We often pass over the accounts of Jesus’ baptism in the New Testament without realizing that there is something very odd about the story. All of the gospels mention it. Matthew, Mark, and Luke recount the events, while John declares the results.
- Jesus comes to be baptized
- Matthew 3:13, John 1:29a
- John says it is unnecessary
- Matthew 3:14, John 1:29b and John 1:36
- Jesus does it because it’s only fair
- Matthew 3:15
- Jesus is baptized
- Matthew 3:16, Mark 1:9, Luke 3:21
- He rises from the water, praying
- Luke 3:21
- The heavens are opened
- Matthew 3:16, Mark 1:10, Luke 3:21
- The Spirit of God descends like a dove and alights on Him
- Matthew 3:16, Mark 1:10, Luke 3:22, John 1:32
- A voice declares Jesus the Son of God
- Matthew 3:17, Mark 1:11, Luke 3:22, John 1:33-34
Since none of the stories is a complete transcript of the events, and since the details do not conflict, we can infer that we have four angles on the same event.
The Voice and the Dove
John doesn’t mention the voice saying “This is my beloved Son,” but that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen, it only means that John doesn’t tell us about it. Perhaps he is more concerned with telling us about John the Baptist’s testimony. In Mark, Luke, and John, the dove was visible to everyone; Matthew only tells us that Jesus saw it. All that fits together. If Mark and Luke are right, then Matthew and John are right—if the dove was visible to everyone, Jesus would have seen it and John would be able to testify to it. The synoptics all put the dove and the voice after the baptism, but Luke tells us that Jesus came out of the water praying as the dove arrived and the voice spoke. Luke’s motivation for including that detail could be that it shows Jesus performing an act that is complementary to the acts of the Father and the Holy Spirit. Matthew and Mark probably left that detail out because from their viewpoint it isn’t necessary. Everyone knows that it is standard practice to rise from the mikvah bath while in the act of praying.
There is nothing in these texts to suggest that the writers are not just emphasizing different parts of the same events. Any incompatibility among these texts comes from the interpreter, not the text.
John Was Converting Jews to Judaism!
John the Baptist is preaching a revival in the desert. After the people confess their sins and repent of them, he administers a mikvah bath, which the New Testament calls a baptism. The mikvah bath is not only used to purify people and objects, it is also an essential part of the initiation rite for converts to Judaism. The Hebrews passed through the water when they escaped Egypt. By taking a mikvah bath, the gentile shares in that experience, going down into the water as a gentile, and rising out of it as a Jew. This is still the Jewish practice for accepting converts today.
Perhaps John is encouraging people to go through the conversion rite as if their sins had been so bad that they might as well be gentiles. (No offense to gentiles, mind you!).
Jesus Was Baptized to Be Fair to Us!
All of the gospel writers hold Jesus innocent of all sin, so we should not be surprised that from Matthew we learn that Jesus didn’t need baptism. Matthew explains that Jesus wasn’t baptized to wash away sins, but but to fulfill all righteousness; that is to say, to be fair. He does not command us to do anything that He Himself is unwilling to do.
Jesus commands the apostles to baptize, He commands them to teach their followers to obey all of His commandments, and the apostles command us to repent, confess, and be baptized. The requirement is not to “take Jesus into your hearts” or “take Jesus as your savior,” but to confess, repent, be baptized, and bear the fruit of obedience. How can we invite Him into our hearts, which He Himself created and owns? How can we make Him our Savior, as if He were up for election? Our religious opinions do not make us Christians; our Christianity must be incarnate in our deeds, just as God is incarnate in human flesh in Jesus Christ. Thus we are saved by faith, but baptism is necessary, because baptism is the body’s expression of faith, just as our profession is the mind’s expression of faith.
Baptism is a Commandment that Applies to All Christians!
Many people, especially those who are apprehensive about immersion or embarrassed to be baptized in front of everybody, ask me if baptism is really necessary, as if they are looking for a way out. My answer is that baptism is not required but not optional. It is not required, because the thief on the cross had no opportunity to be baptized, yet he was in Paradise with Jesus. It is not optional, because it is a commandment. If we decline to be baptized, even though we have the opportunity and the ability, we are disobeying Jesus. We are baptized, not to earn salvation, but to expres our gratitude through obedience.
In case you are wondering, all of the people who were apprehensive or nervous about baptism came up out of the water exhilarated!
Look at it this way: if I have faith in you, I am going to take your advice. If I say I have faith in you, but I don’t take your advice, I am just humoring you. Maybe I’m even laughing behind your back! Therefore, if we say we have faith in Jesus, we obey His commandments—not out of obligation or requirement, but because it is our strongest desire and our greatest joy.
When John says that Jesus would baptize with the Holy Spirit, he means, “From Jesus you’ll get baptism plus the Holy Spirit.” This is apparent because water baptism continued in the church, with an added element. John preached, “repent and be baptized.” Jesus preached the same message (Matthew 4:17, John 3:22 with John 4:1-3, and John 20:22), then charged His disciples with preaching it.
The apostles preached “repent and be baptized” as John did, but under Jesus’ direction, they added “be filled with the Holy Spirit.”
Lay People Can Baptize!
John the Baptist was a lay person, and lay baptism continued in the Church. We only have to pull in Acts 8:14-17 to confirm this.
The apostles found out that there were Christians in Samaria, so they sent Peter and John to them. Since the Samaritan Christians only had the water part of the baptismal rite, Peter and John laid hands on them to baptize them in the Holy Spirit. We know from historical sources that in the ancient church, baptism had two parts: the first part included immersion, and the second part included prayer for the newly baptized people to receive the Holy Spirit, In this passage in Acts, we see that any person could baptize, but only clergy could confer the Holy Spirit. (This is still true today.) Apparently the Samaritans had been evangelized by lay people who did the first half of the rite, then clergy had to come and complete it.
Centuries later in the western Church, the two halves of the initiation rite got separated into baptism and confirmation, because western Church discipline only allowed the bishop to confer the Holy Spirit, and the bishop was not always immediately available at the time of baptism. In the eastern Church, the two parts are called baptism and chrismation, and they were never separated, since an Orthodox priest can do both parts.
Jesus is God’s Son!
This means a lot more than it appears to mean at first blush.
Today the word “son” only means “male child,” so many “inclusive” language translations of the Bible translate both “son” and “child” as “child,” which obscures a very important distinction. In the world of the New Testament, the word “son” was a legal term as well as a kinship term. A son had his father’s power of attorney. Any business transaction carried out by a son was binding on the father. The father and the son were equal in that respect (John 5:18). This is why the Sanhedrin judged that Jesus must die for claiming to be the Son of God (John 19:7). Today, if someone claims to be the son of God, we take it as a sort of a sentimental spiritual thing, but in the first-century context of the New Testament, Jesus was claiming to share the essence and authority of God. That is blasphemy if it is not true and the penalty for blasphemy was death.
The New Testament goes further to describe Christians as adopted sons of God, which means that Christians have a distributorship, so to speak, of God’s mercy, grace, love, and providence to non-believers. We are a cosmic Red Cross, sent into the disaster of this world, not just to preach the gospel, but to meet people’s needs. The adopted sons of God have the same mission as the only-begotten Son of God.
The Greek New Testament calls us children when it talks about how we are beloved; it calls us sons when it talks about our mission and duties in this world. The “inclusive” language translations don’t even notice that Paul says that women are sons of God in Galatians 3:26-28, or that it gives women the same empowerment as men.
Thus the Father’s proclamation that Jesus is His Son has a much more powerful impact and a completely different meaning to the first-century people who heard about it than it does to twenty-first-century people who read about it.
Jesus’ baptism is Trinitarian!
The baptism of Jesus is Trinitarian, because the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit all participate. The Father says that Jesus is the Son and the Holy Spirit alights. This rules out modalism; the mistaken idea that God has existed in three modes; Father mode, then Son mode, and now Holy Spirit mode. No, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are persons of the Trinity, not modes of God’s interaction with us.
In the baptism of Jesus, all three are active at the same time. There is only one God, but there is a threeness in the oneness of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
This Led to a Practical Problem…
Now the practical problem is this: when a gentile undergoes baptism, it is the same procedure as converting to Judaism. This gave rise to a controversy. One side said that baptism, being a conversion rite, makes gentile converts into Jews and since God requires Jews to keep the Law of Moses, we must teach gentiles to keep it. The other side says that baptism does not make the gentiles into Jews, therefore they do not have to keep the Law of Moses.
The Council of Jerusalem agreed with the second side (see Acts 15:22-29). Gentiles who convert to Christianity do not become Jews, so they only have to keep the laws given to Noah in Genesis 9 (by modern count seven laws). These laws are binding on the entire human race, since we are all descendants of Noah. By ancient and modern rabbinical interpretation, they cover the same ground as the ten commandments except for the Sabbath observance. In other words, gentiles only have to meet the requirements for being righteous gentiles—exactly what a modern Orthodox Jewish rabbi would say are the duties of a gentile to God.
For those who are curious, the seven laws, by rabbinical count, are as follows:
- Do not deny God (no idolatry)
- Do not blaspheme God
- Do not murder
- Do not engage in immoral sexual practices
- Do not steal
- Do not eat an animal that is still alive
- Set up courts to enforce the preceding six laws. (Implicit in the other six according to Sanhedrin 56a)
Asking Jesus to come into our hearts is neither sufficient nor Scriptural. We must confess, repent, be baptized and obey the commandments of Jesus. Our faith must be incarnate in deeds, or we are spiritually stillborn. Baptism is the first commandment that a new Christian encounters. It’s a very easy ramp up into Christian obedience, and Jesus even did it Himself.
Both Christians and demons confess that Jesus is Lord (Luke 8:28, James 2:19). The difference is that demons do not obey His commandments while Christians do, beginning with baptism.
Now What Do We Do?
Jesus has much more power, authority, grace, and love than we could ever imagine. He commands us to do things, but He does not command us to do anything that He Himself is not willing to do. Therefore, confess and repent of your sins. Profess Him as Lord of the Universe, give Him acceptable worship, and serve Him.
And if you are not yet baptized, go pester your pastor until you are.