The Divine Lamp

The unfolding of thy words gives light; it imparts understanding to the simple…Make thy face shine upon thy servant, and teach me thy statutes

Father Maas’ Commentary on Matthew 3:13-17

Posted by Dim Bulb on October 13, 2013

Text in red are my additions.

Mat 3:13  Then cometh Jesus from Galilee to the Jordan, unto John, to be baptized by him.

Then cometh Jesus. In this section the evangelist relates two principal events: A. the forerunner’s testimony to Jesus, and B. that of God himself. A. In his account of the Baptist’s testimony, the evangelist distinguishes 1. its occasion, 2. the verbal testimony, and 3. its confirmation. 1. The occasion is given in detail: The time is, according to St. Matthew, that of John’s ministry; according to St. Luke [Lk 3:23], when “Jesus himself was beginning about the age of thirty years.” According to the first gospel, the place is situated near the Jordan, or in Bethania beyond the Jordan, according to the fourth [Jn 1:28]. Jesus comes from his hidden life in Nazareth, where the Holy Family settled by command of the angel when returning from Egypt.

Then cometh Jesus. These introductory words should be seen as establishing a contrast between the purpose of Jesus’ coming for baptism (“to fulfill all righteousness,” verse 15) and the unrighteous motives of the Pharisees and Sadducees (Mt 3:7-12).

From Galilee unto the Jordan, to be baptized... The next time Jesus is portrayed in Matthew as traveling from Galilee to the Jordan (to be more exact, “the area of Judea beyond the Jordan”) is in Mt 19:1. That is the journey in which he goes “up to Jerusalem, and the Son of man shall be betrayed to the chief priests and the scribes: and they shall condemn him to death” (Mt 20:18). A death he describes as a baptism in Mark 10:35-40~ “And James and John, the sons of Zebedee, come to him, saying: Master, we desire that whatsoever we shall ask, thou wouldst do it for us. But he said to them: What would you that I should do for you? And they said: Grant to us that we may sit, one on thy right hand and the other on thy left hand, in thy glory. And Jesus said to them: You know not what you ask. Can you drink of the chalice that I drink of or be baptized with the baptism wherewith I am baptized? But they said to him: We can. And Jesus saith to them: You shall indeed drink of the chalice that I drink of; and with the baptism wherewith I am baptized you shall be baptized. But to sit on my right hand or on my left is not mine to give to you, but to them for whom it is prepared.

Mat 3:14  But John stayed him, saying: I ought to be baptized by thee, and comest thou to me?

But John stayed him. 2. The Baptist’s testimony. Before considering the testimony in itself, we must answer a difficulty that arises here on account of the seeming discrepancy between the report of the first and that of the fourth gospel. St. Matthew represents John as acquainted with Jesus, for else he would not deem himself unworthy of baptizing him; according to the fourth gospel, John testifies, “I knew him not” [Jn 1:31, 33]. α. Certain authors contend that John knew Jesus beforehand, but not officially, so as to be able to bear witness to him; or not as the principal minister of all future baptisms, which mystery he learned by the descent of the Holy Ghost on Jesus [Augustine tract. 5 in Jo. n. 9; De cons, evangg. ii. 25, 32]; or not so perfectly as after baptism [Bede]; or not as all-powerful [Alb.]; or not by sight, though he had heard many accurate descriptions of him [Tol. annot. 72 in Jo. patr.]. β. We cannot agree with the opinion of those who contend that Mt 3:14-15 have been interpolated in Matthew; though St. Justin omits this passage in his writings, we cannot conclude that it is therefore not genuine. c. We think we must assume the literal truthfulness of the fourth gospel, according to which the Baptist did not know Jesus before his baptism. Not as if we believed that John knew the Messias by the descent of the Holy Ghost before the baptism [Cajetan], or recognized obscurely and by a prophetic presentiment, as it were, the sacred and Messianic character in Jesus [Keil, Mansel]; but the Holy Ghost who taught John in his mother’s womb to recognize the presence of Jesus intervened also on the present occasion, revealing Jesus not only as a most holy man [Faber Stapulensis, Tostatus, Schegg], but also as the Messias and the incarnate God [cf. Jansenius, Maldonado, Lapide Knabenbauer].

The Greek text shows that the Baptist strove earnestly and with some vigor to prevent Jesus from entering into the water for baptism, α. Those Protestant controversialists who blame St. John for thus hindering Jesus contradict the opinion of all the Fathers, who find in this behavior of the Baptist not a sign of self-will, but of faith, modesty, and humility. β. Since John knew only the baptism of the Messias and his own, and since he cannot have wished to be baptized with his own baptism, he must have supposed that Jesus, by whom he wished to be baptized, could confer the Messianic baptism in the Holy Ghost and fire, and consequently that he was the Messias. c. This is confirmed by the very words of the Baptist: he professes that he ought to be baptized by Jesus, not asking Jesus: “and thou comest to my baptism?” but “and comest thou to me?” In the opinion of John, there can be no comparison between his and the Messianic baptism administered by Jesus.

Mat 3:15  And Jesus answering, said to him: Suffer it to be so now. For so it becometh us to fulfil all justice. Then he suffered him.

And Jesus answering, said. The confirmation of John’s answer. Here we have to distinguish between the direct answer of our Lord and the reason he gives for the answer, a. In his direct answer, Jesus does not say that the Baptist is wrong in his manner of acting; he rather approves of it, saying that his humility must be borne with for the present: “Suffer it to be so now.” b. The reason Jesus gives is contained in the words “for so it becometh us to fulfil all justice.”

α. All justice. It is generally acknowledged that “justice” in this passage means what is right and holy, what falls, in some way, under the intentive will of God. Commentators differ concerning the kind of divine will with which we have to do in the present case: (1) Chrysostom, Euthymius, Tostatius, Cajetan, appear to assume a preceptive will of God; but if Jesus had been commanded by his Father to receive the baptism of John, he could not have said “it becometh us,” but he should have said “we must,” since in that case both himself and the Baptist would have been bound to obey. (2) Most writers maintain, therefore, that the source of the “justice” is a divine counsel: (a) generically considered, this counsel may spring from God’s will that Jesus should make himself like his brethren—sin alone excepted—who were at that time advised to have recourse to John’s baptism [cf. Gal. 4:4; circumcision, presentation in the temple, etc.]; (b) specifically considered, the counsel agrees with the divine will that Jesus should freely embrace those practices which might show that he had come to satisfy for the sins of men [cf. Dionysius the Carthusian, Cajetan, Jansenius, Salmeron, Maldonado, Lapide Barradas Coleridge, Fillion, Grimm ii. 124]; (c) individually considered, the counsel urges Jesus to receive John’s baptism as the figure of death by which alone he could satisfy for the sins of the world [Salmeron, Fillion Grimm], and as a means of manifesting himself to the world [cf. Jn. 1:31; Euthymius, Paschasius, Maldonado]; (d) considered in its subordinate scope, the counsel coincides with the will of God that Jesus should solemnly approve the ministry and baptism of John [Opus Imperfectum, Jerome, Bede, Glossa Ordinaria, Rabanus Thomas Aquinas, Dionysius the Carthusian, Jansenius. etc.], that he should sanctify the waters for the Christian baptism [Amb. Bede, Rabanus, Glossa Ordinaria, Alb. Thomas Aquinas, Dionysius the Carthusian, Jansenius, Lapide, etc.], that he should prefigure the adoptive sonship of God which his followers were to receive through baptism [Hilary, Bede, Euthymius].

β. It becometh us. The words “it becometh us” are grounded on the fitness that Jesus should repair the disobedience of Adam by his perfect obedience [Euth.], that he should give us an example of humility [Jerome, Jansenius], that he should incite us to receive the Christian sacrament of baptism [Ambrose, Bede, Paschasius, Thomas Aquinas, Jansenius etc.]. St. John was convinced by the argument of Jesus, and “suffered him” to enter the water; that “suffered him” is the right translation of the Latin “dimisit” follows from the Greek text as compared with Mk. 5:19; 11:6; 14:6; Lk. 13:8 and as explained by St. Thomas. It may be noted that this is the second sentence spoken by Jesus, which has been preserved in the gospels.

Mat 3:16  And Jesus being baptized, forthwith came out of the water: and lo, the heavens were opened to him: and he saw the Spirit of God descending as a dove, and coming upon him.

 And Jesus, being baptized. The divine testimony. It consists in the three miraculous events narrated by St. Matthew: 1. the heavens are opened; 2. the Holy Ghost descends in a visible form; 3. the voice from heaven is heard.

1. The heavens are opened. The evangelist first determines the time more closely, and then relates the opening of the heavens. a. The time is defined in the words “and Jesus, being baptized, forthwith came out of the water.” The baptism was administered by immersion, not by infusion or aspersion. The “forthwith” before “came out of the water” does not qualify the following sentence “the heavens were opened” [Arnoldi, Schegg, Keil, Weiss against Jansenius, Maldonado, Lapide, Lam.]; nor can it be said that Jesus ascended immediately out of the water, because he had no confession to make as the others had to do [Knabenbauer etc. against Fillion, Schanz]; but we may safely maintain that the “forthwith” is either a mere expletive [cf. Knabenbauer], or that it signifies the eagerness with which Jesus performed the actions that belonged to his Messianic mission. This is illustrated by his words spoken at the last supper, his words concerning the baptism with which he had to be baptized, and finally the report of St. Luke 3:21, according to which Jesus prayed on the bank of the Jordan after his baptism, b. The opening of the heavens cannot be regarded as a sudden clearing up after a cloudy day, nor as the sudden bursting forth of a storm [Paulus, Kuinoel], but signifies either a luminous cleft in the atmosphere [Lapide, Salmeron, Cajetan, etc.], or a sudden, brilliant light which apparently proceeds from the uppermost clouds [Calmet, Fillion], or any other heavenly sign indicating that the Holy Ghost and the voice came from the heavens themselves [Suarez]. The opinion that the evangelist uses here a merely rhetorical manner of speaking, or that the opening of the heavens was only a subjective perception without a corresponding objective reality [Origen, Jerome, Thomas Aquinas, Opus Imperfectum] is no longer supported by the reasons advanced on the part of the foregoing authorities [Maldonado], since we regard the firmament no longer as a solid vault after the manner of the ancients [cf. Schanz]. The words “to him,” in the passage “the heavens were opened to him,” indicate the scope of the event, or the dative of interest. St. Mark 1:10 relates the occurrence thus: “he saw the heavens opened.”

and he saw the Spirit of God. 2. The coming of the Holy Ghost. a. Who witnessed the event? According to St. Matthew, Jesus himself saw the descent of the Holy Ghost; according to Jn. 1:32 the Baptist also perceives the same phenomenon: “And John gave testimony, saying: I saw the Spirit coming down as a dove from heaven, and he remained upon him.” Now the question arises: did others see the same event? α. Paschasius, Dionysius the Carthusian, Cajetan, Patrizi, are of opinion that Jesus and John alone saw the miraculous phenomena; the voice, however, was according to Cajetan heard by others also. Reasons: (1) The gospels mention only Jesus and John as witnesses; (2) besides, they attest that John was to give testimony of this to the people, which would have been useless if the people had witnessed the events. β. All those present at the Jordan perceived the miraculous phenomena. Reasons: (1) This is the more common opinion: Chrysostom, Jerome, Theophylact, Euthymius, Hilary, Opus Imperfectum, Rabanus, Tostatus, Jans Maldonado,  Salmeron, Sylveira, Suarez, Lapide, Est. Men. Calmet, Reischl, Coleridge, Grimm, Knabenbauer etc. (2) The gospels implicitly state that the events were witnessed by all, since they represent them as perceptible by the senses, so that a new miracle would have been required to render them imperceptible to some of those present. (3) Again, they were given for our good, not for that of Jesus only; hence a greater number of witnesses rendered them more fit for their purpose. (4) Finally, since not the whole people was present at the Jordan, the Baptist could give testimony of the events, though they had been seen by part of the people.

b. How did the Holy Ghost descend? α. The passage of St. Matthew answers “as a dove”; St. Luke 3:22 adds “in a bodily shape, as a dove.” But commentators vary in their explanations. β. We have already rejected the opinion of Origen, who regards all these events as merely internal perceptions. The language of the third evangelist is decisive on this point [c. Cels. i. 10]. γ. The same evangelist excludes the opinion according to which the point of comparison in the present passage lies not in the form of the Holy Ghost and of the dove, but in the manner of movement, so that the Holy Ghost descended rapidly as a dove flies [Fritzsche], or gradually as a dove descends Rosenmüller]. δ. St. Thomas is very explicit on the present question: The dove was no mere fancy, because she was seen; nor a mere sign, because a sign must exist before it can signify; nor was a real dove hypostatically united with the Holy Ghost, because the evangelist says “as a dove”; hence the relation between dove and Holy Ghost must be conceived after a fourth manner, i. e., the appearance of a dove was produced miraculously, in order to signify a divine effect [cf. Ex. 3:2]. Chrysostom,Augustine, etc. agree with this explanation.

c. Why as a dove? α. The dove had in the East the symbolic meaning of meekness, innocence, piety, love, purity, holiness [cf. Cant. cant, and the law regarding clean and unclean animals]. It was the symbol of divine communication with men, and among the Syrians it was honored as a god [cf. Clement of Alexandria Cohort, c. 2; P. i. 34; Recogn. x. 27]. The Fathers are endless in their praises of the good qualities of the dove: Tertullian, De bapt. 8; Cyprian, De un. 9; Euthymius; etc. In general, it may be maintained that the dove held among birds the place assigned to the lamb among animals [cf. Bernard Serm. i. de Epiph.]. It was therefore fitting that the dove of God should bear testimony to the lamb of God. β. This natural fitness is still more emphasized by the place the dove holds in the Old Testament. In the ark of Noe it was the dove that brought the olive branch and announced the end of God’s wrath; in Gen. 1:2 the Spirit of God moved [or brooded] over the waters after the manner of a dove. Owing to these occurrences the Rabbis considered the dove as a sign of the Spirit of God: cf. Targ. Cant. 2:12; Bemidb. Rabb. 250; Bereshith Rabb. 2 f. 4, 4; Rabbi Ephraim ad Gen. i. 2; etc.

d. Why did the Holy Ghost descend on Jesus? α. This event was foretold in Is. 11:1; 41:1; it is also to this event that St. Paul alludes in Col. 2:9. Besides, the coming of the dove upon Jesus pointed out the person to whom the words of the heavenly voice were directed. β. We must not imagine that Jesus at this moment received either an increase of grace, or that he received a consecration which he did not possess before. The soul of Jesus, even as man, was endowed with the plenitude of grace from the first moment of his life, a plenitude that could not be increased by the ordinary power of God. The descent of the Holy Ghost was therefore nothing else than a visible manifestation of the presence of the Holy Ghost in the soul of Jesus; as the heavenly voice did not constitute Jesus Son of God, but only declared his divine sonship, so did the coming of the Holy Ghost manifest the holiness and consecration of Jesus, without affecting or augmenting the same [Rabanus, Thomas Aquinas, Suarez, Jansenius, etc.].

Mat 3:17  And behold a voice from heaven saying: This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.

 And behold, a voice from heaven3. The third miraculous event. a. Literal meaning of the passage. (1) The voice from heaven is not merely the murmuring of the multitude accompanying the storm and the wind [Wetstein, Kuinoel], nor is it a fabulous event truthfully related by the evangelist according to what lie had heard from others [Fritzsche,], nor again is it a mere symbol of a dogmatic truth [Olshausen, Neander, Ullman]; but it is a miraculous voice of the heavenly Father like that which occurred at the transfiguration of Jesus [Mt. 17:5], and again, after his solemn entrance into Jerusalem, in the temple court [Jn. 12:28]. (2) Instead of “this is,” the second and third gospel have “thou art”; in the first gospel the person to whom the words are addressed is determined by the descent of the Holy Ghost. (3) The expression “beloved son” does not mean “son by adoption,” but natural son as in Ps. 2:7; this is evident from Mt. 1:20 and Lk. 1:35. Had the voice signified merely adoptive sonship, as the Arians and Socinians misinterpret it, the words might have been addressed to the Baptist, who was a most holy and just person. (4) The expression “beloved son” may be considered as equivalent to “only begotten” or “most favored son” [cf. Hesychius, ap. Suicer; Pollux, l. iii. c. 11, ibid.; Il. z. 400]. The lxx. repeatedly render the Hebrew word for “only begotten” [יָהִיך] by “beloved” [ἀγαπητός], as we see in Gen. 22:2–12; 6:26; Am. 8:10; Zach. 12:10; etc. Further confirmation of our statement may be seen in Suicer s. v. ἀγαπητός. (5) The words “in whom I am well pleased” render the Hebrew רָצָה or חָפֵץ בְּ [cf. Gen. 34:19; 2 Kings 20:11]. This seems to be an allusion to Is. 42:1, so that it means “in whom I found my pleasure”; and since God cannot be pleased except by what participates his own goodness, Jesus must participate the divine goodness more than mere creatures do [cf. Epiphanius, h. xxx. 13; Justin, c. Tr. c. 88; c. 103; Clement of Alexandria, Pædag. i. c. 6; Lactanius, Instit. div. iv. 15; Augustine, De cons. ii. 14, 31; Hilary, ad l.].

b. Symbolic meaning of the passage. Jesus assumes in his baptism the vicarious satisfaction for the sins of the world to be effected by means of his death; the heavenly Father declares that he is pleased with his Son thus become the victim for men, and thereby formally accepts the satisfaction offered; the Holy Ghost appears in order to consecrate solemnly the salvific action of Jesus; men are restored to the sonship of God which they had lost by sin; the just become again the living temples of the Holy Ghost; heaven is opened for men after being shut through the transgression of Adam.

c. Dogmatic meaning of the baptism. Thomas Aquinas [3 p. qu. 66, a. 2], Vasquez [in h. l.], Lapide, Coleridge [p. 42], etc. maintain that Jesus instituted the sacrament of baptism when he himself was baptized by John. This is an additional reason why on that occasion the mystery of the Holy Trinity was revealed so plainly; for we know that according to the words of Jesus [Mt. 28:19] Christian baptism must be conferred in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost [cf. Thomas Aquinas p. 3. qu. 39. a. 8].

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