By Peter Amsterdam
February 24, 2015
(You can read about the intent for and overview of this series in this introductory article.)
About 18 years have passed since the 12-year-old Jesus stayed behind in the temple. During this time, we are told that He increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man.1 He most likely worked alongside Joseph for many years until Joseph died, and Jesus, as the firstborn son, became head of the family. The Bible doesn’t give details of His life from the time He was 12 until He began His ministry—a period known as the “hidden years” or the “silent years”—but at this point, that changes.
John the Baptist is the big story these days, and news of his preaching and baptizing has reached not only Jerusalem and the province of Judea, but has spread to Galilee as well. Jesus has heard about the prophet in the wilderness, and He goes from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him.2 Luke tells us that He is about thirty years of age.3
Each of the Gospel writers tells us about Jesus’ baptism in the context of their particular Gospel, but they all make the same important points about what happened that day.
Mark’s Gospel explains it like this:
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”4
Luke includes an additional point about Jesus praying:
When Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heavens were opened, and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form, like a dove; and a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”5
Matthew tells us that 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.”6
John had declared previously that one who was mightier would come after him,7 and now that mighty one is on the scene. After Jesus receives John’s baptism, a supernatural event occurs, one which changes Jesus’ life dramatically. As He prays, He sees the heavens open and hears God’s voice. Mark and Luke tell us that the voice is speaking directly to Jesus, “You are my beloved Son,” while Matthew writes that the voice said “This is my beloved Son,” which could seem to indicate that others heard the voice, and presumably also saw the heavens open and the Holy Spirit descend upon Jesus. Generally speaking, commentators see this event as a private one—that after His baptism, Jesus alone saw the heavens open and heard the voice. They consider that Matthew expresses it the way he does because he is speaking to the reading audience.
Mark’s Gospel tells us that when Jesus came out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens being torn open.8 The concept of the heavens being opened indicates a visionary experience, as seen elsewhere in Scripture. Ezekiel wrote that the heavens were opened, and I saw visions of God.9 Stephen, when being stoned to death, said,“Behold, I see the heavens opened,” and he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God.10 The apostle Peter, while in Joppa, went up to the rooftop to pray, and while praying he saw the heavens opened and something like a great sheet descending, being let down by its four corners upon the earth.11 In the book of Revelation, the apostle John twice describes heaven opening while seeing a vision.12 This points to the likelihood that Jesus had a vision of the heavens opening and the Holy Spirit descending upon Him.
It’s possible that John the Baptist may have seen the same vision, or had another vision of the Spirit descending on Jesus, as the fourth Gospel says:
And John bore witness: “I saw the Spirit descend from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God.”13
The Spirit of God coming upon the Messiah is expressed in Old Testament scriptures:
There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit. And the Spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD.14
When Jesus later spoke in the synagogue in His hometown, He read from the book of Isaiah:
The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me to bring good news to the poor …15
It was on this day, when He was baptized, that God’s Spirit and anointing came and remained upon Jesus.
Commentators have some difficulty in explaining the Spirit descending on Him in bodily form, like a dove.16 Some see the dove in connection with the Holy Spirit hovering over the waters in Genesis 1:2, but others see it differently. Brad H. Young explains:
Contrary to popular belief, in Jewish thought the dove is not always associated with the Holy Spirit.17 Green states: No symbolic equation of the Spirit and dove has been found in literature earlier than or contemporaneous with the Gospels, and it may be that this simile is intended to evoke the symbolism of the dove as a herald or bearer of good tidings: this would advance the portrait of Jesus’ empowerment to proclaim the good news. Luke’s “in bodily form” emphasized the materiality of this apocalyptic scene in a characteristic way.18
The fact that the Spirit descended upon Jesus is the key point being made here, even if the connection with symbolism of the dove isn’t crystal clear. God’s Spirit moving and empowering Jesus is the prime significance of the baptism.19
Besides the Spirit descending, a voice spoke from heaven saying, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”20 This is a statement of God’s approval of Jesus, similar to the one He gives later in the Gospels when Jesus is transfigured. (See Matthew 17:5.) The beloved son with whom God is well pleased is reflected in two Old Testament verses:
I will tell of the decree: The LORD said to me, “You are my Son; today I have begotten you,”21 and Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.22
The first verse focuses on the messianic designation of sonship, and the second relates to the servant figure in Isaiah. The combination of Jesus’ sonship including both His messianic role and His servanthood is woven throughout the Gospels.23
Some commentators have suggested that when God said, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased,” God was adopting Jesus as His Son. However, it’s clear that the Gospel writers did not understand it that way. Stein explains:
For John [the author of the fourth Gospel] Jesus was/is the Son even before his incarnation (John 1:1–4 predates 1:14). For Luke and Matthew, Jesus was the Son of God already at the time of the virginal conception (Luke 1:35, 42–45; Matthew 1:20–25). Similarly for Mark, these words do not indicate a change in Jesus’ status before God. He’s not “promoted” at his baptism. Rather, the voice is an affirmation of who Jesus was and a commendation that God was pleased with the silent years. No doubt this commendation brought comfort during the crises and discouragements that Jesus experienced in his ministry.24
The significance of the events which occurred at the time of Jesus’ baptism, and the change it brought in His life from that point on, can be understood as God anointing Him as the Messiah and equipping Him to be His messenger and the Savior of the world.
Robert Stein expresses it this way:
At his baptism Jesus was aware that he had been anointed for a divine task. Serving God quietly as a carpenter in Nazareth was a thing of the past. The Spirit had anointed him, and his messianic mission had begun.25
Backtracking for a moment: In Matthew’s Gospel, when Jesus came to John to be baptized, we’re told that 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.”26
John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance, a call to those who had sinned to confess and change their ways; yet Jesus, who was sinless, came to John to be baptized. Matthew tells us that John had an awareness of Jesus’ greater role and indicated that He was the greater one to come. He knew that Jesus didn’t need his baptism and tried to prevent it. It’s as if he was saying, “I need Your baptism of the Spirit and of fire, but You don’t need my baptism of repentance in water.”27 Nevertheless, Jesus expressed that they should get on with the baptism, as it was proper to do so to fulfill all righteousness.
Jesus partook of John’s baptism, not because He needed to repent, but so that He could identify Himself with sinners and through that identification become their substitute. Scripture tells us:
God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.28
By His knowledge the Righteous One, My Servant, will justify the many, as He will bear their iniquities …He poured out His life unto death, and was numbered with the transgressors.29
By partaking of John’s baptism, Jesus was affirming His solidarity with sinners, making Himself one with them in the process of salvation.30
Charles Price explains:
Jesus had no sin and therefore no need of forgiveness. So why was Jesus baptized? Isaiah 53:12 says of Jesus, “He was numbered with the transgressors.” This came to fulfillment on the cross, but it began at the outset of His ministry. Jesus lined up with everyone else to be baptized, identifying Himself with our sin and need to be forgiven. He is taking the place of the sinner, looking forward to what He later called “a baptism that I am to be baptized with," which was His death, burial and resurrection.31
Some scholars speculate that Jesus may have followed or been a disciple of John for some time prior to His baptism, but most reject it. However, there were some similarities between their ministries. Like John, Jesus preached outdoors, unlike the Scribes of His time; He taught His disciples a prayer, as John had done for his disciples;32 He gave a call to repentance33 and expressed the urgency of it;34 He preached judgment on Israel;35 He rejected self-righteousness36 and accepted sinners.37
While there were similarities in some of the methods used and messages preached by John and Jesus, there were major differences as well. John was an ascetic, living in the wilderness; Jesus interacted with people in towns and cities. John proclaimed that judgment was at hand; Jesus proclaimed that the kingly reign of God was dawning, and invited those who were troubled and overburdened to enter into it. John operated within the framework of expectation of what was to come; Jesus within the framework of fulfillment.38
When Jesus presented Himself for baptism, John recognized that the mighty one had arrived. The fourth Gospel tells us that John said of Jesus:
“Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks before me, because he was before me’…I myself did not know him, but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God.”39
After Jesus was baptized by John, God anointed and equipped Him for His ministry by sending His Spirit upon Him. The manifestation of the Spirit’s guidance and direction in Jesus’ life is seen in statements such as Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness; And Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit to Galilee …; The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor …Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.40
God’s voice from heaven proclaims Jesus as His Son, thus identifying their relationship as Father and Son. Jesus is now ready to begin His ministry, empowered by the Holy Spirit—to preach the kingdom of God, to be God’s presence on earth, and to fulfill the messianic task given to Him by His Father in order to redeem humanity.
Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
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1 Luke 2:52.
2 Matthew 3:13.
3 Luke 3:23.
4 Mark 1:9–11.
5 Luke 3:21–22.
6 Matthew 3:16–17.
7 Matthew 3:11; Mark 1:7–8; Luke 3:16.
8 Mark 1:10.
9 Ezekiel 1:1.
10 Acts 7:55–56.
11 Acts 10:11.
12 Revelation 19:11, 4:1.
13 John 1:32–34.
14 Isaiah 11:1–2.
15 Isaiah 61:1.
16 Luke 3:22; Mark 1:9–11; Matthew 3:16.
17 Young, Jesus the Jewish Theologian, 20.
18 Green, The Gospel of Luke, 187.
19 Young, Jesus the Jewish Theologian, 20.
20 Mark 1:11.
21 Psalm 2:7.
22 Isaiah 42:1.
23 Guelich, World Biblical Commentary: Mark 1–8:26, 35.
24 Stein, Jesus the Messiah, 99.
26 Matthew 3:14–15.
27 Morris, The Gospel According to Matthew, 64.
28 2 Corinthians 5:21 NIV.
29 Isaiah 53:11–12 NAU.
30 Morris, The Gospel According to Matthew, 65.
32 Luke 11:1–4.
33 Matthew 4:17; Mark 1:14–15; Luke 13:3.
34 Matthew 24:44.
35 Matthew 23:36–38.
36 Matthew 23:23–28; Luke 5:32.
37 Matthew 9:10; Luke 15:1.
38 This summary of similarities and differences is from Jeremias, New Testament Theology, 48–49.
39 John 1:29–30, 33–34.
40 Luke 4:1, 14, 18, 21.