Happy New Year! I hope 2023 has got off to a good start for you all. For many of us this week has marked a rather reluctant return to school or to work. Christmas celebrations well are truly over and its time to roll up our sleeves, re-focus our minds and get on with our day jobs.
Today’s passage from Matthew chapter 3 certainly has a new year, new start ‘feel’ to it. The familiar events of the first Christmas are now well behind us, thirty years have passed since Jesus was born in Bethlehem, and the shepherds and wise men have long since returned home! Instead, today’s passage records the day when Jesus began the demanding task that he had come to earth to complete. The day, in fact, when Jesus received the qualifications and character references necessary to get going on his God-given mission.
But first, let me ‘set the scene’. John the Baptist has been preaching in the Judean desert. Dressed in his distinctive camel-hair clothing, John was a ‘voice in the wilderness’ declaring the imminent arrival of the Lord amongst his people. To prepare for his arrival, John called on his hearers to confess their sins and be baptised in the river Jordan. These two acts of confession and baptism were designed to be signs of sincere repentance. Two ways in which faithful Jews could demonstrate their desire for God’s forgiveness and their determination to live his way in future.
But as we move to our passage today, John the Baptist gives way to Jesus of Galilee; the Spirit of God descends like a dove, and John’s voice in the wilderness is superseded by a voice from Heaven. Let’s look at each of these three events in turn, and see what we can learn about Jesus’ identity and mission – as well as the implications for ourselves.
Jesus’ solidarity with sinners (v.13-15)
To begin with then, John the Baptist gives way to Jesus of Galilee. Because in verses 13 to 15 Matthew allows us to eavesdrop on a conversation between John and Jesus. Matthew tells us that ‘Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John. But John tried to deter him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and yet you come to me?” Jesus replied, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfil all righteousness.” Then John consented.’
I think we can all sympathise with John’s perplexity at this point! We can probably all understand why John initially resisted Jesus’ request for baptism.
• After all, John has been calling upon people to be baptised as a sign of their repentance before the arrival of the Lord. And yet when the Lord Jesus does come he asks to be baptised himself! Surely a sinless saviour has no need of a baptism of repentance? (Its worth noting that Matthew does not say that Jesus confessed any sins beside the Jordan – since he had none to confess!).
• What’s more, John had been telling people that he was unworthy to even carry the sandals of the coming Messiah. And yet when the Messiah does turn up at the banks of the Jordan it is John whom he asks to baptise him! Surely Jesus has got things all the wrong way round?
In fact, Jesus’ request for baptism is something that has perplexed Bible readers for generations – its not just John the Baptist who’s been confused! So what is going on? Why does Jesus say that it is actually ‘right and proper’ for him to be baptised himself?
The crucial point is that by being baptised, Jesus was identifying himself with sinners. By undergoing a baptism of repentance Jesus was aligning himself with imperfect human beings like you and me. This baptism in water at the beginning of Jesus ministry was therefore a preparation and prerequisite for a much more demanding kind of ‘baptism’ that Jesus would face at the end of his earthly ministry. A baptism not in the River Jordan, but on a Roman Cross.
The prophet Isaiah saw all this coming several centuries before Jesus’ birth. In chapter 53 of Isaiah he describes the Messiah’s future work in the following way: God’s “righteous servant will justify many, and he will bear their iniquities…because he poured out his life unto death,
and was numbered with the transgressors.”
So Jesus’ baptism was the first, but certainly not the last time, in which Jesus would voluntarily allow himself to be ‘numbered among transgressors’. It was at the cross where Jesus would fully and finally stand in the place of sinners – when he willingly bore the penalty for sin in place of you, and of me.
So by submitting himself to water baptism, Jesus was expressing solidarity with fallen humanity – and thereby qualifying himself to be our Saviour.
In their conversation together, did you notice that John speaks of his need for Jesus, and then submits to Christ’s command to baptise him. Surely we should have the same attitude as John!
Jesus is the Spirit-filled saviour (v.16)
As our passage continues, John proceeds to baptise Jesus and the heavens open – not with rain, but with revelation! As Jesus comes up out of the waters of the Jordan, the heavens open and the other two persons of the Trinity are revealed. The Father and Holy Spirit both miraculously manifest themselves to give Jesus the ultimate character reference.
Matthew tells us exactly what happened in verses 16 and 17: ‘As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him.’ And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”’
So how do these remarkable events provide Jesus with a definitive character reference? Well, let’s begin by looking at the descent of the Holy Spirit. As we heard in our first reading from Isaiah 42 this morning, it had long been prophesied that the Messiah, when he came, would have God’s Spirit placed upon him. So the descent of the Spirit on Jesus was a visible confirmation of his Messianic identity.
But Matthew also tells us that the Holy Spirit settled on Jesus. It landed on him like a dove. The Spirit’s descent was not some temporary spiritual anointing for Jesus – a gift here today and gone tomorrow. Instead, the Spirit was a permanent presence with him. As we see Jesus’ ministry unfold in Matthew over the coming weeks, we shall see just how the Holy Spirit was a constant guiding force and empowering presence within him. Next week, for example, we shall see how the Spirit led Christ into the wilderness for his confrontation with Satan. The Holy Spirit was the ultimate SatNav and the perfect power supply for the Lord Jesus’s saving work.
One application for us is this – if even Jesus needed the sustaining presence of the Holy Spirit to walk God’s way in this world, how much more do we too! We are all paying high prices for our gas and electricity at the moment. But the power of the Holy Spirit is free to every Christian through prayer.
Jesus is God’s royal son and suffering servant (v.17)
After the dove from above, Matthew tells us about a voice from above. The voice of God the Father, no less, who declares Jesus to be his Son, whom he loves, and with whom he is well pleased. Those words are rich in significance, and are quotations from two well-known Old Testament passages. (God knows his Bible, by the way!)
The first phrase is taken from Psalm number 2. A psalm in which God promises to send a righteous King to rule the world. A perfect King who will defeat all the powers of evil and establish an everlasting kingdom. A King whom God is proud to call his Son. The second phrase spoken from Heaven is a quote from Isaiah 42, our opening reading this morning. In that chapter, as we heard, God introduces his faithful servant, his ‘chosen one’ in whom he delights. It is one of four so-called ‘Servant Songs’ in the book of Isaiah, which describe a coming Servant of God who will be holy and righteous, yet will suffer greatly at the hands of evil men. A Servant who will be “pierced for our transgressions”, who by his death will “justify many”.
The purpose of the voice that spoke from heaven as Jesus was baptised was to announce that the long- promised Servant-King had now arrived. That heavenly voice was the ultimate character reference for Jesus Christ.
So as I finish, I hope our understanding of Jesus’ identity and mission has been made a clearer by this passage:
• By submitting himself to baptism, Jesus showed his solidarity with sinful humanity. Though himself righteous, Christ chose to be numbered among transgressors. It qualified him to be the Saviour of sinners.
• Secondly, the descent of the Spirit and the heavenly voice identified Jesus as Israel’s long-promised Messiah and as the Suffering Servant who would sacrifice himself for the sins of the world. They were two compelling character references for Christ.
Confronted by this evidence, the challenge for us is to truly take it to heart. To accept the testimony of the dove from above and the voice from heaven. In other words, it means:
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