The Essential Jesus

Jesus' Baptism

Matthew 3:1-17

Teaching t12281


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.

Show entire text with “baptism” in red letters.  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, being drowned, etc.).  The New Testament speaks of 8 different baptisms.  So when we see this word, we can’t assume that it means water 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).  Last week, we learned that  John appeared as the last prophet of the Old Testament era (after 400 years of prophetic silence).  John’s message (3:2) contained good news and bad news.  The good news was: “God’s kingdom is imminent because God’s King will appear very soon.”  This is why there was such wide-spread excitement about and interest in John (3:5).

But the bad news was: “None of you is admissible to God’s kingdom in your present state!”  And he emphasized this fact by insisting that his 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 taught 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 before God, unworthy of God’s kingdom, and needing the washing/cleansing of God’s forgiveness.

So you can see how ironic and controversial John’s baptism was (read 3:7-10).  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 from the heart what you make the Gentiles 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 a message of offense (“How dare you suggest that I’m not good enough to get in!”).  It’s still this way today . . .

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 “repent” – change our mind about how we view our own righteousness (including family history, church membership, ritual observance, personal morality, good works, etc.).  Instead of thinking it can earn us entry into God’s kingdom, we must personally admit our guilt before God and ask Him for forgiveness.  This is the only requirement, but it is absolutely necessary!

Now let’s move on to the next two “baptisms” in this passage . . .

Messiah’s baptism 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 remember that 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 . . . 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 and explain Ezek. 36:25-27.

In other words, the baptism by the Holy Spirit is the gift of salvation.  Jesus claimed to be this Messiah, and to give this “baptism” in Jn. 7:37-39 (read).  When you come to Jesus and ask Him for forgiveness, His Spirit indwells you so that you may personally experience God’s love (Rom. 5:5).

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 (quote Eph. 1:13,14)!

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 (“. . . Fire-baptized Church;” “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 3:10,12).  Explain Jewish threshing procedure (SLIDES).  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 baptism by fire therefore signifies the only alternative to salvation: eternal exclusion from God’s kingdom and presence.

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.  In the end, there are only two alternatives: all of us will receive either the baptism by the Holy Spirit or the baptism by fire (read 2 Thess. 1:9).

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 it’s rationally consistent.  God 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.  It’s also backed up by evidence – the Bible’s track-record on its predictions is unique.  And it’s motivated by God’s love – He has made full provision for you because He doesn’t want you to be excluded from His kingdom.

So be delivered from the baptism wit fire and receive the baptism with the Holy Spirit, by humbly receiving Christ!

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?  Even though John would have known Jesus as his cousin, his parents evidently didn’t tell him that Jesus was the Messiah.[3]  Therefore, John’s comment must be his testimony to Jesus’ superior personal righteousness.

But this raises another, even more perplexing question: Since Jesus is righteous, why did He insist on submitting to a sinners’ baptism?  His reply in 3:15 points to the answer (read).

“Permit it at this time . . .” – Jesus agrees with John that He does not need to be baptized as a sinner needing forgiveness.

“. . . for in this way it is fitting 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.

Explain 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.  Paul later 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 the Father approved of Jesus’ choice to be baptized (read 3:16,17).  Both visibly (Holy Spirit appearing like a dove) and audibly (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.[4]

When you put your faith in Jesus, what the Father said about Him becomes true of what He says about you!  On the basis of Jesus’ two-fold identification with you, He bestows this same verdict on you as your permanent status before Him.  Never again are you on trial with God or other people (ME BEFORE TEACHINGS)!


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 announces and celebrates the fact that I have admitted my need for forgiveness (like John’s baptism), that Jesus’ death has paid for my sins (i.e., in Jesus’ baptism), that I have been delivered from God’s judgment (i.e., baptism by fire), and that I have received the Holy Spirit as God’s pledge of my salvation (i.e., 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] This is what John means in Jn. 1:31,33.  Only The Father’s signs would identify the Messiah to John.

[4] 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, God is notifying John (and the crowd?) that Jesus will fulfill both of these roles – first coming as the suffering Servant to die for our sins, then returning as King Messiah to judge and rule the world.