A modern baptism in the Jordan River
Thoughts from Matthew 3…
A few years ago, I had the privilege of traveling to the Jordan river and seeing the traditional site where Jesus was baptized. The river was actually very small in that area, but there were several markers to commemorate the spot. Shrines and churches filled the landscape, allowing people of all denominations to come and worship.
Most of us have heard about the scene where Jesus came to the Jordan River to be baptized by John. There are pictures in children’s books and artist renderings, all seeking to capture the moment where God the Father spoke from heaven and the Holy Spirit descended upon Him.
About 30 years have passed since the times when Jesus was born (Matthew 1), and when He was visited by the wise men (Matthew 2). Jesus’ relative, John the Baptist, was preaching in the wilderness that the kingdom of Heaven was at hand. Therefore, the people needed to repent, and to be baptized in order to show that they were part of this kingdom (see here).
It was during this time that Jesus left his hometown of Nazareth, in Galilee, and came to the Jordan River in order to be baptized by John.
John had been preaching that the King was coming, but when he came face-to-face with Jesus, he refused to baptize him. Jesus was greater than him, and John did not consider himself worthy to baptize him. John only consented when Jesus told him that it was necessary in order to “fulfill all righteousness”.
What does this mean? Why did Jesus come to be baptized? Why was this necessary for Jesus, and for that matter, for John?
Bible scholars have long considered these questions and have produced a very large list of answers for why Jesus came to be baptized. The many explanations range from the very simplistic to the very complex, from the logical to the almost mystical. Many see in Jesus’ baptism a preview of His ministry to come, including identification with sinners, anticipation of the cross, his burial and resurrection, the preview of Christian baptism, and the validation of John’s ministry. 3
These explanations contain excellent theology and have been put forth by some of the finest Bible teachers of our time. But they are all deficient for a number of reasons.
First, they fail to explain why this was necessary for both Jesus and John, in order to for fill all righteousness. Why is John’s role important here?
Second, these answers are all based on assumptions, not from the text itself. These assumptions are based on the explainers’ understanding of theology and how the ministry of Jesus Christ unfolded. None of these explanations are given by Matthew, Mark, nor Luke at the time of Jesus‘ baptism.
Finally, these explanations are difficult to reconcile with Jesus being both fully God and fully man.
Matthew 1 (see here) shows that Jesus was born fully human, and he was also fully God. We cannot fully comprehend how an infinite God can live within the confines of finite humanity, yet this was the life of Jesus Christ on earth. The gospel accounts of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John all show this in Jesus’ life. He was holy God, and so he was unblemished by the sin that has plagued the human race. Yet he was a lowly human, so he could be the perfect sacrifice for the sins of mankind.
Jesus lived with all of the authority and power of God himself. As it says in Colossians, “in him is all the fullness of God” (Colossians 1:19).
Yet Jesus was also fully human. As it says in Philippians 2, he emptied himself, taking the form of a servant. Jesus Christ, the Almighty God, laid aside the voluntary use of his attributes, living fully in the form of finite mankind, relying totally upon the Holy Spirit.
How could Jesus be both divine and human? This paradox is difficult to reconcile. Many theologians and Bible scholars have sought a simple explanation by emphasizing either His divinity or His humanity.
There are those who have elevated Jesus’ humanity at the expense of His deity. Some have either minimized it or outright denied the fact that Jesus was God. They portray Him as a normal human going through daily life with the same weaknesses and failures as you and I. But to deny Jesus’ deity is to deny the words from the New Testament Gospels and the Epistles. The Gospel of John starts out with, “the Word was with God, and the word was God” (John 1:1). Jesus said about himself, “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30). Jesus also taught that he descended from heaven (John 3:13), and Jesus’ prayer in John 17 tells of His oneness with the Father (John 17:20-21). One of the most eloquent sections of the epistles that tell of the greatness of Jesus Christ is Colossians 1:15-20, where Jesus is above creation, the author of creation, the head of the church, and in Him is all of the essence of deity. Both His followers and His enemies recognized that Jesus said that He was God (Matthew 16:16-17, John 5:18). You cannot deny His deity.
But others have focused on Jesus’ divinity, forgetting that he was also very much human. He was hungry, thirsty, tired, and he felt physical and emotional pain (e.g. Matthew 4:2, John 4:6-7, John 11:33-35). We see Him act with apparently limited knowledge, such as going to a barren fig tree when He was hungry (Matthew 21:18-19), or by leading his disciples to a quiet retreat, only to be surrounded by over 5,000 people who followed him from the city (Mark 6:30-44). The simplest explanation is that Jesus’ knowledge was limited while He was on earth. He had set aside His omniscience and was relying totally on the direction and empowering of the Holy Spirit.
Jesus grew up in Nazareth, growing in both wisdom and stature (Luke 2:52). The best understanding of why Jesus came to John’s baptism was not because He was orchestrating all of the finer points of theology, but rather that he had submitted fully to God. God had led John to baptize and Jesus was prepared to follow everything that God had instituted. John preached about the kingdom of heaven and offered baptism to identify those who were ready to be part of this kingdom. Hence the reason to “fulfill all righteousness“, was that it was right for John to baptize Jesus. It was the right thing for them to do.
Toward the end of his ministry, Jesus was challenged by the Jewish Priests who asked him by what authority He was teaching? Jesus answered them with a question of His own, “The baptism of John, was it from heaven or from man?“ (Matthew 21:23-27). The rhetorical answer was that John’s baptism was from heaven.
After Jesus was baptized, His ministry showed the results of his baptism. It was the last act of His private life and the beginning of his public ministry. 1 Jesus was personally verified by God the Father. The Holy Spirit came to rest on Him, and would direct and empower Him for the rest of his life on earth.
All of the theological facts pointed out above came about as a result of Jesus’ baptism. 2 He identified with believing sinners, He validated John’s ministry, and His ultimate sacrifice allowed any who believed in Him to become sons of God (John 1:12). The present Christian baptism does not identify with the baptism of John, but rather illustrates the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Jesus Christ is beyond our understanding!
The scenes of history may be interesting, but let us not forget Jesus Christ Himself! He is the most important one!
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.
Previous post: The Herald of the King