Open Matthew 3:16-17.
Imagine standing on the banks of the Jordan as Jesus surfaced, hearing a voice proclaiming, “This is my Son, the one I love, who pleases me.” What would that mean to you?
You would not have thought, “Just look at that! The Father called him the Son, and the Spirit descended on him. There must be a trinity!” That understanding didn’t come until much later. So how would a first century Jew have understood the heavenly announcement?
They would have heard a kingship proclamation. Israel was a unique nation, ruled by God (Exodus). But without a human king they struggled (Judges), so God permitted them to have a king like the nations (1 & 2 Samuel). Descendants of David therefore ruled as earthly representatives of the heavenly king, as if they were sons of the true heavenly ruler:
2 Samuel 7:14–15 (ESV)
14 I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son. When he commits iniquity, I will discipline him with the rod of men, with the stripes of the sons of men, 15 but my steadfast love will not depart from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I put away from before you.
Each time a descendant of David was anointed as king, he was proclaimed son of the heavenly ruler:
Psalm 2:6–7 (ESV)
6 “As for me, I have set my King on Zion, my holy hill.” 7 I will tell of the decree: The Lord said to me, “You are my Son; today I have begotten you.”
God had chosen Israel as his servant to bring the nations back under his government, but Israel progressively fell apart, crushed by the nations (1 & 2 Kings). Since the king embodied Israel’s calling, Isaiah spoke of the restoration of that calling through the servant of YHWH:
Isaiah 42:1 (ESV)
Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.
So although Israel had disintegrated without bringing the nations back to God, Isaiah envisioned a day when the servant of YHWH would receive divine authority and empowerment to complete the mission. The crowd standing on the banks of the Jordan watching Jesus rise out of the water heard the announcement that this was the servant of YHWH, the chosen Davidic king, this Son on earth who represents the ruler in heaven, the one who finally pleases him by completing the mission.
Matthew says there were three signs (3:16-17):
- The doorway to God’s presence opened — a portal between the heavenly sovereign and his earthly representative. Jesus is the one who joins heaven and earth together again, so earth is back under heaven’s governance.
- The Spirit of the heavenly sovereign descended on him, marking him as the one authorized by heaven to rule on earth. He was empowered to speak and act for heaven. Yet the symbol of divine power was a gentle dove, “harmless” (compare Matthew 10:16). What a contrast to the brutal symbols of power used by earthly empires! Football teams can be eagles or hawks, but not doves.
- The heavenly sovereign made a proclamation. This speech-act invested authority in his earthly representative: “This is my son, the one I have set my love on, the one who pleases me.”
This moment was not yet Jesus’ coronation. Matthew closes with that announcement (28:18), and Acts 1 describes the moment when Jesus ascended the throne. This moment identified him as king-elect, the chosen ruler to come. It was something like the investiture of Prince Charles at Caernarfon Castle on 1 July 1969 — a royal announcement of the one chosen to be king. Remember when David was anointed by Samuel (1 Samuel 16)? Saul was legally the ruler, but it was David who served with the divine anointing.
Within the context of the Biblical narrative, therefore, we should understand the voice from heaven as the royal announcement that Jesus is the person chosen (beloved) by the heavenly sovereign to receive power on earth (his Son). God has known disappointment with the rebellion of his earthly realm, but Jesus will finally resolve that disappointment so he is well pleased.
Heaven announced Jesus. He’s the chosen Son who pleases the Father by bringing earth back under God’s kingship. Such good news! How do we turn to him and prepare for his kingship?
What others are saying
Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: Eerdmans, 2009), 135 (emphasis original):
Matthew’s audience could have inferred a number of principles from the Father’s acclamation of the Son. First, if Jesus is central to the Father’s love and his plan for history, their opponents could not reject Jesus and simultaneously please God the Father, as they claimed. For Matthew and most of early Christianity, Jesus was not one prophet among many but God’s ultimate revelation (16:14–16; cf. Acts 4:12; Jn 14:6). Jewish traditions often emphasized God’s special love for Israel (e.g., Jub. 31:15, 20); to the early Christians, Jesus was an even more special focus of the Father’s love (e.g., Jn 1:14; Eph 1:6).
Second, they could infer that Jesus is the ultimate ruler who will usher in justice and peace, providing a persecuted church hope for the future.
Finally, this text might remind them that Jesus was the Son obedient to the point of death. He willingly divested himself of his proper honor by identifying with his people in baptism and death.