sinless Son of God need a baptism which centered around repentance?

Whatever it is, for now this seems to be the right course according to Jesus in order to be perfectly obedient to the Father’s will.[10] However, at this point, “Matthew does not explicitly enunciate the doctrine of Christ’s sinlessness, but he seems to hint at it.”[11] The inclusion of this exchange between John and Jesus is only recorded by Matthew, but due to its ’embarrassment,’ it has actually been considered one of the most reliable by even skeptics. Craig S. Keener says,

“Given the embarrassment of some early Christian traditions (both in the canonical Gospels and the early Gospel of the Nazoreans) that Jesus accepted baptism from one of lower status than he, it is now inconceivable that the early Christians made up the story of John’s baptizing Jesus…”[12]

Jesus’ response to John’s resistance is an imperative command for John to allow it (ἄφες) followed by his enigmatic reason as to why. His reason, while it seems to be enough for John to consent, raises many questions for us. The use of fulfill (πληρῶσαι) in Matthew “is often used of the fulfillment of prophecy, and this is surely in mind here.”[13] However, what is meant by Jesus that “it is suitable for us to fulfill all righteousness”?

It could be indicating that Jesus, rather than thinking of a general principle is speaking about something specific to his and John’s own role. That is, “this baptism has a role in the carrying out of Jesus’ specific mission.”[14] It does this by illustrating Jesus’ approval of John’s call to repentance in light of the arrival of God’s kingdom and also identifying himself with those who accepted John’s baptism in the desire for a new beginning with God. In this way, he prepares himself for “bearing their weaknesses” (Matt. 8:17) and “giving his life as a ransom for many” (Matt 20:28) by shedding his blood (Matt. 26:28). In order to be their representative, “he must first be identified with them.”[15]

This “righteousness” (δικαιοσύνην) should probably be understood as it is spoken of in Isaiah 53:11: “by the knowledge of himself shall my righteous servant justify many; and he shall bear their iniquities.” Jesus could have disposed John and immediately joined him in calling sinners to repentance. However, instead, “he was down there with the sinners, affirming his solidarity with them, making himself one with them in the process of the salvation that he would in due course accomplish.”[16] As in Isaiah 53:12, he “was numbered with the transgressors.” In any case, John’s baptism was in response to the direct will of God, and therefore Jesus needed to submit to it as the Messiah.[17] Thus, in depicting Jesus as devoting himself to the task of making sinners righteous, Matthew shows an appropriate beginning for Jesus’ public ministry.

Matthew 3:16 βαπτισθεὶς δὲ  Ἰησοῦς εὐθὺς ἀνέβη ἀπὸ τοῦ ὕδατος· καὶ ἰδοὺ ἠνεῴχθησαν [αὐτῷ] οἱ οὐρανοί, καὶ εἶδεν [τὸ] πνεῦμα [τοῦ] θεοῦ καταβαῖνον ὡσεὶ περιστερὰν [καὶ] ἐρχόμενον ἐπ᾿ αὐτόν·

And after being baptized Jesus immediately went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened up [to him] and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming upon him.

Textual variant | Opened to him?

In this verse there are some differences in the manuscripts. This is quite normal for translating New Testament passages since our text comes to us out of very ancient hand-written copies and the various scribe made human errors in copying the text. Almost none of these errors affect the meaning of the text though, since most are spelling differences, or missed words – which are easy to correct given the amount of manuscripts we have to compare. The most noteworthy variant here which makes a difference on translation and meaning is that many manuscripts have “to him” after “were opened.” If this is the case, then this is an experience which Jesus alone experienced.

This would line up with Mark’s account which says, “he saw the heavens opened” (Mark 1:10). However, Mark uses σχιζομένους (to split or tear open) instead. In both cases though, the use of the passive voice perhaps implies divine agency in the opening of the heavens.[18] Luke doesn’t specify who saw it and John doesn’t record the opening of heaven at all. However, if we follow the other manuscripts which don’t include αὐτῷ (to him), then it was something that was publicly visible to those around.

The Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament “recognizes the strength of the manuscript evidence in favour of its inclusion, but also realizes that copyists may have omitted the phrase as unnecessary.”[19] However, on the whole it seems like Matthew is emphasizing Jesus’ subjective experience of the event which “would have been an encouragement to Jesus… Whether other people shared in the experience or not was apparently not so important to him, and he leaves us to puzzle about it.”[20] The use of the third person singular εἶδεν (he saw) seems to agree with this reading as well.

Also, Matthew uses a different preposition than Mark for when Jesus comes out of the water. Mark uses ἐκ (Mk. 1:10) which normally means “out of” and would perhaps imply immersion, however, Matthew uses ἀπὸ which would normally just simply mean “from” which doesn’t necessarily imply immersion but certainly would allow for it.[21] But, let’s not get into a baptism by immersion debate right now. 🙂

What’s the significance?

The significance of Jesus’ baptism which was hinted in the verses prior and by John’s discourse with Jesus is brought into more vivid view here in verses 16-17. Matthew uses ἰδοὺ (behold) to draw the reader’s attention here. Although what exactly the opening of the heavens entails is unclear, it is a familiar expression for a visionary experience (John 1:51; Acts 7:56; 10:11; Rev. 4:1; 19:11).

Ezekiel experiences something similar in Ezekiel 1:1, where he also sees heaven opened, sees a vision and hears God’s voice commission him as a prophet giving him the Spirit (Ezek. 2:2). Also in Isaiah 63:19, he asks God to tear open the heavens to come down and redeem his people.[22] Furthermore in Isaiah are Messianic prophesies that God will put his Spirit on His Chosen Servant (Isa. 11:2; 42:1; 61:1) which in the OT was to equip certain people for a special task (for example: 1 Sam. 16:13; Judg. 3:10; 6:34).[23] So this is quite appropriate for the initiation of Jesus’ public ministry as it would allude to these established concepts.

The Spirit like a dove

This is the only instance where the Spirit appears in visual form like a dove. There are numerous theories to explain the symbolism such as Noah’s dove (Gen. 8:8-12) or even the Spirit hovering over the waters (Gen 1:2). We have a pretty clear distinction in English between doves and pigeons, however “there seems to be no such distinction in the use of περιστερά and τρυγών in the Greek of the New Testament.”[24] Leon Morris has commented that,

“…until comparatively recent times animals and birds seem not to have been named with great precision, apart from a few outstanding forms. Matthew’s word can refer to any one of a variety of pigeons and doves. It is impossible to attain certainty, but it is usually held that a dove is in mind and there is no reason to quarrel with this.”[25]

The exact species may not be so important though. Instead, what is in mind is the use of a familiar bird whose swooping flight may have been an “appropriate way of visualizing the descent of the Spirit.”[26] Thus the phrase καταβαῖνον ὡσεὶ περιστερὰν is best rendered, “descending like a dove” as it is connecting “like a dove” with the participle “descending”—describing the motion.

Matthew 3:17 καὶ ἰδοὺ φωνὴ ἐκ τῶν οὐρανῶν λέγουσα· οὗτός ἐστιν ὁ υἱός μου ὁ ἀγαπητός, ἐν ᾧ εὐδόκησα.

And behold, there was a voice out of the heavens saying, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.”

Verse 17 opens off with καὶ ἰδοὺ (and behold) again to draw the reader’s attention here to something else of significance that Matthew wants to bring out. The text literally says, “and behold [a] voice out of the heavens saying.” The words “there was” have been added to smooth out the reading in English. Though I have rendered God’s opening words as “This is my beloved Son,” it has been suggested by some that ὁ ἀγαπητός (the beloved) is in apposition as a separate title instead of being interpreted as an attributive adjective. This is just a fancy way of saying it could be understood as an independent title “the Beloved” and would be rendered, “This is my Son, the Beloved One.” However, both interpretations are supported by sound scholarship and may be more of a pedantic issue.[27]

The Father’s pleasure

When we compare Mark and Luke, they have the words addressed to Jesus, “You are my Son.”[28] The use of the demonstrative pronoun οὗτός (this) here in Matthew as opposed to the second person “you” implies that this declaration was audible and heard by those surrounding. It is thus the Father’s public approval and testimony of Jesus as His Son.

In the last clause, εὐδόκησα means, “to be pleased with something or someone, with the implication of resulting pleasure.”[29] It may bring out a certain nuance to the sentiment expressed of the Father to the Son here when compared with some of the other synonyms which could have been used such as δεκτός—which has more of a sense of “acceptable”, or ἀρέσκω, εὐαρεστέω, προσφιλής and ἀνθρωπάρεσκος which have a sense of being pleased as a result of doing something. Perhaps the use of the verb εὐδοκέω is bringing out that the Father is pleased with the Son for who he is as opposed to what he has done or his acceptability. Thus it is a pleasure in the Son eternally rooted in who He is as the beloved Second Person of the Godhead. This passage also has notable uses in discussion of the Trinity, as all three Persons are seen present here together—in opposition to Modalism.

The Bath Qol

The voice from heaven may have been interpreted by those around as a phenomena known by the Jews as the “bath qol.” Some sources report that “the bath qol became active before the Spirit of prophecy departed from Israel (b. Pesaḥ. 94a; Ḥag. 13a; Sanh. 39b)” and “a few late sources give it future ramifications as well (Lev. Rab. 27:2; Pesiq. Rab Kah. 17:5).” [30] During the prophetic silence of the inter-testamental period, the bath qol was considered as the primary source of revelation apart from the exposition of Scripture.[31] After some 400 years of prophetic silence, “more likely the voice is a sign that divine communication with Israel is resuming.”[32]

The words which the voice from heaven declare are adequately understood as a combined allusion to passages like Isaiah 42:1, Psalm 2:7 and Genesis 22:2.

“Isa 42:1 introduces a new figure in the prophecy with the words “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one, in whom my soul takes pleasure,” and goes on to say that God has put his Spirit upon him, which links closely with what we have seen in v. 16.”[33]

However, it is not presented as a direct OT quotation, but the link with Isaiah 42:1 and the Spirit’s descent certainly make it very plausible and “Matthew’s readers would learn to see Jesus in the role of the “servant of Yahweh” who would die for the sins of the people.”[34] For Matthew’s readers, at this point through the use of richly allusive words, they should understand the significance of Jesus’ ministry and his identity as God’s Son in whom He delights. Indeed, thus far there have been three testimonies to this.

“The Synoptic tradition contends that three voices—Scripture, a prophet’s voice in the wilderness, and the heavenly voice—all attest Jesus’ identity. The heavenly voice alone would have been inadequate, for Jewish tradition allowed that it testified of others as well and that it remained subordinate to Scripture (b. Ḥul. 44a = Pesaḥ. 114a; p. Moʿed Qaṭ. 3:1, §6), but here it confirms the witness of Scripture and a prophet. For Matthew and his sources, Jesus is not a mere prophet but the subject of other prophets’ messages.”[35]

It is this establishment of who Jesus is that forms the basis for the testing of Jesus which he undergoes directly following this scene in chapter 4:1-11 as Satan challenges this, “If you are the Son of God…” (4:3, 6).[36] So, this passage is important for setting up the drama that is unfolding around Jesus in Matthew’s gospel.

This ends this first ExeGreeksis exercise. I hope that you found it somewhat beneficial or interesting in showing some of what goes on behind the scenes when translating a text from Greek to English. I’ll be doing some more of these in the near future.

God bless & SDG!


  • [1] France, The Gospel of Matthew, 117.
  • [2] Morris, The Gospel according to Matthew, 63.
  • [3] “ἐπί means over, upon, but less sharply than ἀνά and ὑπέρ. It is very common in the New Testament separately, and fairly so in composition. It is used with the genitive, locative, and accusative. Observe the case idea, and meaning of the words and the context.” Quote from Robertson, A Short Grammar of the Greek New Testament, 121.
  • [4] Newman, A Handbook on the Gospel of Matthew, 71.
  • [5] France, The Gospel of Matthew, 119.
  • [6] France, The Gospel of Matthew, 117.
  • [7] Morris, The Gospel according to Matthew, 63–64.
  • [8] Newman, A Handbook on the Gospel of Matthew, 71
  • [9] France, The Gospel of Matthew, 119.
  • [10] France, The Gospel of Matthew, 119.
  • [11] Blomberg, Matthew, 81.
  • [12] Keener, The Gospel of Matthew, 131.
  • [13] Morris, The Gospel according to Matthew, 65.
  • [14] France, The Gospel of Matthew, 120.
  • [15] France, The Gospel of Matthew, 120.
  • [16] Morris, The Gospel according to Matthew, 65.
  • [17] Newman, A Handbook on the Gospel of Matthew, 73.
  • [18] Newman, A Handbook on the Gospel of Matthew, 74.
  • [19] Newman, A Handbook on the Gospel of Matthew, 74.
  • [20] Morris, The Gospel according to Matthew, 66.
  • [21] Newman, A Handbook on the Gospel of Matthew, 74.
  • [22] France, The Gospel of Matthew, 121.
  • [23] France, The Gospel of Matthew, 121.
  • [24] Louw, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, 44.
  • [25] Morris, The Gospel according to Matthew, 66–67.
  • [26] France, The Gospel of Matthew, 122.
  • [27] Newman, A Handbook on the Gospel of Matthew, 75.
  • [28] Morris, The Gospel according to Matthew, 67.
  • [29] Louw, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, 298.
  • [30] Keener, The Gospel of Matthew, 133–134.
  • [31] Keener, The Gospel of Matthew, 133–134.
  • [32] Blomberg, Matthew, 82.
  • [33] France, The Gospel of Matthew, 123.
  • [34] France, The Gospel of Matthew, 123.
  • [35] Keener, The Gospel of Matthew, 134.
  • [36] France, The Gospel of Matthew, 124.

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