13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John. 14 But John tried to deter him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”15 Jesus replied, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” Then John consented.16 As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17 And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”MATTHEW 3:13-17
What’s the most remarkable thing that you have ever witnessed? I would have to think long and hard about this. Perhaps, for me, it was the scenes of every day life I witnessed whilst spending a month in a country in eastern Europe. Perhaps it was the power of the water crashing down the Bridal Veil falls in Niagara Falls, USA. On reflection, though, it would have to be the birth of my two children, both experiences very different and completely remarkable in their own way.
In this reading from Matthew’s Gospel we witness something utterly remarkable, something that would shock even the least-shockable of people. The incredible events we witness occur on the banks of the River Jordan, where John the Baptist, Jesus’ cousin, is drawing quite a crowd as he preaches and baptises those gathered who repent of their sin. It is in this busy scene that we have our first encounter with the adult Jesus – the first time we see him as an adult in the New Testament. First impressions really count, and Jesus certainly makes quite an impression!
At the beginning of Matthew 3 we are introduced to John the Baptist. He is roaming the “wilderness of Judea” (3:1) calling on people to “repent for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (3:2). He evidently drew quite a crowd since Matthew recounts that “people went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan” (3:5). Matthew continues, “confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River” (3:6).
John explains to those gathered, particularly the Pharisees and Sadducees, “I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (3:11). John called upon those gathered to repent of their sin, and then to be baptised. This was to be a sign of their repentance, their decision to renounce their old lives and to follow God.
It is perhaps surprising, then, that the first time we see the adult Jesus is when he appears at the Jordan “to be baptized by John” (3:13). If Jesus is free from sin, if he had no old life to renounce, if he is in fact God, then there is no need for him to be baptised. John is well aware of this, and tries to tell Jesus this, insisting that it is he who should be baptised by Jesus. He recognises that his cousin is the Son of God, the one who will baptise with the Holy Spirit and fire (3:11).
Yet Jesus insists that John baptises him, saying, “it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s plan, prophesised throughout the Old Testament, to save people from their sin and to reconcile humanity with God. Jesus’ baptism marks the beginning of his earthly ministry. He fulfills all righteousness, in that he enables all people to be justified before God, to be righteous before him.
The words uttered by Jesus here are in fact the very first words we hear from him in the New Testament. It is fitting that straight away we see his dedication to his ministry, his fulfillment of righteousness, his opening of heaven for sinners.
What follows Jesus’ baptism is completely remarkable. As Jesus rose out of the water, the barrier between sinful earth and perfect heaven opened up. Jesus opened the way to God for humanity. He did something that no sacrifice, no sin offering, no priestly action had ever been able to achieve – the gulf that opened up between humans and God when Adam and Eve disobeyed God was bridged, once and for all, by Jesus Christ.
As heaven opened, the Holy Spirit came down from heaven and equipped Jesus for the ministry on which he is about to embark. The Holy Spirit “alights” on him, affirming that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God. This is a clear visual sign which all present can see for themselves, leaving them in no doubt that Jesus has a special role to carry out here on earth. As heaven opened, a voice came from heaven, declaring, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” This must have shocked and stunned all those gathered to watch John the Baptist by the Jordan. Just imagine how it must have felt to be standing on the banks of the River Jordan and to hear God’s voice booming from heaven! This is a clear audible sign which all those present can hear for themselves, leaving them in no doubt that Jesus is nothing less than the beloved Son of God.
After witnessing this incredible scene, those gathered must surely have known that there was something utterly remarkable about Jesus. They must have witnessed many baptisms already that day, but at no point had heaven been opened up before their very eyes. But as Jesus rose up out of the water this exactly what happened. God the Father and God the Holy Spirit affirmed and equipped Jesus for the ministry on which he was now embarking.
It’s only natural as we read through the Gospels to find ourselves pondering – who is this man Jesus? Was he a good teacher? Was he just an eccentric carpenter? Or was he the Son of God, the Messiah, for whom the world had waited for generation after generation? If we are to believe the words of Matthew in his Gospel, we should be in no doubt about the identify of Jesus. Affirmed by both the Holy Spirit and God the Father, there is no doubt at all that Jesus is the Son of God. And if this is true, this is utterly remarkable. It is not the baptism of Jesus that is remarkable; it is the fact that the Son of God came to earth from heaven, that he lived amongst us, that he experienced everything that human life involves, that he identified with us in our sinfulness whilst remaining free of sin himself. Ultimately, of course, he died and rose again so that we might not just hear God from heaven, but be with him when we die. Now that truly is remarkable.