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The Life of Jesus - Series 2: Episode 2

The baptism of Jesus

| Martin Charlesworth
Matthew 3:13-17
Mark 1:9-11
Luke 3:21-23

John baptises Jesus which is the launch of his public ministry. God the Father speaks from heaven and the Holy Spirit comes in the form of a dove; each is involved in the mission. The place of baptism today is explored.

John baptises Jesus which is the launch of his public ministry. God the Father speaks from heaven and the Holy Spirit comes in the form of a dove; each is involved in the mission. The place of baptism today is explored.


Hello and welcome to Series 2 and Episode 2. This is ‘The Baptism of Jesus’

Introduction and Recap

We’re going to read from Matthew's Gospel 3: 13 - 17 but before we read this short passage which describes Jesus' baptism, let’s remind ourselves of what’s happened immediately before. The last episode (Series 2, Episode 1) I described John the Baptist’s ministry, as he came to the Jordan and started preaching in Israel challenging different social groups - challenging the wealthy, challenging tax collectors, challenging soldiers, and also the religious establishments - it was time for change; time to await the Messiah’s coming, time to get their lives in order and time to demonstrate that by being baptised by immersion in the River Jordan. That's what he did in his ministry, as described in the last episode. John had a significant following, - thousands of people came. He became well-known across the country in a very short period of time and he raised expectation that something dramatic was going to happen in the nation of Israel, bearing in mind that nothing much spiritually dramatic had happened for quite a long time. I mentioned last time that no recognised prophet had emerged for 400 years and how the religion appeared to many to be rather stale, legalistic, and a little futile because the nation was oppressed under the control of the Romans and their leaders and those they appointed to lead different parts of the country. It was an uncomfortable situation; the economy wasn't good because of taxation and the demands of the Roman Empire. It wasn't a good situation and so there was a great desire for change. Many people thought the best thing would be to take up arms against the Romans. Some people wanted to retreat and to live a kind of monastic life and separate themselves from society - small minorities - but most people were just dissatisfied and looking for some greater spiritual reality. In the back of their minds was the awareness that the Old Testament had prophesied in many ways that a future ruler, Messiah, Saviour, Servant of God, Son of Man, was going to come and bring in a new dispensation - a new reality, a New Covenant, a new relationship with God and hopefully a new political situation in the country as well. So all these things were in the background as John came and we described that last time.

Jesus in the Background

As we start the session we want to go back to the final things that John said according to Luke's account, as he very specifically predicted what was going to happen next. Bearing in mind that at this particular point, Jesus was a largely unknown, ordinary single man, living at home with his family in a rather remote village in Galilee, called Nazareth, where nothing much really happens. He was just living a quiet life - he would be around the age of 30, or perhaps a little less, at this time. That's Jesus, that’s his situation - no influence, no miracles, no big stories (apart from the memory in some people’s minds of the miraculous birth and a very few people might remember the visit he made to the Jerusalem Temple, aged 12). Jesus was an unknown figure in the nation.

From that point, John, with crowds gathered around him, on the side of the River Jordan while he is baptising people, makes this prophetic statement, anticipating what’s going to happen. This is the introduction to our passage - Luke 3: 16 “I baptize you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” John, is clearly, identifying himself as a forerunner: he’s making a way for somebody else, somebody who’s really very different from him. ‘I’m not even worthy to be his servant and untie his shoes!’ (which is what a servant would do in those days) Such is the difference that John sees between himself and this forthcoming Messiah. ‘I baptise with water; he’ll baptise with the Holy Spirit and fire’. We discussed this at the end of the last episode. I’m repeating it because it links very closely to what happens next. John is consciously awakening an awareness in people that the story is not about him; it's about somebody who is coming afterwards. John, of course, knew who that was: Jesus, his relative, who was born miraculously (by virgin birth) to his relative Mary, shortly after he was born. This is the context in which the Gospels tell us about Jesus. Jesus wasn't present when John started his ministry. He wasn't with him. He wasn't there.

Things were moving, thousands of people coming; crowds came down from Jerusalem and the surrounding area on a regular basis to see John - to listen to him, to talk to him, and some of them felt very moved by him. They didn’t quite know why but they felt that change was needed in their lives and so they submitted to baptism by immersion in the River Jordan. Jesus wasn't there at that time but it wasn't long afterwards that he did appear - and here is the passage we’re going to look at today about the baptism of Jesus. We’re going to take Matthew's account on this occasion, Matthew 3: 13 - 17:

‘Then 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 do you come to me?” Jesus replied, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” Then John consented. 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’m) well pleased.”

Matthew 3:13-17, NIV

John’s Reluctance to baptise Jesus

A short, but very dramatic account. At the beginning, it appears that Jesus consciously decided to travel down to the River Jordan, probably quite a long way from his home (because the baptismal site was probably much further south, towards the area of Judea and Jerusalem, at a place which John's Gospel described as Bethany beyond the Jordan). Jesus took this journey and he knew why he was taking it. He was going to undergo this baptism. John knew that his job was to proclaim that Jesus was the Messiah, but he didn't really understand that Jesus wanted to be baptised as well. John's hesitation is obvious and you can understand it, can’t you, because baptism is a symbol of cleansing and what do we need to be cleansed from? The things we’ve done wrong: sins, rebellion against God, all sorts of things that we know are wrong. That's what the other people had in mind when they underwent baptism from John. When Jesus came, John knew that this was not true of Jesus. He knew he was the Son of God. He knew that he was without sin - he’d lived a perfect life and would continue to do so. So therefore he hesitated, tried to put Jesus off and almost wanted to reverse the roles and say, ‘Well, actually Jesus, why don’t you baptise me? I’ve been baptising these people, but the most appropriate thing is you baptise me because I'm also a sinner even though I’m a prophet.’ Jesus declined and said, ‘Let it be so now.’ and he gives a reason. He said, ‘it is proper for us to do this to fulfil all righteousness.’ What does that mean? That’s a difficult phrase to interpret. Probably what it means is to obey what God the Father wants for Jesus to do. Jesus wanted to follow through in obedience to that. God the Father's blessing on Jesus is evident by the words that he speaks - we’ll come to those in just a moment.

Meaning of Jesus’ Baptism

He needed to ‘fulfil all righteousness’ - can I suggest just a few things that make sense of Jesus’ baptism? His baptism would be immediately a publicly known event and widely discussed; it created a moment where he appeared on the public stage. This is the moment when Jesus begins his ministry, in effect. He’s not been a public figure until now and he deliberately approaches John, chooses this moment and chooses this methodology - that he himself will be baptised. It’s an announcement. Perhaps, it symbolises his future death and resurrection - because as Paul says, in the book of Romans, baptism symbolises death and resurrection in a lovely way. Perhaps, even more importantly, this is to identify with sinful people, ordinary people, people like me and you, John the Baptist, everyone who listens to this message and everyone who listened to John the Baptist. We need to be baptised. We need to repent. We need to have faith in Jesus - we’ll talk a bit more about that in just a moment. Jesus is identifying with us. He’s, in a sense, sharing in our sinfulness - not by his own actions being sinful at all - but he's identifying himself as a fellow human who wants to bring the remedy - or the solution - for the burden of sin, guilt, estrangement and separation from God that we feel because we’re not right with him, naturally speaking. Paul describes this aspect of Jesus’ life in 2 Corinthians 5: 21

‘God made him (Jesus) who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.’

2 Corinthians 5:21, NIV

This is a symbol of the beginning of that process which he fulfils by dying on the cross, as we’ll discuss later on in ‘The Life of Jesus’ series.

Holy Spirit Power

The wonderful thing about this baptism, though, is what happens immediately after Jesus comes out of the water. Jesus, I imagine, would understand this was going to happen and see how significant this was going to be for the onlookers and anyone who reads this story, subsequently, like you and I are doing and studying it today. We’ve got a wonderful connection here between Jesus the Son of God, the Holy Spirit of God and God the Father. We know from all Christian teaching that God is three persons - one God in three persons - and here we have a very vivid visual and audible demonstration of that reality. The Holy Spirit is a person (we’ll talk much more about the Holy Spirit in other episodes), and John has predicted that Jesus will bring the person of the Holy Spirit in power into the life of people who follow him. We’ll see how that happens in due course but here we find Jesus equipped by the Spirit. The Spirit comes down and reveals himself in a bodily form as a dove, as a bird coming down. This is for the benefit of onlookers - to understand that something miraculous is happening here. We see in the rest of the Gospels, that Jesus is, from this moment onwards, equipped in a fresh way with the power of the Spirit to equip him to fulfil everything that he needs to do in his public ministry. He didn't need the power of the Spirit in that same way in the growing up years and his early adulthood in Nazareth, when he was living an ordinary life but now he needs that power of the Spirit and so this is the symbolic and actual moment at which that power becomes real. It’s described frequently, from this moment, that Jesus became full of the Spirit, in the power of the Spirit. His miraculous life, from this point onwards, is attributed to the incredible presence of the Holy Spirit within him. The Spirit comes in a bodily form, like a dove, and the onlookers can begin to see something remarkable happening.

God the Father Speaks

Even more dramatic than that, is an audible voice coming from some unknown place which Matthew describes here as the voice of God the Father speaking of his son: “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” For John the Baptist, and for everyone who looked on, what happened at this moment was astonishingly significant. John would know, without any shadow of doubt, that this was the moment that Jesus’ ministry was going to begin. The voice of God the Father speaks. This is, of course, a miraculous account, a miraculous event. There are miracles all the way through the Gospels and we don't understand exactly how this happened but we do understand that Jesus, John and the onlookers could hear a voice which affirmed Jesus and it was the voice of God the Father.

There are three times in the Gospels that the voice of God the Father is described. This is the first. The second one is halfway through Jesus’ public ministry when he goes up a high mountain and he takes three of his disciples with him and, up this high mountain, he experiences the glory of God coming upon him (it’s called the Transfiguration) and a number of other events happened: Moses and Elijah appear and the voice of God the Father comes. That’s the second occasion. Then a third one, recounted in John's Gospel, is in the last week of Jesus' life which helps prepare some onlookers for Jesus' death. God the Father's voice is heard three times  by onlookers in the life of Jesus. This is the first time. The voice of the Father would also have a significant impact on the Son - on Jesus himself. He knew his father intimately - their relationship was one of very close fellowship and communication - but to hear that public voice would have had a wonderful effect upon him.


What reflections can we draw? What significance can we see from this remarkable and brief account of Jesus’ baptism? The first thing I want to emphasise is that the Trinity of God (God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, three persons in one God) are clearly described here in a way that I've explained. The interaction of these three persons is as part of a mission - the Trinity (God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit) are together involved in the mission to humanity: to bring Jesus the Son of God to earth, to empower him, and for his death and resurrection to provide salvation and forgiveness through the Gospel - which we call the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I think the thing I want to emphasise is that God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit are equally involved in this mission. This is expressed, or an aspect of it is expressed, very clearly in John's Gospel.

John 3: 16, a very famous verse in the Bible, reads:

‘For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.’

John 3:16, NIV

God so loving the world is a representation, primarily, of God the Father. God the Father gave his Son. Therefore, God the Father sent his Son, so God the Father is involved in reaching you and I, to seek to enable us to become his children through sending his Son and then through sending his Holy Spirit to equip his Son. Then God the Father and God the Son subsequently sent the Holy Spirit to us as believers. We have this wonderful, mysterious, reality that God (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) are all equally involved in the great mission of salvation which is focused, of course, on the actual deeds and life and sacrifice of Jesus. We mustn't think of him as in any way separated in terms of will, or desire, or mission from God the Father or from the Holy Spirit. The Trinity, the three persons of the Godhead are working together. That’s a wonderful reality that remains true today in the mission of the church. We are moving forward in the mission of the church; the Father is involved, the Son is involved, the Holy Spirit is involved equally - but the Spirit is the representative of the Trinity on earth in terms of his presence within the Church and within each believer in our life today, if we are believers. My first reflection is that there’s a wonderful description here of the mission of the Trinity and that the will of the Father and the Son are not separated; they work together. Even when Jesus is dying on the cross he is not doing something that his Father doesn't want him to do - it’s a necessary reality that they go through together.

My next reflection is that this is the launch of Jesus' ministry; things are really starting in earnest from this point and we’ll see how the story unfolds very quickly in subsequent episodes.

My next point is that what we see here is incredible humility in Jesus. How remarkable it is that he is so willing to be baptised! This could easily be misunderstood as an expression of his guilt and sinfulness and need to change because that's what everybody else was thinking when they were baptised. Jesus risked that misunderstanding. He went into the waters - and it is a humbling thing to be baptised and he went through that humbling action very willingly because he was identifying with humanity, fulfilling what his Father wanted him to do, and preparing the way for his future work. It tells us something about the remarkable character of Jesus - we’ll see it all the way through his life. He was willing to pay the price, he was willing to be misunderstood, he was willing to take the form of a servant, he was willing to do things that could be misunderstood and misrepresented and we should honour him for his remarkable character as indicated by his decision to be baptised by John (and not for John to be baptised by him, as John had suggested as an alternative).

This episode and the previous one, have drawn our attention to the question of baptism. So I want to conclude this episode by just making a few, more general, comments about baptism as understood by Christians. What we see happening to the followers of John the Baptist, and to Jesus in this particular episode, is prefiguring the reality of Christian baptism which comes into play only when Jesus has died and been raised again. The Holy Spirit has been given at Pentecost and, on the day of Pentecost, Christian baptism takes place formally for the first time. Peter's message on the Day of Pentecost, as described in Acts 2, leads to thousands of people responding, repenting, changing, believing in Jesus as Messiah and, instantaneously they were baptised by being immersed in water - probably in ceremonial washing pools around the Jewish Temple. The symbolism of baptism is incredibly important from the very beginning.

Some of us, however, will have questions about baptism. For example, in some countries and in some traditions, baptism is administered to infants or very small children - sometimes called Christening. This is a tradition in many different churches for the families of church members, particularly. Is this a good thing and is this found in the New Testament? If we scrutinise the New Testament carefully, we’ll find that infant baptisms of this type are not predicted and they don't take place in the New Testament period. Sometimes households were baptised in the Early Church, as recorded in the book of Acts, but infants are never mentioned and ‘households’ probably mean those adults and family members who are consciously responding in a group to the Gospel. Baptism implies the conscious response to Christ as a believer. It's best described in Christian terms as ‘believer’s baptism’ rather than ‘infant baptism’. In many churches, particularly these days, the doctrine of baptism is being strengthened as people realise that the Church is only strong, when we have an initiation process that reflects the spiritual state of the people coming. When people truly repent and believe and decide to follow Jesus Christ, whatever age they are, when they are consciously able to do it and understand the implications, and change their lives accordingly, baptism is appropriate. In many churches believer’s baptism is a part of the membership process of that church. On this occasion we’re not going to discuss this in full. It seemed appropriate to make brief mention of these things because they arise, out of some of the spiritual realities that are described in John's baptism and the baptism of Jesus.

We have people here consciously responding to a message and, in the case of those baptised by John, they are, as is described in one of the accounts, confessing their sins: coming and saying, “There’s this wrong with me and I need a change.” We know that the Gospel of Jesus Christ provides that inner change, the Holy Spirit comes and lives within us. We have a new birth and we start again - we’ll find out more about the new birth in an episode coming up very soon, when Jesus talks to Nicodemus and in John 3, in Jerusalem. The origins of our doctrine of Christian baptism lie, very much, in John's baptism as described in this episode and particularly in the last episode which we discussed from Luke 3. So have those thoughts in mind. I wonder where you stand? You may be listening to this as an established Christian believer, having been baptised as a believer, or you may have some faith but uncertainty about baptism. You may think that infant baptism makes someone a believer - there's nothing in the New Testament that supports that. Or you may be an enquirer, or a new Christian, listening to this and you've not actually addressed the question of baptism. Let me encourage you to use this episode, and the last one, as a starting point for your own consideration. I’d encourage you to read the book of Acts and see how baptism functioned in the Early Church.

I want to say, in conclusion, that to be baptised as a believer - having turned away from all the wrong things in your life and wholeheartedly committed himself to Jesus Christ - is one of the best things that anyone can do, even though in many places it can be a costly thing to do, because it won't be popular with many people. It is the reality of Christian discipleship and we see the origins of that here in these accounts and we’ll see it developed much later on. At the end of the Gospels, Jesus commands his apostles to teach everything that he had taught them and to baptise believers in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.

I look forward to sharing with you again in further episodes.

Study Questions

The following questions have been provided to facilitate discussion or further reflection. Please feel free to answer any, or all the questions. Each question has been assigned a category to help guide you.

  • Exploring Faith
    Exploring Faith
    1. What forms of baptism are used in your culture and what do they mean?
    2. Imagine being present at the baptism of Jesus. What did you see, hear, feel?
    3. What is the process of baptism as understood by the Early Church? Use tagging for the Acts of the Apostles to help you.
  • Discipleship
    1. How was Jesus’ baptism different to that of the other people John baptised?
  • Further Study
    Further Study
    1. How would you explain the fact that God is three persons in one? How are all three involved in the mission - individually and together?
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