The Ministry of John the Baptist & the Baptism of Christ
The Kingdom of Heaven is a dispensational term only found in Matthew’s gospel. It is a very important subject to grasp in order to understand Matthew, and the whole scope of God’s counsels. I recommend getting a solid grasp of this subject (see entry for the Kingdom of Heaven) before proceeding.
- The Ministry of John the Baptist (3:1-6)
- John the Baptist’s Warning the Pharisees (3:7-12)
- John’s Baptism of Jesus, a Voice From Heaven (3:13-17)
The Ministry of John the Baptist (3:1-6)
¶ Now in those days comes John the baptist, preaching in the wilderness of Judaea, 2 and saying, Repent, for the kingdom of the heavens has drawn nigh. vv.1-2 His basic message. “In those days” are the days of Jesus dwelling in Nazareth, but many years after the events of ch.2, when He was closer to thirty years of age (Luke 3:23). John was the son of a priest (Luke 1), but he took a position “in the wilderness” outside of the corruption that was in the city. John’s basic message was ‘repent, because the king is coming’. “Repent” means to have a change of mind, but repentance will always result in change of walk. Read more… “The kingdom of heaven” was now at hand… signaling that a great dispensational change was near.
John’s message. The gospel John the Baptist preached was threefold:
- The Lord is coming. The object of all the Old Testament prophecies was about to arrive.
- The kingdom of heaven is at hand. A great dispensational change was about to occur in which there would be a kingdom on earth under the rule of Christ.
- Israel needs to repent. John was working to “plow up the ground” and create a condition of repentance in the hearts of the Jews so that they would receive their Messiah.
In Luke 3 we get the moral features of John’s message. Men ought to manifest fruits of repentance (v.8). John didn’t preach the gospel of the grace of God, as Paul does in Romans, but the gospel of the kingdom. John was not the sower (Matt. 13), but he was the plowman. It has been said that John’s hand held the plow, but not the seed. The Lord was the sower, and we can see how His ministry dovetailed with John’s.
3 For this is he who has been spoken of through Esaias the prophet, saying, “Voice of him that crieth in the wilderness: prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.” [Isa. 40:3] v.3 His credentials. John was the fulfillment of Isa. 40:3. His exhortation was for Israel to clear a moral highway for the Lord to come to His people, by opening up their hearts and consciences. We need to do the same. To make something “straight” is to make it free of restrictions. John was “in the wilderness”… he lived consistent with the message he brought. Note: in Luke 3:4-6 we see that Luke, who quotes less frequently from the Old Testament, not only quotes Isa. 40:3 but the two following verses as well. Why? Because John’s burden was to show the grace of God bringing salvation to “all men“.
John the Baptist Foretold. There are at least three scriptures the Jewish rabbis knew that required the Messiah to have a herald (or forerunner). Those three scriptures are:
- Isa. 40:3 speaks of “one crying in the wilderness”. From this scripture they knew that Messiah’s herald would come preaching the coming of the Lord and Israel’s need to prepare themselves morally to receive Him.
- Mal. 3:1 speaks of “my messenger”. From this scripture they knew the herald would be successful in preparing the way before the coming of Christ.
- Mal. 4:5-6 says “I send unto you Elijah the prophet”. They knew the Messiah’s herald would come “in the spirit and power of Elias” (Luke 1:17).
With each reference we get added detail. They believed that Elijah personally would come as this forerunner, because of the wording in Mal. 4:5-6. But John the Baptist came “in the spirit and power of Elijah”, and the Lord says that this John was Elijah to those with faith, who was promised to come (Matt. 11:14; 17:12). However, the nation at large rejected John, just as they were about to reject the Son of Man. Because of their rejection, John’s Elijah-like work was cut short, and so he is only a partial fulfillment of Mal. 4:5-6. Notice that the Spirit of God makes John the complete fulfillment of Isa. 40:3 and Mal. 3:1, but carefully avoids that with Mal. 4:5-6. This is also the reason that John said he was not Elias (John 1:21). John never applied Malachi 4:5-6 to himself. This is because the same ministry that John began will be taken up by faithful witnesses in the tribulation who will completely fulfill Malachi’s prophecy (see Rev. 11:1-14).
4 And John himself had his garment of camel’s hair, and a leathern girdle about his loins, and his nourishment was locusts and wild honey. v.4 His character. The Jewish rabbis believed that Elijah would literally come back, because of Malachi’s prophecy and also the fact that Elijah was taken up without going through death. John was similar to Elijah, not only in his ministry, but right down to his clothing; “a hairy man, girt with a leathern girdle” (2 Kings 1:8). But John’s food was unique. Lev. 11:22 allowed a Jew to have a diet of locusts. Remember, while John’s ministry lasted only about six months, he was in the desert eating this diet from the time he was a child (Luke 1:80), so about thirty years! He had a thirty-year track-record though obscured from the public eye. What was visible to the public (last six months) was only the tip of the iceberg, so to speak. So it should be with every servant of God. That which is public should be backed up by a steady course of devotion, prayer, and self-denial.
¶ 5 Then went out to him Jerusalem, and all Judaea, and all the country round the Jordan, 6 and were baptised by him in the Jordan, confessing their sins. vv.5-6 His ministry. It isn’t that every last person in Judea was converted though John’s preaching (c.p. v.7) but that a general movement had begun, and a remnant was formed. The Jordan River is a landmark of the nation of Israel. John’s baptism had to do with separating a person outwardly from the nation, which was coming under judgment.
John’s Baptism and the Baptism of Jesus on earth can be viewed as “Kingdom baptism” in contrast with “Christian Baptism”. Kingdom baptism is what disconnected the faithful Jews from the guilt of apostate Israel, while Christian baptism bring us into the Christian testimony. The testimony of the Jewish remnant was simply that they had turned away from Israel's sins and were waiting for the King to come and for the Kingdom to be established on the earth. The Christian testimony is that we are looking for the Kingdom as well, but first and foremost for the return of Christ!Read more…
John the Baptist’s Warning the Pharisees (3:7-12)
Five Points Concerning False Religion and God’s Wrath (vv.7-12)
¶ 7 But seeing many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, Offspring of vipers, who has forewarned you to flee from the coming wrath? v.7 Point #1: Wrath is Coming on the Nation of Israel. John knew exactly who these bystanders were; mere professors. In Luke 7:29-30 we read that they rejected the message and baptism of John. In this verse, John is plainly calling them a bunch of snakes. They bore the character of their father, the Devil. Years of God’s patience and mercy they had despised. Years of the prophets’ warnings they had not heeded. This “generation” of fleshly, apostate religion had treasured up wrath to itself against the day of wrath (Rom. 2:5).
8 Produce therefore fruit worthy of repentance. v.8 Point #2: God is Looking for True Repentance, to be Accompanied by Fruits. The Pharisees had plenty of works, but they were nothing more than an outward show of ceremonialism. If a person is truly repentant – has begun to think God’s thoughts about themselves – there will be fruits that reflect a change of heart. It is true for individuals, and also for assemblies (2 Cor. 7:11).
9 And do not think to say within yourselves, We have Abraham for our father; for I say unto you, that God is able of these stones to raise up children to Abraham. v.9 Point #3: God Will Not Make an Exception for Natural Jewish Ancestry. The Jewish mind was prone to think that they could not come under judgment because it would make God unfaithful to His promises. This is a grave miscalculation (see Rom. 2:17 – 3:8). The Jews thought that their natural, genealogical link with Abraham would guarantee them exemption from God’s judgment. God’s sovereign grace, through Christ, would raise up from “these stones” (the Gentiles) children to Abraham, those who had Abraham’s faith (Rom. 4:16).
10 And already the axe is applied to the root of the trees; every tree therefore not producing good fruit is cut down and cast into the fire. v.10 Point #4: Judgment is Imminent; Urgent Action is Required by Individuals. The blow was not yet struck, but the axe was already at the root of the trees. Notice that “the trees” is plural… the trees refer to individuals. The people could not enter the kingdom en masse. Those without fruits of repentance would come under judgment. He is not explaining here how sinners are saved, but the practical holiness which is required for the presence of the Lord (Heb. 12:14).
11 “I” indeed baptise you with water to repentance, but he that comes after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not fit to bear; “he” shall baptise you with the Holy Spirit and fire; 12 whose winnowing fan is in his hand, and he shall thoroughly purge his threshing-floor, and shall gather his wheat into the garner, but the chaff he will burn with fire unquenchable. vv.11-12 Point #5: Christ Will Personally Separate the Real & Judge the False. John had a deep reverence for this coming Person. John’s mission was to create a moral state of repentance in the hearts of the people, but he did not have the authority to judge. He could only baptize with water; i.e. to make an outward, temporal distinction. The one who followed after was far greater, and would make an inward, eternal distinction. Read more… It would occur in two phases:
- The baptism of the Holy Spirit is something that would be done from heaven (John 7:39, John 15:26, Acts 2:33). It is what formed the link between Christ in heaven and His members on earth… “For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body” (1 Cor. 12:13). But, the aspect in view here is the Holy Ghost as the power of God’s grace for blessing in the kingdom now. Read more…
- The baptism with fire is what Christ will do with the Christian testimony at the harvest judgment. They will be taken by the angels and cast into the lake of fire (Mat. 13:41-42). The Spirit of God had revealed to John that the Messiah would be marked out by the Spirit, and that the Messiah would be one that baptized with the Holy Spirit… but this revelation said nothing about baptism with fire (John 1:33 tells us exactly what was revealed to John). It seems that John read about the baptism with fire in Mal. 3:2-3, speaking of the Messiah, and he includes it here by Divine inspiration! Some want to argue that the baptism with fire refers to the likeness of “cloven tongues of fire” (Acts 2:3) that sat upon each one on the Day of Pentecost. But Matt. 3 is clearly referring to the execution of righteous judgment when Christ comes again! This is very clear from what follows (v.12). Once the wheat has been gathered into the garner (at the rapture) He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire (at the appearing). The better contrast is between the tongues of fire (power) and a dove (harmless purity). The character of the Messiah’s baptism with fire is unfolded in v.12. He was ready to do it at a moment’s notice; “whose winnowing fan is in his hand”. He won’t make any mistakes, but He will discriminatingly and thoroughly purge His threshing-floor. Not one person of faith will be lost. Not one of the false will escape eternal judgment. This will occur at the appearing of Christ.
The two baptisms that Christ undertakes are spoken of by John in the same sentence. The first baptism (with the Holy Spirit) is connected with Christ’s first coming, and the other (with fire) is connected with His second coming. John perhaps never dreamed that a space of 2000 years would come between these two events! There was no hint in the Old Testament of two parts to the coming of the Messiah.
John’s Baptism of Jesus, a Voice From Heaven (3:13-17)
Jesus Joins the Remnant. Those who were baptized of John, confessing their sins, were the true remnant of the Jews. They had separated – by John’s baptism – from the mass who were ripening for judgment. This faithful remnant didn’t have great outward strength. Repentance was all they had. They owned that judgment was the righteous consequence of Israel’s sin, but they humbled themselves before God. Now Jesus presents Himself in their midst, taking His place among the faithful remnant as one of them in their true position before God. He comes to encourage them, and to partake in their rejection. This was orderly, because the Good Shepherd “entereth in by the door” (John 10:2) to take His place with the sheep. This remnant was what Zechariah called “the poor of the flock”. The statement in Zech. 11:7 could be translated, “So I pastured the flock marked out for slaughter, particularly the poor of the flock”. The Lord’s whole three and a half years of public ministry was a witness to the apostate nation (“the flock of slaughter”)… but particularly, He had on His heart the faithful remnant gathered around Him (“the poor of the flock”), and ministered accordingly for their blessing.
John’s Opposition to the Baptism of Jesus (vv.13-15)
¶ 13 Then comes Jesus from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptised of him; v.13 John was preaching repentance and remission of sins. What could bring the Lord Jesus there? He had no sins to confess. But He had come forth to take His place with the remnant. It was grace that brought Him… because the Lord had no need in Himself to be baptized.
14 but John urgently forbad him, saying, “I” have need to be baptised of thee; and comest “thou” to me? 15 But Jesus answering said to him, Suffer it now; for thus it becometh us to fulfil all righteousness. Then he suffers him. vv.14-15 The lesser is blessed of the greater (Heb. 7:7), and so in John’s mind it seemed backwards for Jesus to be coming to him to be baptized. John protested, saying that their roles should be reversed, by his reasoning. What grace in the Lord’s response! He links Himself with John; “It becometh us.” Not only was it grace on Jesus’ part to take His place among the remnant, but it was righteousness which brought Him there, not any sin on His part. “All righteousness” perhaps refers to the righteousness of acknowledging the true state of Israel, and in taking the first steps to put it all right for “the ages” (Dan. 9:24). John’s ministry was of God. God was gathering out a witness to Israel’s true state. To “fulfill” this righteous witness, the Messiah Himself took His place with the remnant through baptism. The work that God began through John was about to be fulfilled in the baptism of Christ.
Immediate Results: Three Testimonies to the Perfection of Christ (vv.16-17)
16 And Jesus, having been baptised, went up straightway from the water, and lo, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending as a dove, and coming upon him: 17 and behold, a voice out of the heavens saying, This is my beloved Son, in whom I have found my delight. vv.16-17 Immediately following His baptism, three testimonies were rendered to the perfection of Christ:
- Heaven opened. Never before had the heavens opened upon anyone on earth, except in a vision as a sign of judgment (Ezek. 1). Here it is a sign of unprecedented and unqualified approval (see note below). Heaven was bursting forth, that all present might know that this Man was different, that the very object of the Father’s delight was among them. Heaven could not be silent!
- The Descent of the Spirit. In form as a dove, the Spirit descended upon the One who was to baptize others with that same Spirit (v.11). This is the same incident that is recorded in John 1:32. It says in John 6:27, “for him hath God the Father sealed.” The dove a symbol of the spotless purity of Christ. He was the only man sealed (or indwelt) before the Cross. The Son received the Spirit twice… once to seal Him, and a second time in heaven to baptize believers on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:33). Both are alluded to in this chapter (v.11, v.16).
- The Father’s Voice. Jesus as a man on earth, in taking His place with the poor of the flock, was acknowledged publicly by the Father as the Son of God. God would not permit any suspicion to rest on His Son at this most gracious and lowly event. What an encouragement to the disciples! It is not that the Father was declaring that Jesus had a divine nature… but that “Jesus” – a man on earth – was the eternal Son of God, and that He – a humble man – was the object of the Father’s full delight!
The Trinity. We have the truth of the Trinity proved over and over in the New Testament. This is the first great manifestation of the Trinity. (1) God the Son is identified as the man “Jesus”. (2) God the Holy Spirit is “the Spirit of God descending”. (3) God the Father is the “voice from heaven, saying, This is my beloved Son”. Read more…
A Man on Earth was the Object of the Father’s Delight. It was the Son of God on earth in the position of a man (“Jesus”) – as a righteous, obedient, and humble servant, devoted to the will of God – that God His Father fully acknowledged Him, sealed Him, and declared Him on earth to be His well-beloved Son. He is the object over whom the heavens open; c.p. with Stephen, who saw a transforming object above.
Four Times the Heavens Open: Jesus the Object. There are four occasions in scripture on which the heavens literally open.1 Jesus – as a man – is the object of each of these revelations; although each has its special character.
- His baptism. The heavens opened upon Jesus, the Son of God on earth, as the object of heaven’s delight, and He was sealed with the Holy Spirit (Matt. 3:16).
- His lifetime. The heavens continually opened upon Jesus, the Son of man on earth, as the object of heaven’s ministry, the angels as His servants (John 1:51). This scripture is also prophetic of the Millennium, when Christ as Son of Man on earth will be the restorer of all things, of the communication between heaven and earth, and the blessing that will result!
- Stephen. The heavens opened to reveal Jesus, the Son of man in the glory, as on high at the right hand of God, the object of the believer who is full of the Spirit, even in suffering here for His sake (Acts 7:56). Stephen was transformed by that vision!
- The Appearing. The heavens will once again open to reveal Jesus, the King of kings and Lord of lords, as coming forth to judge and make war against all that dispute His authority and oppress the earth (Rev. 19:11).
To us who believe, the heavens are opened now. We know the Father, we know His heart of love. The entire book of Hebrews in a sense gives us a sight into the opened heavens, where our Forerunner and High Priest has passed, and there is sat down on the right hand of the Majesty on high. But still the object of the opened heavens remains the same, God’s beloved Son!