Matthew (Part 05) - Baptism
Would it be permissible to baptize yourself? After all, isn’t baptism your own public profession? Why do you need someone else assisting? Although it may seem plausible, self-baptism does not follow the examples we have in Scripture. From the very first encounter with baptism in the New Testament, we find that a baptizer is necessary to testify to the sincerity of the one baptized.
Matthew records in chapter 3 the ministry of John the Baptizer, calling out for repentance and a new focus of mind, heart, and life on the coming kingdom of heaven. The people coming out to him did not mutely line up to be immersed. Rather, it would appear that John spoke to them, inquiring of their repentance and intent. These people, verse 6 informs us, confessed their sins.
Pharisees and Sadducees also came to hear him. Perhaps they were coming only to make sure that John was not inciting the people to forsake their Jewish traditions. Perhaps because of the number of people viewing John as God’s prophet and who regarded his baptism as a most Godly act, these religious leaders concluded that they also had better show the people their spirituality by being baptized. But John saw through their hypocrisy. They didn’t confess their sin as they should or offer a sincere heart to the pursuit of the kingdom. They were there to do much the same as they did in all their other public performances—to have their piety be seen of others. John calls them a brood of vipers, warning them that they cannot count on their Jewish heritage and Abrahamic covenant promises to save them from the wrath of God.
The next thing that Matthew records is the statement by John that he baptizes with water, but one will come after him (the Messiah) who will baptize with the Holy Spirit. And so ends the staging of the scene. Matthew showed us that John first ensured the sincerity of the candidate before baptizing, signifying that the baptism was a testimony both of the one baptized and of the baptizer regarding the one baptized. We also learned that two baptisms were spoken of. One was by John with water. The other would be a baptism of the Holy Spirit.
The next scene shows Christ coming to be baptized. John at first is hesitant. John tells him that Jesus should be baptizing him, not the other way around. Now, why would he say this? At this point, John does not know that Jesus is the Messiah. Over in the Gospel of John, the Baptist remarks that God informed him that the one upon whom the dove rested would be the Messiah. But here in Matthew, that hasn’t yet occurred and won’t occur until after Jesus is baptized.
Because John doesn’t know that Jesus would be the Messiah doesn’t mean that John didn’t know Jesus. Joseph, Mary, and Jesus came to Jerusalem every year (Luke 2:41). They probably stayed with relatives. And more than likely, Mary would have an inclination to stay with Elizabeth, the one with whom she shared such a meaningful time when both were pregnant. The boys (John and Jesus) were also about the same age, making a stay with them even more attractive. So, John may have known Jesus well, having seen him for a period at least once a year every year as they grew up. And if so, it is highly likely that John became impressed, even from a very young age, that Jesus never seemed to do anything wrong. I imagine he would point this out to his mother who would probably nod knowingly and tell him that God had a special plan for Jesus.
So now John is out baptizing, trying to get people to turn from their selfish lives to a life of Godliness with focus on God’s kingdom, and Jesus—this one who is the most righteous person John knows—comes to him for baptism. Of course, John reacts the way he does. He knows Jesus to be more righteous than himself. And so, he hesitates. But Jesus replies that John should let it be so to fulfill all righteousness. What did that mean? What did John understand that to mean? That was all Jesus said, and John now is comfortable in the role of baptizer…why?
John had called out for people to repent. Repentance wasn’t shown by baptism, but it was a requirement of baptism. Baptism was to signify the intent of a person to live with focus on the kingdom. That is what Jesus meant when he told John to let it be so. And John, the man of action that he was, probably was excited to hear what Jesus said. After all, Jesus, the most righteous person John knew, had been up in Nazareth building furniture while he was out in the desert preaching for God. John knew that the baptisms he was performing were to show the intent of a focus on the kingdom. So when Jesus told him he wanted baptism that all righteousness would be fulfilled, John understood that Jesus was about to focus his life on the coming kingdom—which was exactly Jesus’ intent. We understand Christ’s baptism to be the beginning of his ministry—a turning from his previous life in Nazareth to focus on the purpose for his mission here on earth.
John baptizes Jesus with water. Immediately afterwards, God baptizes Jesus with the Holy Spirit. The two baptisms that John had spoken of are both presented here with Christ. God, the baptizer, testifies regarding Jesus of his relationship and his righteousness. “This is my beloved son [relationship] with whom I am well-pleased [righteousness].” This is the same testifying that God does with us as we are saved. In baptizing us with the Holy Spirit, God declares our righteousness (received from Christ) and our relationship (the adoption as children of God).
Water baptism is often misunderstood. One of the great misunderstandings is that water baptism is the sealing sign of the New Covenant relationship. From that misunderstanding, whole denominations have reasoned that as the sign of the first covenant was applied to children at birth, so too could this New Covenant sign be applied to the children of those in the New Covenant. This reasoning is faulty. Here’s why.
1.1 The old covenant was made with Abraham and his offspring.
1.2 At the birth of a covenant participant, the person responsible for the birth (father) takes the newborn to God’s intercessor (priest).
1.3 The father presents this new covenant relationship, and the priest performs the covenant sign sealing the relationship.
2.1 The New Covenant is made with Christ and his offspring.
2.2 At the birth of a covenant participant, the person responsible for the birth (Christ) is the same as God’s intercessor (Christ).
2.3 The father (Christ) presents this new covenant relationship to God, and the priest (Christ) performs the covenant sign sealing the relationship.
In the old covenant, a person was made part of the covenant at physical birth. That’s why the covenant’s sealing sign (circumcision) was performed at physical birth. In the New Covenant, a person is made part of the covenant not at physical birth, but at spiritual birth. But water baptism doesn’t fit the qualification of the covenant’s sealing sign. The father/priest (Christ in the New Covenant) must perform the sealing sign. He baptizes, but as John said, not with water. He baptizes with the Holy Spirit. And in doing so he testifies of our relation to him and to our righteousness gained through him.
Water baptism is a sign, but not the sealing sign of the New Covenant. Water baptism’s signifying purpose was the same for the baptism performed by John both to the Jews and to Jesus as it is for us—to declare the intent of the baptized to live for the Kingdom. The Jews John baptized had a different perspective. Their intent was in anticipating the Kingdom. Christ’s intent was in establishing the Kingdom. Our intent is in furthering the Kingdom.
What is strange about modern Christianity is that if the word baptism is mentioned, immediately our minds race to water baptism. One would think that since John’s proclamation that he baptized with water but Christ would baptize with the Holy Spirit, that our thoughts on this side of the Kingdom’s establishment would be in connecting the word baptism with the baptism of the Holy Spirit. But it is not so.
The word baptize is a transliteration of the Greek word baptizo. The word actually means immerse or submerge or dip. That it was transliterated rather than translated probably had something to do with beliefs of those who did the translations. All English Bibles from Tyndale’s New Testament in 1525 through the King James in 1611 transliterated the word. During these 80-90 years the Church of England sprinkled. Perhaps that is why they were reluctant to put “immerse” into their translations. Even though the word immerse would not seal the deal for mode of baptism, they probably wanted to avoid confusion and therefore transliterated so that we have the words baptize and baptism today.
But confusion did result because of it. If we go back to change all the occurrences in the NT that say baptize and baptism to immerse and immersion, we might begin to wonder whether some verses we use to discuss water baptism really had anything to do with water baptism. For example, the Great Commission in Matthew 28:19 says, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” In this verse Christ tells us to (1) go, (2) make disciples, and (3) baptize. Almost everyone understands the baptizing here to refer to water baptism. But does it? What tells us that it should?
It is interesting to bear this verse in mind while we read Paul’s discussion in 1 Corinthians 1. In verse 17 of that chapter he says, “I thank God that I baptized none of you….” What? Is Paul saying he thanks God that he disregards Christ’s command? Verse 19 holds more shocking news: “For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel.” Here Paul directly contradicts what Christ said. Or does he? Only if we understand both verses as references to water baptism do we have a problem. By looking at the context, we see that 1 Corinthians 1 definitely speaks of water baptism. Therefore, if Matthew 28:19 speaks of water baptism we have a contradiction in Scripture. If it talks of an immersion into Christ we no longer have a contradiction.
Another interesting reference is in Acts. In Acts 2:38 Peter tells those who listen to him preach to “repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” A couple verses later we learn that “those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls.” Did Peter really tell them to be baptized in water? Were three thousand people really baptized in Jerusalem (a city of no lakes or water natural source)? Or could this be a reference to baptism by the Holy Spirit?
At the beginning of this context—Acts 1:5—Christ tells the disciples: “For John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.” Then, just as Christ had said, Acts 2:1-13 recounts how the Holy Spirit did fall on the disciples. When others around wondered at the display of tongues, Peter preaches a sermon explaining that this is the baptism of the Holy Spirit. Then we get to the question they asked Peter about what to do. Would it not seem logical, considering this context, to understand Peter’s statement of baptism and the baptism of the three thousand to refer to the subject of this whole section—the baptism of the Holy Spirit? Why would we ignore how Christ baptizes and favor an introduction into these verses of the concept of water baptism.
With a good understanding of the purpose of baptism from Matthew 3 and a good understanding of the emphasis of Christ baptizing with the Holy Spirit (also from Matthew 3), we should be careful when reading through the rest of the NT to understand the references to baptism appropriately.