Over the next few months or so, I shall be reflecting on the Gospel of Matthew and ‘pondering Jesus’ – thinking about who He is, and what that means for us. In so doing, I hope to delight more in my Saviour; and if I am able to help you (reader) to do so too, then even better!
In chapter 3 of the Gospel of Matthew (please access the full text here) we encounter a word which is foreign to our everyday parlance – ‘baptism’. The word (or forms of it) occurs 8 times in the 17 verses within the passage. In our modern context the concept of baptism seems mainly restricted to Christian circles. Or perhaps every once in a while we hear the expression ‘baptism of fire’. But what is ‘baptism’ about? The passage points us to some basics.
John the who?
In the beginning of the passage we meet the character John the Baptist, who is preaching a message of repentance in the wilderness of Judea (vv.1-2). Indeed, John’s ministry had been foretold of by the prophet Isaiah centuries earlier (v.3). In addition to his message of repentance — which means to change one’s mind or attitude — many were coming to him to be baptised in the river Jordan, ‘confessing their sins’ (v.6).
We see from these verses, therefore, two things as regards baptism:
- It involves some form of immersion in water. Indeed, the Greek baptizō means “to plunge, dip, immerse” (cf ESV Study Bible)
- It is connected with, or accompanied by, a repentance and turning away from sin.
We must resist the urge, however, to infer from this that this immersion in water itself is somehow able to magically cleanse us completely from sin. “We must not expect that water to act as a charm: we must not suppose that all baptized persons, as a matter of course, receive the grace of God in the moment that they are baptised.” (JC Ryle) John the Baptist himself says to sinners, ‘Bear fruit in keeping with repentance’ (v.8). What this means then, is that even following baptism, one needed to bear fruits of good character and holiness; even after baptism the temptation to live a life of sin and licentiousness still remained. Baptism is therefore an outward sign of an inward resolution to change from a life of rebellion against God, to a life of trusting Him and yielding to His good and perfect will.
Jesus was baptised?
John the Baptist describes Jesus as follows:
I baptise you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me [viz. Jesus] is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire. (vv.11-12)
Strong words. Which is why it surprising both to the reader, and to John himself, that Jesus comes to the latter to be baptised by him:
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 baptised 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 baptised, 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.” (vv.13-17)
Okay, so not only is Jesus going to baptise with the Holy Spirit and with fire, and all the cool stuff mentioned two paragraphs above (vv.11-12) – He is the Son of God! Indeed, this has been definitively displayed by the presence of the other two members of the Trinity at his baptism. I can just imagine what John was thinking as these wondrous events were unfolding before his eyes: “What have you just done, John?! You had no right to baptise the Son of God!”
And John would have been justified in so thinking. As was observed above, baptism is connected with a repentance and turning away from sin. Could it be then that Jesus, the perfect Son of God, was actually blemished and sinful, and needed to repent?
It is clear from various other passages that this cannot be the case (e.g. 2 Cor 5:21, Heb 4:15). Instead, the answer lies in Jesus’ reply to John the Baptist: “for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” In other words, Jesus chose to be baptised because it was right to do so. For one, in being baptised by John, Jesus endorses and connects himself with John’s ministry which had been foretold by the prophet Isaiah: a ministry to prepare the way of the Lord Jesus. More importantly, though, at the inauguration of his earthly ministry, Jesus chose to identify with the very people he came to save – sinners like you and me.
Jesus, the Son of God, came to die on the cross for the sins of the world — our sins. He came to take what was rightfully our judgment in our place. Our Saviour, who needed neither cleansing nor repentance, saw it fitting to identify with those who desperately needed both.
Jesus the Baptist
One final aspect of this passage needs to be considered. As mentioned above, John the Baptist says of Jesus:
He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.
It seems then that John isn’t the only one who will be doing the baptizing. Indeed, while John baptises with water, Jesus shall baptise with the Holy Spirit and fire. What does this all mean?
First, it shows that Jesus’ baptism is far superior to John’s. John’s baptism is not able to bring about a true change of heart, nor is it able to bring about true salvation. As was mentioned above, John’s baptism was an outward sign of an inward resolution to follow God. But as we are well aware, no amount of human resolve or effort can bring about a true change of heart. It is impossible to by sheer willpower alone constrain myself to be completely virtuous. Something more is needed.
Thus John’s baptism points towards the superior baptism of Jesus. While John baptises with water, Jesus baptises with the Holy Spirit, the very Spirit of God himself. This makes all the difference. God immerses us in His Spirit such that we are truly changed and empowered to live a life according to His will (cf Ezekiel 36:26-27). Furthermore, as the apostle Paul explains:
Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. (Romans 6:3-4 ESV)
When you place your trust in Jesus, you are baptised into Him, into His death. This means that in this life now, we are dead to sin. Sin no longer has any hold on us. We are free to live, empowered by His Spirit! This also means that at the end of our earthly lives, we will be raised with Him – raised from the dead to have eternal life!
Secondly, it also shows that there will be judgment for those who choose not to trust in Jesus. The language of gathering in the wheat and burning up the chaff evokes notions of judgment. Those who choose to trust in Jesus are the wheat that He gathers into His barn; those who rebel against Him are the chaff that He will burn up with unquenchable fire.
This is a very sobering reminder that there can be no middle ground. The atheistic man and the apathetic man are both equally subject to God’s judgment on sin. Only by acknowledging that we cannot to do anything to earn our standing before God, and only by trusting in Jesus’ power to save through His death on the cross as our substitute, can we be saved from God’s judgment.
Three points to summarise, by way of conclusion:
- Christian baptism is an outward expression of an inward resolution to follow Jesus.
- While the immersion itself does not magically do anything, when we choose to trust in Jesus he gives us His Spirit and begins a process of heart change. We are subsequently empowered to live free from sin.
- Choosing to trust in Jesus also means that we will be raised from the dead with Him (just as we were baptised into His death).