Jesus’ baptism and authentication (preaching resource for 12/4/22)

This post exegetes Matthew chapter 3, providing context for the Revised Common Lectionary Gospel reading for 12/4/22 (Advent 2). This exegesis draws on commentary from "IVP Bible Background Commentary New Testament" by Craig Keener, "New Bible Commentary" by RT France, and "Bible Knowledge Commentary" by Louis Barbieri.

“Baptism of Christ” by Bassano

Introduction

Matthew chapters 1 and 2 give an account of Jesus’ birth and infancy. Now in chapter 3, Matthew takes us forward about 30 years to events surrounding the start of Jesus’ public ministry. Matthew tells of John the Baptist’s proclamation, and Jesus’ baptism (which includes heaven’s affirmation). 

John’s proclamation (3:1-12)

1 In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the Desert of Judea 2 and saying, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near." 3 This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah: "A voice of one calling in the desert, 'Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.'" 4 John's clothes were made of camel's hair, and he had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey. 5 People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan. 6 Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River. 7 But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8 Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. 9 And do not think you can say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father.' I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. 10 The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. 11 "I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me will come one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not fit to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. 12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire."

John the Baptist (meaning “the baptizer”) is sent by God to announce to the Jewish nation the nearness of the kingdom of heaven. “Of heaven” is not about the kingdom’s location, but speaks of heaven’s “rule” (in the Bible, “kingdom” means “rule”). The idea of a coming kingdom is well known and a source of hope to the Jews oppressed by Roman rule. However, John’s kingdom announcement is new and radical because it includes a call to repent and the declaration that the kingdom is near: 

Repent! To repent means a radical change of mind and heart. John declares that the Jewish people must repent if they are to enter the kingdom of heaven. This is an affront to many (particularly the religious leaders). Why? Because they think that as Jews (descendents of Abraham) they have automatic entrance into the kingdom. “Not so,” says John—to enter, they must turn back to God, for they have drifted far from him.  

The rule of heaven is near! To say that the kingdom (God’s rule) is near, is to say that it is about to arrive. John says that what is now happening fulfills ancient prophecy—and here John refers to Isaiah 40:3 (and secondarily, Malachi 3:1), where Isaiah spoke of “highway construction workers” clearing the way in the desert for the Jews to return to the Promised Land from out of Babylonian captivity. This return occurred in 537 B.C., and was reminiscent of Israel’s original entry into the Promised Land under Joshua. In both of these exoduses out of captivity, Israel entered into the Promised Land by crossing through the Jordan River – likely at the very location where John is now preaching and baptizing. 

And thus we understand that John is calling for a new Exodus—a new and great return to God from out of the corrupt Jewish religious system of that day. He is crying out as God’s prophet—a fact emphasized by his clothing which is like that of the prophet Elijah (clothes . . . of camel’s hair and . . . a leather belt; see 2 Kings 1:8; Zech. 13:4), and by his austere diet (locusts and wild honey—the diet of very poor people, see Lev. 11:21). 

The results are stunning. Large numbers of people from Jerusalem and all Judea come out to hear John (v5). Some accept his message and confess their sin, and in recognition of this repentance are baptized by John in the Jordan River (v6). It should be noted that baptism was common at this time within Judaism. However, it was Gentiles who were being baptized as they converted to Judaism. Thus for John to be baptizing Jews is radically new, and the Pharisees and Sadducees who come out to see what John is up to are incensed and reject John altogether (v7). Their feelings are summed up in John’s words to them (vv7-10). John’s point is that Pharisaic Judaism is corrupt and are being rejected. This is no problem for God, for the One who can raise up stones to be his children, is able and willing to take outsiders (Gentiles) as his children. In short, Judaism is in danger of becoming irrelevant. Unless it produces fruit in keeping with repentance (v8), God will remove the tree (v10, a symbol of the Jewish nation).

The relationship of John the Baptist to Jesus, the Messiah, is clearly seen here. John believes he is not even worthy to carry (or untie) the sandals of this Coming One. John is simply an introducer who is preparing a remnant for the Messiah, and who is baptizing in water those who respond. The Coming One will baptize them with the Holy Spirit and with fire—a statement recalling Joel 2:28-29 and Malachi 3:2-5 where the outpouring of the Holy Spirit is predicted. Jesus is the one anointed by the Spirit, and the one who, at Pentecost (Acts 2), will pour out the Spirit on all people. This Messiah brings renewal not only to the Jews, but to all the world! 

Matthew is careful to show the continuity between John’s mission and that of Jesus. John’s proclamation in v2 is the same as that of Jesus in Mat. 4:17 (and of his disciples in Mat. 10:7). Echoes of John’s words also occur later in Jesus’ teaching (see Mat. 7:16, 19; 12:34; 13:30; 23:33), while Mat. 8:10–12 reinforces John’s warning against relying on Jewish racial origin alone. 

John is thus not merely a curtain-raiser for the public arrival of Jesus; he is launching the mission which Jesus will soon step into (see Mat. 11:7–19; 21:23–32). The contrast here between water and the Holy Spirit (v11) leaves no doubt that it is in Jesus’ ministry that true, lasting spiritual renewal will be found. How Jesus will accomplish this is the story of Matthew—the gospel, which is the story of the unfolding of God’s kingdom rule, now here in the person and work of the promised Messiah, Jesus Christ. 

And here he comes…

Jesus’ baptism and authentication (3:13-17) 

13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John. [14] But John tried to deter him, saying, "I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?" 15 Jesus replied, "Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness." Then John consented. 16 As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and lighting on him. 17 And a voice from heaven said, "This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased."

In a shocking, remarkable way, Jesus, the Messiah comes to John and asks to be baptized! In view of v11, John’s hesitation is understandable. Jesus’ explanation for wanting baptism (v15) is cryptic, yet powerful and important, for it relates to the truth of who Jesus is, and the nature of his mission. 

Who is this person named Jesus come to be baptized? He is the eternal Son of God become human through the Incarnation. Jesus is thus fully God (divine), yet also fully human. Because he is God, the Creator and sustainer of all life, in his humanity he substitutes for and represents all people. He bears in himself our full humanity—our full (fallen) human nature. And now, representing us all, he comes to receive John’s baptism of repentance. And in Jesus’ baptism is the baptism of all humanity—and this is the mission of Jesus. 

According to Jesus, his baptism/mission fulfills “all righteousness” (v15). What does that mean? Jesus is likely using the word “righteousness” as it is used in Isa 53:11. This verse speaks of people being made “just” (justified) before God. And, indeed, in the baptism of Jesus, all humanity is baptized, and in that baptism (which pictures and anticipates Jesus' death and resurrection) justified (forgiven; made “right” with; reconciled to God). 

Next (vv16-17), Jesus’ person and ministry is confirmed (authenticated) from heaven. As Jesus comes up from the water, the Holy Spirit comes down on him in the form of a dove. And then a voice from heaven—the voice of God the Father—says this: “This is My Son, whom I love; with Him I am well pleased.” These words echo Psa 2:7 and Isa 42:1 (and compare Eph. 1:6 and Col. 1:13). Note that God repeats these words about Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration (Mat 17:5). 

Here we find the presence and activity of all three Persons of the Trinity: the Father who speaks of his Son, the Son who is being baptized, and the Holy Spirit who descends on the Son as a dove. This sequence verifies for John the Baptist that Jesus truly is the Son of God (see John 1:32-34), for it fulfills Isaiah’s prophecy that the Spirit would rest on the Messiah (Isa 11:2; 42:1 and 61:1), ushering in the Messianic age. A new day has indeed dawned! This is a new beginning. A new humanity is born out of the waters of baptism. And thus this descent of the Holy Spirit and the words of the Father authenticate Jesus as the Messiah and empower him for his mission as Savior of all. This mission, this salvation, is not merely what Jesus does, it is who Jesus is, and all humanity is included. 

Conclusion

Through John’s proclamation, Jesus’ baptism, and heaven’s confirmation, Jesus now begins his public ministry. He is the one who justifies all humanity in and through his own substitutionary, representative humanity. And that work of salvation includes his baptism on our behalf.