Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:13–17, ESV).
There is so much that can be said about the Baptism of Jesus. These short five verses are packed with theologically rich phrases, words, ideas, etc. just begging to be unpacked. It’s too big for one devotion to look at every angle, so for this devotion, I think we’ll track with John. We’ll look at it from his perspective. The perspective of incredulity. Of shock. Of confusion.
Here’s John. He’s been preaching some very specific news for a while now: “Repent! For the Kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:2, ESV). “He who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (Matthew 3:11–12, ESV).
And now here comes Jesus. He comes down to the Jordan, and tells John to baptize him. John doesn’t know what to make of this. After all, his baptism is a baptism of repentance. It’s meant to call the Israelites, who have fallen so far from their faith, to repent and return. Because the Israelites are poor, miserable, sinners. But here comes Jesus. The one who is mightier than John. The one who is supposed to baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. The one who will come in judgment, winnowing away the chaff so that it will burn in a never-ending fire. And He wants to be baptized. Like the riff-raff. Like the chaff standing by the River Jordan.
John knows who He is. He knows what He’s supposed to do. And so he is confused. Why would Jesus, the Righteous One, need a baptism of repentance? Why would Jesus, the Judge, need a baptism of repentance? Why would Jesus, the Mightier One, want John, the unworthy one, to do it?
So John asks a very valid question: “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”
Because here’s the thing: John was expecting something a bit…flashier. A bit more “Son of God” like. John was expecting the End Times Messiah. The one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit and with fire. The one who does come with the winnowing fork in his hand and separates the chaff from the wheat. And he’s not wrong to expect that version. His timing is just a bit off. Jesus will come and separate the chaff from the wheat. He will come with fire and brimstone for those who refused to believe (see for instance, Matthew 25:31–46).
However, that’s later. So what about right now? Well, right now, Jesus comes as the Son of God who humbles Himself to save His people from their sins. And it looks a bit different. Right NOW, it’s necessary for John to baptize Him so that they may fulfill all righteousness. In other words, so that they may fulfill the Scriptural promises of the Old Testament. Right NOW Jesus comes not as the Judge, but as the Substitute. He places Himself into the water whirling with the dirt and the sins of those who bathed in it—of the whole world, in fact—and He takes the place of sinners. In this way, His Baptism points forward to His cross and His resurrection which are also done in the place of sinners. Jesus climbs down into the waters of the Jordan River in the place of sinners, just as He dies and rises in the place of sinners. This wasn’t what John was expecting. It’s not really what anyone else was expecting either. It’s even not what we would necessarily expect.
But that’s how God works. He turns human expectations on end so that He can go about His proper work: saving poor, miserable sinners. So Jesus continues to defy expectations. He dies upon a cross and empties himself of His might. He waits yet another day to come as Judge and Winnower with unquenchable fire. Why? Because right NOW, He still comes as the Substitute. For you, and I, we are poor, miserable sinners, and we need Him to come in these unexpected ways. He comes as the one who died and was risen in your place. He comes as the one who took your place in the waters of the Jordan. He comes as the one who confers His death and resurrection on you in your Baptism, as the one who joins you to Himself so that His death becomes your death, and His resurrection becomes your resurrection. Right NOW, he comes as God’s Beloved Son to make you the Father’s beloved child, too.
Let us Pray: Heavenly Father, hold us fast in our Baptisms into Christ’s death and resurrection, so that we may ever be Your beloved children; through Your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.