Jesus’s baptism is an act of humility. In his baptism, he consents to be counted as if he were a sinner, along with everyone else.
This essay examines the significance of Jesus’s baptism in relation to the history of redemption and the person and work of Christ. It surveys the Gospel record of Jesus’s baptism and its emphasis on the coming of the Spirit and the Father’s voice of approval.
What is the significance of the baptism of Jesus? Here is the record given in Matthew 3:13–17:
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.”
The passage presents us immediately with a mystery: at first John the Baptist resists the idea of baptizing Jesus. But in the end, he consents. Why did he resist, and why did he change his mind? In addition, what is the significance of the opening of the heavens, the descent of the Spirit, and the voice from heaven?
The record of John the Baptist and his baptism of Jesus occurs not only in Matthew 3:13–17, but in Mark 1:9–11 and Luke 3:21–22. In addition, John 1:29–34 overlaps with these passages. It describes the descent of the Spirit on Jesus (verse 33), which took place when Jesus was baptized. But it does not directly describe the baptism itself.
The verses that directly describe Jesus’s baptism by John do not fully explain its significance. The Gospels invite us to see the event of Jesus’s baptism in relation to a larger context. Each of the Gospels describes the ministry of John the Baptist and the significance of his baptism more broadly. Each also alludes to Old Testament backgrounds, and each looks forward to a baptism that Jesus himself will bring, the baptism with the Holy Spirit: “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Matt 3:11).
The History of Redemption
The Gospels set the baptism of Jesus in the context of the age-long unfolding of the history of redemption, which takes place according to the plan of God. The background of this history is found in Genesis 1–3, in the events of creation and the fall. The fall of Adam is followed by the first promise of redemption, found in Genesis 3:15, the promise of “her offspring,” the offspring of the woman, which already points to Christ (Gal 3:16).
John the Baptist explains his baptism as “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1:4). His central message is, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt 3:2). The call to repentance is spread all the way across the pages of the Old Testament, because human sin dishonors God, renders us guilty, and breaks fellowship with the God who made us. Repentance on the part of man is necessary, but also atonement in order to deal with the guilt of sin. In the Old Testament, the necessity for atonement is symbolized by animal sacrifices, which depict the removal sin through the death of an innocent substitute. These sacrifices prefigure the coming of Christ as the final atoning substitute. John says, “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29; compare verse 36). The Old Testament also describes ceremonies that use water as a symbol for washing and cleansing from sin: Leviticus 1:9; 8:6; 11:32; 15:5–33. These ceremonies point forward to Christ, whose blood cleanses us (Heb 9:12–22). John uses water in baptism, thereby signifying cleansing and the forgiveness of sins.
God called John the Baptist to serve as the forerunner of the Messiah: “I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Matt 3:11). The Gospels indicate that John is the fulfillment of the prophecies in Isaiah 40:3 and Malachi 3:1 concerning a prophetic forerunner (Matt 3:3; Mark 1:2–3). John proclaims that “the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt 3:2).
God has always been ruling over the world (Ps 103:19), but the “kingdom of heaven” comes when God climactically exerts his power to accomplish the salvation of his people. John announces that this decisive time of salvation is “at hand.” And Jesus, the one greater than John, actually brings this kingdom in an inaugural form as he casts out demons and heals diseases (Matt 12:28; Luke 7:22–23). The decisive events that bring salvation are Jesus’ death and resurrection.
So, the Bible gives us an understanding of the unique role of John the Baptist in the history of redemption. He is the one appointed to “prepare the way” for Jesus (Matt 3:3). He stands on the cusp of a new era, the era when God’s saving rule will be exerted and salvation will be accomplished by Jesus, once and for all.
With this larger context in view, we are ready to appreciate more deeply the baptism of Jesus by John. John is preparing people for the coming of Jesus by his call to repentance. When Jesus himself comes to John, John recognizes Jesus’ superiority: “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” (Matt 3:14). John’s objection makes a good deal of sense. John is baptizing with “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1:4). Jesus has no sins and needs no forgiveness. He has nothing to repent of. So, it would seem, John’s baptism is totally inappropriate for Jesus. In comparison to Jesus, John is the one who needs to repent and be baptized: “I need to be baptized by you.” Jesus, unlike the people to come to John, is one who will himself be baptizing, with a baptism much greater than John’s:
I [John] baptize you with water for repentance, . . . . He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. (Matt 3:11)
It is no wonder that John feels he should object. And yet Jesus answers the objection: “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness” (Matt 3:15). What does he mean? It is a mysterious statement, and yet it satisfies John: “Then he consented.” Jesus says that his baptism will be “to fulfill all righteousness.” The word “fulfill” fits in with the entire complex of what is happening. The coming of John the Baptist himself fulfills the Old Testament prophecies that announce beforehand that he will come as the forerunner (Isa 40:3; Mal 3:1). The coming of Jesus is the fulfillment of the long-standing promises of climactic redemption, promises that began with Genesis 3:15. Jesus brings with him the saving rule of the kingdom of God. For Jesus to be baptized is one aspect of fulfillment, and one aspect of bringing “all righteousness,” the deep righteousness that belongs to God and his kingdom.
But how is Jesus’s baptism a “fulfillment of all righteousness”? The Jews are coming for repentance. They come for forgiveness of sins. Jesus has no sin, as we have noted (2Cor 5:21; Heb 4:15; 1Pet 2:22). But he is “the Lamb of God” (John 1:29), the sin bearer. He identifies with the sinful people of Israel, and he identifies with their sin, because he is coming to be both the final sacrifice and the final high priest (Heb 8–10).
Jesus’s baptism is an act of humility. He consents to be counted as if he were a sinner, along with everyone else. This act foreshadows the time on the cross when he will die for the sins of the people of Israel and indeed for the sins of all those who are his. As 2 Corinthians 5:21 puts it, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Fulfilling “all righteousness” includes not only Jesus being righteously obedient to his Father’s will but providing by his perfect righteousness a righteousness for us, “that we might become the righteousness of God.” This act of exchange, in which Jesus takes our sin and gives to us his righteousness, is depicted symbolically beforehand when he is baptized by John.
The Coming of the Spirit
When Jesus is baptized, he is carrying out the plan of the Father, laid down before the foundation of the world (1Pet 1:20). In response, God the Father acts in approval. “[B]ehold, the heavens were opened to him.” The opening signifies in visual form the opening of the way to God. Jesus as the Son is always in fellowship with the Father, but this opening manifests the reality of that fellowship.
Out of that opening “the Spirit of God” descends. The physical movement symbolizes visually that the Spirit, in the form of a dove, is the Spirit of God himself, who comes from God’s dwelling in heaven. The Spirit is “coming to rest on him.” This resting signifies the same thing that Jesus talks about in Luke 4:18–19: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me [Jesus], because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.” Jesus carries out his public ministry in the power of the Spirit: “But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you” (Matt 12:28).
Does Jesus Always Have the Spirit?
The coming of the Spirit to “rest on him” raises a question. Did Jesus not have the Spirit before this point? According to the biblical doctrine of the Trinity, each person of the Trinity is fully God. Jesus is God, as John 1:1 affirms. God the Son is always in intimate fellowship with God the Father and God the Holy Spirit. The three persons are one God, and they indwell each other. Jesus always has the Spirit, because he is God. So any additional work of the Holy Spirit has reference to Jesus’s human nature, not his divine nature.
Observe that John the Baptist is “filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb” (Luke 1:15). Surely the same is true with respect to the human nature of Jesus, who is greater than John the Baptist (compare Luke 2:40, 52). That is to say, the Holy Spirit dwells in Jesus’ human nature from the beginning.
Then what new is happening at Jesus’s baptism? The Holy Spirit comes to do a new work in equipping Jesus for his public ministry, according to Luke 4:18–19. This new work is again with respect to his human nature. With respect to his human nature, Jesus is in some respects like a prophet or a king, who receives the Holy Spirit for the purpose of ministry to others.
The Voice of the Father
Along with the descent of the Spirit comes “a voice from heaven.” This is the voice of God the Father. “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matt 3:17). This voice picks up on two main Old Testament texts, Psalm 2:7 and Isaiah 42:1. Psalm 2:7 looks forward to the coming of Jesus as the king in the line of David. Isaiah 42:1 describes Jesus beforehand as “my servant, whom I uphold.” In Isaiah 53, the servant is the one who brings salvation to the people by dying for their sins. God the Father delights in the obedience of his Son, and what he says anticipates both Jesus’s sacrifice on the cross and his reign over the world, when he is exalted in the resurrection and the ascension.
Overall, this dramatic event at Jesus’s baptism has the features of “theophany,” the appearing of God. It is like what took place at Mount Sinai (Exod 19–20) and to Isaiah (Isa 6) and Ezekiel (Ezek 1). The opening heaven is analogous to Ezekiel 1:1; the appearance like a dove is analogous to Old Testament visual displays of the presence of God; the voice from heaven is like Mount Sinai and the voice of God to Isaiah and to Ezekiel. We see here an intensive manifestation of the presence of God. And it is a trinitarian presence. God the Father speaks from heaven. God the Spirit descends like a dove. God the Son is the one addressed by the voice of the Father. It is fitting, because Jesus in his incarnation is the fulfillment of Old Testament theophanies.
Jesus Baptizes with the Spirit
We should also remember John the Baptist’s prophecy that the one who comes after him “will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Matt 3:11). This prophecy points to the day of Pentecost, described in Acts 2. On that day the Holy Spirit comes to the apostles and the church with “tongues as of fire” (verse 3). In this way the baptism of Jesus provides a foundation for our baptism with the Holy Spirit. Jesus is our representative. He is our representative already when John baptizes him. He is our representative as sin bearer on the cross. He is our representative when he rises from the dead, thereby providing new, resurrection life for those who are his.
So the features depicted in Jesus’s baptism by John come to apply through Jesus to us. We are cleansed from sin by the washing with Jesus’s blood, signified by the water of baptism. Heaven is opened to us through Jesus, giving us communion with God the Father (Heb 10:19–20). We receive the Holy Spirit, who descends on us when we have faith in Christ (Rom 8:9–10). We hear the voice of God the Father, who calls us sons in union with Christ the Son (Rom 8:14–17; Gal 4:4–7), and who is pleased with us on account of his being pleased with his eternal Son (Eph 1:4–10).
“Baptism of Jesus – Bible Story.” Compiled and Edited by BibleStudyTools Staff. Provides the key Bible passages and a brief explanation.
Brandon Crowe, The Last Adam: A Theology of the Obedient Life of Jesus in the Gospels (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2017). A focus on Jesus’s human obedience.
John Piper, “The Baptism and the Genealogy of Jesus Christ.” A pastoral exposition of Luke 3:21–38. The first part discusses Jesus’ baptism.
John Piper, “Why Was Jesus Baptized?”
Vern S. Poythress, Theophany: A Biblical Theology of God’s Appearing (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2018), especially p. 384. Treats the theophany at Jesus’ baptism against the background of the general theme of theophany, including the theophany on the day of Pentecost in Acts 2.
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