13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him. 14 John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” 15 But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. 16 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; 17 and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”
Gregory of Nazianzus was the Archbishop of Constantinople in the 300s AD. He is widely considered to be one of the truly great minds of the church. It is fascinating, then, to see a real show of genuine emotion in him. I say “fascinating” because sometimes some of the writings of the church fathers feel so very heavy and dry. But I would like to show you what Gregory looks like when he is animated and enthused! The occasion is a sermon in which he tells his church that, having finished their Christmas celebrations, they are now going to turn to another exciting event in the life of Jesus. Gregory’s enthusiasm can hardly be contained. Let us hear him:
We recently celebrated the feast of the Lord’s birth…[in which] earth and heaven participated. Together we ran after the star…with the magi we fell and worshiped…with the shepherds light shone around us…and with the angels we glorified him…With Simeon we embraced him ourselves…and with Anna, the patient old woman, we freely returned thanks to God…Thanks be to the one who, as a stranger, is coming to his own…because he glorified the stranger.
But now there is another deed of Christ before us, another mystery. I am unable to control my excitement! I am becoming inspired! Almost like John, I proclaim good news (Matt 3:1), if not as a forerunner, but as a man from the desert! Christ is illuminated; let us be enlightened together! Christ is baptized…let us descend together, so that we might be raised together. Jesus is baptized…
What is it that has Gregory so excited? What is this other event that he seems to put alongside Christmas? It is the baptism of Jesus!
Perhaps you are confused. Perhaps you would say that, yes, the baptism of Jesus is important, of course, but exciting? Honestly, have you ever felt this animated about the baptism of Jesus? Maybe we should!
Gregory was fired up because he understood that the baptism of Jesus was extremely important and carried with it profound truths and beautiful implications. And, in truth, Gregory is right! We should be excited about the baptism of Jesus. Our lack of excitement really just reveals how we have failed to truly comprehend what is going on here, what this baptism means. So let us ask: what does the baptism of Jesus mean?
The baptism of Jesus means that Jesus is over us.
The baptism of Jesus reveals that Jesus is over us. I do not mean “over us” in the modern sense of “wanting nothing to do with us”! That is most certainly not what the baptism reveals! No, I mean it reveals that Jesus is “over us” in the sense that He is above us, over us in authority and in essence. He is certainly not under us and neither can He be reduced to a mere human being, even a great one. He is more than that. He is enthroned on high! His banner is over us because He is divine.
The most important thing about the baptism of Jesus is what it reveals about Jesus Himself, about who He is. We can see this in three different ways, all arising from what happens after Jesus is baptized.
16 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; 17 and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.
First, we see He is enthroned among the persons of the Godhead at His baptism. At the baptism we see the Son being baptized, the Spirit descending upon the Son, and the Father speaking over the Son and sending the Spirit. In other words, we see the Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Triune God is here, and Jesus is the second person of that triunity. This is no mere man, though He was fully man. No, this is the God-man, fully God and fully man. Jesus is over us in that He is divine in His person!
We also see how Jesus is over us in the image of the descending Spirit. At the baptism “he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him.” We have already seen how Matthew makes frequent allusion and appeal to Jesus as the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies and images. This is another example. For instance, the descent of the Spirit upon Jesus is a fulfillment of the promised Suffering Servant spoken of in Isaiah 42:
1 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. 2 He will not cry aloud or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; 3 a bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. 4 He will not grow faint or be discouraged till he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his law.
Notice that the servant has the Spirit of God “put…upon him.” And what will this servant of God do? He “will bring forth justice to the nations,” He will be “bruised” but “will not break,” and His rule and reign will be over all the earth (“the coastlands wait for his law”). What is more, the connection between the servant and Jesus is highlighted by God’s words about him in Isaiah 42:1. The pleasure that God has in His servant in Isaiah 42:1 (“my chose, in whom my soul delights”) parallels the words of the Father in Matthew 3:17 (“This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”)
Jesus is over us in that Jesus is the promised and long-awaited Servant of God sent to reign and rule who is the recipient of the pleasure and delight of the Father.
There is another allusion in the baptism to Isaiah 11. Here too the Spirit comes to rest on the favored one of God.
1 There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit. 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.
In this text, a promised figure will come in the line of David who will be the renewal and resurrection of the life of Israel, “a shoot from the stump of Jesse” whose “branch from his roots” will “bear fruit.” So this promised figure will bring life and hope and light in the darkness! And “the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him.”
Jesus is therefore the promised Messiah servant as well as the hope of the house of David. Let us remember how Matthew begins his gospel:
1 The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.
The baptism of Jesus highlights these realities: Christ the anointed one and the hope and life of God’s people.
There is one more Old Testament passage that the baptism of Jesus seems to fulfill. Stanley Hauerwas sees the baptism of Jesus as “his coronation.” “The Father anoints the Son,” he writes, “to rule over the nations. Jesus is the son decreed in Ps. 2…” Psalm 2 is indeed an important text. In this psalm, the kings and powers of the earth are depicted as plotting and scheming against God. Psalm 2 goes on to record God’s scornful response:
4 He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord holds them in derision. 5 Then he will speak to them in his wrath, and terrify them in his fury, saying, 6 “As for me, I have set my King on Zion, my holy hill.” 7 I will tell of the decree: The Lord said to me, “You are my Son; today I have begotten you. 8 Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession. 9 You shall break them with a rod of iron and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.”
The identification of Jesus with the promised King who God has “set…on Zion, on my holy hill” can be found in the words of God over this King in verse 7: “You are my Son, today I have begotten you.” Compare that, again, with Matthew 3:17: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” And what will this beloved Son King do? He will be given the nations, He will bring justice, and He will break the evil powers.
Now we begin to see why Gregory of Nazianzus was so excited! This is amazing stuff! Jesus, in His baptism, is revealed to be over us by being revealed to be the Suffering Servant Messiah, the hope of the house of David, the King above all Kings, God’s favored and promised and sent one, the bringer of justice to the world, and the life and light of men! Michael Wilkins writes that “Jesus’ anointing by the Spirit is both the coronation of Israel’s Messiah and the commissioning of God’s righteous Servant for the work that he will now carry out in the power and presence of the Spirit.”
The baptism of Jesus means that Jesus is with us.
Yes, He is over us, as God, but, amazingly, the baptism of Jesus also reveals that Jesus is with us! This great God is not distant from us. Rather, He has come to identify with, love, and be in relationship with us. We can see this in John’s shock and protest at the coming of Jesus for baptism.
13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him. 14 John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”
Why does John protest so strongly? Simply put, because John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance, as we have seen, and Jesus is the spotless Lamb of God who committed no sin! It should be astonishing to us as well! Why would Jesus, who created the Jordan river, who spoke the world into being, who never sinned, who is the perfect righteousness of God, come into those dirty waters to be baptized by his cousin who had been calling people to repentance? Why on earth would that need to happen? Jesus’ response tells us:
15 But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented.
This image of “fulfilling all righteousness” is fascinating. The “now” in “Let it be so now” seems to suggest that this is something fitting for Jesus in His incarnate state, that it is, it is part of His mission in taking on flesh. In that sense, what Jesus is saying is that His baptism is necessary because He must accomplish all acts of righteousness to which He will call others just as He must never violate any standard of righteousness as God’s own Son. In other words, Jesus is going to do whatever He asks us to do! His baptism was a radical act of His identification with us. He came to be with us, though never to the point of sinning. Chromatius of Aquileia put it like this:
The Lord, then, did not come to be baptized for his own sake, but for ours so that he might fulfill all righteousness. It is only right that what one teaches another, the other should do first. Since Jesus came as Lord and teacher of the human race, he wanted to teach by his example what had to be done so that the disciples would follow their teacher as servants of their Lord.
Yes! Good teachers show that they themselves can and will do that which they teach others to do! Jesus will call upon the nations to become disciples and be baptized in Matthew 28:19. So He too would be baptized. This was part of His identification with us.
Frank Stagg has pointed out something else that is interesting. He has contemplated the meaning of “for us” in Jesus statement that the baptism was necessary “for us to fulfill all righteousness.”
Jesus did identify with sinners whom he had come to save…the for us (v.15) may refer either to John and Jesus or to Jesus and the people with whom he associated himself. He became one with those who needed to repent, though he was without sin (Heb. 2:17).
In other words, Jesus may have made a direct reference to all who would follow Him while standing in the waters of baptism! This is necessary “for us…” How wonderful! How beautiful! Christ is with us!
The baptism of Jesus means that Jesus is for us.
But it is not only that the baptism of Jesus reveals His being over us and with us. It also reveals His being for us.
15 But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented.
The greatest act of the “fulfillment of all righteousness” will be Christ’s work on the cross and the empty tomb. And, indeed, the baptism of Jesus pointed to that greater work. It pointed to the crucifixion and resurrection. This is where a Baptist understanding of baptism as immersion can be helpful. Immersion is a watery reenactment of death-burial-resurrection. The person who is baptized acts out in a sign of remembrance, solidarity, and proclamation the crucifixion of Jesus, the death of Jesus, the burial of Jesus, and the resurrection of Jesus. And Jesus’ own burial in the waters of the Jordan foreshadowed the coming cross. B.H. Carroll put it nicely in 1913:
Apart from the clear meaning of baptize, we may settle the question in another way. The argument of Romans 6:3 [“Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?”] and Colossians 2:12 [“having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead”] shows that Jesus was figuratively buried and raised in baptism, and that we who follow him are planted in the likeness of his death and also raised in the likeness of his resurrection. Therefore baptism is indissolubly connected with the resurrection of the buried dead.
Yes, the baptism of Jesus as a sign of the coming cross of Jesus, a sign embraced by followers of Christ to this day, speaks of Christ being for us, of Christ coming to save us, of Christ as our victor and conquering King! The baptism of Jesus spoke of a greater baptism to come, the baptism of the cross and empty tomb. Jesus does not merely identify with us, He comes to save us, to redeem us, to win us!
And, part of that, of course, is the fact that Christ does become our sin on the cross though He never committed any sin. Paul writes of this in 2 Corinthians 5:
21 For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
Could Jesus’ baptism in the waters of repentance have been a foreshadowing of this great fact as well, this being-our-sin on the cross? Could Jesus have been saying, “You are right, John. I do not need to repent. But the day will come when I will become and conquer that sin of which all humanity needs to repent! The day will come when I will take the sins of the world upon myself so that lost humanity can, by grace through faith, be saved!”?
I believe so! I believe that Jesus’ water burial and resurrection was pointing to the burial and resurrection that would come, the burial and resurrection that shows He is for us, the burial and resurrection that we must embrace to be saved.
Yes, Gregory of Nazianzus was right to be excited! The baptism of Jesus is a powerful act indeed!
 D.H. Williams, ed., Matthew. The Church’s Bible. Gen. ed. Robert Louis Wilken. (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2018), p.45-46.
 Stanley Hauerwas, Matthew. Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2006), p.48.
 Michael J. Wilkins, “Matthew.” Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary. Gen ed. Clinton E. Arnold. Vol. 1 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002), p.26,
 D.H. Williams, ed., p.48.
 Frank Stagg, “Matthew.” The Broadman Bible Commentary. Gen. ed., Clifton J. Allen. Vol.8 (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1969), p.94.
 B.H. Carroll, The Four Gospels. An Interpretation of the English Bible. vol.I (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1913), p.233.