This is a continuation on a series of reflection posts on Matthew 1-4. To see the previous entry, please click here (it might be a good refresher to read again even if you caught it the first time).
Everyone tries to put Jesus into a box. Conservatives, liberals, heretics, heathens, atheists, agnostics, and true believers all do this. Maybe they condense Him into a moralistic box or a lunatic box or a nonexistent box, but everyone does this. I think part of that is just how humans think. Concepts of the eternal are unfathomable for our finite brains and so are many other truths from and about God. Jesus, the greatest revelation, is hard to comprehend. He is 100% God and 100% man. Try working that out with all its tensions, complexities, and questions. Even if you focus on His earthly ministry, you still can’t get away from how uncontainable and uncontrollable He is. As we close out Matthew 3, John the Baptist warns His audience about the wild Messiah who is coming. When the Christ shows up by the river, He has a wild request that staggers the Baptist.
The Wild Messiah
Coming on the heels of warning the Pharisees about God’s ax of judgment that was so near to being laid to their tree, John the Baptist appealed to a higher authority than himself. He’s in essence pointing out that he’s not making this threat, but the Messiah who was right around the bend would carry this action out. To emphasize the Christ’s greater power, John compared the type of baptisms he and the Messiah practice. John merely used water, a symbol of purification. But the mighty Messiah will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire. This speaks of the great, godlike authority He wields.
It seems like John is acknowledging that there are two parts to the Christ’s baptism. On one hand, there is life that comes with baptism in the Spirit. On the other, however, there is the judgment of fire. It’s the judgment side of things that the Baptist warned the Pharisees about. The time was coming when the wheat would be separated from the chaff and the latter be burned away. John’s point ties back to his admonition in verse 8: “Bear fruit in keeping with repentance.” Don’t rest on your lineage, family history, or upbringing to save you; that only leads to a baptism in fire. Repent and be baptized into the Holy Spirit.
The Wild Moment
It’s likely this was a message John preached over and over again, maybe even daily. He was readying his audience for a grand arrival. Then, one day, it finally happened. Jesus came down from Galilee and revealed Himself to John the Baptist (and whoever else was watching) at the Jordan River. John was probably about to push the switch that released all the balloons and confetti into the air, but Jesus had an unbelievable request: He wanted John to baptize Him. Jesus, the Messiah, the one who baptizes with the Spirit and fire, wants to be baptized by the lesser prophet in the water. No wonder John tries to prevent Him from doing this! But the Christ was persistent; they must “fulfill all righteousness“. Debate rages over what exactly Jesus meant. He was sinless, so there were no sins to confess but why be baptized then? Here are some likely answers in no particular order:
- God had commanded it this way and so Jesus was simply being obedient.
- This gave Jesus another layer of connection to His people. They are to be baptized, but He, as the establisher of God’s kingdom (and not just a harbinger) is the first. He sets the standard.
- Jesus put His stamp of approval on John’s message. He is the Messiah and does have the authority the Baptist prophesied.
- It’s a “passing the baton” moment from John’s Old Testament-style to Jesus and the kingdom He was starting.
Regardless of Jesus’ meaning, His intent was clear and the Baptist acquiesced. As Jesus came up from the water, something even more startling happened: the heavens opened, the Spirit descended like a dove, and God affirmed Jesus and said He was pleased. Was Jesus the only witness to this? John, at least, saw what happened (see John 1:32). Was the crowd nearby privy to this revelation? Unclear. No matter how many people witnessed this moment, it showed the world one thing: Jesus is indeed the Messiah. Who else would God say such things to?
The public revelation and baptism of Jesus is spectacular and yet easy to gloss over. The take away from this scene is that Jesus is the Messiah. He is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit and fire. He is God’s Son. He does have authority that no other human can claim. Jesus is not an imposter to the throne, He is the rightful King. You cannot put Him into a box; you might as well contain a hurricane. The logical end of this beginning is that if these things are the case, that means that Jesus’ message (which was mostly the same as John’s) of repentance to enter the coming kingdom is one we must heed. His command must be obeyed or we face the fire. But, thank God, fire isn’t all that He baptizes with. Jesus also ushers in the Spirit who gives life and makes us holy. Confronted with this reality, which baptism do you choose? The Holy Spirit or fire?