At, his baptism we read that “the heavens opened” and at his transfiguration we read that “suddenly a bright cloud covered them with shadow.” At his baptism, “suddenly there was a voice from heaven,” and at his transfiguration, “suddenly from the cloud there came a voice.” On both occasions the voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, in whom I have found my delight” (houtos estin ho hios mou ho agapētos, in hō eudokēsa), though at the transfiguration the voice added the imperative, “listen to him.” This divine attestation is the climax of each event, and only seems to have occurred at these two events, both of which marked a turning point in Jesus’ life.
We also read that at Jesus’ baptism, when “he at once came up from the water, and suddenly the heavens opened,” “he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming down on (erchomenon epi) him.” In John’s gospel this was also witnessed by the Baptist (John 1:32-34). Luke interprets this as Jesus receiving the anointing of the Holy Spirit, which would make this the event by which Jesus became the Christ (or Messiah), meaning, the “Anointed One.” In Luke’s gospel he was called the Christ at his birth (2:11); his baptism is the event that made it so. In the Old Testament prophets, priests and kings were initiated into their function by a ceremonial anointing with oil. In Christian typology the oil almost always signifies the Holy Spirit. When the Spirit of God “comes upon” someone—and she came upon many in both testaments—she equips people for that which God wants them to do. It is by this anointing that Jesus preached and performed miracles (not, as people often assume, by his innate divinity).
This is to be distinguished from when the Holy Spirit enters a person to dwell inside them (inseparable from their spirit; see, for example, John 20:22; 14:17; Romans 8:16, 9). The person of Jesus and the person of the Holy Spirit co-inhered (mutually dwelled in each other) from eternity; however, the Holy Spirit did not come to dwell in anyone else until the evening of Jesus’ resurrection. What happened at Jesus’ baptism is not to be confused with this. It was a being “clothed with power from on high” (endusēsthe ex hypsous dunamin): Luke 24:49; see Acts 1:8), as happened to his qahal (summoned gathering) on the day of Pentecost. As Jesus’ conception corresponds to the experience of the disciples on Easter, so his baptism corresponds to their experience on Pentecost.
Let us focus more sharply on Matthew’s gospel.
The Baptism of Jesus in the Context of Matthew’s Gospel
Matthew’s gospel opens with a genealogy that establishes Jesus’ Davidic ancestry through Joseph; it then makes it clear that Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit, by God’s own initiative and he is, in fact, come into the world to be “God with us.” His title to the throne of David is at once affirmed by the magi from the east and challenged by King Herod. His life is at risk and Joseph takes him and his mother to Egypt until it is safe to return. Another king occupies Jesus’ throne and will not willingly relinquish it. It is a picture of the struggle over kingship, and foreshadows Pilate’s successful murder of Jesus. The kingdom of the heavens draws near to Israel in the presence of Jesus, but another kingdom is in place and does not welcome it, indeed, when it senses its nearness, it rejects and persecutes it. This theme runs through Matthew’s gospel, coming to a head in chapters 21—27.
“In those days,” Matthew tells us, even though we have jumped forward from Jesus’ boyhood to when he is “about thirty.” In other words, we are still in “those days” of men like Herod the Great, even though he died in 4 BCE. The character of the times is the same. It is still “those days.” This is when John appears and his announcement is that “the kingdom of the heavens has drawn near” (the last words are, in Greek, the one word engizō, meaning, to come near or close, to approach, to be close at hand). It is that “God with us” has come, and by his presence the kingship of the heavens has come up to us. (Kingdom and kingship are the same word in Greek). The kingdom of the heavens has not come, that is, it is not established—there is another kingdom occupying the world—except in the person of this individual, this one whom Isaiah called “God with us.” The kingdom of the heavens, and the kingship of the heavens, is where he stands. Insofar as he has come to us, the kingdom of the heavens has drawn near to us.
That takes us into chapter 3. I want to understand, though, before we get into the significance of Jesus being baptized by John the Baptist, what Matthew is attempting to do here for us as readers (actually, he was writing for a lector and auditors rather than “readers”). Matthew wrote the first gospel, and so he set the pattern that the others followed.
The beginning of his gospel ends at 4:17, when Jesus announces what John did: “Repent, for the kingdom of the heavens has drawn near.” This is probably the first verse of the section that follows, which includes the calling of the first disciples and the Sermon on the Mount. It also, nevertheless, finishes the beginning, transitioning us from the ministry of John the Baptist to the ministry of Jesus, with an allusion to the “God with us” in chapter 1.
The end of the gospel begins with the words: “Jesus had now finished all he wanted to say, and he told his disciples, ‘It will be Passover, as you know, in two days’ time, and the Son of Man will be handed over to be crucified” (26:1). After this we have the anointing in Bethany, Jesus’ betrayal, the last supper, the prayer in Gethemane, the arrest, and all that follows. It is an astonishing end for a story that begins the way it does. God has come into our midst (the beginning) and now people betray, deny and crucify him. The real ending is what happens then. He does not just die. Rather, when he dies darkness covers the earth (or land); the veil of the Sanctuary is torn in two from top to bottom; there is an earthquake and tombs open and dead people rise. His death has more than social repercussions; it has repercussions that are cosmic. Heaven and earth, and the living and the dead, are shaken to the core. Then on the third day Jesus rises from the dead and makes an astonishing announcement to his disciples: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” He commissions them: “Go, therefore, make disciples of all nations; baptize them into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teach them to observe all the commands I gave you.” The last words of the gospel correspond to the “God with us” at the beginning: “And look, I am with you always; yes, to the consummation of the age.”
In other words, his death was not the tragedy it appears to be (the cosmic accompaniment made it seem like a tragedy of enormous proportions). The gospel ends on the note of victory. The kingdom of the heavens has gone from being near in the coming of Jesus to “all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” We may argue that he already had it; he was after all “God with us.” Yet something has changed by his death and resurrection. Perhaps God’s authority is now invested not just in the person of Jesus (which predated his conception, he being eternal), but in Jesus as a resurrected human being. For this resurrected human being commissions his disciples on this basis. The commission is to “Go, therefore, make disciples of all nations; baptize them into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teach them to observe all the commands I gave you.”
The implication is that the gospel has prepared us for this. We see the baptism of John the Baptist and Jesus’ own baptism in chapter 3. Christian baptism must therefore be implied (somehow), since it is never otherwise mentioned until now (at the very end). Making disciples of Jews and gentiles, and teaching them to observe “all the commands I gave you”—these things are what makes up what falls between the beginning and the end, between 4:17 and 26:1.
“Baptizing them into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”—this is the most explicit reference to the Holy Trinity in the New Testament, though we must not assume that Matthew understood this in a theological or doctrinal sense; to him it was more like a dynamic picture of particular relations, relations that underlie everything he wrote. The singular “name” is the revelation of this. We are baptized into this dynamic relation of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We must also assume that this baptism is the same as what John the Baptist had announced in the beginning: “He will baptize you in (en) the Holy Spirit.” The Holy Spirit that came upon Jesus at his own baptism comes upon the disciples when they are baptized. They are then set in the same dynamic with the Father in which Jesus himself was. They are as Jesus was in his relationship to the Father, and they are empowered by the Holy Spirit to carry out the same anointing that he had—which apparently was to make disciples and form (discipline) them (“teaching them to observe all the commands I gave you”). This formation process is to make the disciples into the likeness of Jesus himself, that is, to live in the world in his own relation to the Father.
What has happened by his death and resurrection then is this: what was true of Jesus is now transferrable to his disciples. The beginning of the gospel sets this in motion. By the time the beginning ends, Jesus is at that place where it is his intention to bring his disciples when his resurrection finally comes about. The middle section, then, which is five discrete teaching units, is all about the formation of the disciples, the disciples being all who commit themselves to him, not just in his earthly days but until his coming again.
We ought to then consider the baptism of Jesus in this light.
The Baptism of Jesus in the Context of John’s Baptism
John announced that the kingdom of the heavens has drawn near, and by preaching repentance, told people to prepare a way for the coming of God (at least, this is how Matthew interprets his ministry according to Isaiah 40:3). There is someone coming, John said, who will do more than he was doing—baptizing people in water. This one will baptize in the Holy Spirit and fire (both baptisms, John’s and Jesus’, are baptisms of repentance). Now Jesus, the one whom John announced, appears. The word is paraginetai, meaning to arrive or to make a public appearance. Jesus has “come out” as we say nowadays; he is now willing to be known.
But Jesus wants John to baptize him. If John baptizes people in water, and Jesus is more powerful than he (3:11) being the one who will baptize people in the Holy Spirit and fire, then why would Jesus need to be baptized in water? Unless he has to work his way up to where he will be … but John assumes Jesus does not need to: Jesus has come as one already ready. And John is correct, for the voice from heaven confirms this: Jesus is (right now) the Father’s beloved Son, in whom the Father takes delight or approves (the verb is in the aorist tense).
Jesus may be ready, yet he has still not been anointed for the work that he must do. For some reason the anointing does not come upon him until he is baptized. Submitting to baptism is an act of obedience that has to be accomplished before the anointing takes place. Thus the reason for the aorist tense in the verb eudokeō. This justifies the translation: “in whom I have found my delight.”
The Son has always been obedient, in terms of attitude, but there was this particular critical act that he must now execute that now constitutes his obedience. His decision to go to John to be baptized is this critical act that the Father demands now of him.
Yet John cannot comprehend it. He does not refuse Jesus but he does try to dissuade him: “It is I who need baptism from you, and yet you come to me!”
Jesus replies, “Leave it like this for the time being” (aphes arti). “It is fitting that we should, in this way, do all that uprightness demands” (houtōs gar prepon estin hēmin plērōsai pasan dikaiosunēn). How, though, does John giving to Jesus the baptism of repentance fulfill all righteousness, or all that righteousness demands?
Those whom John baptized had confessed their sins and by requesting baptism had expressed their intention to repent, to turn to God and submit to God’s righteous judgment with respect to them. This is the idea behind confessing one’s sins to God. We no longer hide from God but acknowledge that God is right in God’s estimate of us, and that we surrender our rebellion against God and submit to what God has in store for us. Of course, when we do this and stop resisting God, God is suddenly merciful. Mercy, and grace and love are always what God had in store for us. Ironically, God was always merciful; but our resistance to and rebellion against God cut us off from that mercy and left us on our own. It left us to the unmitigated consequences of our acts; that is, it left us without mercy. It is actually, however, only in our perception that we are on our own. Thankfully, God has never actually abandoned anyone; no one has ever really suffered that. We nevertheless experience the shadow of that abandonment, because we try so hard to be on our own, and indeed, imagine ourselves to be so. Repentance is giving up this delusion and turning to God with our hearts.
Jesus never suffered from the human delusion of insularity from God. Why was he baptized? By submitting to baptism, he was identifying with all the others who came for baptism. He was indeed identifying with all sinners, and his confession of sins was collective: he was confessing the sins of the nation, and of all the children of Adam and Eve. When he went into the desert afterwards, led by the Spirit, it was to fast. In the Old Testament fasting was always associated with mourning. Jesus was mourning for our sins. His baptism led him to this. His baptism then was his active and intentional identification with us in our sin and his deepest sympathy for us in our suffering.
It was a baptism of repentance. He bore that identification and sympathy before God, in that special relationship that he had with the Father. That is the place that he brought himself in the waters of the Jordan, and it was to that act that God responded with the open heaven and the attestation of Jesus’ sonship. Jesus’ submitting to baptism is itself an expression of his sonship, for it is this which calls forth the Father’s witness to him.
The heavens are closed when God is not pleased. We see that in the Old Testament. They can even become as brass. For the heavens to open means that God is well-pleased. There is a sense here that God is finally and at last pleased with what God finds here. There is a breakthrough. When the voice speaks, the barrier between heaven and earth comes down and for that moment earth can see into heaven. Heaven, as every student of the Bible knows, is not the afterlife but the invisible realm alongside the visible realm of “earth.” They are parallel realms, the invisible and the visible, and the angels are the messengers of heaven that link God to the visible through the invisible. Here it is God’s own voice that is heard: the Father’s voice, and as the words reveal the Son the Spirit is breathed out.
It is because of where Jesus has placed himself by his being baptized that the Holy Spirit comes upon him to equip him for the work which he must now accomplish. It was an act of sonship because it was an act of obedience to the Father, but it was also an act of sonship because of what the act was and what it means (which is why the Father asked it of him). This act, then, reveals something about who the Father is and who the Son. The Spirit coming upon him is the breath of the Father’s words as they bears witness to the Son. The Spirit that equips and empowers Jesus for all that he must do is this Spirit, the Breath of the Father that gives aspiration—sound—to the revelation of the Son (the words).
The baptism, then, expresses at this point the entire will of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit—which is the revelation of Jesus the Son; and it is this one will that carries Jesus through to the end when he has obtained—by his death—the authority within creation (as the resurrected human being Jesus) to extend himself into us. His identification with us by baptism was for this end. “I”—this one—“am with you all the days until the consummation of the age.”