Baptism Basics – Pondering Jesus (30/08/14)

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:

  1. It involves some form of immersion in water. Indeed, the Greek baptizō means “to plunge, dip, immerse” (cf ESV Study Bible)
  2. 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.

Conclusion

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).
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Wise men from the East – Pondering Jesus (19/07/14)

Over the next month 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!

Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” […]

After listening to the king, they went on their way. And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. And going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way. (Matthew 2:1-2, 9-12 ESV)

One of the most mysterious parts of the narrative of Jesus’ birth has to be the visit of the wise men. The record of their visit can only be found in Matthew’s gospel account (and not in the other three), adding to the mystery. Who were they? Some clues can be gathered from the text itself:

  • They were ‘wise men from the East’ (v1), thus were not likely to be Jews.
  • They were astrologers of some sort – they ‘saw his [Jesus’] star when it rose’ (v2), that being the sign they had been looking for. Furthermore, they followed the star until it ‘came to rest over the place where the child was’ (v9).
  • The footnote informs us that ‘wise men’ is magi in Greek. According to the ESV Study Bible, in earlier times, ‘wise men’ (Greek magi) referred to priests and experts in mysteries in Persia and Babylon, but by this time it applied to a wide range of people whose practices included astrology, dream interpretation, study of sacred writings, the pursuit of wisdom, and magic.

So, in short, these wise men could be easily be described as pagan* sorcerers!

Yet, why did they come? Simply put, they came to worship ‘he who has been born King of the Jews’ (v2). When they saw the child, ‘they fell down and worshipped him’ (v11). And they brought Jesus gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Indeed, when they saw that the star had guided them to their destination (i.e. the house where Jesus was), they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. They were so happy to be able to find and worship the King of the Jews.

The account of the wise men bears much reflection. Might it be too simplistic to say that God, in His grace, reveals His salvation to those who seem to be so far removed from him – even pagan sorcerers? Perhaps. We see nothing in the text to suggest that they recognised Jesus to be the son of God; indeed ‘it is doubtful that these quasi-pagan religious men understood Jesus’ divine nature’ (ESV Study Bible). Besides, it is also perhaps unhelpful to ask whether these wise men were “saved” (cf Rom 10:9f).

However, at the very least we can see that God, in His mercy, and through His creation (the star), points lost people in the direction of His salvation. In other words:

For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they [all men] are without excuse. (Rom 1:20)

Indeed, we see many examples on this theme even today. I have friends for whom the Christian ideas of sacrificial, other-person-focused love resonates so strongly within them – yet they cannot accept that such sacrificial love for others found its paradigmatic expression in Jesus on the cross. I have friends who are amazed by the wonders of creation in their scientific research – but will refuse to look beyond the creation to the creator. These are friends who, like Herod in Matthew 2, decide instead to reject Jesus’ kingly rule.

Two points of application by way of conclusion.

  1. Praise God for His great mercy, in pointing us in His direction, through his creation (i.e. general revelation), and definitively saving us through His Son (i.e. special revelation).
  2. Let’s continue to pray that many who may be far from God now — “pagan sorcerers” of our day — will see and recognise Jesus, for He is ever looking to draw them into His fold.

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* For the sake of clarity, the word “pagan” here loosely refers to a follower of any of various religions that are based on the worship of nature or the Earth. The usage here is not intended to be pejorative. 

What’s in a Name? — Pondering Jesus (12/07/13)

Over the next month 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!

Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet:

“Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel”

(which means, God with us). When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus. (Matthew 1:18-25 ESV)

What’s in a name?

I often think of Jesus as the Son of God, the Messiah, and so on, when I consider Jesus’ identity. All of this is true. But when considering these “titles”, I often neglect the name Jesus itself. In our modern context, we don’t think much – if at all – about names. For example, I have many friends called “Victor”, but never have I consciously associated them with being victorious, regardless of how successful they are.

The name Jesus, however, bears closer scrutiny. It is Yeshua‘/Yehoshua‘ (Joshua) in Hebrew, meaning “Yahweh saves” (ESV Study Bible). And in the text above, we know the reason why he is so called: “for he will save his people from their sins.

God came down in human form in the person of Jesus. And why did he come? He came to rescue his people from their sin, which leads to death and destruction. This was his main purpose. This rescue mission was so central to his purpose that it was even encapsulated in his name!

Sin is a big deal – that’s why we needed rescuing. But it is such a wonder of mercy that God himself would come down to save us. And notice how certain this salvation is: ‘he will save his people’. When we think of Jesus today, or when we call out to Him in prayer, let us remember that He is the God who saves.