In the last essay we studied Luke 3:1-20 in which we found the ministry of John the Baptist. In this essay we are studying the baptism of Jesus. As you can see, Luke ha a very brief account, only two verses. Therefore, in order to get the complete picture, we need to read Matthew’s account as well, found in Matthew 3:13-17.
All three of the Synoptic Gospels tell us about a baptism of Jesus that took place just as Jesus was about to commence his public ministry. Both Matthew and Mark say that Jesus came from Galilee, and that he was baptized by John the Baptist in the Jordan river. They tell us that Jesus saw the heavens opened and the Spirit descend upon him like a dove. And they record that a voice spoke from heaven proclaiming Jesus the Son of God and saying that God was pleased with Jesus’ actions. As we have noted, Luke’s account is brief, and thus it is not as close to the other two as they are to each other; but it is still obvious that Luke is giving an account of the same event.
Matt. 3:13-14 does not appear in either Mark or Luke. In those verses, we see that John the Baptist had a problem with Jesus’ desire to submit himself to a baptism of repentance. The question was why would the sinless Jesus undergo a baptism of repentance for sin?
Notice that Jesus had an answer. When John the Baptist was hesitant, Jesus told him, “Let it be so now; for thus it is fitting to fulfill all righteousness” (RSV). Well, what did Jesus mean when he said, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting to fulfill all righteousness”? An answer in part lies in a proper understanding of the word “righteousness”
The word “righteousness” has two meanings. First there is the legal usage of the term. This usage is found where courtroom imagery is used to communicate what God has done for us in Christ. On these occasions the term usually is translated “justification” rather than “righteousness.” When persons are righteous in the legal sense, they are justified in the sight of God. Their sins are forgiven, and thus they are pardoned at the bar of divine justice.
Then, second, there is the moral, or ethical use of the term. This usage involves living up to God’s moral standards. It is obedience to God and God’s law. When a person is righteous in this moral sense, that person does the will of God.
It is in this second sense that the term is used in Mt. 3:15. Jesus and John were fulfilling all righteousness by being obedient to the will of God. Jesus wanted to be baptized, not because he wanted to repent of sin, but because there was a high purpose for his life within the framework of the will of God that he wanted to fulfill.
When we ask what the high purpose for his life that Jesus wanted to fulfill was, the answer is the incarnation itself. Christ became a human being and died in order to make atonement for humanity’s sins. And in order for that purpose to be fulfilled, Jesus freely had to take upon himself the responsibility for our sins. He did that in a literal sense on the cross at the end of his earthly ministry. But here at the beginning, he symbolically took our sins upon himself by undergoing a baptism of repentance, even though he himself was sinless. Thus Jesus was identifying himself with human sinfulness when he was baptized. In that act, he symbolized his acceptance upon himself of the condemnation for our sin.
Then God responded to what Jesus had done in a clear and positive fashion. When Jesus was baptized the heavens opened, and the Holy spirit descended upon Jesus “like a dove,” or as Luke put it, “in bodily form, as a dove” (Lk. 3:22). Then God spoke from heaven saying, “This is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased.”
Now then, there is a difference in the accounts that raises questions for careful readers. When we study the three accounts of the statement from heaven (Mt. 3:17; Mk. 1:11; Lk. 3:22), we find an important difference. Luke’s form of the statement agrees with Mark’s. But Matthew’s is different. Mark and Luke read, quote, “Thou art my beloved son; with thee I am well pleased.” In other words, they both quote God as addressing Jesus directly. However, Matthew reads, quote, “This is my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased.” Thus Matthew suggests that God addressed those standing by, rather than Jesus.
The way Mark presents the entire scene, including the voice from heaven, it would be possible to interpret it (if we had no other accounts) as an event experienced by Jesus alone. One could have said on the basis of Mark’s account that only Jesus saw the dove descending and heard the voice saying to him, “Thou art my beloved son; with thee I am well pleased.”
However, Mark is not the only source. If we look at Luke, although he reported the statement from heaven in precisely the same language as Mark, Luke objectified the scene considerably by saying that the dove descended “in bodily form.” Something that is being revealed in bodily form implies that anyone present could have seen it.
Matthew, on the other hand, presented the scene in such a way that the event obviously was not a totally subjective experience within Jesus. Matthew made it clear that John the Baptist, and anyone else present could have heard the voice. Indeed, in Matthew the voice addressed everyone present.
We get some help here from the Gospel of John. John doesn’t record the baptism itself; but in John 1:32, he records a testimony of John the Baptist that he saw the Spirit descend on Jesus. So we know that it was an objective experience observable by people other than Jesus. But we still have the two different versions of the statement.
Three solutions have been advanced to solve this problem. One suggested solution is that there were two (or more) statements from heaven. But scholars agree that was not likely the case.
A second suggested solution is that the difference is the result of a scribal error. This theory suggests that a scribe who was doing copies of Matthew changed the “thou art,” which was in agreement with Mark and Luke, to “this is.” He did it, says the theory, in order to assimilate this baptism statement from God to the similar statement from God at the transfiguration (Mt. 17:5; Mk 9:7; Lk 9:35; par. 124.) (McNeile, p. 32). In other words, this theory is suggesting that Matthew originally had the same statement as Mark and Luke; but a zealous scribe changed it to make it agree with the transfiguration statement.. The problem with this solution is that it has no manuscript support. That is, there are no manuscripts of Matthew, none, that read like Mark and Luke. That means that if there were a scribal error, it would have had to take place by necessity extremely early in the copying process.
A third offered solution is that the Synoptic writers had access to different sources that had the differing statements. Thus the source used by Mark and Luke preserved the statement from the perspective of Jesus, who heard it as spoken to him. And Matthew’s source preserved the statement from the perspective of John the Baptist, who heard it as a statement to all (Godet, 120, 125). In other words, Jesus heard the Father’s voice subjectively; and John the Baptist heard it objectively. Both perspectives then were preserved in the oral tradition. The oral tradition, by the way, is the tradition as it was preserved orally during the 30 to 40 years between the time when the events of Jesus’ ministry took place and when the Gospel writers wrote them down. During that lengthy period, the sayings of Jesus and his remembered deeds were preserved in memory rather than on paper. Thus it is important not to forget the activity of the Holy Spirit in this process. The Holy Spirit superintended the preservation of the Jesus traditions during the oral period before he inspired the Gospel authors to use the traditions in the ways they did.
Turning to application, I see at least two important matters. First. It is incumbent on us to follow the example of John and Jesus. Like them, we must fulfill all righteousness by being obedient to the will of God. By the power of the Spirit, we must be morally “righteous.”
Then second, we need to follow the example of the heavenly Father himself in our parenting. When God spoke from heaven saying, “This is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased.” We see a wonderful example of parenting! Even though Jesus was the divine Son of God; as a human being he needed the same kind of encouragement we all need. And God the Father gave it to him. He acknowledged Jesus as his son and praised him. I have heard dozens and dozens of times through my years of ministry people testify that their parents never told them they loved them or that they were pleased with them. We need to tall our children that we love them and are proud of them, even if they are grown up and on their own.