The Baptism of Our Lord

Sarah White
Monday, January 13th 2020

The Westminster Larger Catechism asks (Q. 167), “How is our Baptism to be improved by us?”—or, to put it in more modern language, how do we make good use of our baptism? The Catechism answers, in part, “The needful and much neglected duty of improving our Baptism, is to be performed by us all our life long […] by drawing strength from the death and resurrection of Christ, into whom we are baptized.” I’d like to suggest that we can also draw strength from the baptism of Christ, which gives a vivid picture of our Savior’s identity and work, as well as our identity in him. The account found in Matthew’s gospel (Matt. 3:13–17) is especially helpful in this respect.

The early chapters of Matthew’s gospel recount Jesus’s birth in Bethlehem, the visit by wise men from the east, and his family’s flight to Egypt until Herod’s reign of terror had ended. But between Jesus’s return to Nazareth and the emergence of John the Baptist in the wilderness of Judea, Matthew tells nothing: we hasten from his childhood to the beginning of his public ministry, when he is about 30 years old. The inauguration of that ministry looks different than we might expect. Besides its seeming suddenness, it prompts us to ask: Why would the Savior seek to be baptized? The shape of Matthew’s gospel especially highlights two themes: first, Jesus’s fulfillment of Old Testament promises; and, second, the way that Jesus saves his people through the events of his own life, death, and resurrection. Both these themes are present in the way that Matthew tells the baptism story.

John the Baptist tells the crowds that he baptizes them for repentance, but that he will be followed by one mightier, who will baptize “with the Holy Spirit and fire” and who will divide wheat from chaff. Immediately after John’s words of promise and warning, Jesus joins those gathered along the Jordan, seeking, like them, to be baptized by John. John tries to stop him, arguing—seemingly reasonably—that it would be more fitting for Jesus to baptize him. But Jesus explains that thus “it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” John relents and duly baptizes Jesus, and as soon as Jesus ascends from the water, the Holy Spirit descends from heaven and rests on him. A voice from heaven says, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” In continuity with Matthew’s themes, these details set the tone for the rest of Jesus’s earthly life and ministry: Jesus’s baptism displays how the kingdom of God is becoming manifest and how, in his own person, Jesus is truly God with us.

First, the Holy Spirit’s descent upon the Son is an anointing. It recalls two prophesies from Isaiah, the first from Isaiah 11:2, “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.” It also echoes Isaiah 61:1, “The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound…” The chapter describing the year of the Lord’s favor goes on, overflowing with promises. As John Owen observes, Jesus was “endowed with extraordinary gifts of the Spirit to carry out his prophetic work” and “sent with the backing of his Father’s full authority.” Further, the Spirit enabled all his miracles, testified to Him as the Son of God, and comforted and strengthened Christ in all his own earthly temptations and sufferings.[1] In other words, Jesus’s baptism was necessary in order for him to be our Savior, inaugurating the kingdom of God in his earthly life, ministry, and eventual suffering and death on our behalf.

Second, though Jesus was without sin—making it seem, to our eyes, unfitting for him to submit to baptism, as John protests at first—his baptism shows how he identifies with sinners like us. Just as Matthew’s account evokes the abundant promises of Isaiah in anticipating the works for which Jesus was anointed, it also anticipates his larger purpose in coming as the Savior —“not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matt. 20:28). It points ahead to Paul’s summary of the gospel, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21). John Calvin notes that Jesus “received the same baptism with us, in order to assure believers, that they are ingrafted into his body […] The general reason why Christ received baptism was, that he might render full obedience to the Father; and the special reason was, that he might consecrate baptism in his own body, that we might have it in common with him.”[2]

From Jesus’s baptism, then, the church—and individual believers—can draw much strength and comfort. In addition to the above themes, Matthew’s account invites us to meditate on the Trinitarian nature of our salvation. The Father declares the Son beloved, the Son is baptized, and the appearance of the dove references the Spirit’s “hovering over the face of the waters” (Gen. 1:2) and “[concurs] with the benediction on all that God has made.”[3] The beauty of the Trinitarian intimacy, staggering in itself, draws us in, too: while we cannot share in the Son’s unique, ontological relation to the Father, Christians can and do share in the Trinitarian life by virtue of their adoptive sonship (brought about through Jesus’s obedience). As Michael Horton writes, Jesus “brings us into his relationship of intimacy with the Father in his humanity as the Spirit-filled covenant servant.”[4] Christ’s “[fulfilling] all righteousness” is part of the active obedience which makes this relationship possible—without which we have no hope.

Like Isaiah’s heaping prophecies of the Lord’s favor, Jesus’s baptism pours out promises for us. It can even put into perspective Christians’ unremembered (or ambivalently remembered) baptisms by helping to place our focus where it rightly belongs—not on our personal obedience or experience, but on our belovedness in the Beloved: “See here how ready [the Father] is to own us in him,” Matthew Henry comments; “He is my beloved Son, not only with whom, but in whom, I am well pleased. He is pleased with all that are in him, and are united to him by faith […] He has made us accepted in the Beloved [Eph. 1:6 KJV].”[5] In answer to the Catechism, then, we can make good use of our baptism by always looking to the one who was baptized first, for our sakes. The story of Jesus’s baptism helps us remember that, through Spirit-wrought union with the promise-fulfilling Savior who identifies with sinners, we share his eternal Belovedness in the Father. This makes “improving our Baptism” no burden, but a sweet and strengthening duty indeed.

Sarah White (MA, St. Louis University) is a writer living in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, with her husband, Kevin, and her Basset Hound, Basil.

[1] John Owen, The Holy Spirit, abridged by R. J. K. Law (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 2006), 28–29.

[2] John Calvin, Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists: Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Vol. I (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 2005), 201–202.

[3] Michael Horton, The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims On the Way (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2011), 275.

[4] Ibid., 460.

[5] Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible, Vol. 5 (Hendrickson Publishers, 2006), 24.

Photo of Sarah White
Sarah White
Sarah White (M.Div., Yale Divinity School), lives in western Pennsylvania with her family.
Monday, January 13th 2020

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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