The baptism of Jesus (Matthew 3:13-17)

Summary

Jesus came to John the Baptist while he was baptising people in the River Jordan. John tried to make him change his mind, but Jesus answered, “In this way we will do all that God requires.” So John agreed. As soon as Jesus was baptised, he came up out of the water. Heaven was opened and he saw the spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. Then a voice said from heaven, “This is my own dear son with whom I am pleased.”

A stained glass window depicting the baptism of Jesus

Background

John the Baptist preached in the wilderness, telling people to repent their sins to be baptised as a sign of their repentance. They needed to prepare for a greater person coming after him.

There are many similarities between John and the Old Testament prophet Elijah. Both of them:

  • spent time in the wilderness
  • wore simple basic clothing (John wore a camel hair tunic with a leather belt)
  • were outspoken and often offended people (John called the religious leaders vipers)
  • preached a message from God

These similarities give an important clue about the identity of Jesus. In Jewish belief Elijah was expected to return to earth for a second time to announce the coming of the Messiah. So, if John was Elijah returned to earth - ie a second Elijah - what does this say about Jesus?

The baptism carried out by John was full immersion in the River Jordan. Baptism was not a new idea. There is evidence that a monastic group called the Essenes used baptism at their monastery at Qumran as a type of ritual cleansing. Qumran was in the Jordan wilderness, near the area where John was probably preaching. Some Bible scholars think that John may have had connections with this community.

Understanding the text

Matthew records that when Jesus asked John to baptise him, John was reluctant to do so. This could be for the following reasons:

  • baptism is for the forgiveness of sin, yet Jesus is God’s son and therefore sinless
  • Jesus is the greater person John has been telling people about, so John does not feel worthy to baptise him

At the moment that Jesus was baptised there were significant events:

  • heaven was opened
  • God’s spirit descended on Jesus
  • God’s voice was heard

A dove, often used as a symbol of peace, represents God’s spirit descending on Jesus. This gives Jesus power to equip him for his ministry.

God’s voice is heard saying “This is my own dear son with whom I am pleased.” This confirms Jesus’ identity as the Son of God. The crowds of people standing on the banks of the River Jordan will know for certain that this is the greater person John has been telling them about.