Matthew 3:1-17, The Baptism of Jesus, What It Means

[January 8, 2012] Please see the message, The Baptism of Our Lord, that I preached on January 13, 2008.

The Message of John (Matthew 3:1-17)

John preached a baptism of repentance and proclaimed the Coming One. He appeared dressed like the prophet Elijah and, like this figure, he pronounced the coming of God’s judgment (1 Kings 17:1; Matthew 3:7b, 10, 12). “For YHWH is coming to judge the earth,” the Psalmist tells us (98:9). “He will judge the world with righteousness and the peoples with equity.”

“Repent,” John tells us, “for the Kingdom of the Heavens has drawn near.” The Kingdom of the Heavens has drawn near because God is coming and brings His over-ruling with Him. As the story unfolds we see that Jesus is the nearness of God in His overruling kingship: He IS the Kingdom of the Heavens. Kingdom denotes not a realm, but rather kingship. The Kingdom of the Heavens refers not to the fact that the heavens rule over all, or that God rules over all. That is a given. The Kingdom of God refers to this kingship overcoming all that opposes or resists the rule of God: hence God’s overruling and overcoming human rule and rebellion and resistance, and avoidance and apathy and ignorance. The Kingdom of the Heavens has drawn near. It IS near. It is about to reveal Itself. Jesus when He comes will be the nearness of the Kingdom of the Heavens. Where He is the Kingdom of the Heavens is. Thus in 4:17, the verse with which this section ends, Jesus Himself proclaims, as He emerges from the desert back into the life of Israel, “Repent, for the Kingdom of the Heavens has drawn near” (the same words that John uses in Matthew 3:2).

The prophecy of Isaiah that Matthew quotes in 3:3 speaks of preparing the way of YHWH and making His paths straight, for He is coming to redeem His people (Isaiah 40:3). Isaiah speaks of a way across the Arabian Desert, when the Jews will return to Israel from captivity in the land of Babylon. The word “way” is frequently used in the second half of Isaiah in this manner—the “road” on which to return (42:16; 43:16, 19; 49:11; 51:10; 57:14; 62:10). It has allusions to the exodus out of Egypt, across the Sinai and into the Promised Land. It is also used more metaphorically of following the ways of the Lord, our own way, the ways of our heart, etc. In Isaiah 40:3, however, the way of the Lord is the way on which YHWH Himself comes to us and on which He will carry us: “Behold, your God! Behold, the Lord YHWH will come as a mighty One, and His arm will rule for Him. He will feed His flock as a Shepherd; in His arm He will gather the lambs; in His bosom He will carry them. He will lead those who are nursing the young” (40:9c-11). Matthew understands this “way” on which the Lord comes to us and on which He carries us to be the way of repentance. The Kingdom of the Heavens has drawn near. How can we prepare the way of the Lord? YHWH comes to us on the way of repentance, and YHWH also carries us on this way.

Perhaps my choice of the word repentance is not quite right, but I do not know how else to say it. Jesus comes to us on the road of repentance—that is, He Himself takes the way of a penitent. He is obedient to God out of the faithfulness of complete love to God, and, out of love for God He actively and lovingly surrenders Himself to God’s judgment, whatever it may be. He Himself is without sin, yet He acts as if He were One repenting of sins. In fact, He repents on behalf of others, of all those who believe into Him. Now, a person cannot repent on behalf of others, as if God would accept a substitute, for God still requires that the sinner (not a stand in) turn and repent. However, the repentance of Jesus is not a substitute in that sense. It is an intercession on our behalf, an intercession by which we are enabled to repent, and an intercession—not by which the judgment of God on the world goes away, but—by which the breach between ourselves and God is removed, by which God forgives the sins that stand between Him and us, because He sees our repentance in the light of Christ’s repentance. For part of repentance is the acknowledgement (fully agreeing) that God is right in His judgments and our loving acceptance of God’s judgment. Jesus indeed bears our judgment; for God does not change His mind about it; but it is His acknowledgement of God’s rightness in His judgments, and His loving acceptance of God’s judgment of us even as He bears our judgment, that is the intercession that atones for our sins. He intercedes for us by accepting our judgment upon Himself and bearing that judgment in the way that He does. He suffers it, yes, but He suffers it with the attitude of (in the “way” of) repentance—and He does this on our behalf (thus interceding for us)—this is how YHWH comes to us, the road by which He comes. When we believe into Him, entering the sphere of His Person by giving Him our fidelity, and thus turning to God by the grace of Jesus (by the power of His calling us), then He carries us along the same road.

When we hear Jesus’ call and turn to Him, then the power of His own Person, His grace, enables us to repent. For us to thus repent is to prepare the Lord’s way in us, to make His paths straight in us. Then He can carry us along the way, the way He travels, His way. This way is the way of the cross in the world. We shall see this unfold in the Gospel according to Matthew.

Thus, repentance is not a human work that we can accomplish. It is a response to the Word that is effectuated by the Word itself, that is, through the Holy Spirit who uses the Word to gain access to us.

The repentance of the Pharisees and Sadducees who came to John for baptism was a false repentance. For they sought to flee from God’s judgment rather than embracing it and acknowledging its rightfulness in their own case. Religion that despises God’s judgment and seeks a way to escape it is false. If we just do this or that, we can escape it (so we think). No; a Christian lives under the judgment of God, acknowledging its rightness. If we read the prophets, there is no sense in which Israel is told to imagine that they are not under God’s judgment. They are under its heavy hand. The whole world is. The church is in solidarity with Israel (in that they too hear the Word of God’s judgment). We may on occasion providentially experience God’s mercy, but we do not escape His judgment. BUT when we repent, we come to know the forgiveness of sins applied to us in our interior relationship to God. Jesus came under the judgment of God, outwardly, but He knew no sin. The heaven was open above Him. It was as if all His sins were forgiven (except that He had no sins that needed forgiveness): nothing stood between Him and the Father. This is the place, the sphere that we enter when we turn to Him. The world does not change, and we still live our lives outwardly under the heavy hand of God’s judgment, but inwardly there is no distance, no discord, and no shame before God. God becomes our Father and we His children, through—and in full accord with—Jesus’ own relationship to the Father.

John’s message is repentance in view of the inescapable nearness of God’s judgment: “already the axe is laid at the root of the trees.” One is coming who will bring this judgment. With Him comes the Kingdom of the Heavens. As the Kingdom of the Heavens draws near, so does the judgment of God. For His “winnowing fan is in His hand. And He will thoroughly cleanse His threshing floor and will gather His wheat into His barn, but the chaff He will burn up with unquenchable fire.” This is probably the meaning of His baptism in the Holy Spirit and fire. The wheat He will baptize in the Holy Spirit and the chaff He will baptize in fire. (The preposition “in” speaks of the element into which He immerses us.)

John, like Matthew, and like all Christian preachers, is only a voice that proclaims Him. We can baptize unto repentance, in water, but we do this as His slaves. It is He who is strong and whose slaves we are.

Jesus’ Baptism (3:13-17)

If repentance means the acknowledgement of the rightness of God’s judgment and our loving and worshipful submission to His judgment, then Jesus goes to John to be baptized with the baptism of repentance. For He not only acknowledges the rightness of God’s judgment and submits to God’s right to judge, but as an Intercessor He identifies with us and takes God’s judgment of us upon Himself.

Does He take the judgment of the entire human race upon Himself? He takes upon Himself the judgment of those who believe into Him. If that will one day include all people, we do not know. (I think it can, though I think it is also possible that some people may never believe and will eventually lose themselves as they persist under the heavy hand of God’s judgment. How far the mercy of God will extend to soften the hardened heart? It probably can extend all the way until the soul dissipates and is no more.) What we do know is that what He does, He does effectively. If He takes our judgment upon Himself, then He really does. As the puritan theologian John Owen proves, His “successfully” taking upon Himself our judgment effectuates our faith in Him when we hear His call, the call of the Gospel. In other words, we cannot not believe (at some point in time). It is not a matter of coercion, but of the Word creating something new in us that naturally and spontaneously and helplessly believes because of the immediacy and immensity of our attraction to the beauty of Christ in His revelation. Until the Word creates that new thing in us, we cannot believe. Once the Word does, then the attraction of Christ is irresistible and we freely believe without fail. The Word creates the freedom to believe. But it is not really a question of free will. For the will responds to something deeper in us: our desire and intention. The new thing in us, the new creation, which is Christ in us, is actually the Holy Spirit, who comes to us through the Word, or rather the revelation that the Word effects.

However, it is not Jesus’ taking the judgment of God against us upon Himself that takes away God’s judgment of us. That would not be just: the punishment of the guilty would be transferred to an innocent party. Rather, it is the obedience of Jesus with which He takes our judgment upon Himself, and that obedience offered up as an intercession for us so that the obedience can be made ours in the form of our repentance, and His obedience counted as ours. It is not Jesus’ taking on the suffering due to us that frees us from our sins, but it is His act of obedience which takes away our sins. For suffering does not bring forgiveness. Repentance does. His obedience (“repentance”) is accepted as righteousness on our behalf and constitutes us as righteous, that is, enabling our repentance and faith, when we believe into Him. When the Word of the Gospel calls us and constitutes Christ in us by the revelation of Christ in our spirit (which the Holy Spirit gained access to through the Word), then the Holy Spirit effects our repentance and faith out of that (Christ in us). It is Christ’s suffering God’s judgment of us unto death—that is, to its fullest extent—in obedience and love to God and for us that makes His intercession for us effectual, so that the Father accepts His obedience as our repentance when we believe and repent. When His obedience thus effects our repentance, it is as if we now piggyback onto Him so that His obedience in effect becomes our repentance.

It is thus that Jesus does not just do righteousness but “fulfills all righteousness,” that is, all that God requires of us in terms of our repentance.

Jesus came to the Jordan as the sinless One. However, up to this point, He may have lived His life according to His sinless will, for His will was always in accord with the Father’s will. In choosing baptism, Jesus takes a different step, one that calls forth the Father’s response. In choosing baptism, Jesus is not just acting without sin, He is offering His life up as an intercession for us. He is identifying with us and acting as if He were us, and doing what we should do if we were to please God.

In other words, His decision to seek out baptism, to have John baptize Him was a decision to renounce His holy and sinless will and do only that which the Father wills. Even though His will never wavered from the Father’s, He renounces His will as if He were in our shoes—for if we were to truly repent, we would have to renounce our sinful will. Jesus renounces His will and, in selfless obedience to the Father, submits Himself to God’s judgment as if He were guilty. He will go to the cross and lay down His soul in death under the weight of God’s judgment, under the weight of God’s abandonment, as if He were us, as an offering to the Father, to intercede on our behalf. Literally, it is so that when the Father sees Christ in us, His believers, He will see His act as if it were our own and—forgive us. That intercessory act begins at His baptism when He renounces His own holy and sinless will, His own claim as the sinless and holy One, His own right to God’s favor as sinless. The Father could not abandon the Son on the cross unless the Son had offered Himself up on our behalf—completely—in obedience and love.

That decision and the beginning of that act took place here, at the Jordan, and was committed when John dunked Him in the river. The heavens, Matthew tells us, were opened to Him at that point. This means that God was completely revealed to Him; nothing was hidden; Jesus’ own spirit was an open door into heaven, the dwelling of God in the glory of His manifestation. The Spirit of God descends upon Him and anoints Him. As the Son, He was already one with the Father and the Spirit and They mutual dwelt in each Other, and nothing was ever done by One without involving the Others in Their own way. Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit coming upon Him now was the Spirit of the power of God. Jesus had renounced His right to simply do things as the Son. Humanly speaking, He laid that down. Everything He was to do in word and deed was now to be done by the power of the Holy Spirit working through Him. In other words, if He performed a miracle, of course it was He as the Son doing it, but in His humanity He was to perform that miracle as if He were one of us—that is, as one completely dependent on the power of God, not on His own power (though He had it). His miracles were not effected by His holy and sinless (and incarnate!) soul, but in poverty of spirit as dependent on the Father. Jesus, in other words, was the living embodiment of the opposite of New Age metaphysics!

As the Son, whose soul was incarnate—His soul (as His body) was divine because it was the soul of His divine hypostasis (Person)—He chose to deny and lose His soul (Matthew 10:39; 16:25) and to lay it down in death (20:28). Thus His life became an offering for us to the Father out of love and obedience to the Father’s will. It was His will as the Son to do only the Father’s will and not the will of His holy and sinless human nature.

Therefore, the Father speaks to Him out of heaven, and testifies to us, “This is My Son, the Beloved, in whom I have found My delight.” This is where the Father has found His delight upon the earth. Nowhere else. The Son was always the Beloved of the Father, but this act of such unique obedience—exceeding every other human act from the beginning of time—is so delightful in the wide field of the creation, that the Father reveals Himself by this pronouncement, as if it were the creation itself that was at last complete and He could rest from His labors. Though not yet, the act has just begun. It needs to be carried through to it completion.

In this completely open heaven, Jesus’ divine Sonship is revealed to Him. Jesus knew He was the Son of God before (Luke 2:49). But His previous knowledge was objective. It concerned His Personhood in His humanity. What the open heaven reveals to Him is that He is none other than God the Son the beloved of God the Father within the unity of the Trinity. He was the “I AM” of God; His own subjectivity was the subjectivity (the “I”) of God. The Father and Son are equal in divinity, equal in glory. His will—revealed now in the renunciation of His human will—IS the will of the Father, not in agreement with it, not equal to it, but the very same will. The Son beholds the Father with the same perfect love with which the Father calls the Son His beloved, and the Son gives Himself to the Father with the same will with which the Father gives Himself to the Son. The Father’s revelation at His baptism is the revelation of the Triune God to us. But subjectively it was also this to the Son.

Here is a deep and wonderful mystery: God revealed in the way of the cross. This shall follow us all the way through the Gospel according to Matthew. And we shall find, with increasing brightness as we go, that “the way of the Lord” is the way of the church.

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