The Baptism | Matthew 3:13-17
Brian Hedges | January 14, 2024
Let’s turn in Scripture this morning to Matthew 3. We’re continuing in this short series through the first four chapters of Matthew’s Gospel. We’re calling this series “The Advent of the King.” We began, of course, in the Advent season, looking at the infancy and birth narratives in Matthew 1-2, and now we’re looking at Matthew 3-4, looking at the early part of the ministry of Jesus Christ.
Today, as we look at Matthew 3:13-17 we’re going to be looking at one core Christian doctrine, and alongside that one central Christian practice—a doctrine that is right at the center of the Christian faith, and that’s the doctrine of the Trinity; and a practice which is also at the center of the Christian faith, the practice of baptism. The two really come together in this passage, as we’re going to see.
I think when we think about both the Trinity and baptism it’s easy for us sometimes to think that these things are not particularly relevant to our Christian lives. We may think about the doctrine of the Trinity as something for theologians, something that’s abstract, it’s kind of mysterious, it’s hard to understand. But I want you to see this morning that the doctrine of the Trinity is really central to Christianity and is very important and relevant to our lives.
We might also think the same with baptism, that baptism is something that’s important for the beginning of the Christian life, but then we kind of forget about it, and we don’t really think about the ongoing, abiding significance of baptism in our lives.
Both the Trinity and baptism are right at the heart of this passage, both are at the heart of Christianity, and both should be at the heart of our own Christian faith and our walk with God.
It was the Dutch Reformed theologian Herman Bavinck who said, “In the confession of the Trinity we hear the heartbeat of the Christian religion.” The very heartbeat of Christian religion is right there in the confession of the Trinity.
I would suggest that the practice of baptism, sort of like a stethoscope by which you listen to someone’s heartbeat, is in the Christian life something that also tunes us in to the heartbeat of Christianity. We’re going to see that this morning as we look at Matthew 3:13-17, which records for us the baptism of the Lord Jesus Christ.
As we read this passage, I hope you’ll notice how we see all three persons of the Trinity—the Father, the Son, and the Spirit—all involved in this significant event in the life of the Lord Jesus.
In Matthew 3:13-17 we read,
“Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’ But Jesus answered him, ‘Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.’ Then he consented. 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; and behold, a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.’”
This is God’s word.
Now, did you notice the Trinitarian theme in this passage? Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is baptized in the waters of the Jordan River, and the Spirit of God descends upon him, and then a voice from heaven—the voice of the Father—says, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”
As one of the church fathers, St. Jerome, said, “The mystery of the Trinity is revealed in the baptism.”
We see this in three steps, three ways. These are the three points. We see it in:
1. The Obedience of the Son
2. The Descent of the Spirit
3. The Voice of the Father
Those are the three points this morning. We begin with the obedience of the Son.
1. The Obedience of the Son
We find this in Matthew 3:13-15, as Jesus comes to John the Baptist to be baptized by him. You remember that John the Baptist had come on the scene some time before and was preaching the baptism of repentance. You remember that people were flocking to John the Baptist in the wilderness, coming to the Jordan River, there to confess their sins and be baptized by John. Now Jesus comes on the scene, and Jesus requests baptism from John, and you see that John does not want to do it. John is reluctant to baptize Jesus; in fact, verse 14 says that “John would have prevented him.” The imperfect tense of the verb might suggest that it was kind of an ongoing but not sustained, not actually completed, attempt to prevent Jesus from being baptized. But John doesn’t want to do this.
Why is it that John is reluctant to baptize Jesus? The reason, of course, is because this baptism was a rite of repentance. This was something that the sinners needed to do. This was something that people were coming to John the Baptist to do, and as they were baptized in the Jordan they were confessing their sins. Now Jesus comes, and John, perceiving that something is unique, something is distinct about Jesus, knowing that Jesus is more righteous than him, John does not want to baptize Jesus.
Now, we do know from the Gospel of John that John the Baptist hadn’t yet realized that Jesus was the Messiah, but somehow he knew that Jesus was not a sinner in need of baptism. In fact, he says, “I need to be baptized by you, not you being baptized by me. Jesus, don’t do this! It’s not fitting.”
Notice how Jesus responds. Jesus says, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Finally, John consents, and Jesus is baptized.
Why is Jesus baptized? Jesus’ own words tell us, give us a hint of what’s going on. Jesus says, “Thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” It reminds us of this fulfillment theme that runs through Matthew’s Gospel, as Matthew is presenting Jesus as the Messiah, the one who comes and fulfills the Old Testament Scriptures, all that had been written in the law and the prophets. So here is Jesus as the Messiah.
We’ve also seen already in this series that Jesus is coming as something like a new Israel. We might even say that he is the true Israel. He is the remnant of one, this one person who embodies the nation of Israel and is reliving the pattern of Israel’s story, this exodus pattern. Here is Jesus, who’s come into these waters, the waters of the Jordan River, and as the representative of Israel he comes to fulfill all righteousness.
I like the way Frederick Dale Bruner puts it in his commentary, which I’ve quoted often in the series. He says,
“The first thing Jesus does for the human race is go down with it into the deep waters of repentance and baptism. Jesus’ whole life will be like this. It is well known that Jesus ends his ministry on a cross between thieves; it deserves to be as well known that he begins his ministry in a river among sinners.”
We’re seeing here that humility and the obedience of Jesus the Son, as he comes alongside of us and he represents us, he takes our place in the waters of baptism.
His disciples didn’t perceive yet what would eventually be true, that this was foreshadowing another baptism that Jesus would undergo. Jesus speaks of this in Luke 12:49-50. He said, “I came to cast fire on the earth, and would that it were already kindled! I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how great is my distress until it is accomplished.”
Here is Jesus in the Jordan, and he is immersed in the muddy waters of the Jordan River, but there’s coming a day when Jesus will be immersed in the overwhelming flood of the very judgment and wrath of God, as he takes our sins upon himself and is judged in our place. We see Jesus in his obedience, and at the very inauguration of his ministry—at the very beginning—what is he doing? He is identifying himself with the very sinners he came to redeem.
The obedience of Christ is highlighted for us in Hebrews 5:8-9, which says, “Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered. And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him.”
All of this just reminds us, brothers and sisters, that we are saved not just by the death of Jesus, we are saved by the life of Jesus; not just by the blood of Christ that cleanses us from our sins, but by the obedience of Christ. If we are united to Christ we are united to his obedience, so that his obedience becomes ours, and we are represented by him.
I love these words from the old hymn-writer Horitius Bonar, who said,
“Upon a life I did not live,
Upon a death I did not die—
Another’s life, another’s death—
I stake my whole eternity.”
That’s at the heart of the gospel: that we are staking our eternity, our salvation, not on what we have done but on what Jesus Christ has done for us. We see it right here at the beginning of his ministry in his baptism.
Now how does that relate to our own baptism? As we think about the application of this, just remember that baptism is an initiation ceremony. Baptism is how you are brought into the church, brought into the family of God and begin the Christian life. It is the sacrament of initiation. And in Jesus’ life we see baptism as sort of the initiation and the inauguration of his earthly ministry. And so for us, when we are baptized, we begin the Christian life.
I might just ask this morning, have you been baptized? If you are a Christian, if you are a believer in Jesus Christ and you have not been baptized, then you really haven’t taken even the very first step in the Christian life, because the very first step is obedience to Jesus in baptism.
But if you are baptized as a Christian this morning, then I want to remind you that baptism is not mainly something that you do. It is something that is done to you. Baptism is something that you receive. You don’t baptize yourself. Nobody can baptize himself. You can’t just take a plunge in a pool and call yourself baptized. You have to submit yourself to someone else, who plunges you under the water and then brings you back up, because the baptism itself is a picture of grace. It’s a picture of our dependence upon what another person has done for us. Another life. Another death. We stake our whole eternity on what Jesus has done for us, and baptism tells that story. It shows that picture, and it reminds us that the very beginning of the Christian life is all about grace. It’s all about what Christ has done for us to save us, not what we have done for ourselves.
2. The Descent of the Spirit
Our salvation depends on the obedience of the Son, but not only that, we also see the descent of the Spirit. We see this in Matthew 3:16, that Jesus, as soon as he comes out of the water, it says,
“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.”
This is very significant. And even the way this is worded in Matthew’s Gospel is important.
First of all, the heavens are opened. And this is probably an allusion to Isaiah 64:1. “Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains might quake at your presence.” And in fact, in Mark’s Gospel, when Mark tells this story, he actually uses the word “tear.” He says “the heavens were torn open,” or “rent open.” And then the Spirit descends.
The descending of the Spirit and then resting upon Jesus evokes some of the prophecies of Isaiah, of how the Spirit of God would rest upon the Davidic king, the Davidic heir, the one who would be the Messiah. I think especially of Isaiah 11:1-2. In that passage we read, “Then shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse.” Of course, Jesse was King David’s father, so this was a descendant from David.
“There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit. [And notice this] And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.”
A seven-fold reference to the Spirit of God. If you’ve ever wondered what the seven spirits of God are in the book of Revelation it’s probably a reference to this, Isaiah 11:2. Here is the Spirit in all of his fullness and he comes and rests upon the Messianic king, the Davidic king, the heir of David. And notice that it says that the Spirit of God descended like a dove. In Luke’s Gospel we actually read that the Holy Spirit descended on him in the bodily shape of a dove, the bodily form of a dove.
And I think the significance of this goes all the way back to Genesis 1:2. On the very morning of creation we read that, “The earth was without form and void and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.” And now the Spirit of God is hovering once again, now over the waters of baptism as Jesus emerges from the Jordan River. It’s the creation theme. And even the new creation theme.
You might remember that when Noah’s ark, the whole story of Noah’s ark and the flood, you remember that the harbinger of the new creation, the new world that had been washed clean by the flood, was a dove. And I think all of that is evoked here as Jesus emerges from the Jordan River and the Spirit of God descends like a dove upon him.
And I think when we tie all this together, it shows us here that Jesus in this moment is undergoing something like an inauguration into his kingly role as the Spirit of God anoints him for the ministry ahead. And it shows us that Jesus is both the bearer and the bestower of the Spirit. Using the language there from the theologian Graham Cole, he is the bearer of the Spirit, the one on whom the Spirit of God rests.
But you remember also, that John the Baptist had already said that there’s one coming who’s going to baptize you with the Spirit and with fire. He is the bestower of the Spirit. Jesus is the one who will bring and give the Spirit to others.
And we simply cannot overestimate the importance of the work of the Holy Spirit in the life of Jesus, and then subsequently, the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives as the Messiah sends the Spirit to us.
I learned some of this years ago when I was reading John Owen’s magnum opus on the Holy Spirit, called Pneumatologia, which is a discourse concerning the Holy Spirit. It’s a really long book; in fact, it’s made up of nine books on the Holy Spirit. And there was one section in particular where in Book two, Owen just ransacked the Old Testament and the New to show that the Spirit of God worked in no less than ten ways in the earthly life and incarnation and ministry of Jesus Christ.
I won’t list all of those for you, but I like this summary statement from Sinclair Ferguson, who put it like this. He said, “From womb to tomb to throne, the Spirit was the constant companion of the Son. As a result, when he comes to Christians to indwell them, he comes as the Spirit of Christ in such a way that to possess him is to possess Christ himself.”
All of Jesus’ life, from his conception to his baptism, all the way to his offering himself to God through the Spirit on the cross, to his being resurrected from the dead by the power of the Holy Spirit, all of it was a life in the Spirit. Jesus is the one and only human being who has lived a perfectly Spirit-filled, Spirit-empowered life. And now Jesus, as the ascended God-man, has sent the Spirit to the church. He did that on the day of Pentecost. And now when you and I come to Christ we are brought into union with Christ. He gives the Spirit to us, so that the same Spirit that rested on him in his ministry, now indwells our hearts and our lives.
Baptism, once again, sort of tells us this story and reminds us of our incorporation into Christ and also of our responsibility to imitate Christ in our lives. So here’s the pattern. John comes baptizing with water, but tells of the one who will baptize with the Spirit and fire. Then Jesus is baptized in water and the Spirit descends upon him, Jesus then exemplifying the Spirit-filled life. Now we’re called to imitate Jesus in his Spirit-filled, Spirit-empowered life. And when we are baptized into Christ we are baptized into this life of imitating him, of following him, of walking as he walked in the world.
How do we do it? We do it not in our own strength. We do it in the power of the Holy Spirit whom he gives to us.
You might say, “What does that look like practically?” We are going to talk more about that next week as we look at Jesus as the Spirit of God leads him into the temptation and the testing in the wilderness. But, briefly, we could say this: the Spirit-filled life is a life that is marked by conscious dependence on the Spirit, where we consciously recognize, “I can’t do this on my own. I can’t live the Christian life by myself. Instead I need the help of someone else.” And so we look to the Spirit and we pray for the Spirit to work and we depend on the Spirit’s power.
And one way we do that is through the cultivation of a vibrant devotional life, where we are learning from the Spirit, from the word taught by the Spirit, the word of God, and we are living in line with the revelation of God in his word, depending on the Spirit’s guidance through the word. And then we begin to bear the fruit of the Spirit in our lives as we live like Jesus, as our character is more and more conformed to the character of Christ, as we become more like him in our hearts and in our lives. This is what we’re called to, the imitation of Christ.
And baptism is the beginning of that. It’s the first step in that imitation, which is then to be carried on into our lives as we continue to grow in grace and in the knowledge of Christ and become more like Jesus in our lives. As we see the obedience of the Son we are saved by the obedience of the Son, as we are incorporated into the life and the death of Jesus, we see the descent of the Spirit who empowers us for the Christian life.
3. The Voice of the Father
And then, thirdly, we see the voice of the Father in Matthew 3:17. “And behold, a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.’”
This is the first time in the Gospel of Matthew and the first time in the New Testament that we hear the Father speaking. In fact, we will only hear the Father speaking in this way two times in Matthew’s Gospel. Here, at the baptism of Jesus, and then on the Mount of Transfiguration in Matthew 17, where the Father says something very similar about Jesus.
And I think there are a couple of things going on in this passage. I think we have both the identification of Jesus and the affirmation of Jesus from the voice of the Father.
(1) First of all there’s identification. These words that the Father speaks, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,” those words are evoking two Old Testament passages of Scripture. They’re sort of conflated together to show us who Jesus is.
First of all, it’s recalling Psalm 2:7, and it’s speaking about the Davidic king. It’s speaking about the Messiah, the anointed of the Lord. And these are the words we read: “I will tell of the decree. The Lord said to me, ‘You are my son. Today I have begotten you.’” And you might remember that those words are directly quoted and applied to Jesus in the letter to the Hebrews. And it’s showing us that Jesus is the Son of God and he is the Messiah, he is the Anointed of God, and he is the Davidic heir, the Davidic King.
But conflated with Psalm 2 you also have these words from Isaiah 42:1, which is the first of the servant-songs in Isaiah. “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.”
And I think what the Father’s words are doing here is showing us that Jesus is both the Son of God and he is the servant of the Lord. These two roles combined in one as Jesus embodies these roles as the Messiah, as the one who will deliver the people of God from their sins. These words are words of identification.
(2) But not only that, they are also words of affirmation as the Father says, “This is my beloved Son, the Son whom I love, and I am well pleased with him.”
Have you ever wondered what delights the heart of God? Have you ever wondered what gives God pleasure? And here’s the answer. His son, Jesus. Jesus delights the heart of God. The Son of God gives the heart of the Father pleasure. And it’s right here that we’re getting to the heartbeat of Christianity.
What is Christianity? What does it tell us? It tells us that at the center of all things, at the center of the universe, at the center of all reality, there is a God of love, and a God who was a God of love before he ever created anything. Before he ever created a human being to love, God was a God of love because he existed in this eternal, divine communion of persons, the Father, the Son, and the Spirit. So there was always love. And now the Father expresses that love, that affirmation of his Son. He does so in a public way as he says, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”
Once again, I’ll quote Bruner, who says,
“Here God is saying in so many words, ‘In this man is everything I want to say, reveal, and do. And everything I want people to hear, see, and believe. If you want to know anything about me, if you want to hear anything from me, if you want to please me, get together with him, with Jesus.’ Or in the three words, added emphatically by the voice at the Transfiguration, ‘Listen to him.’”
This is the heart of God: his love for his Son and his revelation of himself in and through Jesus Christ.
And just as this moment of baptism was an identification for Jesus, so also we can say that our baptism is an identification for us. Baptism is something that has to do with our union with Christ and our new identity in Christ as we are baptized into the three-fold name of God. We are baptized into the name of the Father, and the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, as we read in Matthew 28.
One of the applications for us is to learn how our baptism is meant to function in our lives even after the ceremony, even after the fact. Baptism is not something that you are just supposed to do once and then forget about, it is a singular event that has an ongoing, abiding significance in your life as it reminds you of who you are. And isn’t this exactly how the apostle Paul speaks of baptism in Romans 6 when he says that a life of sin is inconsistent with your identity as a baptized person? He says,
“What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father we too might walk in newness of life.”
The baptism is telling a story. It’s telling the story of the death, and the burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It’s telling the story of how you have been united to Christ by faith, so that his story is now your story. So that his life counts as your life, his death as your death, his resurrection giving you a new life in Christ.
One of the things that you and I have to learn to do in our Christian lives is when we face temptation, when we go through struggles and trials, is to remind ourselves of our identity in Christ. This is what Martin Luther did when he would feel himself under pressure and tempted. He used to say this Latin phrase, Baptizatus sum. What does it mean? It means, “I am a baptized man.” I’m a baptized man. I’m a baptized woman. He would remind himself of his identity in Christ. Here he is, he’s facing a new trial, he’s facing a new test, he’s tempted to sin. How does he fight it? He reminds himself of who he is in Christ. I am a baptized man. You and I need to learn to do the same thing.
The second thing we could say about baptism by way of application, is that just as Jesus’ baptism was the moment in which the Father expressed his affirmation of the Son, so it is for us an affirmation, as it reminds us not only of our identity in Christ but also that we are accepted in Christ. The very words that God spoke over Jesus, God the Father spoke over Jesus here, “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased,” those words can be said to be spoken over us if we are united to Jesus Christ.
Do you remember Ephesians 1? We read it already this morning, Ephesians 1:6. Having shown that we have been blessed with every spiritual blessing in Christ, Paul tells us that he has blessed us or made us accepted in the beloved. He’s accepted us in Christ. He affirms us in Christ. This is the connection that John Calvin made in his comments on the baptism of Jesus, he says,
“The title of Son, truly, and by nature, belongs to Christ alone. Yet, he was revealed as Son of God in our flesh, that he who alone claimed him as Father by right, could win him for us also. His fatherly love must flow to us in Christ. The best interpreter of the passage is Paul [Ephesians 1:6], where he says that we have obtained grace in the beloved that we may be loved in God.”
Brothers and sisters in Christ, your baptism is telling you that you are accepted in Christ, that you are welcomed in Christ, that you are loved by God the Father, welcomed into the family as the son or daughter of God because of your union with Jesus Christ by faith.
Let me ask you this morning, first of all, have you ever believed this truth, believed the gospel of Jesus Christ—that you are saved, not by your own works, not by what you do, not by your law-keeping, or morality, or your good works outweighing your bad, but that you are saved by another’s life, another’s death. You stake your eternity on the obedience of Jesus, the Son. If you’ve never done that I hope you’ll do that today.
Then, secondly, let me ask you this—have you been baptized? Have you received the sign, the sign of baptism that tells the story? And if you have been, are you remembering it? And are you living in the light of it, remembering your identity, remembering who you truly are in Christ, a member of the family of God, a new creation, one for whom the old things have passed away and all things have become new? Do you hear the voice of the Father speaking to you, speaking to you through the Son, speaking to you through your baptism, speaking to you from the word, that you are beloved? That you are accepted? That you are received? That you are welcomed? That you are approved? And again, not because of what you’ve done, but because of what Jesus has done for you.
And then, finally, let me ask you this—have you received the Holy Spirit? The Holy Spirit who regenerates our hearts, making us new. We talked about that last week. But also, the Holy Spirit who then indwells us and empowers us to live the Jesus life, the way Jesus lived, so you and I begin to live like him in the world, reproducing his character in our lives as we bear the fruit of the Spirit and we look increasingly like Christ. Baptism is telling that story as well. It’s an initiation into a new kind of life, a life which is empowered by the Holy Spirit.
Brothers and sisters, let me encourage you: never think that the doctrine of the Trinity or the practice of baptism are irrelevant to the Christian life. The whole Christian life and all of your salvation depends on the work of a triune God. And the whole Christian life is initiated and patterned in the sacrament of baptism, which begins us on the journey of walking with God as his children, as his sons and daughters.
Let’s pray together.
Our Father, we thank you this morning for the wonderful truths of the gospel, the truths of your word, and for these reminders to us of what Jesus, our Savior, has done for us and of who we now are, if we are united to Christ. And I pray, Father, that you would take these truths and seal them to our hearts this morning, so that they would bear the fruit of love, and of joy, and peace in our lives; that we would live as people who have been made new, people who have been redeemed, people who have been brought into the family of God and have been given the Holy Spirit for life and for power and for godliness.
Lord, I pray for any who do not know Christ in a saving way, that today you would effectively draw them to yourself in faith and repentance, that they would choose to believe in Christ and follow him, that they would walk with him and that they would know the power of your Spirit in their hearts.
And, Father, as we come to the Lord’s table this morning, we pray that the table would also for us be a means of grace, that we would taste and see that the Lord is good, that in receiving the bread and the juice we would by faith feed on Jesus Christ, who is the living bread, and that our hearts would be nourished with the grace that is given to us through Christ by the Spirit. So we ask you, Lord, to draw near to us in these moments. We pray this in Jesus’ name and for his sake, Amen.