The Baptism of The King

The Baptism of The King

S. Lewis Johnson, Jr.

Scripture Reading: Matthew 3:13-17

Dr. S Lewis Johnson, Jr. is Professor of N.T. Literature and Exegesis at Dallas Theological Seminary, Dallas, Texas.

Have you ever had questions about the significance of Christ’s baptism in the Jordan River by John the Baptist? If so, this choice study not only answers the foregoing question but provides the reader with many other interesting and instructive thoughts centering on the Person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ.


From its opening stages to the eve of its close the cross casts its shadow over the ministry of Christ. This has been tellingly caught in the great painting of Holman Hunt, “The Shadow of Death.” The day is fast ebbing away, and the golden rays of the setting sun are slanting in through an open door. The weary toiler at the carpenter’s bench, having just straightened Himself from His stooped and cramped position, stretches Himself for a moment. The sun, catching the outraised arms, throws on the wall behind Him the dark lines of a cross. It is Hunt’s forceful way of stressing the fact that even in the hidden years of obscurity His decease at Jerusalem was inevitable.

The baptism of Jesus Christ, with its vision of the dove and the heavenly voice in the words traceable to the great Servant of Jehovah section of Isaiah, also points on to the baptism of His death (cf. Mark 10:38; Luke 12:50). The accents are not so heavy as they shall become later, but they are definitely there. Ultimately the cross shall so possess Him that it can be said that “his face was as though he would go to Jerusalem” (Luke 9:53), a text which Sangster used for a sermon so movingly entitled, “His Destination is on His Face.” Yet the lineaments are already forming at the baptism.

The narrative of the baptism, as that of the temptation, created acute difficulties for the early church. It seemed to say, at first glance, that Jesus underwent a “baptism of repentance for the remission of sins” (Mark 1:4). Were they not, then, His sins? How could He, the Son of God, occupy a position such as this? Furthermore, as Edersheim points out, “Nowhere in Rabbinic writings do we find any hint of a Baptism of the Messiah, nor of a descent upon Him of the Spirit in the form of a dove.”1 The embarrassment is itself the strongest evidence of the genuineness of the accounts. The church surely would not invent an incident which raised so many questions about its Lord.

The Hidden Years

The baptism, the second crisis in the Greatest Life, is referred to in all four of the gospels. Intervening between the birth and the baptism are the so-called “hidden years,” years of which we have little information regarding the life of Christ. There are hints and suggestions in the records, but in the final analysis they yield us only a whisper of His obedient existence.

His infancy (Luke 2:21-39). His circumcision is a rite that marked Him out as an heir of the Abrahamic Covenant blessings (cf. Romans 4:9-12). There begins in the sphere of His flesh life’s progress from holiness to obedient holiness (Hebrews 5:8).

His childhood (Luke 2:40, 41-51). As Morgan says, “The whole story of the childhood of Jesus from infancy to His religious coming of age is contained in one verse.”2 The text reads: “And the child grew, and waxed strong, filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was upon Him” (Luke 2:40). The word grew is the broad term Luke uses for His growth, while the remaining words of the verse spell out the details. The “waxed strong” refers to the physical, while “filled with wisdom” and “the grace of God was upon Him” refer to the mental and the spiritual. There was a beautiful harmony in this man’s development, touching all the facets of His being.

His youth (Luke 2:52). In the final verse of the chapter, Luke condenses the youth of God’s Second Man into one brief statement, “And Jesus was advancing in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men.” The word wisdom includes His intellectual and moral growth, while stature refers to His physical development. That He could advance in them attests the complete humanity of the Lord’s Messiah. He was perfect at each stage for that stage.

His land and home (Luke 2:51). Our Lord’s home for the eighteen years until His manifestation to Israel was Nazareth. It has sometimes been thought that Jesus lived in “the sticks” of His day, a kind of back-water of history. That is far from the case. Nazareth was well within the sound of the reverberation of world events. At the crossroads of highways leading from the east to the west and from the north to the south, as being near Sepphoris, a Roman colony and for many years Herod’s capital, the little village was an interested spectator at the march of empire.

His occupation (Mark 6:3). It is Mark who writes, “is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary, the brother of James, and Joses, and of Juda, and Simon?” He learned His trade, that of His father, becoming master of the tools and skills of this craft.

His physical appearance. The only portrait of Jesus found in the New Testament is that given John in Revelation one, and that one is symbolic in nature. Since there is no description of Him, it is likely that He had the appearance of a normal Palestinian Jew. It is true that the Rabbis had high standards for the outward appearance of a proper Jew, especially a teacher. They could criticize very harshly if the standards were not met. One of them was the claim that the reflection of the divine presence could only descend upon a man of tall and powerful stature. Evidently He measured up to their standards, for we read of no criticism of Him in this way. His outdoor life and frequent journeys by foot over the land would attest to the ruggedness of His physique. Thus, while Jesus may not have been able to make the Dallas Cowboys as linebacker, as some popular youth speakers suggest, He must have been a man’s man.

His knowledge and understanding (John 7:15). Joseph undoubtedly taught his son the Torah from a very early age, as custom dictated. He probably studied in the village schools also. He was able to speak Aramaic and Greek, the languages of ordinary intercourse, and He could also read the Hebrew Bible (cf. Luke 4:16-22). When teaching in Jerusalem the Jews marvelled, saying, “How knoweth this man letters, having never learned?” (cf. Acts 26:24). David said, “The secret of the Lord is with them that fear him; and he will shew them his covenant” (Psalm 25:14), and never man feared as He!

The Account Of The Baptism Of The King

The reluctance of John (Matthew 3:13-14). Our Lord had been born in Bethlehem of Judaea about 6 B.C. in the reign of Emperor Augustus and while the Pax Romana girdled the globe. He grew up, as we noted above, in Nazareth of Galilee. When Augustus died in 14 B.C., He was about 20 years of age. A decade or so later the voice of prophecy rang out in the ministry of John after years of silence, and Jesus knew that the beginning of His ministry had come. He, therefore, went down from Galilee to the Jordan “… to begin a Ministry in which he would proclaim a Kingdom mightier than the Roman and tell of a world saved not by man who became God (like Augustus or Tiberius) but by God who became man.”3

When Jesus arrived and submitted Himself for baptism, John strenuously attempted to hinder Him. An inner conviction of the unique character of the One before him had come to John; whether from their relationship (cf. Luke 1:36), the peculiar circumstances at Mary’s visit to his mother (1:43-46), or his own fine spiritual insight (Matthew 3:7), it is not said. At any rate, the Baptist seems to mean by his remonstrance, “I have need of your Spirit and fire baptism, and are you coming to my water baptism?”

The reply of Jesus (3:15). With Jesus’ first words in Matthew, the opposition of the Baptist is overcome. The King must fulfill all the righteous requirements of the Law (cf. 5:20; 6:1). It was proper for Him as Son of Man to identify Himself with the nation in its preparation for the coming of the King (cf. Isaiah 40:1-11).

The reaction of heaven (3:16-17). Following the visible act of baptism the heavens were torn apart, and there followed the vision and the voice. Important clues to the meaning of Jesus’ baptism are found in the vision and the divine voice.

The vision of the Spirit descending upon Him as a dove is the fulfillment of the words regarding the Servant of the Lord, “I have put my Spirit upon him” (Isaiah 42:1). It is His anointing, as our Lord realized and the apostles preached. He could hardly make it plainer that this signified His inauguration into the office of Messiah than when He stood and read Isaiah 61:1 with its, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me,” and then added, “This day is this scripture fulfilled in your ears” (Luke 4:18, 21). The Spirit’s coming was His anointing, and His anointing is His induction into the office of Messiah, the ordination of the Servant of the Lord. Since the dove is the bird of sacrifice, it is fitting that the Spirit came upon Him in this form. It is by the Spirit’s enablement that He will carry out His ministry of atoning suffering and death.

The voice from heaven, the confirmation of the vision, is a kind of coronation formula for the Suffering Servant. The voice is a combination of Psalm 2:7, the psalm of the messianic king, and Isaiah 42:1, a reference to the Suffering Servant. The force of the words is to inform Him that He is “born to suffer, born a king.”4 They become a preview of His destiny, a synthesis of ruling and suffering of incomparable value.

We close the section by noting that the whole Trinity is involved in the scene. How transcendently important it must be! Incidentally, the voice from heaven is the seal of approval upon “the hidden years.” “He sets the seal of perfection upon the hidden years. We want to know no more. We ask for no details; it is enough.”5 The King is now installed in the Messianic office, but the anointing is not only for preaching, it is also for passion.

The Theological Significance Of The Baptism

To most Christians the baptism of Jesus Christ is as much an enigma as it proved to John the Baptist. This is reflected in the almost absurd statements about it. For example, in urging believers to be baptized in testimony to salvation it is common to hear the expression, “follow the Lord in baptism,” as if our baptism is a carbon copy of His. It is doubtful if there is a single passage in the New Testament in which a biblical writer connects the baptism of Christ with Christian baptism. But the baptism of Christ does have important theological significance, as the following things indicate.

Christ’s baptism is His identification with Israel (3:15). John’s baptism was founded upon the redemptive work of the Lamb to come, and precisely for this reason it seems to be the exclusive responsibility of those who are the recipients of the work of redemption. How, then, can He who needs no redemption personally be baptized? The answer He gave to John is our clue. “To fulfill all righteousness” bears a close relationship to Paul’s, “born of a woman, born under the law” (Galatians 4:4). It refers to the fulfilling of all the righteous requirements of the Law. He must be circumcised, although there is no necessity to put away .the body of the flesh in His case (cf. Colossians 2:11). He must be presented in the temple, although He does not need deliverance from the house of bondage in Egypt (cf. Luke 2:22). The baptism signified not only the removal of sins; it also pointed to a positive preparation and dedication of heart to the coming King and His kingdom. He, too, belongs to this people, although He is their King, and must demonstrate His willingness to do the will of God. The baptism, then, is a phase of His humiliation under the Law, just as the circumcision and the presentation.6 He acknowledged John’s authority at this stage in the unfolding of the program of divine revelation. He went, then, to the baptism as a representative person, convinced that this was a divinely imposed duty for every Israelite.

Christ’s baptism was His inauguration into the Messianic office. We have already set this forth, but it should be emphasized here that this involved not only the work of redemption, but also the accompanying work of judgment (cf. Matthew 3:11-12). This our Lord has yet to do.

Christ’s baptism is the illustration of the goal of His ministry.

When Jesus descended into the waters of the Jordan and then emerged from them, it seems most likely that this was intended to be a figure of His death. When we turn over in the pages of Matthew to verse twenty-two of chapter twenty and find Him describing His death as a “baptism,” this becomes most likely. In fact that verse may well be Jesus’ own interpretation of baptism; it has to do with death. Thus, John’s baptism foreshadows His death. Calvary is His baptism in death, the Great Commission is a charge to preach with a view to uniting men with His death, while Paul in Romans six explains the subject in detail theologically. John’s baptism, then, mirrors the event of the cross.

It is true, we now see, that the cross casts its shadow over the ministry of the Messiah from the beginning. When we remember that the Lord Jesus did not accept Calvary easily, the greatness of His sacrifice becomes more meaningful. He hated death; this was one of the powers He came to destroy. And yet, from the very beginning He struggled with that power because He loved men and His Father’s will more. Luther said somewhere, “Every Christian is a Crucian!” But Jesus. Christ is the greatest Crucian of them all.

One final note may be worthwhile. It concerns the divine initiative in the work of salvation. The four words of verse fourteen, “comest thou to me,” are a kind of summary of the divine initiative of the Christian good news. Will we ever really get over the fact that He laid the foundations and made the first move? He spoke in His Son when men did not really wish to hear from Him. And when they were wandering and going astray the Good Shepherd sought and saved them.

It is a well-known fact that the Jewish scholar Claude Montefiore set himself to discover if there was anything really new in the teaching of Jesus, anything which no Jewish prophet or rabbi had said before Him. At the conclusion of his investigation he singled out one thing as distinctive — the picture of the Good Shepherd going out into the wilderness in search of the lost sheep. The picture of God as not merely receiving those who turn to Him, but as taking the initiative in seeking the ones who have turned from Him he found new. Montefiore called this “a new figure” and “one of the new excellencies of the gospel.”

We would disagree with Montefiore in this respect: the thought of the divine initiative in salvation is one that pervades the entire Word of God, from its opening word to Adam, “Where art thou?” (Genesis 3:9), to the words of the Lord Jesus Himself, “For the Son of man is come to seek and to save that which is lost” (Luke 19:10). But we would most assuredly and emphatically affirm that it is one of the glorious excellencies of the gospel of Christ.

1 Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah (Grand Rapids, 1953 / orig. ed. 1886/), I, 285.

2 G. Campbell Morgan, The Crises of the Christ (London, 1905, p. 86.

3 Archibald M. Hunter, Introducing New Testament Theology (Philadelphia, 1957, p. 10.

4 Ibid., p. 15

5 Morgan, Matthew, p. 28.

6 G.C. Berkouwer, The Person of Christ, trans. by John Vriend (Grand Rapids, 1965), p. 246.