We are three weeks into our series on “The Essential Jesus”—focusing primarily on Jesus’ 3+ year public ministry as reported by the four New Testament gospels. Tonight, we will look at the event that marks the formal beginning of Jesus’ public ministry—his baptism. Let’s look at Matthew’s account of this in Matt. 3.
The unifying theme of this entire chapter is “baptism”--the word is used 8 times (1 as a noun and 7 as a verb). When we hear this word, most of us think of the ritual of Christian water baptism. But interestingly, this passage contains no references to Christian water baptism.
The word baptizo means “to immerse; to put into”—and it was often used in the Greek and Jewish world to describe very ordinary, non-religious practices (like the dyeing of cloth, the washing of pots, and being drowned). The New Testament speaks of 8 different baptism. So when we see this word, we can’t assume that it means “baptism”—we have to examine the context to determine its specific meaning.
In this passage, Matthew speaks of four different kinds of baptisms. We need to understand each of these baptisms, because they signify four crucial truths about the salvation that the God of the Bible offers us.
Baptism by John: the condition for salvation
First, there is the baptism administered by John (read 3:1-6).
John appeared as the last of the Old Testament prophets (after 400 years of prophetic silence). John’s message contained good news and bad news. The good news was: “God’s kingdom is imminent because God’s King—the Messiah—will appear very soon.” This is why there was such excitement about and interest in John.
But the bad news was: “You are not admissible to God’s kingdom in your present state!” And he emphasized this fact by insisting that his Jewish hearers be baptized (immersed into the Jordan River) by him. In order to understand how scandalous John’s baptism was, you have to understand what the rabbis were teaching about God’s kingdom and about how they used baptism.
They taught that all but the really “bad” Jews were automatically “in”—because of their descent from Abraham and/or because of their own merit based on their good works and religious observances.1
On the other hand,they taught that all non-Jews (Gentiles) were excluded from God’s kingdom because of their moral guilt. The only way a Gentile could be admitted was by converting to Judaism, undergoing circumcision, embracing the Old Testament dietary/ritual law—and by being baptized.2 Thus, baptism signified their acknowledgment that they were guilty, unworthy of God’s kingdom, and needed the washing/cleansing of God’s forgiveness.
So you can see how ironic and controversial John’s baptism was. He was saying: “No one—no matter how Jewish, no matter how religiously observant, no matter how many good deeds—can get into to God’s kingdom on that basis. The only way in is by admitting what you make the Gentiles must admit—that you are guilty and need God’s forgiveness.”
This is why the “bad” people loved John, while the religious leaders hated him. The “bad” people heard this as a message of hope (“In spite of my sinfulness, I can still be admitted.”), while the religious leaders heard this as an offensive message (“How dare you suggest that I’m not good enough to get in!”).
What does this teach us about God and salvation? John’s baptism is important because it teaches us the condition for our salvation. We have to personally admit our guilt before God and ask him for forgiveness. Do not take refuge in family history, church membership, ritual observance, good works, etc.! This is self-righteous pride, which is what disqualifies you for God’s kingdom. The only—but absolutely necessary—requirement is humbly admitting your guilt to God and casting yourself on his mercy.
Now we’re ready to learn about the three other “baptisms” in this passage . . .
Messiah’s baptisms with the Holy Spirit: the gift of salvation
Re-read 3:11. Note how careful John is to subordinate himself and his baptism to the One coming after him (Jesus).
As great as he was (and Jesus later said that he was greater than all the other Old Testament prophets), he was unworthy even to be the Messiah’s household slave. And because of this, as important as John’s baptism was, the baptisms administered by the Messiah will be far more important. What are they?
First, Jesus will “baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” This is a reference to the wonderful Old Testament promise that when Messiah comes, he will pour out God’s Spirit on all those who belong to him. (read Ezek. 36:25-27).
In other words, the baptism by the Holy Spirit is the gift of salvation. When you personally ask Jesus for forgiveness, his Spirit comes to indwell you so that you may know experientially God’s love and forgiveness (read Rom. 5:5; 8:15,16).
The most that John could do was announce that this would soon be available from the Messiah. He never got to experience it personally (for reasons we’ll cover in a moment). But you can receive this wonderful gift the moment you put your trust in Jesus as your Savior!
Messiah’s baptism with fire: the only alternative to salvation
But what about the other baptism administered by the Messiah—the baptism by fire? Some (Pentecostal) groups say we should seek this baptism (“Have you been baptized by fire?”)—but it is clear from this passage that you should not seek it!
John explains the meaning of both baptisms by an illustration in the following verse (read 3:12). The wheat in the barn refers to those who belong to the Messiah and who are baptized by the Holy Spirit—and therefore safe and secure. The chaff refers to those who do not belong to the Messiah and are therefore judged ("unquenchable fire"). The preceding verse (3:10) uses fire in the same way. The baptism by fire therefore signifies the alternative to salvation: eternal alienation from God and exclusion from his kingdom.
Taken together, these two baptisms teach us something that the Bible repeats over and over again—probably because God knows how much we want to deceive ourselves on this issue. There are only two alternatives: In the end, all of us will receive either the baptism by the Holy Spirit (a personal love relationship with him) or the baptism by fire (God’s judgment).
I realize that this contradicts our culture’s dogma: UNIVERSALISM, POSTMODERN “BELIEFS CREATE REALITY,” REINCARNATION. I realize that you may be thinking right now, “How dare you say that if I’m not in I’m out?” But I’m not the one saying it—the God of the Bible says it, and he says it because it’s true and because he loves you and doesn’t want you to excluded from his kingdom.
He is a loving God—but he is also a righteous God. And because of this, he will not/cannot compromise his righteousness by allowing unrepentant sinners into his kingdom. So if you want to be delivered from the baptism by fire and receive the baptism by the Holy Spirit, you must come to him in humble repentance.
But John’s baptism wouldn’t matter, and Jesus’ baptism by the Holy Spirit would be impossible if it weren’t for what the final baptism in this passage signifies . . .
Jesus’ baptism by John: how God provides salvation
John expected the Messiah to administer both of these baptisms as soon as he appeared. But he got a surprise . . .
Read 3:13,14. Why did John try to prevent Jesus from being baptized by him? Most assume it is because John knew that Jesus was the Messiah—but this is not the case. According to the gospel of John, John the Baptist did not know for sure that Jesus was the Messiah until after Jesus got baptized (Jn. 1:29-33). Rather, John’s statement in 3:14 must be based on John’s personal knowledge of Jesus’ righteousness. As first cousins, they would have had contact with one another—and John must have known by personal experience that Jesus had no sins to confess!
But his raises another, even more perplexing question: Why did Jesus insist on submitting to a baptism for sinners? Jesus’ reply in 3:15 points to the answer (read).
“Let it be so now . . .” – Jesus agrees with John that he does not need to be baptized as a sinner needing forgiveness.
“. . . it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness” – Yet somehow, Jesus must undergo this baptism to fulfill God’s righteous plan. Why? Because God’s plan of salvation requires that a righteous Substitute identify with the sins of the people he comes to save. In other words, Jesus’ baptism signifies how God provides salvation.
Old Testament sacrificial system: problem (true moral guilt) and solution (substitutionary atonement). But the Old Testament prophets knew that this system was only a prophetic picture of the righteous Person who fulfill this picture through his own death—read Isa. 53:5,6.
So Jesus had to be baptized by John, not because he was a sinner in need of forgiveness, but because this was a fitting picture of what he had come to do—to identify himself with our sin, to take our guilt on to himself and (ultimately) to pay for it by his own death on the cross.
John seems to have grasped this (at least dimly)—because the next day he introduced Jesus to his disciples as “the Lamb of God who comes to take away the sin of the world” (Jn. 1:29). Jesus expressly stated that this was the reason for which he had come (Mk. 10:45). Paul puts it this way--read 2 Cor. 5:21.
This baptism is by far the most important of the four baptisms in this passage. Apart from Jesus’ willingness to identify himself with our sins and pay for them through his death, there would be no “baptism by the Holy Spirit.” Our willingness to come to God in repentance (signified by baptism by John) would be futile. The only baptism awaiting any of us would be the “baptism with fire!”
In any event, what happens next shows that God approved of Jesus’ baptism (read 3:16,17). Both visibly (by the Holy Spirit appearing like a dove) and audibly (through the heavenly voice), God designated Jesus as his Chosen One and affirmed his decision to be baptized by John--because it foreshadowed what he would do on the Cross.3
So what about Christian water baptism? This is something that Jesus asks us to do—not because it earns God’s acceptance—but because. It celebrates the fact that I have humbly admitted my need for forgiveness (John’s baptism), that I have put my trust in Jesus’ death for my sins (Jesus’ baptism)—and that I have been delivered from God’s judgment (baptism by fire) and received the Holy Spirit as God’s pledge of my salvation (baptism by the Holy Spirit).
1 “(Israelites) said, ‘All Israelites have a portion in the world to come.’ . . . They said that Abraham sat at the gates of Gehenna to turn back any Israelite who might by chance have been consigned to its terrors.” William Barclay, The Gospel of Matthew, Vol. 1 (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1958), p. 39.
2 See Everett F. Harrison, A Short Life of Christ (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1997), p. 68. See also William Barclay, The Gospel of Matthew, Vol. 1, p. 52.
3 Matt. 3:17 is actually a quotation of two Old Testament prophetic passages. “This is my Son” comes from Ps. 2—describing King Messiah who will establish God’s rule over all the earth. “. . . in whom I am well-pleased” comes from Isa. 42—describing a Servant who will come to suffer and die for humanity’s sins. By bringing these two passages together in announcing Jesus, God is notifying John and the crowd that Jesus will fulfill both of these roles. First, he will come as the suffering Servant to die for our sins. Then he will return as King Messiah to judge and rule the world.
Copyright 2005 Gary DeLashmutt