In introducing John the Baptist as the promised forerunner of the Messiah, Matthew continues to establish Jesus’ credentials as King. It’s clear that throughout the OT the Kingdom uniquely belongs to “Israel”. From the time of the “birthing” of Abraham’s “seed” as God’s “son” in the great redemption from Egypt (“Tell Pharaoh to let My son go”), God has been using “Israel” to teach the people of the earth (including the ethnic people of Israel) about the King and the Kingdom. Matthew understands that the nation itself was prophetic (see the Abrahamic Covenant and its fulfillment in Christ) and spoke of the true “Israel” to come. The Kingdom uniquely belonged to Israel, as God’s “son”; but it also belonged to all who would join themselves to Israel through circumcision. The universalism of the Kingdom is shown in that all who participated in “Israel” by circumcision were considered to be the people of God. Matthew uses the ministry of John (including his baptism of Jesus), the Temptation episode, and Jesus’ calling of His disciples to help him communicate to his readers that Jesus really is the King because He is the One to whom the Kingdom belongs. Jesus is the true “Seed” of Abraham and the true “Israel”, the true “Son” of God to whom the Kingdom belongs. And Matthew stresses all of this before recording Jesus’ words in The Sermon so that his readers would know that it's only by participation in Him that a person enters the Kingdom of God (Heaven).
John’s message of repentance (to be echoed by Jesus Himself) was directed to the self-righteousness of the people who thought that they were “children” of God by virtue of their ethnicity as “sons of Abraham”. John rebukes them by stating that God could raise up sons for Himself from the very stones that they were walking on! Ethnicity was of no advantage when it comes to entering the Kingdom of Heaven. But because the Jews didn’t understand the nature of the Kingdom that was promised in the OT, they were in danger of missing it by believing that it was theirs simply because they were biological descendants of Abraham. They were relying on their heritage, not on the One that their heritage spoke of. If they had realized that even the nation of Israel itself was prophetic, then they would have recognized the true Israel when He arrived. This is why John’s and Jesus’ rebuke was so strong. This is why Jesus’ condemnation of them was so severe. The people didn’t understand their own history, let alone their own Scripture which both painted the portrait of this King to come.
We’ve already seen that Matthew presents Jesus as the Son of David and the Son of Abraham, in his recounting of the genealogy; and also as the “true” Son of God, “Immanuel” (God with us!) in the flesh, in his recounting of the birth episode (all in Part-1). Related to the birth of Christ, Matthew recounts the episode of the visit of the Wise Men so that his readers would see that, as David’s royal covenant Son and in fulfillment of the Davidic Covenant, Jesus was the Shiloh of their father Jacob’s prophetic blessing. The Kingdom will come to the One to whom it belongs. Matthew is inundating his readers with prophetic material covering the full scope of their Scripture, all designed to lead them to the understanding that Jesus is their King.
When Matthew records the episode of John the Baptist’s baptizing of the King, he does so not to simply identify Jesus with Israel, but primarily to show them that Jesus is the fulfillment of Israel itself. As I stated above, “Israel”, as with all the Scripture, was prophetic; and as with all the Scripture, Israel also finds its own fulfillment in Christ. This is how Jesus can say that all the Law, the Prophets and the Writings spoke of Him. And this is how He can say in the context of The Sermon, “Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish, but to fulfill.”
As hinted at in Part-1, Matthew presents Jesus as the “true” Israel, as the fulfillment of Israel itself, through the use of recapitulation; Jesus takes upon Himself the "life" of Israel. We can understand that Israel was prophetic when we look at the Abrahamic Covenant. God’s promise to Abraham was that in his seed, all the nations of the earth would be blessed. God had promised to Abraham a royal lineage that would rule over God’s Kingdom. Abraham’s “seed” would be both a King(s) and a Kingdom; and through this Kingdom, God would bless the nations of the earth. Abraham’s seed was to be a light to the nations around them, telling of the glory of God and proclaiming His majesty over all the earth. Abraham’s seed was to bring the light of the knowledge of God to the world, and in this way the people would come to know God through the “seed”. This is basic OT theology, and the NT writers understood it perfectly.
Israel the nation “failed” to be God’s covenant “son” because the true seed of Abraham is Christ, the true Son of God. Paul not only understands Jesus as the “seed” spoken of in the Abrahamic covenant, but he also calls all who have come to Him by faith the “true” circumcision and the “true” sons of Abraham and, therefore, heirs of the promise! Everything about Israel was prophetic and can be seen most clearly, perhaps, in the priesthood. I won’t go into that at the moment because (hopefully) all of us who claim to know Christ already understand the prophetic nature of the priesthood.
The point is, Matthew (as with all the NT writers) understands the prophetic role of “Israel” and recognizes that the true Israel has come in the Person of Jesus Christ. And with His baptism, as with His flight in and out of Egypt, and in the “testing” of our Lord immediately following His baptism, Matthew presents Jesus as the true Israel, the true Seed of Abraham in whom all the world would be blessed. To enter the Kingdom of Heaven, a person really does need to join himself to “Israel”—the true Israel, Jesus Christ the Son of God.
Well…I didn’t quite get to the specifics of the baptism of our Lord with this post. In the next installment I’ll briefly discuss our Lord’s flight into and out of Egypt, His baptism and His testing in the wilderness. In all three of these episodes, Matthew shows us that Jesus is the fulfillment of Israel by “presenting features of His life as a recapitulation of Israel’s national life as the ‘son of God’” (Christopher Culver, Notes on Matthew).