There are some things in life that are difficult to understand. It’s difficult to understand why a child will refuse to eat certain foods because they are the wrong color, have something on them, or some other silly reason, yet 10 minutes later they will be putting the dog’s food, or dirt, or something even worse in their mouths. It’s difficult to understand why it seems like the people who know the least are often the ones who talk the most. It’s difficult to understand why the plants that grow really easily (in our yards or in our fields) are the ones that we don’t want.
More seriously, we don’t understand why some people die young, why some people get cancer and others don’t, and why people who are trying to follow the Lord often seem to have a harder time of things than those who are living in opposition to Him. There are lots of things that we have a difficult time understanding fully. But just because we don’t know the answer to these questions, it doesn’t mean that there isn’t one. Sometimes God doesn’t answer all of our questions, but there may still be other things He is trying to teach us instead.
Our text this morning is one of those passages that is difficult to understand, even though it is a text that teaches us a great deal about Jesus and should serve as an encouragement to us. The reasons for the baptism of Jesus have been a source of debate amongst Christians for years, but the account we read in Matthew 3 still has much to teach us.
Last week we were introduced to John the Baptist. He had been chosen by God before he was born to serve as a herald for the Messiah. His job was to prepare the way for the One all of history had been waiting for. He had an important job, and he took it very seriously.
John was telling the people that the Messiah (God’s promised savior) would soon come, and the people needed to repent of their sins and turn back to God. As people did so, John would baptize them in the Jordan River. We don’t know how many people John baptized or how long he had been doing it, but we know he had created quite a stir and had attracted quite a few followers as well as quite a few detractors. One day, however, things changed. It was the day that Jesus came to be baptized. Listen to how Matthew describes it.
13 Then Jesus went from Galilee to the Jordan River to be baptized by John. 14 But John tried to talk him out of it. “I am the one who needs to be baptized by you,” he said, “so why are you coming to me?” 15 But Jesus said, “It should be done, for we must carry out all that God requires.” So John agreed to baptize him. (Matthew 3:13-15, NLT)
This was an important event in the ministry of Jesus. It was so important that it is one of the events recorded in all 4 gospels. Matthew’s account gives us the most information about what happened, but all 4 gospel writers felt it was important enough that they should include it.
Though we can understand why this was a significant event, we may also find ourselves asking why it was necessary. This is one of those accounts that is difficult to understand.
Why would Jesus have needed to be baptized? John was calling people to come and repent of their sins, and then he baptized them. Jesus was sinless, he had no sins of which to repent, so it seems strange that he would have wanted to come and be baptized by John. We are not alone in our confusion. John was confused as well! We learn from the gospel of John (which was written by a different John, not John the Baptist), that at this point he didn’t know Jesus was the Messiah, but it still seems clear that he knew Jesus was someone special. When Jesus came and told him he wanted to be baptized John resisted. He declared that Jesus should be baptizing him, not the other way around!
But Jesus told him it was ok. He told John, “It should be done, for we must carry out all that God requires.” That was enough for John, and he went ahead and baptized Jesus. That still leaves us with a lot of questions though, doesn’t it? Why was it that God required Jesus to be baptized?
Scholars have debated this for centuries and have wrestled with why it was appropriate and necessary for Jesus to be baptized. Let’s talk about a couple of the reasons that are wrong.
Some people have said that Jesus needed to be baptized because up until this point he was just a man, but at his baptism the Holy Spirit came into him and he became God. That is hogwash. It is a false teaching. Jesus has always been God, and even when He became a man He was still God from the moment he was conceived. This was not something he had to do in order to complete his “god-ness”.
Others have said that Jesus was providing an example for us, showing us that we need to be baptized in order to be right with God as well. There is an element of truth to this, because Christians are baptized as a way of identifying with Jesus and declaring our faith in Him. But John’s baptism was different than Christian baptism. In the book of Acts we read about some people who had been baptized by John, but who were later re-baptized with Christian baptism. John’s baptism was one of repentance, but Christian baptism recognizes (and symbolizes) the sacrifice of Jesus on our behalf—it symbolizes how Jesus paid for our sin once and for all. So while Jesus may have been foreshadowing how Christians should be baptized, he wasn’t merely giving us an example to follow.
Still others say that Jesus was showing us that baptism was necessary for us to be accepted by God. Baptism has no power to make us right with God. It is Jesus’ sacrifice that makes a person acceptable to God, not religious rituals. Jesus did tell us that Christians should be baptized (Matthew 28), but baptism is a symbol of the salvation we receive, not the cause of it.
So, we are still left to ask, why was it necessary for Jesus to be baptized? I’ll be honest with you, I don’t know. Many Christian scholars have put forth reasons why Jesus’ baptism was necessary.
- Jesus was being baptized because he was acting as a substitute for us. He was not being baptized for his sins, but he was symbolically being baptized for ours.
- He was baptized as a way of identifying with us. He was demonstrating his humanity, showing that he was like us, and so he submitted to baptism in much the same way that we would.
- He was helping to fulfill the prophecy about Elijah from the book of Malachi. By submitting to John’s baptism, he was showing that John the Baptist was the one who would prepare the way for the Lord.
- He was using this as a sign of the beginning of his earthly ministry, and an opportunity for God to give evidence that He was the Messiah.
I think each of these theories has merit. Each of them seems like a valid explanation of why Jesus needed to submit to baptism. One of them may be the reason Jesus needed to be baptized, but it’s also possible that the real reason is something entirely different. But ultimately, we don’t know. And John didn’t know either. Based on the text, it seems like Jesus didn’t give him a lengthy theological explanation—he simply told him that this was what God wanted. And that was enough for John.
There is a lesson for us here. We are supposed to be obedient to God even when we don’t understand the reasons. If we trust the Lord, then we will do what He tells us without demanding an explanation.
That’s hard though, isn’t it? We are hard-wired to want a reason for why we should do something. You see this in children all the time. It seems like all children go through a “why” phase. No matter what you tell them, the follow-up is, “why?” Have you ever tried to actually answer all of those whys? It’s exhausting! Though it frustrated us when we were kids, most of us have found ourselves answering a child’s why question with, “Because I said so, that’s why!” It frustrates us because it’s an unsatisfying answer, but it’s actually still a valid answer.
Children don’t always have the capacity to understand the reasons why adults do the things we do. Sometimes the issues involved are simply too complex for their little minds to comprehend. So it’s pointless for us to try to explain it to them. Sometimes the need for obedience is urgent, and there’s not time to explain the reasons why right now. The explanation will come later. Regardless, we expect obedience from our children because we expect them to know that we really do know what’s best—and we actually (usually) know better than they do.
This is similar to our relationship with God. Sometimes God doesn’t explain to us all the “whys” of life. Sometimes I think it’s because the answer will come later, and sometimes I think it’s because we simply can’t understand it. Sometimes I think the reason he doesn’t tell us is simply to help us learn to trust Him. Regardless of the reasons, our job is simply to obey, even if we don’t fully understand the reasons why. That’s what Jesus did, and it’s what John the Baptist did as well. We should follow their examples.
After the Baptism
After Jesus came up from the baptismal waters, there was another significant event, but one that is easy to miss if we get distracted by the questions about baptism. Listen to what Matthew says happened next,
16 After his baptism, as Jesus came up out of the water, the heavens were opened and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and settling on him. 17 And a voice from heaven said, “This is my dearly loved Son, who brings me great joy.”
This event was significant for a couple of reasons. First, it identified Jesus as the Messiah, the One that God had promised would come to redeem His people. John the Baptist was looking for this specific sign to know that the Messiah had come. We see his account in John chapter 1.
31 I did not recognize him as the Messiah, but I have been baptizing with water so that he might be revealed to Israel.” 32 Then John testified, “I saw the Holy Spirit descending like a dove from heaven and resting upon him. 33 I didn’t know he was the one, but when God sent me to baptize with water, he told me, ‘The one on whom you see the Spirit descend and rest is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.’ 34 I saw this happen to Jesus, so I testify that he is the Chosen One of God.” (John 1:31-34, NLT)
John knew that Jesus was someone special. He may have even been pretty sure that Jesus was the Messiah, but he couldn’t say definitively that He was until he saw the Holy Spirit descend upon Jesus. When he saw that happen after Jesus’ baptism, he knew that Jesus was the Messiah, and he proclaimed that fact to everyone who would listen. This account teaches us much the same thing—Jesus is indeed the One we’ve been waiting for.
Second, we get a glimpse of the Trinity. The trinity is a difficult doctrine to understand. It’s one of those things that I don’t think our human minds can fully grasp. But the doctrine of the Trinity simply says this: there is one God, but He exists (always has and always will) in three persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. There really isn’t any analogy to explain this any better—God is unique. But it is a truth that is clearly taught to us in scripture. Many people have concluded that Christianity is untrue because they can’t understand the trinity. But it seems to me if we will only believe in things we can understand completely, we are going to miss out on a lot. Just because you don’t understand something doesn’t mean it isn’t true!
Regardless, in this account we see all three members of the Godhead at once. The Father speaks, declares that Jesus is the Son, and that the Father is pleased with Him. And then we see the Holy Spirit coming down and settling on Jesus like a dove. Whether this means that an actual dove descended from heaven, or (more likely) that the way the Spirit appeared reminded people of a dove, we don’t know, but we see the Holy Spirit making His appearance here as well. This passage is one of the clearest examples we see of the absolute and perfect unity of the Trinity. It gives us a glimpse of who God is.
I find it interesting that the first time we see the three persons of the trinity is in the account of Creation, and now we see the trinity again at the start of Jesus’ earthly ministry. It seems fitting that we see the trinity when the world was created, and again when God’s plan was coming to fruition. God created the world, and now He was redeeming it. No wonder all four of the gospel writers saw this as a significant event—because clearly God did too.
The accounts of Jesus’ baptism that we read in the gospels are incredible, and they are even more so when we understand what was really going on. Here was God the Son, who created the world and put it into motion, entering into the world and subjecting himself to the life of a human being. Here we see the love of God on display as he begins to show us how He is going take on our sin and pay the penalty that we couldn’t pay. These verses serve as the opening lines of God’s story of redemption.
There are a lot of things in these verses that we don’t fully understand, but that shouldn’t deter us, and we shouldn’t let it keep us from missing the lessons that we can learn.
First, these verses teach us about the nature of baptism. Though John’s baptism was different than Christian baptism, it reminds us that Jesus said that Christians should be baptized (Matthew 28). Baptism isn’t what saves us (Jesus is), but it is a way of identifying ourselves with Christ. It is a public declaration of our devotion to our Lord. In our country, that doesn’t require much sacrifice on our part. It might be a little embarrassing to stand up in front of others and be baptized. And maybe your family wouldn’t understand why it was important to you, but for most people in our country there are few negative consequences to getting baptized. In other countries, however, being baptized and publicly declaring your faith in Jesus will get you disowned by your family and may make you a target of those who hate Christians. Still, Jesus says that Christians should be baptized. It is an important step of commitment and identifying ourselves with Christ. It serves as a reminder of where we find our identity, and what we believe. This passage reminds us that though baptism is a symbol, it is still very important.
Second, these verses teach us the lesson of obedience. If we learn nothing else from these verses, we should learn that God has a plan that is so much bigger than we can fathom. God had planned this moment before He had even created the world. He had a plan in place to save us from our sin from the very beginning. We can’t possibly understand everything that God is doing. But there are some things we clearly can understand. We can understand what He tells us to do, even if we don’t always understand why He tells us to do them. So, this passage should remind us to follow God’s instructions for life, even when God’s instructions run contrary to what we think is best or what the world around us says is right. If we really trust Him, we will do what He says.
Third, we should learn that God’s plan is fulfilled in Jesus Christ alone. I find it interesting that John’s message attracted such large crowds. It reminds us that people crave forgiveness. We know we need help. Even people who think they are good, or try to explain away their sin long to know they are forgiven. The baptism of Jesus should remind us that we can have forgiveness through Him. It is because of his sinless life that our sin can be paid for and forgiven. Jesus came for the express purpose of dying on our behalf, taking on our sin, and making it possible for us to be forgiven. When we begin to understand this truth, it should boggle our minds. But it’s not enough for us to simply be amazed at God’s plan; we must respond by following Jesus.
This means that we have to stop trying to rely on our own goodness to please God. We have to recognize that no matter how much we try to do, we can never be good enough to atone for the sins we have committed. The only way for us to be forgiven and to spend eternity in Heaven is to turn to and follow Jesus Christ. He is unique, and He came so that you and I can be forgiven.
How do you view Jesus? Some view him as just another religious leader, a person who made a lot of empty promises. These people clearly haven’t looked into who Jesus really is—they haven’t examined the evidence that proves Jesus rose from the dead. Some think of Jesus as just one of many religious options, all of which are basically the same. Still others view Jesus as a great person, one of the best men who ever lived. They see him as a teacher with a lot of good advice. This passage helps us to see that Jesus is so much more than each of these things. Jesus is God in the flesh. Jesus is not just someone whose advice we should follow. He is the One we must trust and follow with our lives. He is the One who should be more important to us than anything else. Jesus is the Only One who can save us.
So be honest with yourself. Is this who Jesus is to you? Do you follow Him wholeheartedly as your Savior? Or do you simply look to Him as a good man and a great moral teacher? Do you admire Jesus or do you follow Him?
There are a lot of things I don’t understand, but one thing I do. Jesus came to die for you and for me; but only those who follow Him, who worship Him, and who trust in Him will live with Him in Heaven.