The Baptism of Jesus – Matthew 3:13-17

February 2, 1992
Scott L. Harris

The Baptism of Jesus
Matthew 3:13-17

Turn to Matthew 3:13. In our text this morning we find that Jesus comes to John the Baptist for the purpose of being Baptized by him. Why? What is baptism anyway? Why was John performing this ritual? What did it mean? Christianity is divided over this issue and you need to know what the Bible says.

John’s Baptism of Repentance

As I discussed in the last sermon, John the Baptist, or “Baptizer” to be more accurate, came as the forerunner of Messiah. John was the herald of the coming king. God specifically sent him to prepare the way for the Christ who was soon to come. John came “in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the father back to the children, and the disobedient to the attitude of the righteous; so as to make ready a people prepared for the Lord” (Luke 1:17 in fulfillment of Malachi 4:6). The way that John would accomplish this God given task was to preach, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” John’s message was one of repentance, and as previously pointed out, this was a very strong message. Some in our day have tried to soften the tone and make the message more palatable to American society. They say that repentance is simply changing your mind about Jesus. They then present the gospel to try to get you to change your mind about Jesus the same way as you might change your mind about what brand of soap you like best. They market Jesus. Such a message is a distortion of the gospel. Repentance is not just a change of mind. It is a change of mind that radically changes the life! John’s message was the same as the prophets before them. He called the people to conversion. He implored the people to turn back to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, for them to trust the Lord alone, and for them to forsake anything and everything in their lives that was ungodly. This was the Herald’s Message. (See: The Herald’s Message)

Those that responded to the message were then baptized by John as they confessed their sins (Matt 3:6). John’s baptism is specifically called a “baptism of repentance” in Acts 19:4. But why baptism? What was it? What was it supposed to do? Why was it done?

Some have tried to tried to connect John’s baptism with a group called the Mandeans. A major problem for that view is that the sect arose centuries after John. Others have said it sprang off of Jewish proselyte baptism in which a gentile that sought to follow the God and laws of Israel would be baptized as a sign of his change from Gentile to Jewish orientation. However, this baptism was political and ritual whereas John’s baptism was ethical and eschatological. It was in response to a change of character and looking for the coming of Messiah. In addition, proselyte baptism is not mentioned in the New Testament, so that weakens the argument. Others have tied it to the Qumran sect, which is a possibility, but if so, then John changed the character and meaning to suit his own purpose. John’s message was much more urgent and was tied to the coming of Messiah. John also proclaimed his message to the whole nation whereas the Qumran sect was exclusive. Regardless of what John may have picked up from other groups, his baptism would be tied back to Levitical law in which things made unclean were to be washed, and that included humans. Leviticus 15:13 even speaks of the person bathing in “running” water. All Jewish rites of baptism trace back to the Levitical precedent of washing.

This also brings out the idea of what baptism symbolized. John was preaching repentance. He was calling for people to have a radical change of heart and mind and away from sin and to God. The baptism symbolized the cleansing away of the sin. Note that the people were confessing their sins when they were being baptized (Matthew 3:6). The baptism itself did not take away sins, but it symbolized the righteousness and cleansing given to the individual as they confessed their sins and placed their trust in God alone. 1 John 1:9 tells that cleansing from sin is related to our confession of them and not the keeping of a ritual.

John’s baptism of repentance is different than Christian baptism. John’s baptism was in preparation for the coming of Messiah. Christian baptism looks back on the finished work of Christ and identifies us with his death, burial and resurrection. In Acts 19 Paul runs into some disciples of John and makes it plain that there is a great distinction. Acts 19: 2-6, “and he said to them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” And they said to him, No, we have not even heard whether there is a Holy Spirit.” And he said, “Into what then were you baptized?” And they said, “Into John’s baptism.” “and Paul said, “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in Him who was coming after him, that is, in Jesus.” And when they heard this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.” Note first that they were baptized again, but this time in the name of the Lord Jesus. Note also how they were prepared by John’s message and baptism to follow the Lord.

One other thing we can note about John’s baptism is that it included a lot of water. Note first from out text here in Matthew that John was baptizing the people “in the Jordan River.” In John 2:23 we find John “baptizing in Aenon near Salim, because there was much water there.” John’s baptism was one of immersion which is exactly what the word “baptism” refers to. It means to “immerse” or to “dip” as in cleaning something (clothes, dishes, the body), or when clothes are dyed (and the item because identified with the dye), or dipping the finger or food into something (i.e. Jesus dipped the sop into the cup).

As a side note here let me add that the Christian church practiced only baptism by immersion until the Middle Ages. Even the Catholic Theologian Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) said, “In immersion the setting forth of the burial of Christ is more plainly expressed, in which this manner of baptizing is more commendable.” The Roman Catholic church did not recognize other forms of baptism until 1311. The Lutheran and Reformed churches inherited the form of sprinkling from the Roman Catholic Church. The Church of England (Anglican/Episcopal) did not begin sprinkling until 1645. The case for sprinkling is weak for it goes against the meaning of the word, the obvious examples of Scripture and church history.

With this understanding of John’s Baptism of repentance, lets turn back to our text and see the interaction of John and Jesus.

Verse 13 Then Jesus arrived from Galilee at the Jordan coming to John, to be baptized by him.

The text does not define the specific time other than saying, “Then.” Some time after John had rebuked the Pharisees and Sadducees for their false repentance, Jesus comes from the region of Galilee. Mark 1:9 adds that He came specifically from Nazareth. We do not know how long John had been active in his ministry. We suspect it was perhaps 6 months to a year. We do know from Luke 3:1-2 that he began his work in the 15th year of Tiberius Caesar (AD 29?). We also know from Luke 3:23 that Jesus was “around 30 years of age” when He began his ministry.

Regardless of exactly how long John had been preaching his message of “Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven is at hand,” Jesus had now arrived at the Jordan to see John for a very particular purpose. The text says “to be baptized by him.” The grammar here (aorist passive infinitive) emphasizes this is the purpose of Jesus’ coming. This causes us to wonder, as it did John, what was Jesus is trying to do. Look at verse 14.

John’s Reluctance

14 But John tried to prevent Him, saying “I have need to be baptized by You, and do You come to me?”

John knew from childhood who Jesus was. This was the Messiah, the Christ, the one who would sit on David’s throne, this is the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). John recognizes that Jesus is without sin, for He will be the one that will remove sin from the world. This being true, John is very reluctant to baptize Jesus with a baptism of repentance. The grammar of the verb, “prevent” here is one of continual action. John kept trying to prevent Jesus from being baptized by him. John is as strongly opposing baptizing Jesus as he was opposing baptizing the Pharisees and Sadducees, but for opposite reasons. Jesus was sinless and had no need of this baptism. The Pharisees and Sadducees were still in their sins and had not repented. In addition Jesus is the one who is to “Baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire” (vs 11). John tells Jesus that Jesus should baptize him, not the other way around. This leaves us with a question as well. Understanding the nature of John’s baptism as being one of repentance, one in which the person confessed their sins and were then immersed in the Jordan as a sign of the washing away of their sin, why is one who is without sin coming for this baptism?

Some have used this to attack the sinless nature of Jesus and said that because He sought out a baptism of repentance, then He must have sinned. That goes against the reaction and testimony of John as well as the attestation of the rest of Scripture that Jesus was without sin (2 Corinthians. 5:21; 1 Peter 2:22; 1 John 3:5; Hebrews 4:15).

Others have used Jesus’ baptism to attack His deity claiming that Jesus was just a man and did not become the Son of God until His baptism. They reason that Jesus had to be baptized so that God could make Him His son. However, Scripture is clear that Jesus was already the Son of God at His birth and not made Son of God at His baptism or any other time (Matthew 1:23; 2:15; Luke 1:32; 2:11; John 1:1,14).

Jesus answers the question about why He wanted to be baptized in verse 15.

Jesus Fulfills All Righteousness

15 But Jesus answering said to him, “Permit [it] at this time; for in this way it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he permitted Him

Jesus did not deny John’s claim that John should be baptized by Jesus rather than John baptizing Jesus, instead Jesus simply tells John to permit it to be done at this time because it would be part of all righteousness being fulfilled.

There has been much spilt ink over how this was fulfilling all righteous. Speculation has ranged from this being some kind of sign to the Gentiles to come into the kingdom through proselyte baptism, to his baptism being vicarious and part of the atonement in taking away man’s sin. Neither of those views is supported by Scripture and the later is directly against it. The solution is not difficult if it be kept in mind who Jesus is and what He did do throughout His life.

Jesus was born under the law of Moses (Gal. 4:4) and he kept the law, not the Pharisaical interpretation of it, but God’s original intent. Jesus said in Matt 5:17 that He came to fulfill the law. Jesus voluntarily submitted to divinely approved ordinances whether religious or secular. For example, He was circumcised, presented in the Temple and celebrated the feasts even though His own relationship with God was independent of God’s covenant with Israel. But Jesus’ submission to the rituals of the covenant brought Him into full identification with all of Israel. Jesus even paid taxes to Caesar though He was exempt as the Son of God (Matthew 17:25-27). Jesus came into the world to identify with man so much so that Isaiah 53:12 says he would be “numbered among the transgressors.” The self-righteous Scribes and Pharisees would call Jesus a glutton and drunkard, a friend of sinners (Matthew 11:19) because of His identification with man.

In the Levitical law a clean person that touched an unclean person, or in some cases even something that an unclean person had touched, would also then be considered unclean and would have to wash (Leviticus 11, etc.). Jesus was sinless and clean, and because His righteousness was internally generated and not externally granted (as is our righteousness) nothing could actually make Him unclean (such as the woman in Matthew 9:20f that touched His garment). However, in Jesus’ baptism He fulfills all righteousness by fulfilling the Levitical code of ceremonial cleanliness. Jesus came to minister to sinners (the unclean), and in His Baptism He identifies Himself with sinful man even though He Himself was without sin. Jesus’ baptism also gives approval to John’s message and sets the example for those who would follow Him.

Jesus baptism was also symbolic of His death and resurrection. He only spoke of personal baptism in two other passages and in both He related Baptism to His death. In Luke 12:50 he speaks of His soon coming crucifixion as a “baptism.” In Mark 10:38 He asks James and John if they would be able to “drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized” which was a reference to his coming death. It would be in His death that all righteousness would be completed as Jesus would bear the full price of the sin of men in Himself in order that He could impute His own righteousness to sinful men. Jesus baptism by John was part of His identification with sinful men pointing to the time when He would bear the sin of men.

Jesus’ baptism also signified something else. It was the beginning of His public ministry as He was anointed by the Holy Spirit.

Jesus Anointed by the Holy Spirit

16 “And after being baptized, Jesus went up immediately from the water; and behold, the heavens were opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending as a dove, and coming upon Him.”

Notice here again that there is a lot of water present. It would be a real stretch of the imagination for the phrase “Jesus went up immediately from the water” to mean something other than Jesus came up out of the river.

But when Jesus comes out of the Jordan, the heavens are opened. The veil that keeps us from seeing the dwelling place of God was lifted. Some have tried to make this some sort of physical veil, and there may be some physical aspect to it, but it seems from the description given to it by Elisha in 2 Kings 6:17 when he prayed that his servants eyes would be open to see the army of the Lord that was there to protect them, that the veil is spiritual. God opens it for some while at the same time it can be closed for others.

In our text we see that the heavens were opened to Jesus and He saw the Spirit of God descending as a dove and coming upon Him. From John 1:33,34 we know that John the Baptist also saw this vision and it was in fact the confirmation of what God had told John that the one he saw the spirit of God descending upon and remaining is the one that baptizes with the Holy Spirit (John 1:33). The vision was of the Holy Spirit’s anointing of Jesus for ministry. Notice that it is not a real dove, but it was the Holy Spirit coming as a dove. This is the only place a dove represents the Holy Spirit. Why a dove? Some possibilities: In Genesis 8 Noah sent out a dove which eventually brought back an olive twig. The Dove brought back hope. In Matthew 10:16 the Lord speaks of the dove being “innocent.” But probably most striking is the fact that the dove was the common sacrificial animal for the poor (Matthew 21:12). It was a symbol of sacrifice. All those ideas would be fitting for the Holy Spirit’s anointing of the one who was innocent, who would be the sacrifice for mankind and who would bring hope by being the first born from the dead (Colossians 1:18).

Why did the Holy Spirit come upon Jesus? In becoming a man Jesus did not lose His deity, but in His humanity He would need to be anointed for service and granted strength for ministry. This fulfilled Isaiah 61:1 “The Spirit of God is upon Me, because the lord has anointed me to bring good news to the afflicted; He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to captives, and freedom to prisoners.” In His humanity Jesus would become tired and hungry and sleepy, His humanity needed strengthening, and that strength was supplied by the Holy Spirit (Matthew 4:1; Luke 4:14). It was by the Holy Spirit that Jesus worked miracles such as casting out demons (Matthew 12:28) and performing signs & wonders (Acts 10:38).

The coming of the Holy Spirit upon Jesus fulfilled prophecy, strengthened Him in His humanity and was a visible sign to those who saw that this was the messiah. Verse 17 adds the commendation of the Father.

Jesus Commended by the Father

17 “and behold, a voice out of the heavens, saying, “This is My beloved Son,
in whom I am well-pleased

I wonder if any of the people there who heard this thought of the children of Israel in the time of Moses when God would talk with him? Out of heaven the voice of God was heard pronouncing his commendation. God says “this is my son,” or literally, “this is the son of me, the beloved.” God loves the world and He calls those in Jesus Christ “beloved” in Romans 1:7, but Jesus is uniquely “the beloved.” Jesus is the second person of the triune God and therefore has a unique relationship with God the Father.

In addition, God has adopted believers into His family as sons, but Jesus is uniquely “the son“, the “only begotten son” (John 3:16). When the term “son of God” is applied to Jesus, it speaks of His deity. Jesus is of the same essence as God Himself. The Jews tried to stone Jesus for making himself out to be God because in John 10:30 Jesus said, “I and the Father were one.” The charge against Jesus that He should be crucified was that “He made himself out to be the Son of God.” They understanding that by doing so He was claiming to be God. The New Testament writers are clear on the subject. Jesus is God in human flesh. He is the second person of the triune God. The writer of Hebrews declaring in 1:3 that the Son is “the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature, and upholds all things by the word of His power. When He had made purification of sins, He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high.” The writer goes on in the chapter and demonstrates the superiority of the son to angels declaring that all the angels should worship Him (1:6), that His throne was eternal (1:8), that He laid the foundations of the earth and created the heavens (1:10), and that He is unchanging (1:12). Jesus is no less than God Himself in human flesh.

God the Father commends Jesus, God the Son, that He is well pleased with Him. Not just pleased, but with emphasis, “well-pleased.” Why? Because Jesus is perfectly fulfilling all righteousness.

Those who place their faith in Jesus alone can also please the Father because the righteousness of Christ is imputed to them, i.e. when God looks at the believer, He sees the righteousness of Christ and He is pleased.

If you are here today and do not please the Father because sin is still controlling your life, today is the day to get right with God. We will be celebrating communion in a moment which is a time when we look back to remember the sacrifice of Christ on the cross for our sins. It is a time of reflection, confession, and thankfulness. If you are a believer, then reflect on what Jesus has done for you, confess those sins that are hindering your fellowship with Him and thank Him for His forgiveness and all that He has done. If you are here today and do not know the Lord Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior, then you need to get right with Him. Recognize that you are a sinner. You have not done all that God requires of you so that you are deserving of His judgement. Recognize that you can do nothing on your own to save yourself from His wrath. Come to Him and ask His forgiveness based on the fact that Jesus has already paid the price for your sins. Ask Him to cleanse you and fill you with the Holy Spirit so that you may now follow Him in all things, and then commit yourself to putting away anything in your life that would hinder you in pleasing Him. You can do that right now and you will be saved.

But if you do not know the Lord Jesus Christ, then please, just pass the elements along. This is only for believers and has no meaning for those that do not trust Christ alone for salvation. In fact, I Corinthians 11 warns that not taking of this properly can bring judgement


(See also: The Baptism of Jesus, April 2013)

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