Here at the beginning of Matthew’s gospel, we have the most important introduction in the history of the world (3:1-17). It may not seem like it, but thirty years pass between chapters 2 and 3, during which Jesus lives in Nazareth and “grows in wisdom and in stature” (Luke 2:52). For over 400 years, the nation of Israel has not heard the voice of a prophet…until now. John appears on the scene and a great revival takes place (which is the fulfillment of prophecy, Isaiah 40:3). John is called “John the Baptist,” because he is baptizing people and his message centers on repentance and the kingdom of heaven. Now concerning his diet and dress, I really don’t know what to say…except that today, he would be a great candidate for some television show like Survivor or maybe the old Fear Factor. But, John the Baptist is not satisfied with regret or remorse, but truly desires to see “the fruit of repentance”…evidence of a changed mind and a changed life. Many people come to hear John preach and conduct baptisms for repentance.
Israel had sinned and needed to repent, and the religious leaders ought to have led the way, yet we know how the story goes. Still, if the nation repents, the way will be prepared for the Messiah. Instead, John calls the Pharisees and Scribes “a brood of vipers,” for their self-righteousness…not exactly a complimentary description. They see no need for repentance and baptism, for they believe they are good enough to please God. It is ironic how often people have the same mindset today. But, goodness is not good enough…it will not cut it. Self-sufficiency has been the bane of humanity since Adam and Eve in the Garden. John’s baptism is not something devised or borrowed, it is authorized from heaven (Matthew 21:23-27). His baptism of repentance is a looking forward to the Messiah’s coming (Acts 19:1-7). This event not only prepares the nation for Christ, it also presents Christ to the nation (John 1:31). John mentions another baptism – one of the Spirit and fire, a reference to the future baptism provided by Jesus Christ. This is “Christian baptism”…of water and Spirit…where a cleansing, as if by fire, takes place. Jesus shares concerning this with Nicodemus in John 3, and it is also spoken of by Peter, Paul, John and Luke. It is the “one” baptism, mentioned by Paul in Ephesians 4:1ff. Baptism is also about judgment (another allusion to fire, perhaps), because Jesus, while He comes to bring unity, also brings the sword…and baptism is a signifier of allegiance or lack thereof.
Jesus comes to John to be baptized, not because He is a penitent sinner, because He had no sin. John even tries to stop Jesus, but the Lord knows it is His Father’s will. Yet, why is Jesus baptized? For one – it gives approval to John the Baptist’s ministry, and to doing God’s will. Two – Jesus identifies Himself with all mankind…publicans and sinners…the people He came to save. He sets the example for all of us. Three – it is the initiation of His ministry with the presence of the dove…the Holy Spirit…and ultimately, a looking ahead toward His three year ministry, culminating is His death on the cross (Matthew 20:22). The dove is a symbol for purity and peace (although I might argue that, given the current state of warfare that they make against our vehicles)…nonetheless, it indicates that the ministry of Jesus is the ministry of the Holy Spirit. So, John the Baptist comes to prepare the way for the Lord, bearing witness to Him as the Lamb of God and the Son of God. Because of John’s witness, many sinners trust in Jesus Christ. Finally, a thunderous exclamation comes from the Father, "This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased" (3:17). It is the first of three that He will give, which also occurs at the Transfiguration (Matthew 17), and as He would approach the cross (John 12:27-30). The Father’s statement rings out approval of all that Jesus has done up to this point, which has to be a great encouragement to Him.
One time, Kim’s dad, John, was traveling for work in Germany. One day, he discovered that he did not have his passport. Problem! No passport…no I.D; no I.D….big problem – you are no one! Fortunately, it was recovered quickly and he was able to go his way, but not without some significant stress. Spiritually, we do not want to get caught without our I.D. papers. As we read in the N.T., it is clear that baptism is our identification with Christ in His life, death, burial and Resurrection…as indicated by Paul in Romans 6. It is through baptism that the Holy Spirit came and identified with Jesus and His ministry. He does the same for us. John came to bring a baptism of repentance in water…Jesus brings a baptism of water and Spirit. Like our Savior, we should all want to grow in wisdom as we walk the Christian walk. And one day, the Lord will say concerning us – “this is my child in whom I am well-pleased!”