Matthew 3:13-17 - A Baptism of Identification and Affirmation
This is, for Jesus, John and the world, a pivotal moment. It is the inaugural event in the ministry of Jesus that will change a covenant and begin a war that will last until Jesus comes again. Human history will never be the same from this day forward. John and the Old Testament with him must now begin to fade and give way to the new covenant Jesus is beginning here. So also, the kingdom of Satan will give way to the kingdom of God initiated through Jesus.
The opening shot in Jesus’ war is his baptism by John. It is a baptism of repentance, though even John himself knows this is not a baptism Jesus needs by nature. John is very aware that he is the lesser man and needs rather to be baptized by Jesus - especially this kind of baptism (repentance for sins). Jesus has nothing inherent to his being that requires such a baptism.
What was it like for John to see Jesus and to recognize him as the One who was to come; the One whose sandals he wasn’t worthy to carry; yet his cousin, Joseph’s son; yet holy; not needing the very baptism all the world needed; yet wanting to be baptized by John? What a mass of confusion.
Jesus moves from Galilee to the Jordan to John to be baptized. This is a clear pathway to Jesus’ future. It is a narrowing of focus. He doesn’t go out into the world to begin. He doesn’t even go to Jerusalem - the logical place to begin any kind of ministry. Instead, he leaves a hidden shelter of a life in the Galilee and moves to an isolated region with a ministry going on under the leadership of John. This ministry isn’t gathering the religious elite, though obviously a few are coming out to inspect him. No, this is gathering the repentant. From all the regions John draws those looking for the prophetic consolation of Israel. He draws those interested in the revelation of the promised Messiah. He gathers those whose hearts are stirred and who want to repent of their sins to make sure they are ready to receive God’s anointed. This is where Jesus goes first! It is strategic for His own life, but it also makes the point His whole ministry will underscore, that He rarely goes or does what the religious would expect. He’s not looking for “a ministry”. He is looking for obedience to the Father and the hearts prepared for Him and His kingdom.
Jesus was humble. He didn’t need John’s baptism. He chose it, without caveat. How often when I am humbling myself would I make some kind of qualification? “I’m going into this baptism for your sake, not for mine. I want you to know that though I’m doing it, I don’t really need it!” Yet Jesus was very intentional. He travelled. He came from Galilee. He came to the Jordan. He came to John. He came to be baptized. And he opposed John on the issue because John knew. Yet he never qualified his baptism. He just said it was to fulfill all righteousness and that it was fitting to do so.
Humility is the foundation of approval. But how do you get humility without approval? I wonder if we do. I wonder if we don’t get fear, or desperation, or hopelessness first. Then we find Jesus. I suppose all of these things speak of humility. It is humbling in the least to admit to any kind of need. “I am hopeless. Please give me hope.” This implicitly says, “I can’t make it on my own. Help.” And there is the first expression of humility. But Jesus’ humility wasn’t the same kind. He did not humble himself out of need, but out of love. The first kind of humility gets a Divine response of provision; of salvation. But the second kind of humility gets a Divine response of revelation; tangible affirmation; and Divine presence. The former is a doorway to relationship. The latter is an affirmation of relationship. The former is a doorway into the kingdom of God. The latter is a platform for the aggressive advance of the kingdom of God.
Remember Peter in John 13:6? The famous foot-washing encounter. Unexpectedly, the teacher attempts to wash the students’ feet. Peter was first in line. He objected, much as John did here. “Lord, do you wash my feet?” And again in verse 8, “You shall never wash my feet.” Wow. Peter was bold if nothing else. But that reaction was so much like the revulsion John felt here. Why? In fact, isn’t it worse with Peter? You’d think that John might have a problem. He was speaking strictly out of an Old Testament revelation and understanding of the Messiah. His models were people like King David. You honour the king. You are the subject of the king, not the baptizer. He is the higher one. But Peter?! Peter had hung out with Jesus for quite a while before this incident. You’d think he’d have gotten just a bit of understanding. But I’m wondering if pride doesn’t ALWAYS work against that kind of humility because the act itself exposes the pride. We don’t want to be humble like that, so we certainly don’t want God humble before us. Because if He’s like that, that low, that servant-hearted, that self-emptying, how much more do we need to be? But we generally don’t want to be. So we tell God to stand up so we can bow. That way our pride in “knowing stuff” and “proper decorum” remains intact. What do you do with a God who is sinless, who nevertheless wills, out of love, to identify with our sin? What do you do with a God who wills to wash your feet?
It is our natural and persistent response to Jesus’ humility - “You don’t understand. You’re not the sinner. You don’t need anything related to repentance. I’m the one in the bad condition. You baptize me.” I mean to say, we rarely ever see it. We rarely ever really get the idea that His love implies a humility that He will enter into our condition and not lord it over us. He will serve. He will humble himself. And that is humbling to us. It is, in itself, a call to us to humble ourselves.
So, against all religious reasoning, Jesus makes John a partner. Let it be so now. It is not that John doesn’t need Jesus to baptize him. Jesus doesn’t disclaim John’s understanding. There is a greater baptism that John has already spoken of, that he recognizes will come from Messiah (3:11). Jesus knows John needs this baptism but it is not yet time. That baptism will only come in its season. So, “For now....” This is the time for something else. Now “It is fitting for “us” to fulfil....” John new he was the one, in the company of Jesus, who needed the baptism (v. 14), yet somehow in the exchange he gives way to Jesus quickly. He recognizes Jesus is about something that he must give way to. He consented.
How was it to fulfill all righteousness? Right relating to the Father? The Father decreed it? It was at least an affirmation of the baptism of repentance. It was a clear signal of Divine approval of the baptism of John. Repentance must precede anointing, so John’s baptism fulfills a Divine mandate; an order of salvation. In addition, simply put, the Father decreed it. If Jesus did nothing but what He saw the Father doing (John 5:19) then this must have been directly in accord with the Father’s will. So He rightly relates to the Father through His obedience. Then there is the righteousness that is a right relating to all of us on the human plane. Jesus’ type of righteousness was primarily relational love, not moral purity. Moral purity was merely content and substance of relational love. The core motive was love. So just as He became as sin for us, so He begins His ministry with an identification that is an expression of love for the human race that will not reach its peak until He is nailed to the cross. Righteousness is fully expressed in a loving identification with a humanity He is clearly above. Humility necessitates this kind of righteousness.
The awakening is that it is this very heart He displays that gets the approval from the Father that we all so long for and can’t get because we don’t have a heart like His.
The heavens were opened. This is more than an expression. It is the new reality for Jesus and all in him. The heavens are open and the approval and blessing of the Father is flowing. It begins and ends in relationship. Ministry flows from relationship, not the other way around. So the first thing that flows from the opened heaven is the voice of approval. The pleasure of the Father is in the Son and in all who are in the Son.
The experience is tangible. The Spirit of God descends like a dove and alights on Jesus. Luke (3:22) records that the Holy Spirit was in bodily form. This likely underscores that the voice is in the physical as well, thus making it probable that it was audible.
The Father thus sets the stage for Jesus’ ministry by anchoring it in tangible experiences of His approval that are like pillars in Jesus spirit and soul. They will sustain Him in the trials and suffering He is to go through. It is critical to note that the Father’s approval is set and the heavens opened to Jesus before He does any ministry. This experience doesn’t happen after, but before He does one act in ministry.
The foundation of all “Jesus” ministry must be the same. It must be rooted in revelation: first of the love and approval and presence of the Father; and second of His ministry-specific will. Most ministry done by the church in Jesus’ name is not Divinely ordained. It fails one of these two tests. It is very often ministry that flows from a deficit of this kind of approval and presence. It is rooted in human efforts to win approval or to gain the approval of man in the absence of God’s approval. Kingdom ministry flows from a concrete sense of being approved. There is therefore no angst in it. There is no fretting. There is no performance standard in it because ministry excellence doesn’t win approval. Approval is the backdrop and motivator of the ministry.