Baptism—And Heaven Opened

Have you been in a situation in which you asked, “What’s going on here?” You can appreciate the hesitancy and confusion that John the Baptist expressed when Jesus, the Messiah, came to him to be baptized in the incident recorded in Matthew 3:13–17 .

Your Lord fulfilled all righteousness. John baptized for repentance from sin. At the heart of preparing for the coming of the Messiah lay repentance, symbolized by the baptism John administered. (John’s baptism is a precursor to and is not identical with Christian baptism.) Repentance involves awareness of sin, turning away from it to God. It is not only feeling sorry, but involves a change of direction and life. Repentance is still essential to coming into God’s presence. Not only did John’s attire recall the work of Elijah, who called Israel to repentance, but the geographic location was significant. The Jordan was the same river which the Lord had dried up so that Israel, led by Joshua, could enter the promised land. That crossing recalled the Exodus from Egypt. Against the background of the Flood in Noah’s day, the water is a sign of both blessing and judgment. “Just as Israel was led by Moses and had to go through the Red Sea at the exodus, and just as second-generation Israel had to do the same thing at the Jordan River under Joshua’s leadership, as a replayed second exodus, so again, now that Israel’s restoration is immanent through Jesus, true Israelites must identify with the water and the Jordan and their prophetic leader in order to begin true restoration. . . . Thus the blessing/cursing sign of the Red Sea likely carries over to Jesus’s baptism by John (where the Spirit descended on Jesus). . . .” (G. K. Beale, A New Testament Biblical Theology, p. 814).

Jesus fulfilled righteousness for you. John’s consciousness of his preparatory role and his awareness of his own sinfulness both gave rise to his protest at Jesus being baptized by him. Jesus, the new Joshua, made the journey from Galilee to the Jordan with the purpose of being baptized by John. The “but” which begins v. 14 indicates that John’s purpose and that of Jesus are contrary. To John it appeared that he needed to be baptized by Jesus, not the reverse. Jesus tells John that this is not the time for objection, but rather to proceed with the baptism,. Jesus (and Matthew) may have passages like Isaiah 53:11 in mind, “By his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many, and he will bear their iniquities.” By his baptism Jesus identifies with his sinful people. Isaiah 53:12 goes on to talk about the Messiah being “numbered with the transgressors.” Though sinless himself, the Messiah identifies with his sinful people. He truly becomes one with you to be your Savior. As you are united with him by faith, his righteousness becomes yours. He fulfilled all righteousness for you! As Israel had to trust Moses and be united with him (see 1 Corinthians 10:1–5) to leave Egypt by crossing the sea, as 40 years later the people had to follow Joshua to enter the promised land, so Matthew is telling you that your entrance into the kingdom proclaimed by both John and Jesus requires that you be united by faith to the Redeemer.

Christ’s baptism by the Spirit opens a new era. Heaven is opened! Jesus is baptized by John with water from the Jordan River. Matthew does not describe the details. But a more spectacular baptism takes place. Heaven was opened. There is open fellowship between heaven and earth. The Spirit of God in the form of a dove descended upon Christ. John had just spoken of the Messiah as coming to baptize with the Spirit and with fire. But this coming of the Spirit is in the peaceful form of a dove. The Spirit (in fulfillment of Isaiah 42:1) comes upon the Messiah, and equips him for his work. He can do his work as Messiah, not simply because he is truly God, which he is, but also because, as truly man, he needs the equipping, powerful work of the Spirit. He is identified with his people. He is about to suffer for them, and then to die in their place. He is preparing to die for you who trust him. Upon his resurrection, the glorious completion of his work, the Christ will baptize his church with the same Spirit. “For the Spirit-and-fire baptism, eventually realized at Pentecost, to be one of blessing rather than destruction for the messianic people, the Messiah himself must first become identified with them as their representative sin-bearer (the point of Jesus being baptized by John, from which John recoils, cf. Matt. 3:14) and be endowed with the Spirit, in order to bear away the wrath and condemnation of God their sins deserve. If they are to receive the Spirit as a gift and blessing, then he must receive the Spirit for the task of removing the curse on them.” (Richard B. Gaffin, Jr., Perspectives on Pentecost, pp. 15–16).The old has ended. The new has begun! With all of the connections between the Old and New Testaments, don’t overlook how radically new it is for the Messiah to be, not jus a promised future Savior, but the Redeemer who has come. Give thanks that the heavens opening at Jesus’s baptism is a foretaste of what will happen at the end of the age, when the heavens and earth are united in a glorious city-garden.

God the Father is well pleased with what his Son would do for you and in you. The voice from heaven (Matthew’s reverent way of describing God as speaking) announces: “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”All three persons of the Trinity are involved in your salvation. “Son” is used here in a messianic sense. Christ is beginning his redemptive work. His humiliation, his involvement and identification with our sinful humanity (symbolized in his baptism), rather than being reprehensible to the Father, pleases him. The Son is doing his Father’s will. Something truly new has happened. God has become man, and has become the Savior of his people. In Exodus 4 God had called Israel his firstborn son. But you know how Israel rebelled in the desert. You know how, even though brought into the promised land, they worshiped idols. They refused to live as God’s children. Now the Son is not only beginning a life of suffering and obedience, culminating in the cross, but he is also, by his Spirit, about start making his people into the kind of people they will be in the new heavens and earth. The Father is pleased with the work the Son is doing. His public announcement of that serves to summon you to trust in the Son as the way to himself that the Father has provided.

2019 is a year that many of you have found to be filled with challenges. But, because heaven was opened, because the Father spoke, because the Spirit descended, and because the Son was baptized, it is another year of our Lord. It is a year characterized by his kingly rule, exercised through the Spirit he has poured out on you, his people.

About jwm

I serve as pastor of Trinity Presbyterian Church, Newberg, Oregon.
This entry was posted in Reflections. Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.