The Baptism of Jesus Christ: Explanation, Application and Conclusion


Explanation

The last time we saw Jesus he was in Galilee. We might have been wondering where he was and why sudden attention had been given to John the Baptist. But it was necessary that we meet John for two reasons, First so that we could see him calling the people of Israel to repentance and baptizing them as they responded (Matthew 3:1-2, 5-6). Secondly, we needed to hear John announce the coming of the Messiah (Matthew 3:11-12). It was, in a manner of speaking, immediately after his announcement that Jesus comes to John who was at the Jordan (Mat. 3:6) in order to be baptized by him. Like all the crowds before him, Jesus walked into the Jordan river where John was, expressing his desire to be baptized. Keener stands alone in noting the inherent humility displayed by Jesus at his baptism, "In a traditional Mediterranean culture where society stressed honor and shame, Jesus relinquishes his rightful honor to embrace other's shame. After Jesus' public act of humility, God publicly identified Jesus as his own son…"1
John was aware, to a certain extent, who Jesus was at least in his character. It is doubtful that his mother Elizabeth would have kept the nature of Jesus' birth a secret from John who himself was a miraculous baby. Those are the kinds of stories which are told repeatedly to children as they grow up. John grew up in the hill country of Judah (Luke 1:39) while Jesus was growing up in Galilee. Nevertheless they very likely had some exposure to each other growing up despite the distance even if only at the yearly feasts in Jerusalem. Even today it is common among extended families to know something of the character of other children. John surely would have at least heard stories about "what a good boy" Jesus was and coupled those stories with those of his birth.
Before John was even born the fullness of the Spirit of God led him to know Jesus for who he was (cf Luke 1:15). This does not mean that John knew for certain in adulthood that Jesus was the Messiah however. John 1:32-34 reveals that the Baptist did not recognize Jesus as the one who "baptizes in the Holy Spirit" until after he saw the Holy Spirit come on Jesus in the form of a dove. He may have suspected it prior to this moment but confirmation of his identity was needed – not only now, but also later in Matthew 11:3.
Against this backdrop of knowledge John the Baptist came preaching repentance and spent a good part of his days baptizing and preaching to the crowds that came out to him. He would baptize them as they confessed their sins (Matthew 3:6). As far as John knew however, Jesus had no sins to confess. For this apparent reason, John started to prevent Jesus from going through with the baptism. A certain amount of shock or awe is evident in the emphatic use of the personal pronouns as John declares his own sin by implying that he is more sinful than Jesus and suggesting that they switch places. Jesus however understood more than did John. The Lord responds to his stunned cousin that he must permit the baptism because it is proper for them to fulfill all righteousness in this manner.
Baptism is not a means to repentance but rather a symbol of it. If it were a means to repentance or rather a means to salvation than it would indeed have been inappropriate for Jesus to be baptized by John. For in the baptism the sinless one would have been making a false claim to sin. Rather he was making a definite identification with sinners. It is in this sense that the baptism of Jesus is the beginning of our redemption.
As Jesus came out of the water the heavens were opened and the Holy Spirit – in the form of a dove – came down and landed upon Jesus anointing him for ministry. A voice also came from the heavens. God the Father proclaiming the identity of Jesus as his son.

Application

Even as John suddenly saw his own need for baptism in the presence of Christ, we too might think we are good enough until we come into the presence of perfection. The bright lights of holiness cause what we might consider to be a "minor stain" to be displayed for what it is, a blood red indelible mark. Even today the leaders and shepherds who would guide others to God have need themselves to be cleansed by Christ.
Once Jesus replied, John simply obeyed even if he did not fully understand. This too serves as a model for us. Obedience is not contingent upon understanding, but merely upon hearing the command and trusting the Lord who commands.
The very same Spirit of God which fills, directs and empowers believers today is the very Spirit of God which filled, directed and empowered the Son of God. When the Spirit came upon Jesus his ministry began. That is where ministry begins for every believer. If you have been baptized into the name of the Father, Son and Spirit, than you are baptized by the Spirit into service.
Some of the enormity of God's love for us is seen in the fact that he loved Jesus as well and described him in the very intimate terms of "beloved son". One of the most common verses committed to memory is John 3:16, telling us that "God so loved the world…" That God loved the world is not contrastive to the love he had for Jesus but rather ascensive. Because he loved the son, the sacrifice for you and I is even greater than we might have thought.
A key requirement of salvation is acknowledging that Jesus Christ is Lord (Rom. 10:9). This passage, which marks the inauguration of Jesus into ministry is a definitive statement concerning his identity as deity. God the Father has set his seal on Jesus – it behooves us therefore to listen to him (Mat. 17:5). It is in our favor now to watch the rest of this gospel unfold with a full knowledge that Jesus is the King of Glory.

Conclusion

In the scheme of Matthew, Jesus is presented to Israel as her king. The baptism of Jesus identifies the humble Messiah with his people. The visible anointing by the Holy Spirit empowers him and the coronation speech given by the Father establishes his identity. God's multiplied promises to send a Savior have been fulfilled and now proclaimed to the repentant ones of Israel.

1Keener, A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, p. 131.