v.13 Whatever else we may say about the Lord’s baptism, it clearly amounted to his identifying himself with John’s message and with the revival movement it had created. And, as Matthew will make clear as we proceed, it marks the formal inauguration of the Lord’s public ministry; thus the transition from John to Jesus is, in principle, made here.
v.14 In the context and following so hard after v. 11 John seems to be saying, “I need your baptism of the Holy Spirit; you do not need my baptism with water.” He obviously, by this time, knew that Jesus was the Messiah. And so the logic of his question is apparent: how could the one who prepares the way for the Messiah baptize the one for whom the preparation was made?
v.15 Jesus’ reply does not deny the burden of John’s remark, but explains why it is nevertheless right for him to receive John’s baptism.
v.17 What happens immediately after the baptism, as an historical event, seems to have been largely for Jesus’ own benefit. It is not clear that those who would have been standing nearby heard or saw what Jesus saw, though John 1:32 states that John did see the Holy Spirit descend as a dove and rest upon the Lord, but that was apparently before the Spirit’s descent at the Lord’s baptism because John tells us that it was the Spirit resting on the Lord that indicated to John the Baptist that this man was the Messiah and John obviously knew that, as v. 14 demonstrates, before the Lord’s baptism.
The descent of the Holy Spirit upon him harks back to Isa. 42:1 and the promise that the Servant of the Lord would have the Spirit placed on him. The statement, “This is my Son…” is drawn from Ps. 2, a psalm about the messianic king. So, once again, great prophetic themes are finding their fulfillment in the appearance of Jesus Christ. He himself will be both the powerful king and the suffering servant.
This was the Lord’s formal commissioning for his work as the Savior and Messiah.
In his typically extravagant and unqualified way, Martin Luther said that ‘it is at the Jordan that the New Testament really begins. It is at the Jordan River, where John was baptizing, even more than at Bethlehem, where Jesus was born, that the New Testament begins.’ He meant that while the Lord was Jesus of Nazareth from his birth, and while the years of his infancy, his boyhood, and his young adulthood also certainly were indispensable and contributed their important share to his life’s work, it was not until his baptism that he formally and publicly became, by the declaration of God and the baptism of John, the bearer of the office of the Messiah, the Christ of God. Now, for the first time he is openly proclaimed as our Redeemer and now begins the great work which he came into the world to perform.
We don’t know what precisely prompted Jesus to leave Nazareth, his carpenter’s trade, his beloved mother, and his brothers and sisters, to make his way south the sixty or seventy miles to where John was preaching to his great congregations and giving to all who sought it his baptism of repentance. No doubt news of the stir which John’s preaching was creating made its way to Nazareth. Though we cannot say exactly what Jesus’ understanding of his own mission was at this point in his life, ‑‑ we are speaking of Jesus as a man, in his human nature ‑‑ he surely must have known something of the circumstances surrounding John’s birth and the promises made to John’s parents about him before he was born. After all John and Jesus were relatives. And certainly he had some sense of how his own birth and his own life’s work had been inextricably joined to that of John. What conversations there must have been between Jesus and his parents about what had happened when he was conceived and born!
In any case, when the news reached Nazareth of John’s preaching and baptizing, a thirty year old carpenter, toiling at his workbench, knew for a certainty that God’s hour had struck and that the sign he was waiting for had been given to him. He rose, left his tools, his family, his friends, his home, and walked south to meet John and his own life’s calling near the Jordan River.
Perhaps it was at the end of a long day of preaching and baptizing when the crowds had dispersed and John was left alone, or, at least, surrounded by only a few of his disciples. Through the twilight came a solitary figure ‑‑ Jesus, at this point, was wholly unrecognized as the Messiah and had no followers of his own; he had, apparently, made the journey from Nazareth alone ‑‑ and, as soon as John laid eyes on this man, he knew that the very moment whose coming he had prophesied to his great congregations had, at last, arrived. ‘Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.’ And with those words, the backbone of human history was broken and the salvation of the world began in earnest.
Jesus walked right up to John, we read here in Matthew’s gospel, and asked to be baptized by him. And John, knowing who the man was who stood before him, at first refused. ‘I need to be baptized by you, not you by me!’ But Jesus insisted. ‘It must be done,’ he said, ‘in order to fulfill all righteousness.’ And John, who knew that it was his Lord who was speaking to him, obeyed and baptized the Son of God.
Now, it is a question which has been much discussed: why did Jesus seek baptism from John? After all, John’s baptism was a baptism signifying and sealing repentance from sin, and Jesus had no sin which he needed to repent of. This was apparently the thought that ran through John’s own mind at the time. Why should I give the Son of God a baptism which signifies repentance from sin? The Lord himself apparently realized that it was not obvious why he should be baptized and so offered his own explanation telling John that he had to be baptized ‘to fulfill all righteousness.’ He seems to be saying that, in order to be perfectly qualified to accomplish his work as the Redeemer, in order that he perfectly discharge his responsibilities as the Mediator between God and man, it was necessary that he be baptized.
He had to be baptized, that is, for the same reason that, as an infant of eight days, he had been circumcised, though circumcision was also a sign of cleansing from sin and he had no sin to be cleansed from. It is his perfect fulfillment of the obedient and godly life which he lived for us in our place, ‑‑ he was doing, that is, what any truly godly man would do ‑‑ but it is, especially in the case of his baptism, a means by which he might deliberately identify himself with his people as their sin‑bearer. He was baptized for us just as he was circumcised for us and just as he would suffer and die for us. All that sin made necessary for us, from circumcision to damnation, he took upon himself, in our place and on our behalf.
But, in any case, the aftermath of his baptism clearly indicates another, if not the primary, purpose of it in the Lord’s own life and in the history of our redemption. His baptism by John served as his ordination to his office as the Christ. It was his outward coronation as the Prince of Life, the occasion of his official, public installation as the King of Kings.
Inaugurations can be very impressive events. But no presidential inauguration, no royal coronation in the history of human government, however grand, has ever compared to that given the Lord Christ at the commencement of his ministry. The entire Trinity, the one God in all three persons, gathered at the Jordan that day! God the Father spoke aloud from heaven his love and approval of his Son. And the Holy Spirit descended upon him in the visible form of a dove. Whenever we must reckon with the One, but Triune God, we stand before a great mystery, but the general significance of these events are perfectly clear: Jesus is being commissioned by his Father and equipped by the Holy Spirit for the work which lies before him.
We are immediately reminded that from now on there will be a constant emphasis in the Gospels, an emphasis which lay always first in the consciousness of Christ himself, that to do his Father’s will and to save the people his Father had given to him, and to make his Father known was the great purpose of his life and that all that he did, as a man for us, he did by the power and with the aid of the Holy Spirit. In the very next chapter we will read that he went to his great temptation under the leading of the Holy Spirit and Luke tells us that he underwent that temptation ‘full of the Holy Spirit,’ and adds that, immediately thereafter, Jesus commenced his public preaching, returning to Galilee in ‘the power of the Spirit.’ Such remarks at the beginning of the Lord’s public ministry are clearly intended to indicate that from the beginning to the end of his great work, he was supported and directed by the Holy Spirit. The Scripture says that he performed his miracles by the power of the Spirit, and so he taught, and so he preached, and so he lived ‑‑ as any man must who would live a holy life, (and we are speaking of Jesus in his manhood, his human nature) ‑‑ I say, so he lived and we must too by the power and with the help of the Holy Spirit seeking always to do the will of the Father in Heaven.
The Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, was present at that single moment near the Jordan River. We could speak at great length about that! We could wonder together if there could possibly be a more favored spot on all this earth, than that place where the voice of the Father was heard, the Spirit descended taking a visible form as a dove, and the Son, in his human nature was, by the Father and the Holy Spirit, crowned King of Kings and Lord of Lords. And we could think of what it means that the Triune God, all three persons together, publicly and outwardly commenced the ministry of Jesus Christ.
In a scene at the Porter’s house, in the second part of Pilgrim’s Progress Christiana’s young sons are catechized, asked spiritual questions, by Prudence, one of the daughters of the house. She asks James, the youngest son: ‘Canst thou tell me who saves thee?’ And he promptly replies: ‘God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost.’ And then she asks Joseph, the next son: ‘What is supposed by [your’] being saved by the Trinity?’ To which he replies: ‘That sin is so great and mighty a tyrant, that none can pull us out of its clutches, but God; and that God is so good and loving to man, as to pull him indeed out of this miserable estate.’
And those are surely two great lessons we might draw from the fact that the Holy Trinity met together at Christ’s baptism, indicating that our salvation would be the whole work of the whole Godhead, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We surely learn in that how grave is the condition of sinful human beings that it required all three persons of the Triune God to deliver them from their sin and death. We surely also learn how perfectly complete and certain that salvation must be that is offered to us in Christ, when it was not only the Lord Christ’s work, but likewise that of the Father and the Holy Spirit. No one is going to be disappointed who trusts himself or herself to that work, to that grace, and to that salvation!
Or we could speak from this passage of Christ’s true humanity, revealed in the fact that ‑‑ in his human nature, in his manhood ‑‑ he was not some superman, to whom everything he did came effortlessly and naturally. He was a man, and in his manhood he depended as completely, even as desperately at times, upon the help and support and comfort of the Holy Spirit and the direction of the will of his Father in Heaven as you and I must. The life he lived as a man, his walk from Bethlehem to Calvary without a single stumble, he lived with not one resource which is not likewise available to any Spirit‑guided man or woman. That is why he is a perfect high‑priest, able completely to sympathize with us in our weakness, having endured the trials common to man as a real man must endure them, … yet without sin. All of that is beautifully suggested in the descent of the Holy Spirit, in the form of a dove, upon the head of our Savior.
But I want rather to consider another application of this history, still more direct and straightforward than these others, important as they are. For the simple fact is that what we have here, in the report of our Savior’s baptism, is, more than anything else, the grandest conceivable demonstration of the glory of Jesus Christ and of his supreme importance to you, to me, and to every person in the world.
Such a thing as happened at Christ’s baptism ‑‑ the heaven’s opening, the Father commending, and the Spirit descending ‑‑ such a thing has never happened to anyone else. Nothing remotely like it has ever happened to anyone else. Dorothy Sayers, seeking to demonstrate the supreme importance of the incarnation of the Son of God in human history, said that, in a manner of speaking, the birth of Jesus Christ to the Virgin Mary was the only thing that had ever really happened. Well, in a similar way, it is the obvious lesson of his baptism and what transpired then, that Jesus Christ is the only Man who has ever really lived. He is The Man and the life of every other man or woman, boy or girl, will be, must be, happy or sad, a success or a failure, issue in salvation or doom, entirely insofar as they are related to him, entirely as to whether they love him or not, trust him or not, follow him or not, worship him or not, entirely as to whether they too are well-pleased with Jesus as his Father was!
Christians, real Christians, of course, know this. But our sin and frailty being what it is, even we must be reminded of this from time to time, and what better reminder than to see over again the heavens crack open above the Son of God, the Holy Spirit descending upon him in the form of a dove, and to hear the Maker of Heaven and Earth declare that Jesus is his beloved Son in whom he is well‑pleased.
The Apostle Paul told his Corinthian converts [2 Corinthians 11:2‑3]: ‘I betrothed you to one husband, to Christ, so that I might present you as a pure virgin to him. But I am afraid…that your minds may somehow be led astray from your sincere and pure devotion to Christ.’
It can happen so easily, brothers and sisters. We can be led astray while all the while sitting faithfully in church services week after week; we can be led astray even while reading our Bibles and giving ourselves to prayer. So easily our faith is transferred, unbeknownst to ourselves, from the Lord Christ himself, from his glorious person, to Christianity simply as a way of life, a set of laws and commandments, of religious acts and performances ‑‑ all using Christ’s name over and over again ‑‑ but, taking Christ’s place in the consciousness of our lives. Suddenly we catch ourselves, in the midst of our daily living, not having turned to the Lord in prayer that seeks his own ear, not having actively depended upon him for his promised grace and help, not having sought by his own hand and through his own righteousness the forgiveness of our sins, and not having strained to hear his voice speaking through his Word promise, or commandment, or comfort, or love, or peace, or joy into our souls. Though we are Christians and live what is outwardly a Christian life, we can find that the Lord Jesus himself is not before us and does not himself, with his presence and his word and all the various parts of his perfect work as our Savior ‑‑ the work long ago done and the work still being done in heaven and in our hearts today ‑‑ does not dominate our inner lives.
Paul wrote to the Christians in Ephesians that he prayed that they might have power to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, ‑‑ what he had earlier called ‘the unsearchable riches of Christ.’
John Newton, in one of his wonderful letters published in that collection of his letters known as the Cardiphonia, The Utterance of the Heart, tells his friend, the famous Bible commentator Thomas Scott, of what happened to another friend of his, a fellow Anglican minister, who had been for years a complete rationalist about spiritual things. He was a Christian minister, but he was not a Christian. He was a complete stranger to the Gospel of Christ and to its power to bring mere human beings into loving and happy fellowship with Almighty God himself. He was a very faithful minister and labored to good moral effect in his large parish, but could not lead his people to Christ, because he hadn’t found him himself; though he was far from knowing that. One day, John Newton’s minister friend, came across that passage in Ephesians 3 and that word ‘unsearchable’ which Paul uses in that memorable phrase ‘the unsearchable riches of Christ.’ By the Spirit of God, he was arrested by that word. The word of the Lord came to him for the first time in that word of Paul — ‘unsearchable riches of Christ.’ He began to think: Now Paul uses remarkable expressions here for Christ and the love of Christ and the salvation of Christ ‑‑ he speaks of heights and depths and unsearchable riches ‑‑ where I have always found all of this to be plain, easy, and rational. He finds mysteries where I have never found one. And he realized for the first time, that Paul’s thinking about Christ and salvation, must have been very different from his own. This led him to an extensive examination of Paul’s teaching and, at last, to put his own faith in Christ, the Son of God, whose life and death ‑‑ high mysteries that they are ‑‑ alone can lift fallen sinners up to God and heaven.
That is a good test for ourselves as well, however many years we may have known the Lord Jesus. Is it unsearchable riches still for us to belong to Jesus Christ and to be the object of his love? Are our daily lives ‑‑ especially our inner lives ‑‑ inextricably joined to his? Do we think of him and rely upon him and consider our fellowship with him not only the greatest treasure but the bedrock of our lives? Do we, as the Scripture sometimes has it, ‘walk with the Lord Jesus day after day?’ Do we, as David, in Psalm 16, says he always did, ‘set the Lord before us?’ Do we have the consciousness that we are living our lives in his presence?
This is precisely the supreme privilege and possibility which belongs to all Christian men and women, boys and girls: that life may be lived with Jesus Christ in them, with them, and beside them. And we cannot look at Christ at his baptism, see the heavens opening, see the Spirit descending, hear the voice of God the Father ‑‑ the Creator of every human being ‑‑ affirming his Son, without immediately realizing that a life founded upon Jesus Christ and lived in fellowship with him can be the only truly authentic human life in this world.
God the Father said at the baptism of Jesus that he loved his Son and was well‑pleased with him. Surely, it must therefore be both right and wise that we live our lives in the same love and the same good pleasure. And the Spirit descended on him. Surely, then it was this man who did the work of God by the power of God!
It is not so easy a thing to do, though, is it, when it all must be done by faith? When Christ must be known, not by sight as John the Baptist first knew him; and when the Father’s voice must be heard, not with the ear as John and Jesus heard it, but with faith and in the soul. Which is why we need one another and must help one another in this way. There will be, by a fixed law of the spiritual life, more of Christ in our hearts and souls and a more glorious Christ before our eyes, when there is more of Christ on all of our lips and in all of our speech.
Alexander Whyte, once describing the Saturday walks he used to take with Marcus Dods, the biblical scholar, said, ‘Whatever we started off with in our conversations, we soon made across country, somehow, to Jesus of Nazareth, to His death, and His resurrection, and His indwelling.’ [Stewart, Heralds…, p. 61]. And the sooner the same can be said of many of us and many of our conversations, the sooner there will be more of the glory of Christ shining in our souls and more of the presence of Christ with us through our days and nights.
And here are some topics for your conversations even today: what must have been John’s reaction to all he saw and heard that day? And how great and difficult a thing must faith be, that months later, John the Baptist could still entertain a doubt that Jesus was the Christ? Does that not teach us something about the importance of caring for our own faith and for the faith of our brothers and sister? And how was it that Jesus, who was God the Son, nevertheless lived a truly human life, lived his life as a man with only the powers of a man, depending all the while so completely upon the grace of the Holy Spirit, that his was both an authentically human life and a life without sin of any kind.
And if, in discussing such questions as these, you find yourselves at last before a great deep that you cannot hope to sound or to cross, well, that is all to the good. It is good to know that our salvation and our Savior are far beyond our comprehension. It humbles us to know our salvation is so divine a work that it is beyond our understanding in many ways.
Look once more at Jesus Christ at his baptism. You cannot possibly believe, if you have faith in Christ at all, that there is anything else in all the world that would more bring God’s favor upon you or more make your present life into that life which is worthy to be called life, than that you should make and ever more seek to make the Father’s beloved Son your ‘be‑all and end‑all’, the apple of your eye, and that every day – and help others to do the same!
If you had been there that day, you would have known by the truest and most infallible instinct that you had just witnessed the very meaning of human life and you would have said to yourself, I must never, never, forget this, but live every day remembering what I saw and heard! Well, by the Word of God, you are there to see and hear.