“The Baptism of Jesus”
January 15, 2017
Everything came together at the Jordan River.
I. The will of the Father (Matthew 3:13-15)
II. The presence of the Spirit (Matthew 3:16)
III. The ministry of the Son (Matthew 3:17)
I love physical and geographic analogies. This morning we’re studying the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River, so I began to think about the geography of the Jordan. It’s not a huge river. In the dry season these days, with heavy human drawdowns, it’s little more than a creek. But it has headwaters, sources and tributaries which in that contested part of the world extend into five countries. The most significant headwaters are in Lebanon. At the feet of Mt. Hermon Tel Dan is a cold clear spring that never runs dry. Another spring emerges at a place called Banias, and at least two surface streams contribute to the river. They come together in the Hula Valley and flow into the Sea of Galilee. The river then pours out through the Jordan Valley into the Dead Sea. It was this segment of the River that Joshua crossed to lead the people into the promised land. Elijah parted it and crossed before his departure in the chariot of fire. And it was in the Jordan, below the Sea of Galilee that John baptized Jesus.
So everything does come together in the Jordan River. But in a more profound sense, everything comes together in the baptism of Jesus. I love the commentary on Matthew by Don Carson. At the end of verse 17 he has a list of the things that came together in Jesus’ baptism, and we’ll look at those later. But he doesn’t emphasize what I think is most important, that the Father, the Spirit and the Son are seen together in the baptism. Everything came together at the Jordan, the will of the Father, the presence of the Spirit and the ministry of the Son.
Let’s read the whole text, it’s short, and begin to look at what came together that day. Matthew 3:13-17 Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him. 14John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” 15But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. 16And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; 17and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”
We saw the ministry of John the Baptist last week, how he pointed to Jesus and said “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. But that was said after the baptism, after God had revealed Jesus to John by sending the Spirit. This week we back up a bit, to the baptism itself. The location is debated, but a key candidate is a place now called “Yardinet” near the outlet of the Jordan from Galilee. Thousands are baptized at this site every year.
In verse 14 we learn that John would have prevented Jesus from being baptized. “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” Earlier John had difficulty baptizing the Pharisees and Sadducees because they were not worthy of his baptism. Now he has trouble baptizing Jesus because his baptism is not worthy of Jesus. Some have said that the reason John didn’t want to baptize Jesus was that he immediately recognized Jesus as the Messiah and wanted to receive Jesus' Holy Spirit baptism which he had been prophesying. The big problem with this view is that in John’s Gospel, as we saw last week, John the Baptist says explicitly that until the moment the Spirit descended he was not sure this was the one that he had been waiting for.
Why then was John reluctant? Probably because this was his cousin Jesus. We don’t know how close the two were, but it’s inconceivable that John’s parents had not told him the circumstances of his birth, and of Mary's visit to Elizabeth before he and Jesus were born. At the very least John must have recognized that Jesus, whose birth was more marvelous than his own, and whose knowledge of Scripture was prodigious even as a child, outstripped him. John the Baptist was a humble man; conscious of his own sin, he could detect no sin Jesus needed to repent of and confess. So John thought that Jesus should baptize him. It’s as if I was coaching in a kids football league and Peyton Manning walked onto the field and asked for a few pointers. I would say “with all due respect, you’re crazy Peyton. You need to be giving us some pointers.” Only in John’s case he wasn’t talking about football but about life.
Verse 15 Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Fascinating verse. It may immediately raise a question “how can Jesus be baptized? He never sinned.” But John consents, so it seems Jesus is saying something other than “I need baptism to be righteous.” John’s ministry, as we’ve seen, had an even more important component than people’s repentance for sin. He was there to point to Jesus, announcing, “the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” It was to fulfill that component of John’s work that Jesus was baptized. It was to move forward, to fulfill the Father’s righteous plan and the Father’s righteous will that Jesus was baptized. Notice that Jesus says ‘Let it be so for now.’ The prophets had said that the day of the Lord and the reign of the Messiah was coming. John had said ‘the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ But Jesus says ‘let’s do this now.’ It’s right, it’s appropriate, it’s fitting that we do this now to begin the fulfillment of the Father’s plan.
So it is the Father’s will that Jesus be baptized, not for his own sins but as a way of submitting himself to the Father and as a sign that the Father’s plan was on the move. But we probably wouldn’t reach those conclusions if we didn’t have verses 16 and 17, which are mirrored in Mark and Luke, and implied in John.
I find it humorous that liberal scholars see Jesus’ baptism as one of the few historical moments in the Gospels. Not historic in the sense of awesome or important, but historical in the sense of ‘this really happened. And the crucifixion. But that’s about it. All the supernatural stuff was made up.’ I hate say it, ‘liberal scholars,’ but this is one of the awesomely supernatural events in Jesus’ life.
Verse 16: “And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him.” When Jesus was baptized he went up from the water. This implies John’s baptism was by immersion. Sometimes you’ll see movies or images that have John sprinkling or splashing water on people, but this text and one in John that says he baptized in a certain place because there was plenty of water show it was baptism by immersion.
When he came up out of the water he, probably Jesus, saw heaven opened. This was typical of a prophet receiving a vision. Ezekiel 1:1 In the thirtieth year, in the fourth month, on the fifth day of the month, as I was among the exiles by the Chebar canal, the heavens were opened, and I saw visions of God.” In Isaiah we read the prophet’s plea “Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down.” That’s exactly what’s happening here. The heavens open and the Spirit of God descends like a dove and rests on him. This is, by the way, a brand new image of the Holy Spirit. There is no Old Testament verse likening him to a dove. But the word ‘Spirit’ in Greek and in Hebrew means ‘breath,’ or ‘wind.’ For wind to be made visible in the flight of a bird is a fitting image.
In this new image the threads of God’s Big Story begin to come together. Isaiah 42:1 says “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.” This verse, fulfilled by the Spirit’s descent on Jesus, is Isaiah’s first reference to Messiah as Servant of the Lord, ultimately the Suffering Servant. In Isaiah 42 to 52 that Servant assumes a more and more central role in God’s plan. He is identified with the nation of Israel, though not identical to it. Isaiah 44:21 ”Remember these things, O Jacob, and Israel, for you are my servant; I formed you; you are my servant; O Israel, you will not be forgotten by me.”
By Isaiah 49 the servant is identified as Savior of the world. Isaiah 49:5-6 And now the Lord says, he who formed me from the womb to be his servant, to bring Jacob back to him; and that Israel might be gathered to him— for I am honored in the eyes of the Lord, and my God has become my strength— 6 he says: “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to bring back the preserved of Israel; I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”
Then in Isaiah 52 and 53 this salvation is achieved by the suffering of the servant. Isaiah 52:13 Behold, my servant shall act wisely; he shall be high and lifted up, and shall be exalted. 14As many were astonished at you— his appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of the children of mankind. Isaiah 53:3 “He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. 4Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. 5But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed.”
All that is implied in the descent of the Spirit like a dove on Jesus. He is identified as the one who will bring salvation to the ends of the earth, to you and to me, by his suffering. He is pierced for our sins, crushed for our iniquities. In other words he’s the substitute who bears the penalty for our sin. The punishment that brings us peace is laid on him at his crucifixion, and we are healed. This is perhaps the clearest of the dozens or hundreds of Old Testament verses that teach that a sacrifice must be made in order for sins to be forgiven.
Isaiah 53 goes on to teach that this suffering servant will see the light of life. That’s resurrection. And by knowing him, this righteous servant will justify many. The Bible teaches that we know him by faith, that as we trust him and trust what he did for us on the cross, we received the life that he has won, and the forgiveness that he paid for. I encourage you as we look at Jesus this Spring, to look on him not as a historical figure, but by as a living, present, life-giving Savior. All who call on the name of the Lord will be saved by him.
So is this an awesome moment, or what? The Spirit descends on God’s servant and anoints him for his ministry of suffering, beginning the fulfillment of God’s big idea as seen in Isaiah. And you say “that’s a pretty thin connection Bob. The Spirit is mentioned many times in the Old Testament. How do you know it’s this verse in Isaiah that’s being fulfilled?” We know this because of verse 17, which also reflects Isaiah 42: “and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.””
Let’s go back to Isaiah 42:1 “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.” Do you hear the connection? “Whom I uphold, in whom my soul delights” is fulfilled in “my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” So God the Spirit demonstrates and God the Father announces that Jesus the Son is the one who will be the servant, the suffering Messiah.
The three persons of the Trinity are active here. The Son submits to the Father’s will, the Spirit descends to bless that submission and the Father speaks to affirm it. Now it might seem from this verse alone that there were three gods, that the Trinity is three entirely separate Persons. On the other hand, Modalists, historically, and Oneness Pentecostals today say that there is one God but he only appears in three modes, like the skin flesh and core of the apple, or steam, liquid and ice in water. But all these illustrations fall short of the teaching of Scripture and the understanding gathered by the early church into the Creeds.
First of all, God spent hundreds of years during the Old Testament period getting his people to stop worshipping idols and recognize that there was only one God. They learned that lesson after the exile and I believe that hard learned lesson helped the followers of Jesus see that though there are three persons in the Godhead, there is one God. In John Jesus says “I and the Father are one.” At the end of Matthew Jesus instructs his followers to baptize in the one name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. For me one of the key proofs of the Trinity is that in the Gospels and Revelation, Jesus is worshipped without hesitation or correction. Yet Jesus himself said that God alone is to be worshipped. This is not a contradiction but confirmation that Jesus was God, the word made flesh.
I’ve been thinking quite a bit about the early church and its creeds and councils and realizing how God guided them to state clearly and carefully the truths of the Trinity and the nature of Christ. He did this in the midst of controversy and heresy, but by 200 AD people like Tertullian were able to argue clearly that God was one in substance and three in persons, and he says this is what has always been believed in the Church. The classic image of this looks a lot like the logo we use as a church. But it has words on it, “There is one God who exists in three Persons. The Father is God. The Son is God. The Spirit is God. But the Father is not the Son nor the Spirit. The Son is not the Father nor the Spirit. And the Spirit is not the Father or the Son. But they are one God. One in essence, three in personhood. It’s a mystery, but it’s not a contradiction
And at moments like these, when each of the persons of the Godhead are revealed, it is to be celebrated. God the Eternal Father says of God the Eternal Son, now incarnate as fully God and fully Man, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” And the Spirit silently bears the same testimony by his Presence. So everything comes together at the Baptism. Everyone comes together at the baptism. Not that they are ever apart from each other or absent from the world, but at moments like these they are revealed to our eyes and ears. Praise God.
And that’s not the only thing that comes together in the Baptism of Jesus. Carson, as I mentioned earlier, has a list of what’s going on here, the Old Testament threads of God’s Big Story that are evident in this short account. First, as we’ve said already, these words from heaven link Jesus with the Suffering Servant at the very beginning of his ministry. Matthew cites Isaiah 42 again in chapter 12, talking about the self-effacing humility of Jesus. Peter identifies him as God’s servant in two different sermons in the book of Acts, and says that his suffering was part of God’s sovereign plan. And Paul, in Philippians says “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: 6Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, 7but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.” So the Suffering Servant and Substitute thread of God’s big story is focused in the New Testament on Jesus and only on Jesus.
Second, God here refers to Jesus as "my Son." The title "Son of God" is implied here, and picked up explicitly in the next chapter by the tempter himself. But this is clearly a Messianic title. We’ve seen the significance of 2nd Samuel 7 several times in God’s Big Story: “I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son.” So when God says someone is his son, that tugs a thread the Jewish people are going to take very seriously. Son of God becomes a kind of a ‘high-point’ title for Jesus. The disciples used it when Jesus calmed the sea. His enemies used it to condemn him, for they knew that it was a title of deity. And the centurion at the foot of cross, seeing his death, said “Surely this was the Son of God.”
Third, we mentioned earlier that the Servant was not only associated with substitution and suffering, but also identified with the nation of Israel itself. He is, in Carson’s words, “the true Israel to which actual Israel was pointing.” He is, for example, the one who takes up the mantel of the promise to Abraham, to bless the nations. And Israel, God says to Pharaoh, early on in the Exodus, “is my firstborn son.” So Jesus as the true Son of God and the true Servant of God will fulfill what the divided and idolatrous nation of Israel failed to accomplish, the redemption of the nations.
Fourth, Carson links God’s words, “This is my Son,” back to the Christmas story, the birth narratives of Jesus. Because Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit to be born of the Virgin, Mary, the words ‘this is my Son’ convey more than a title or a role. In his very being and essence Jesus is the Son of God, and in fact God the Son, a point we saw clearly in John 1 on Christmas Day. “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.”
Fifth, Carson reminds that Jesus is the “beloved” Son. The Greek word is ‘agapetos,’ the same word as ‘agape,’ God’s unconditional selfless love. This term is used again by the Father at Jesus’ transfiguration, and it is also the sweet term of affection that the New Testament authors use for the believers they write to. I suspect this is what you would write to those closest to you. Without getting too sentimental I’m willing to tell you that my private and treasured way of addressing Gail is as “loved one.” That’s what God is doing here. In fact in the Mark account of the baptism the voice from Heaven says “You are my beloved.” God the Father is saying “Loved one, I am so pleased with you.” Finally, Carson says, and I’m not enough of a language guy to prove this, that the term “beloved” can mean not only affection but also election, choice, and he says this is reinforced by the aorist tense that follows which could be literally translated "with him I was well pleased.” And so I chose him. It suggests a pretemporal election of the Messiah. Chosen before time.
So everything comes together in Jesus. All these threads or tributaries of thought come together in that moment when John the Baptist lowers Jesus into the River Jordan and as he emerges the Spirit descends and the Father speaks. Carson puts it well in his summary “These things are linked in the one utterance: at the very beginning of Jesus' public ministry, his Father presented him, in a veiled way, as at once Davidic Messiah, very Son of God, representative of the people, and Suffering Servant.”
But have all these things come together for you? I want you to imagine yourself for a moment standing by the Jordan River and in the distance you can see these four tributaries coming together, water merging from these springs and upland streams. Now put Jesus in the river, because God’s Big Story comes together in Jesus. But don’t stop there. Put yourself in the River with him. He’ll say “You are my loved one and all that I am and all that I do is for you.”
Do you experience Jesus daily as your Messiah, the promised one of God who came and rescued you? All of us are lost, all of us are like sheep that have gone astray, but the Good Shepherd has come, and left the ninety-nine, to go out into this wilderness of a world and seek you. Do you know him as Messiah?
Do you know him as ‘the very Son of God,’ more powerful than any other being in the universe could begin to be, and through the Spirit, the very presence of God in you. The theologians talk about God’s transcendence and immanence. God the Son, like the Father and the Spirit is so infinite, so holy, so perfect, so omnipotent and omniscient that it is impossible for our human minds to grasp the least ray of his brightness. And yet that same God says “I’ll be with you always, I will never leave you or forsake you. Come to me and rest.”
Do you also know him, looking upward, as your representative before God, before the Father so that having been forgiven and cleansed by his substitution and sacrifice, his death and resurrection you can now approach the throne of grace with confidence daily through him. With prayer and petition you can make even your deepest requests and anxieties know to God, who hears, through Jesus. He’s the one who stands interceding for us.
And do you know him first, in your prayers and praises and faith, as the servant who suffered for you. All of us like sheep have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way. Have you put your faith, your confidence in the one who was stricken, smitten and afflicted, who bore our griefs and carried our sorrows, who was pierced for your transgressions, crushed for your iniquities, punished to bring you peace, oppressed and afflicted, cut off out of the land of the living, and put to grief as a guilt offering for you. Do you know him as the risen one, who saw the light of life in his rising to eternal days? Do you know him as your resurrection and life, your promise and hope? This, and all these things came together in the Jordan as the Father, the Spirit and the Son began the work which would forever change you and redeem this sinful fallen world.