Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

17. The Baptism of Jesus (Matt. 3: 13-17; Mark 1: 9-11; Luke 3: 21-23; John 1: 32)*

At about the age of thirty Jesus came to John for baptism. It was the age when a Levite was allowed to begin service in the temple (Nu. 4:3), the age when Joseph began his great work in Egypt (Gen. 41:46), the age when David began to reign (2 Sam. 5:4). So now Jesus made the journey from Nazareth in Galilee specifically for the formal beginning of his public life. (For Bethabara, see Study 19).

John’s Reluctance

At first the Baptist sought to deter Jesus from his intention (cp. Jn. 13: 6), for almost at once he knew Jesus to be a man of far higher holiness than himself: “I have need to be baptized of thee, and comest thou to me?” How did John know this? In spite of their blood relationship, he and Jesus had grown up apart, as complete strangers. It is not even possible to postulate that they may have met from time to time, for later on John told the Pharisees: “I knew him not’ (Jn. 1: 31).

It would require no time at all for John to recognize the superior quality of Jesus. Those who came to John were not baptized indiscriminately, but only after the Baptist’s interrogation of them had satisfied him as to their sincerity and proper appreciation of what the rite involved (Mt. 3: 7). The apostle Peter makes reference to a similar practice in the early church when he alludes to baptism as the “interrogation of a good understanding” (1 Pet. 3: 21; and note the allusions to a ‘statement of faith’ in v. 18,22). All who came to John made confession of their sins also-all, that is, except Jesus, and this without any hypocrisy. So even before the sign of the Holy Spirit was given John knew that this was the Lamb of God to take away the sin of the world. “I have need to be baptized of thee”, he declared very emphatically. The words seem to imply that John had not been baptized as yet-waiting for Messiah to come and baptize him? And now Messiah was here. So it seems not improbable that when the two men went down into the waters of Jordan they baptized each other. More than this, one day Jesus will baptize John in the fire of the holy Spirit to an extent far surpassing anything he experienced in the days of his mortal service.

Why should Jesus be baptized?

John’s discouragement was quietly but firmly set aside: “Suffer it to be so now”, for now the status of Jesus was that of a son of Adam. It was a tacit acceptance of the correctness of John’s attitude, but yet Jesus insisted on the need for this baptism: “Thus it becometh us to fulfil all righteousness.” The commentators are altogether baffled by these words and by the acceptance of baptism by Jesus. One after another they make it a fulfilling of the Law of Moses. But John’s baptism was no part of the Law. In fact, it proclaimed the inadequacy of the Law. And a man of outstanding scholarship like Farrar makes no less than four separate attempts to explain why Jesus should be baptized at all, and misses the mark badly every time.

The word “us”, used by Jesus, supplies the key to a better understanding. It does not refer to Jesus and John, but to Jesus and the rest who were similarly being baptized. This is made certain, if any confirmation is necessary, by Luke’s phrases: “when all the people were baptized”, or, possibly, “during the baptizing of all the people. . . Jesus also”. By this act, then, Jesus associated himself openly with the sinners he came to save. By it he proclaimed the essential one-ness of his nature with theirs. He too needed this baptism, inasmuch as he also was a member of this fallen race needing redemption. It was an acknowledgement that the great truth taught by John: “all flesh is grass”, applied to him also. He needed the benefits of his own sacrifice. Now, as well as at the end of the days of his flesh, he was “numbered with the transgressors” (Is. 53: 12). Perhaps there is more symbolism in Mark’s mention of Jesus coming to John from “Nazareth of Galilee”, for both the town and the district had no reputation at all (Jn. 1: 46; 7: 41; 1 Kgs. 9: 11-13). By this act of baptism Jesus fulfilled all righteousness, for here was the outward symbol of his own death and resurrection. It summed up all his redeeming work.

Every Detail Symbolic

It is not easy to see why the gospels should emphasize that after baptism Jesus went up straightway out of the water. This could surely be taken for granted as a perfectly normal and natural thing. Is the detail mentioned as foreshadowing his own resurrection — an immediate leaving behind of mortality and immediate experience of Holy Spirit power and heavenly blessing?

If this inference can be pressed, then what of the further detail given by Luke that forthwith Jesus was seen to be praying continuously? Does this similarly foreshadow the priestly intercession which became his high responsibility from the time of his resurrection? In that case, it should be possible to infer that the baptismal prayer of Jesus was not primarily for himself as he now embarked on the great work of his life, but for those to whom he would minister the grace of God.

As Jesus emerged from the water, the heavens were opened (Mark’s word means “split”) and a dove came out of the sky and rested on him. It was a very remarkable happening, introduced by Matthew with his characteristic underlining: “Behold!” Some have assumed that all this was a subjective experience, with no actual phenomenon in the heavens, no literal dove, and no audible voice. This is an incorrect inference from Matthew’s words: “there appeared unto him”, for later, John stated explicitly: “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven, and it abode upon him ... he that sent me to baptize with water, the same said unto me, Upon whom thou shalt see the spirit descending, and remaining on him, the same is he which baptizeth with the Holy Spirit” (Jn. 1: 32,33); and Luke’s phrase is: “in bodily shape like a dove.”

The Dove

It seems probable, then, that a dove did actually alight upon Jesus, but the meaning of this was understood only by him and by John. The voice of approval speaking to Jesus was also heard and understood by none except themselves. Bystanders probably heard it as a mighty roll of thunder, as on another later occasion (Jn. 12: 29). This suggests the possibility of a sudden thunderstorm. The heavens were “split” by an intense flash of lightning, the Voice of the Lord spoke in thunder (Ps. 18: 13; 29: 3), and the windows of heaven poured forth their blessing. If disciples were to be baptized with the Holy Spirit and with fire-and this happened at Pentecost-is it conceivable that there was no such baptism for Jesus? The servant is not greater than his Master.

The voice from heaven was what Israel at Sinai had frenetically demanded should be reserved for Moses’ experience. They would have none of it. So this voice at Jordan identified Jesus as the promised Prophet like unto Moses (Dt. 18: 15-19).

A prophecy in Malachi which foretells the work of both John and Jesus has this also: “Prove me now herewith, saith the Lord of hosts, if I will not open you the windows of heaven, and pour you out a blessing — and not just enough” (3: 10). The words seem to be appropriate to the baptism of Jesus also, for the apostle John’s comment, with evident allusion to this passage, is: “God gave not the Spirit by measure unto him” — not just enough!

The “bodily form” of a dove as a symbol of the Holy Spirit was probably intended to associate the beginning of the Lord’s public ministry with other Old Testament Scriptures. Psalm 91 was most likely written, in the first instance, with reference to Joshua. Now it had further application to another Joshua. “He that dwelleth in the secret place of the Most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty. . . He shall cover thee with his feathers, and under his wings shalt thou trust: his truth shall be thy shield and buckler” (v.1, 4).

Again the sending forth of first a raven and then a dove from the ark (Gen. 8: 7-12) may have its parallel in the work of John and Jesus for the inauguration of a New Creation (Is. 54: 9). Peter saw the likeness, and associated Noah’s Flood with baptism and the new life in Christ: “The like figure whereunto even baptism doth also now save us, not the putting away of the filth of the flesh (as in leprosy washing; Lev. 14: 9), but the interrogation of a good understanding God-ward, by the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 3: 21).

The Voice from Heaven

In later days the apostles also saw this twofold baptism of Jesus as declaring him to be the Messiah: “That word, I say, ye know. . . how that God anointed (Christ-ed) Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power” (Acts 10: 38). Since the Holy Spirit is the finger of God (Study 75; Mt.12: 28; Lk. 11: 20), by this power with which Jesus was now endowed God was pointing him out as the promised Christ. This was a better anointing than Aaron received (Lev.8: 12).

The voice from heaven, understood only by John and Jesus, said this even more emphatically: “Thou art my Son, the Beloved; in thee I am well pleased.” The opening phrase is the familiar declaration of Psalm 2 vindicating the Christ when human rulers turn “against the Lord and against his anointed” (v.2).

“The Beloved” is the equivalent of John’s favourite phrase “the only-begotten Son”. It is also the description of Isaac, the eloquent prototype of the divinely born Son willing to suffer at Jerusalem (Moriah) at the behest of his Father (Gen. 22: 2). It became also Paul’s deepest expression of appreciation of the redeeming work of Christ: “He hath made us accepted in the Beloved, in whom we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of his grace” (Eph. 1: 6,7).

The last phrase is doubtless from Isaiah 42: 1: “Behold my Servant, whom I uphold, mine elect in whom my soul delighteth; I have put my spirit upon him.” Here, in prophecy, is the Messiah who is ultimately to “bring forth judgment to the Gentiles.” The words which follow are used by Matthew as an apt description of the humble character of the Suffering Servant of the Lord during his ministry: “He shall not cry, nor lift up, nor cause his voice to be heard in the streets...” (Mt. 12: 17-21).

But there is a good deal more meaning locked up in this word “well pleased”. The Greek aorist tense used by Luke and Matthew makes pointed allusion to the act of baptism just completed. The Old Testament antecedents of the word-ratzan, ratzon- describe a sacrifice well-pleasing to God. So the heavenly declaration may also have implied: “My beloved Son by means of whom I shall receive a wholly acceptable sacrifice for the sins of men.” Thus yet again the baptism of Jesus is associated with his death and resurrection. “This is he that came by water and blood, even Jesus Christ; not by water only, but by water and blood. And it is the Spirit that beareth witness, because the Spirit is truth” (1 Jn. 5: 6; Study 236).

From this day on, Jesus walked in the shadow of the cross.


Matthew 3: 13-17

Forbad. A very emphatic word, in Greek, and the imperfect tense implies that John persisted in his protest.
Suffer itto be so now. The principle of 1 Jn. 2:6 in reverse.
The Spirit of God. The seven-fold Spirit of Is. 11:2. The definite article refers back to the Spirit in v. 11.
My beloved Son, in whom 1 am well pleased is assuredly the inaudible voice at every other sincere and true baptism.

Did the Voice say “Thou art” (Mk. Lk.) or “This is” (Mt.)? This variant is an example of an often-recurring problem in the gospels.

Mark 1: 9-11

Into Jordan (Gk.) and 10. Out of the water are emphatic phrases to teach the true mode of baptism.
Heaven opened: cp. especially the experience of Ezekiel, son of man, at the beginning of his ministry: Ez 1: 1. Did Jesus see what Ezekiel saw?

Luke 3: 21-23

All the people. . . baptized. Yet John’s ministry is later summed up as a failure (Study 16). Then what was the “casualty rate” of these converts? The baptism of Jesus should be compared with the anointing of David (1 Sam.16: 13) and of Aaron (Lev. 8: 12).

Praying (as also in his resurrection?). But praying for what? (a) For the Holy Spirit? (b) Offering thanks for thatgift? (c) Seeking sustained divine help and guidance through his ministry? (d) Ps.31: 5? Luke’s emphasis on the prayers of Jesus is very marked, and makes a profitable separate study: 3: 21; 5: 16; 6: 12; 9: 18,28,29; 11: 1; 22: 40,41; 23: 34,46. Also: 11: 5-13; 18: 1,2.

John 1:32

The Greek tenses here are somewhat unexpected. I have seen (or, beheld) implies: and I can still see it. A striking vision still before his eyes. The Spirit descending from heaven has a continuous verb, only to be explained on the same lines as the foregoing “I have seen”.

He that sent me. Does this refer to another appearance ot the angel Gabriel, this time to John when the time for his mission drew nigh?

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