The Baptism of Jesus Christ: Syntax and Exegesis Matthew 3:15


Matthew 3:15

The post positive δὲ serves as a full adversative demonstrating that Jesus' answer (ἀποκριθεὶς) is set in juxtaposition to John's dissent and is delivered directly to John (πρὸς αὐτόν). The answer of ὁ Ἰησοῦς is explained with the somewhat awkward to translate phrase, ἀποκριθεὶς … εἶπεν "answering he said". The NIV1 and NET both translate ἀποκριθεὶς … εἶπεν as "replied" while others like HCSB, ESV2 and NRSV3 use "answered".
The answer of Christ however proves to be somewhat enigmatic. First he commands John to permit the baptism for the moment. ἄφες is futuristic aorist imperative of command combined with the temporal adverb ἄρτι. It is almost as if Jesus agrees with John's conclusion in the prior verse but still he will not be dissuaded. Something greater than John's righteousness is at stake in this baptism. Indeed it might be said that John's righteousness was at stake in a far more significant manner than he imagined.
The second part of Christ's answer to John is the reason, expressed by the conjunction γὰρ, which John must allow the baptism. The adverb of manner οὕτως points back to the preceding mention of baptism and prepares us for the predicate adjectival participle πρέπον4 which together with ἐστὶν serves as a periphrastic present5 providing an emphasis on the propriety of the baptism in question and its effects concerning Jesus Christ. The effects of the baptism are described as "πληρῶσαι πᾶσαν δικαιοσύνην." The infinitive of purpose πληρῶσαι functions as the subject6 of the verb phrase πρέπον ἐστὶν. The adjectival phrase πᾶσαν δικαιοσύνην functions as the direct object. Thus, it is proper for John and Jesus to fulfill all righteousness by means of this baptism.
How exactly the baptism fulfills all righteousness is the question which is not inherently answered in the grammar of the New Testament. As Hare notes, that question has plagued interpreters from the church fathers and forward.7 Jesus did not need to be forgiven. So what is it that makes this "proper"? Robertson improperly speculates8 that Jesus would have appeared aloof from John and his ministry if he had not been baptized. There were certainly other ways, however, that he could be seen with John or introduced by the Baptist without bringing the appearance of prior guilt upon himself by partaking in a baptism of repentance. John recognized that Jesus had no prior sin and balked at his request at least in part because perceived that Jesus had no sins to repent of. Further, the forerunner did not need to baptize Jesus in order to recognize him, but had only to see the Spirit land on him in order to identify him (John 1:33). This anointing could easily have happened apart from a water baptism. Therefore it was the baptism itself which fulfilled all righteousness rather than some merely visible attempt to join their ministries in the minds of the Jews.
It must be understood that righteousness is not a legal term as though Jesus was under Mosaic Law code compulsion to be baptized, else John would have known the Mosaic text in question and would not have tried to prevent him. Matthew's normal use of the term righteousness "describes the natural and inevitable response to God by his people."9 It is possible then that Jesus must have understood the Father's will to be that he undergo baptism. Since the nature of baptism is primarily one of identification; the revealed will of the Father to Jesus was very likely that by partaking in Baptism, the sinless one would be identified with sinners.10
The baptism of repentance which John was performing was for the identification of the righteous with the old testament law for it was the breeches in the law which were being confessed. And it was a renewed commitment to live in righteousness which the crowds were committing to. This is why John could order the Pharisees to start producing fruit in keeping with the repentance they were claiming to have at the baptism (Mat. 3:8). In this manner when Jesus was baptized in the same baptism, though he had no sins of his own to confess he was identified with the transgressors (Isa. 53:12; Lk. 22:37). "…in his baptism he identified himself with the men, he came to save…"11
The baptism of Jesus is the beginning of the exchange of his life for the sinner. It is in this way, as the sinless one is baptized on our behalf that all righteousness is fulfilled. It is our righteousness being fulfilled in Christ our substitute, rather than Jesus being made righteous in the baptism. Regarding the sinlessness of Christ and the substitution occurring here Kistmaker wrote: "The objection may be raised that the water of baptism symbolized the removal of filth, that is, sin; and that, since Jesus was sinless, he did not need to be, and could not properly be, baptized. The answer is that he did, after all, have sin, namely ours."12
Having been convinced by Jesus' reply, Matthew summarizes John's response with a succinct, "τότε ἀφίησιν αὐτόν." Keener notes that the same language is used in Matthew 4:11 to describe Satan's departure. Thus, according to Keener, Matthew hints that John had unwittingly taken the devil's side in trying to deter Jesus' baptism.13 But that would be inconsistent with Matthew's overall positive picture of John as the announcer of the redeemer. Due to the order in which the events are presented it is more likely that the former event would shed light on the latter. Thus hinting that the Devil was convinced of his inability to stop Jesus at least on the occasion of the desert temptations and accordingly left Jesus to himself for the time being.
The KJV14 translation "suffer" is archaic and in the modern usage renders an unfortunate concept of grudging compliance which is not indicated by the text. Whether or not John fully understood the reason, or as is more likely he simply trusted Jesus, he obeyed.

1The Holy Bible : New International Version, electronic ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996, c1984), Mt 3:15.

2The Holy Bible : English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Mt 3:15.

3The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1989), Mt 3:15.

4Participle functioning as a predicate adjective to the dative pronoun ἡμῖν. (compare Brooks and Winbery p. 145.)

5Robertson, Grammar p. 880.

6Brooks and Winbery p. 139.
Compare: Ernest De Witt Burton, Syntax of the Moods and Tenses in New Testament Greek, 3rd ed. (Edinburg: T. & T. Clark, 1898), p. 153.

7Douglas R. A. Hare, Matthew, Interpretation, a Bible commentary for teaching and preaching. (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1993), p. 20.

8A.T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament, Vol.V c1932, Vol.VI c1933 by Sunday School Board of the Southern Baptist Convention. (Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, 1997), Mt 3:15.

9Barclay Moon Newman and Philip C. Stine, A Handbook on the Gospel of Matthew, Originally Published: A Translator's Handbook on the Gospel of Matthew, c1988., UBS helps for translators; UBS handbook series. (New York: United Bible Societies, 1992), p. 73.

10Hare, Interpretation, a Bible commentary for teaching and preaching. p. 21.

11Barclay, Daily study Bible series p. 60.

12William Hendriksen and Simon J. Kistemaker, vol. 9, New Testament Commentary : Exposition of the Gospel According to Matthew, Accompanying Biblical Text Is Author's Translation., New Testament Commentary. (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1953-2001), p. 213.

13Craig S. Keener, A commentary on the Gospel of Matthew. (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1999), p. 132. (See footnote 172 on the same page.)
It appears that Keener is quoting Blomberg 1992a but I was unable to confirm the reference in the electronic edition.
Blomberg, Craig. Vol. 22, Matthew. electronic ed. Logos Library System; The New American Commentary. (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2001, c1992)

14The Holy Bible : King James Version., electronic ed. of the 1769 edition of the 1611 Authorized Version. (Bellingham WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1995), Mt 3:16.