And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
Matthew 3:17 (NRSV)
The title “Son of God” was well-understood in the first century. Kings and rulers for centuries had used the titles to describe themselves from Pharaohs to Caesars. Luke refers to Adam as the Son of God (Luke 3:38), but what is perhaps most immediately relevant to Matthew is Israel as the Son of God. We have already seen him refer to Jesus as Israel by using this same title, and I think that’s what he has in view here as well.
Jesus comes to be baptized by John to “fulfill all righteousness,” which is another way of saying that he is fulfilling all covenant obligations. Whose obligations? His own? Does Jesus need to repent? Does he need to forsake his ties to the present world system and return to his identity as the faithful people of God? Probably not what Matthew is trying to communicate.
Israel as a people, however, does need to do this. From the standpoint of the narrative, they are in an exile they have brought on, themselves precisely because they have turned away from their covenant to become like the other nations. Here, Jesus takes on the mantle of representing faithful Israel and, as a result, must be baptized like she must – like she had to be baptized in the Red Sea so long ago. And he will receive the promised Spirit, just as she must to be reborn.
There is so much packed into this little encounter. Kings of Israel often acted as representatives of the people as a whole. If the king were unfaithful, the nation suffered for it. The king was like the head of the body – the two lives and destinies were intertwined. Matthew shows us the King of the Jews leading the way.
Other prominent biblical figures would take on Israel’s identity as their own. Prophets, for example, were famous for confessing sins on behalf of the entire nation – sins that they themselves might not have participated in as individuals. They saw themselves, before God, as representative intercessors – a tradition that goes all the way back to at least Moses.
In 4 Maccabees, we find the priest, the mother, and her sons held up as representatives suffering individually on the behalf of the nation as a whole suffering under Antiochus Epiphanes, concluding with a very powerful equation.
These, then, who have been consecrated for the sake of God, are honored, not only with this honor, but also by the fact that because of them our enemies did not rule over our nation, the tyrant was punished, and the homeland purified – they having become, as it were, a ransom for the sin of our nation. And through the blood of those devout ones and their death as an expiation, divine Providence preserved Israel that previously had been afflicted.
4 Maccabees 17:20-22 (RSV)
We even see Paul doing this in Romans 7, speaking of himself as a representative of Israel’s experience.
So, Matthew is not doing anything novel, here. Jesus is living out faithful Israel’s story going forward, so he gets faithful Israel’s title – Son of God. This Son of God will stand in contrast to Caesar, who is also called the Son of God by the Roman Empire. Matthew has already brought up this contrast, too, by calling Jesus the king of the Jews in contrast to Herod – the man the Empire called the king of the Jews.
Matthew is about to show us, in Jesus, what faithful Israel was always meant to be and who she needs to be in this period of exile waiting for the deliverance and restoration of God. In fact, he will show us who she needs to be to catalyze that deliverance. And, in a way that Israel cannot, he will help bring it about by becoming king of all heaven and earth.
We are no longer in exile because of a broken covenant. The people of God in the world have already benefited from the outpouring of the Spirit and the renewal and restoration of God’s people. We do not look forward to deliverance from exile; we look forward to a new creation.
Yet, some of the things Jesus will do and say were things Israel was always supposed to have done. Some of the things Adam was always supposed to have done. Some of those things are rooted in bringing about new creation, and Jesus is our leader into that territory as well.
- What things did Jesus do that Israel always should have done and faithful Christ-followers need to continue to do well into the future? What things did Jesus do that are tied to a new creation? What does it mean to be the faithful people of God in the world when we aren’t in exile?
- How does understanding why Matthew calls Jesus the Son of God influence how you think of yourself as a brother, sister, or co-heir with Jesus? What does it mean for you to be a child of God?