Jesus re-enters the scene as an adult, and it is not what John was expecting!
Last week, we left off in Matthew chapter 3, and we’re going to pick up in that chapter again, towards the end. So go ahead and find your place there, while I just quickly recap the first part of the chapter.
We read the majority of chapter 3 together, and it introduces us to John the Baptist, or “John the Immerser” as I prefer to call him. We also read from chapter 1 of Luke to get a little more of his backstory.
Remember, we’ve skipped ahead roughly 30 years from the events of chapter 2, and we find John, a cousin to Jesus, living in the wilderness, and immersing people in the waters of the Jordan river.
Matthew has presented John as the new Elijah. And just to clarify, that doesn’t mean he’s a reincarnation of Elijah, or a literal return of Elijah I should say, as Elijah never died. He’s not literally Elijah, but he has come preaching and prophesying in the spirit of Elijah. In fact, as we’ll see in a minute, he himself clearly states that he’s not Elijah, but Jesus later does confirm that John is the fulfilment of the prophecy in Malachi 4:5.
He’s the one preparing the way for the messiah. And he’s doing so by preaching repentance, and baptising, dunking people in water, as a symbol of their repentance. Meanwhile, he’s rebuking the arrogant and hypocritical religious elite - the pharisees and Sadducees.
I gave you some homework too, remember, I encouraged you to read chapter 3 of Luke, which parallels the events described in Matthew chapter 3, but with a few different details.
I’m just curious, did anyone actually read Luke chapter 3 last week? I think it’s cool to see how John addresses specific people and gives them practical ways to show the fruit of their repentance.
You could easily make a whole sermon out of those 3 points, but we’re studying Matthew, not Luke, so we’ll leave it at that for now. Jesus teaches the same principles later on, so we’ll still get a chance to talk about these lifestyle lessons.
While Matthew and Luke provide different details in some places, they do also overlap in many places, and that goes for all 4 gospel accounts. All 4 include the quote from Isaiah about the voice crying out in the wilderness, make straight the way of the Lord.
And where we left off last week is another quote that they all include. Matthew 3:11-12 and in Luke 3:16-17 are pretty much identical. Mark and John word it a little bit differently, but you get the same idea in Mark 1:7-8, and in John 26-27. All four have this quote.
This is the quote in Matthew 3:11-12, John says this:
Matthew 3:11–12 CSB
11 “I baptize you with water for repentance, but the one who is coming after me is more powerful than I. I am not worthy to remove his sandals. He himself will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 His winnowing shovel is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn. But the chaff he will burn with fire that never goes out.”
John has been presented as a great prophet! He’s parallel to Elijah, one of the greatest prophets ever! And yet, he makes this profoundly humble statement, saying that the one he’s preceding is so much greater than he, that he’s not even worthy to remove his sandals. The most menial of tasks. John says that he immerses people in water as a symbol of repentance, but the one who’s coming will immerse people in the Holy Spirit, bringing a type of spiritual cleansing that water cannot provide.
And then he uses a farming analogy that would have been familiar to his listeners.
A winnowing shovel was used to toss grain into the air. The wind would blow the chaff, the husk of the grain, away, while the actual kernels of grain would fall to the threshing floor. John’s parable, in light of his call to repentance, is describing the repentant as being preserved by God, while the unrepentant become subject to the purging flames of eternity.
John is providing a promise of hope on one hand, but also a warning. Again, this is a fairly typical formula for a prophetic message. But what happens next is unique, and amazing!. John is standing at the bank of the Jordan, or maybe even standing in the water, and proclaiming that someone far greater than he is coming to bring renewal and to purge evil from the world, and then Jesus just shows up!
Jesus makes his entrance in verse 13:
Matthew 3:13–14 CSB
13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. 14 But John tried to stop him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and yet you come to me?”
So, Jesus shows up and wants to be baptized, which comes as a shock to John, who obviously recognizes Jesus as the messiah.
To further reiterate this point, I think it is worth again comparing notes with another gospel account, which records John’s immediate response to seeing Jesus for the first time. I’m going to read from the gospel according to John, chapter 1. That’s John the apostle, not John the Baptist, by the way. Different John, writing about John the Immerser.
I’m going to go ahead and read from verse 19, which will be a bit of a repeat of what we’ve already read, but it builds up to Jesus’s entrance. Just think about the anticipation in these verses, in John’s words, and then the excitement of the big reveal at the end.
John 1:19–28 CSB
19 This was John’s testimony when the Jews from Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to ask him, “Who are you?” 20 He didn’t deny it but confessed, “I am not the Messiah.” 21 “What then?” they asked him. “Are you Elijah?” “I am not,” he said. “Are you the Prophet?” “No,” he answered. 22 “Who are you, then?” they asked. “We need to give an answer to those who sent us. What can you tell us about yourself?” 23 He said, “I am a voice of one crying out in the wilderness: Make straight the way of the Lord—just as Isaiah the prophet said.” 24 Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. 25 So they asked him, “Why then do you baptize if you aren’t the Messiah, or Elijah, or the Prophet?” 26 “I baptize with water,” John answered them. “Someone stands among you, but you don’t know him. 27 He is the one coming after me, whose sandal strap I’m not worthy to untie.” 28 All this happened in Bethany across the Jordan, where John was baptizing.
So far, this is very similar to what we’ve seen in every other gospel account. Then we get to verse 29, and this is where I think it gets really fun:
John 1:29–30 CSB
29 The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! 30 This is the one I told you about: ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me, because he existed before me.’
I just think it’s so cool to imagine John seeing Jesus in that moment, his eyes getting REALLY wide and just shouting out with excitement “BEHOLD!” “THERE HE IS!” “HE’S THE ONE!” “THE CHOSEN ONE!” “THAT’S HIM RIGHT THERE!” “I’VE BEEN TALKING ABOUT HIM! I’VE BEEN TALKING ABOUT YOU DUDE!”
I just like imaging the emotion and excitement. Of course, it doesn’t actually specify John’s inflection or emotions in this moment. It’s possible that when John saw Jesus it was more like “oh…look, the lamb of God…there he is.”
But, given that John literally lept for joy while still in his mother’s womb at the presence of Jesus, still in his mother’s womb, I think it’s fair to guess that John showed at least some level of excitement.
EITHER WAY, the more important observation, recorded in every gospel account, is that John recognized Jesus and recognized his superiority, that Jesus outranked him. And yet, he was humbling himself before John, to submit to baptism.
I imagine John’s head just must have exploded in that moment!
Because John recognizes Jesus as superior to him, he tries to reverse Jesus’s request. He’s like “Whoa! No way! YOU want to be baptized by ME? That’s totally backwards and upside-down! I’M the one who needs to be baptized by YOU!”
But this is a great demonstration, or introduction, an early glimpse into the upside-down kingdom mindset of Jesus. For most people, it made no sense when they first encountered it.
And then, although John tries to stop him, Jesus insists on being baptized:
Matthew 3:15–17 CSB
15 Jesus answered him, “Allow it for now, because this is the way for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then John allowed him to be baptized. 16 When Jesus was baptized, he went up immediately from the water. The heavens suddenly opened for him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming down on him. 17 And a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well-pleased.”
SO, what’s going on here? In these two verses, there are at least 3 major things to acknowledge here.
So, first of all, why does Jesus insist on being baptized?
John rightly recognizes Jesus as having no need for repentance! Jesus has never sinned. So, by John’s logic, Jesus has no need for repentance.
And yet, Jesus says “allow it for now.” Why?
“In order for all righteousness to be fulfilled,” he says. What does that mean?
Jesus knows that his purpose, the end-goal of his ministry, is to identify with his people as the bearer of their sins.
2 Corinthians 5:21 CSB
21 He made the one who did not know sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
Remember what Isaiah said about the messiah:
Isaiah 53:11–12 CSB
11 After his anguish, he will see light and be satisfied. By his knowledge, my righteous servant will justify many, and he will carry their iniquities. 12 Therefore I will give him the many as a portion, and he will receive the mighty as spoil, because he willingly submitted to death, and was counted among the rebels; yet he bore the sin of many and interceded for the rebels.
Ultimately, Jesus’s baptism is pointing forward to his death on the cross, which he actually calls a “baptism” (or “immersion”) in Luke 12:
Luke 12:49–50 CSB
49 “I came to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already set ablaze! 50 But I have a baptism to undergo, and how it consumes me until it is finished!
In this case, it will be a baptism which itself truly takes away sins once and for all.
Jesus’s identification with his people, that is, Yahweh’s unification with humanity, includes his baptism and death.
It also includes his being anointed by the spirit, and subsequent temptation in the next chapter. But we’ll get to those in a bit.
His baptism points to his death, and in both his baptism and death, his humility and obedience to the Father are a demonstration of how a perfect human lives in obedience to God. But only Jesus was capable of doing so perfectly, and thereby fully fulfilling “righteousness” and fully fulfilling the torah. The purpose of the torah was to produce righteousness, and what is righteousness but conformation to God’s will? In that sense, his baptism is a foreshadowing of his fulfillment of Old Testament requirements. That is, the fulfilment of all righteousness.
Alright, let’s move on to the second observation from these two verses.
The immediate result of Jesus being baptized is a bit different from any other baptism that ever happened before or since.
The heavens opened, and the Spirit of God descended like a dove, coming down on him. And a voice from heaven said “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well-pleased.”
The significance of this is just incredibly profound!
The phrase “the heavens opened” indicates a moment of divine interaction, and divine revelation, in several ways:
First of all, the Spirit of God descending on Jesus is for him the official anointing ceremony. It’s an event like we saw in the Old Testament of kings being anointed with oil, by a prophet, to show that he had been chosen by God for that role.
If you have a hard time picturing what someone being anointed with oil would like like, I think you could maybe picture it as being similar to a knighting ceremony, where a king or queen dubs someone kneeling before them, tapping their shoulders with the flat side of a sword…saying “I dub thee…Sir Lancelot!”
It’s not quite the same thing, but it’s the same idea of an official ceremony, recognizing someone as being chosen for a certain role. In this case, not by the king of England, but the king of the universe.
Alright, now the second thing to notice is that this anointing is accompanied by the image of a dove. God’s spirit appearing “like” or “in the form of” a dove is not just a random detail, or a random choice of animal for God to use.
The spirit of God had for Jews long been associated with the image of a dove. In Genesis 1:2, the creation story, describes God’s spirit as “hovering” over the waters. The Hebrew word, usually translated in Genesis 1:2 as “hover,” is מְרַחֶ֖פֶת merachepheth, or רחף rachaph and is the same word used to describe a bird “fluttering” its wings. So, Genesis 1:2 could be translated “God’s spirit fluttered over the deep waters.” It’s the image of a bird’s wings. Doves, specifically, became associated with holiness and purity, and so the dove consequently became associated with God’s holy spirit.
Sidenote: do you remember the Hebrew word for Dove? It’s also the name of a prophet we studied! Jonah! (Yonah)! It came up, because of what the dove symbolizes, it’s an ironic name for arguably the worst prophet in the whole Bible!
Anyway, the dove is a common symbol for God’s spirit, but also, specifically, God’s spirit being present and at work in the process of creation.
In fact, remember that at the end of the flood story, which is like an “uncreation” story, where God allows his ordered creation to descend back into the chaos and destruction of the watery abyss, once the earth has returned to its unordered, unpopulated, uncreated state, Noah releases a dove from the ark, sends it forth to flutter over the face of the waters, and that image is like a trigger, and we as the reader can say “AH! God is going to restart this process, begin creation anew with Noah and his family, and this will be the beginning of order returning to the earth, and land re-emerging, and people repopulating.
Of course, the earth descended back into chaos, but that image of the dove remains associated with creation and recreation, and as such, the dove descending on Jesus marks the beginning yet again of a new creation, one brought forth by and through the person of Christ.
Meanwhile, we get this “voice” which isn’t coming from Jesus, isn’t coming from John, and isn’t coming from the dove. It’s coming from Heaven, and the speaker identifies Jesus as his “son,” which in turn identifies the speaker as Jesus’s father.
So, in this scene, we get a very significant, explicit manifestation of the trinity: Yahweh God existing and revealing himself as three distinct persons: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. This is a theological doctrine very fundamental to Christianity, and this moment is the first time it’s really made clear, though it’s not actually given those names, those designations here, Jesus himself clarifies further towards the end of the book when he commands his disciples to go and make more disciples, to propagate, to spiritually reproduce and populate the new creation kingdom, and to baptize those disciples in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. That command points right back to this scene here, of Jesus’s own baptism, where we see and hear the presence of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
I do want to make clear, though, that although this scene shows God more clearly than ever before as having specifically a triune, 3-person nature, the concept of God existing as a singular deity with multiple persons was not foreign to Jews or the Old Testament. It would take a really deep dive beyond the scope of today’s message to really demonstrate this, so you’ll just have to take my word for it for now, but Yahweh is portrayed in the Old Testament as extremely complex, certainly not fitting in a tidy box, and manifesting in a variety of ways which allude many times to the existence of multiple persons within the one, singular godhead. So it’s not a totally new concept when we see the trinity in the New Testament, it’s just a clarification, and a further revelation of what had already been partially revealed in the Old Testament.
Of course, the concept and the doctrine of the trinity is still utterly mind-boggling and we struggle to comprehend it still, and we’re not going to get into a full-fledged discussion of the trinity today, but I do think it’s important to recognize that it’s a truth, mind-boggling or not, that’s being revealed already at Jesus’s baptism.
This story, against the backdrop of the first two chapters, is a glorious affirmation that Jesus IS God, and exists in equality with, but submission to God the Father, and anointed by and empowered by God the Holy Spirit.
Which brings us to the final observation from these two verses, which is fairly straightforward.
And this correlates with the concept of Jesus being anointed by the Holy Spirit, but the voice of the Father saying “This is my Son” is a divine affirmation for Yeshua: his identity, his authority, and his ministry.
From this moment on, Yeshua has been officially and publicly declared as THE “chosen one,” THE messiah, and all of his words and actions will officially carry the weight and authority of Yahweh God, the creator and sustainer of the universe.
So, Jesus has been identified as the chosen one by a prophet of God, anointed by the Spirit, and affirmed by the Father.
And in the very next scene, we will find this claim, that Jesus is the son of God, being put to the test.
Immediately following his baptism, we see Jesus being “led by the Spirit” and embarking on a long, strenuous period of testing, BEFORE beginning to preach and teach and work miracles.
Let’s keep reading, starting at the beginning of chapter 4:
Matthew 4:1–2 CSB
1 Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2 After he had fasted forty days and forty nights, he was hungry.
Go figure! After forty days of not eating, he was hungry. This might seem like a ridiculously obvious statement, but coming right after a display of Jesus’s divinity, this is a reminder of his humanity. It emphasizes his physical weakness, and physical needs, that are the same as any other human’s. He’s hungry. He’s physically weak. And it’s in that weakness that the devil will try to take advantage, to pounce.
We’re going to look at each of the ways in which Jesus is tested, but as we read through this, bear in mind that throughout this whole story there are a bunch of parallels to the Old Testament, just like there were in the last chapter.
Remember how the wilderness was significant in the last chapter as being the setting for John the Immerser. It helps connect John to Elijah, and to the giving of the law at Sinai, and even to the ultimate redemption of the world as described by Isaiah and quoted by John.
Now, Jesus is led into the wilderness to be tested. Deuteronomy 8:2-3 says that God led Israel into the wilderness to be tested for 40 years. How long was Jesus in the wilderness? Forty days. Huh. Oh, and Elijah was at Mount Sinai for 40 days, too.
Subsequently, every temptation that Jesus faces directly parallels the tests that Israel faced in the wilderness, and every scripture that Jesus quotes back to the tempter are quotes from God’s teachings to the Israelites in the wilderness.
One other important thing to note before we continue is that while God led Jesus here for this purpose, it’s the devil, the tempter, who is doing the tempting, out of his own motivations. God himself never tempts anyone, as James 1:13 says, however he may at times allow his people to be tempted in order to reveal their hearts and true priorities. Indeed, in this case Jesus’s righteousness is about to be revealed.
Let’s keep reading, and look at each of the trials one by one:
Matthew 4:2–4 CSB
2 After he had fasted forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. 3 Then the tempter approached him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.” 4 He answered, “It is written: Man must not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.”
Again, it’s his identity which was JUST established in the previous chapter, his identity as being the son of God, which is being called into question.
And this temptation to order the stones to turn into bread…it’s not clear exactly why it would have been wrong for Jesus to do that, but it’s clear that Jesus knew it would be wrong for him in that moment, whether it was because it would break his fast earlier than he was supposed to, or it would demonstrate a lack of reliance on God, he knew it wasn’t the right thing to do. And remember, this whole scene is paralleling the Israelites’ failures in the desert. Food was a major stumbling block for them! They complained that they didn’t have enough food and failed to rely on God to provide for them, failed to trust him even when he provided mana for them miraculously!
That’s exactly why Jesus quotes from Deuteronomy. In fact, go ahead and turn to Deuteronomy chapter 8, because seeing the context of this quote really illuminates what’s happening here.
Let’s read verses 1-5 together:
Deuteronomy 8:1–5 CSB
1 “Carefully follow every command I am giving you today, so that you may live and increase, and may enter and take possession of the land the Lord swore to your ancestors. 2 Remember that the Lord your God led you on the entire journey these forty years in the wilderness, so that he might humble you and test you to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands. 3 He humbled you by letting you go hungry; then he gave you manna to eat, which you and your ancestors had not known, so that you might learn that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord. 4 Your clothing did not wear out, and your feet did not swell these forty years. 5 Keep in mind that the Lord your God has been disciplining you just as a man disciplines his son.
Jesus is putting himself in the place of Israel, and unlike Israel, will not abandon his trust in God to provide for himself.
And when faced with this temptation, he quotes scripture to the tempter, putting the word of God to use as his sword and shield in this spiritual battle.
Interestingly though, after Jesus wields scripture against the devil, the devil then quotes scripture back at Jesus! Check it out:
Matthew 4:5–7 CSB
5 Then the devil took him to the holy city, had him stand on the pinnacle of the temple, 6 and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down. For it is written: He will give his angels orders concerning you, and they will support you with their hands so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.” 7 Jesus told him, “It is also written: Do not test the Lord your God.”
The devil is actually quoting scripture here! He’s quoting from Psalm 91:11-12, but he’s quoting it out of context.
And again, Jesus quotes from Deuteronomy:
Deuteronomy 6:16 CSB
16 Do not test the Lord your God as you tested him at Massah.
In this case, it’s a command not to test God, the context of which is a reference to when Israel tested Yahweh, questioning his presence because they were thirsty and angry:
Exodus 17:7 LEB
7 And he called the name of the place Massah and Meribah because of the quarrel of the Israelites and because of their testing Yahweh by saying, “Is Yahweh in our midst or not?”
Their failure here was their lack of faith, their wanting God to prove himself and prove his presence to them, even after he had shown himself trustworthy time after time.
Jesus is unwilling to succumb to such failure.
Let’s read on to the third temptation:
Matthew 4:8–11 CSB
8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. 9 And he said to him, “I will give you all these things if you will fall down and worship me.” 10 Then Jesus told him, “Go away, Satan! For it is written: Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.” 11 Then the devil left him, and angels came and began to serve him.
That is, they began to feed him, marking the end of his fast and the end of his trials. This is again reminiscent of the angel feeding Elijah in the wilderness, by the way.
But as far as this final temptation or test, this is perhaps the most on-the-nose attempt by the tempter, and I honestly wonder if he actually thought there was any chance this would work. Asking Jesus to worship the devil. I mean come on! First of all, the kingdoms of the world already belong to God, and Jesus, as the son of God, is already the heir apparent to the universe.
However, realize that Jesus’s path to the throne involves the cross. And we know from later context that Jesus is very well aware of this, and that, naturally Jesus was NOT looking forward to being brutally tortured to death! So, the tempter was exploiting this, and offering a false path to kingship which did not involve the cross, but rather a form of idolatry. This, of course, would violate the first and most basic of commands God gave to the Israelites in the wilderness.
And again, Jesus quotes from Deuteronomy:
Deuteronomy 6:14 CSB
14 Do not follow other gods, the gods of the peoples around you.
Deuteronomy 10:20 CSB
20 You are to fear the Lord your God and worship him. Remain faithful to him and take oaths in his name.
Jesus refuses to worship anyone other than Yahweh God, again succeeding where Israel failed, almost immediately after God established his covenant with them at Sinai and they made a golden calf to worship.
While we’re on this subject, though, I want to point out that several times throughout the rest of this book, Matthew will describe Jesus as accepting worship from other people. And when people worship HIM, he receives it without rebuking them. This is just one more reiteration of his divinity, his equality with Yahweh. If Jesus declares that Yahweh is the only acceptable object of worship, and yet accepts worship of himself, he is therefore equating himself with Yahweh.
Though these temptations are all customized for the messiah, they all appeal to motivations that are common to the human experience: physical drives (hunger), pride, and the desire for power and possessions.
By passing all these tests, where Israel previously failed, as a nation and each person and each leader individually failed their tests, Jesus passed his. This is the “fulfilling of righteousness” he was talking about back in chapter 3 verse 15. He was identified and affirmed as the son of God in chapter 3, and now he’s been tested and shown to be fully, truly qualified, in a way nobody has before, to be the beginning of a new Israel, and a new humanity. This theme of creating a new Israel will continue next week as he begins to assemble a new “patriarchy,” if you will, calling 12 disciples, paralleling the 12 tribes of Israel. Lord willing, we’ll get to that next week.
For now, we’ll leave off with Jesus having been set up as the Son of God, fully divine and fully human. The God of the universe becoming part of his creation, submitting humbly and symbolically to baptism, and eventually even to death. Tempted in every way as we are, but without sin, as Hebrews 4:15 says, representing us before God as a merciful and faithful high priest, as Hebrews 2:17 says. A real person who can empathize with humanity and human nature and human weakness and desires, and to know what it is to endure temptation, and yet not succumb to it, fulfilling all righteousness on behalf of all humanity, whom he calls his brothers and sisters.
In the meantime, realize that in this passage we’ve also been given very valuable insight into the strategies which the tempter will attack you.
First of all, he will attack when you are most in line with and in submission to God’s will. When you are close to God and serving him, that’s exactly when you can expect spiritual battles, temptations and trials.
He will appeal to your physical desires. He will attempt to twist the truth. He will try to offer alternative paths to wisdom and success, and show you an “easy way out” of the hardships and trials we will endure as we follow Christ.
In every case, the solution is always to appeal to scripture. To saturate ourselves in God’s word so that we know the truth and face every decision with God’s wisdom rather than the world’s wisdom. And, of course, when we turn to scripture, scripture points us to Christ. Jesus passed the test so that we don’t have to. Though we are called to follow his example, and may yet face many trials of our own, however those trials are for our own benefit, our own maturity and growth, or for the benefit of the body of Christ and the glorification of God. They do NOT determine our eternal fate or our standing before God. Because Christ took care of that for us once and for all. That work all started here, with his baptism and temptation, and will culminate with his death, burial and resurrection.
Over the next few months, we’ll be looking at all the good stuff in-between.