Behold the Beloved Son
I remember when I was right out of high school I had a really hard time finding a job. It was mostly my fault—I was only applying for certain types of job, and I wasn’t qualified for any of them. I didn’t have the skills or the abilities or the experience at that point in my life to make anything work. It was a really frustrating experience that dragged on for a lot of months before being resolved.
Several decades before me, my grandpa had also gone through a season of unemployment. But his reasons were the opposite of mine. He couldn’t find a job because he was so skilled, had such high and specific abilities, and had such extensive experience. He had a double PhD and got paid out of his position and everywhere he applied told him that he was over-qualified.
So I couldn’t find a job because I wasn’t good enough for anything I applied for. My grandpa couldn’t find a job because he was too good for anything he applied for.
I’m thinking about this dynamic in connection with Matthew chapter 3. Last week we heard about John refusing baptism to the religious leaders of the day because, essentially, they weren’t worthy of his baptism. Today we see John refusing baptism to Jesus because John’s baptism isn’t worthy of Jesus.
What a contrast. What a contrast especially when we remember how these different people would have come across to the crowds watching. The Pharisees and Sadducees were respected and powerful and important. They probably came from Jerusalem, the big city where everything important happened.
Jesus was a tradesman from Nazareth, literally the middle of nowhere. He had travelled around 130 km to get to where John was. It’s likely he looked dirty and rough and tired form that journey.
The leaders got refused because they’re not worthy. Jesus gets refused because John’s not worthy.
Before we really get into things this morning, we want to ask how John knew that Jesus was so special. Elsewhere we read that John the Baptist didn’t know that Jesus was the messiah until after his baptism (John 1:29-34). But John was a prophet. He could have simply known in a supernatural way that this was a morally pure person.
You may also remember that John and Jesus were relatives, perhaps second cousins. It’s quite possible that they knew each other growing up, and John would have noticed the strange fact that Jesus never, ever did anything wrong.
Whatever it was, John recognized that Jesus was a better, purer man than himself, and that if anyone was going to baptize anyone, it shouldn’t be him baptizing Jesus—it should be the other way around.
So why was Jesus baptized? Why did he make the trek from Nazareth specifically for this purpose? What sins did he need to repent of? If He’s the one who will baptize others with the Holy Spirit, what reason would he have for being baptized with water?
That is a key question we’re going to try to answer as we dig into our passage this morning. We’ve already reviewed the material from the first two verses, so we’re going to jump in to verse 15 here and discover the reason for Jesus’ baptism. And after that, we’ll consider verses 16-17, which tell us the three-fold results of Jesus’ baptism.
The Reason for His Baptism
But first, the reason. “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” Asks John in verse 14. And here is Jesus’ answer to the question—here is the reason for His baptism: “But Jesus answered him, ‘Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.’ Then he consented.” (Matthew 3:15).
This is the reason for Jesus’ baptism: fulfilling all righteousness. In Matthew’s gospel, “righteousness” primarily means “conformity to God’s will;” in other words, doing what God wants. And here Jesus says that in order to fulfill all righteousness, in order to fulfill everything that God wants, He needs to be baptized.
Now in order to really understand this, we need to remember some of what we’ve learned already about the mission of Jesus.
And this is connected to the reason Jesus was born as a baby and spent all of those years growing up in Nazareth. It’s the reason Jesus did not just manifest as a full grown man and begin His public ministry right away.
Jesus came to be the perfect man. Like we saw in the first week of this series, Jesus came to be the true and better Adam. He came to be the perfect human who would go through the full spectrum of life experiences and yet do so without sinning.
And like we saw a couple of weeks ago, Jesus came to be the true and better Israel. He came to reenact the story of Israel, going through everything that they went through, but without sin, in order to fulfill their story and be the perfect faithful Son that they should have been.
And so as a man, in this mission, its necessary for Jesus to do things that He didn’t need in and of Himself. For example, in the next two weeks we’ll consider His temptation in the wilderness. It was necessary for his mission as a man that Jesus go hungry, even though as the Son of God he could have made food or just made Himself not hungry. But as a man it was necessary for His mission that He experience that hunger.
Think of Jesus on the cross. He could have called on twelve legions of angels to save Him (Matthew 26:53), but for the sake of His mission it was necessary to endure the pain of the cross.
The same is true for His baptism. As the Son of God, he had no sin to repent of. He didn’t need this and of himself. But for His mission as the perfect man, as the perfect Israel, He needed to do everything that a man or the nation of Israel would have needed to do.
And that meant submitting to John’s baptism. It meant agreeing with John that the kingdom of God was at hand and that sin needed to be repented of.
But still, there’s a question remaining. Because baptism still was connected to the confession of sins. Baptism was a sign of a new beginning, of your old life being dead, of being washed clean from your sins, of passing safely through God’s judgement.
And so as Jesus is baptized, wouldn’t it look like He was admitting to all of these things? Isn’t He letting Himself be treated as if He was a sinner?
And does that sound familiar at all? Jesus being identified with sinners? Going through something that made Him look like a sinner even though He Himself wasn’t?
If you have your Bible you can turn to Isaiah chapter 53. This is a well-known prophecy about the Suffering Servant of the Lord who would come and save God’s people. If you look down at verse 12 you’ll see that this Servant of the Lord would be “numbered with the transgressors” (Isaiah 53:12). In other words, counted as if he was a transgressor, a sinner—even though he wasn’t.
Verse 4 reiterates that people thought He was a sinner: “…we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted” (Isaiah 53:4).
But in the end it will be seen that He was not suffering for His own sins. “But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed… Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied; by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities” (Isaiah 53:5, 11).
Dod you catch that word “righteousness” being used twice in Isaiah 53:11? The suffering servant is called the righteous one, and he will make many to be accounted righteous as he bears their iniquity.
It’s very likely that Jesus is directly echoing those words when he tells John that He needs to be baptized in order to fulfill all righteousness.
Because that’s the crux of what’s going on here at the shores of the Jordan River. Jesus is beginning His public ministry by stepping into His role as the Suffering Servant, the perfect servant of God, who identifies with sinners and is treated as a sinner even though He Himself had no sin.
We know that Jesus did this most clearly and most fully in his crucifixion and death. Throughout His betrayal in the garden and his trial before the high priests and Herod and Pilate and then in His death on the cross, Jesus fulfilled Isaiah 53 by acting perfectly righteous on the one hand and yet on the other hand being treated like a terrible sinner and dying as a terrible sinner. And He did that in order to pay for our sins and make us righteous in God’s eyes.
That’s how Jesus completed His mission, and what we see in here in Matthew 3 is that this is how he begins His mission. The perfect man treated like a sinner, so that sinners could be counted perfect in Him.
And that’s the reason for the baptism. He needs to fulfill all righteousness by identifying with sinners and perfectly doing everything that a sinner should do. And whether or not John understood perfectly or not, verse 15 says that “he consented.” He baptized Jesus.
The Results of the Baptism
And now were turn to verses 16-17 to discover the three-fold results of this baptism. “And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; and behold, a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased’” (Matthew 3:16–17).
Do you see the three things that happen here? The heavens open, the Spirit descends, and the voice speaks. There’s so much going on here and we need to consider each of these three results in turn. And what we’re going to see is that for each one of them, there are multiple layers of significance and meaning and Old Testament reference. There’s just so much here.
1) The Heavens Opened
Let’s start with the heavens being opened. This language of the heavens being opened echoes Isaiah’s plea in Isaiah 64:1: “Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains might quake at your presence—” (Isaiah 64:1). In that chapter Isaiah is considering the desolation of exile and begging that God Himself would break through the heavens and come down Himself, like He did at Mt. Sinai, and save His people.
There’s also a resemblance here to Ezekiel’s vision, when he was in exile and had a vision where “the heavens were opened” (Ezekiel 1:1). Ezekiel vision concerned the throne of God and was a powerful reminder that God’s kingdom endured and that He was with His people.
And it’s the same language that’s being used here by Matthew. In other words, God is finally answering Isaiah’s plea! He’s finally breaking through the heavens and coming down to save His people. And just like Ezekiel saw, the heavens opening are a powerful reminder that God is king, and His heavenly kingdom is breaking into human history, just like John had been preaching.
2) The Spirit Descending
The second event here is the Spirit descending like a dove. There are at least four major layers to what’s happening here, connecting to Jesus’ mission as the New Creation, the New Israel, the Suffering Servant, and the anointed king. Let’s consider all three.
First, the Holy Spirit’s association with a dove was a common idea to Jews in the first century. And where it came from was Genesis 1:2: “The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters” (Genesis 1:2).
The word for “hover” is the same word used for a bird fluttering its feathers. And so Jewish thought associated the Spirit with a dove brooding over creation. Perhaps there was also a connection to the dove Noah sent out who moved over the face of those post-flood waters.
And now here you have the Holy Spirit as a dove coming to rest upon Jesus. And this is a rich symbol of Jesus being the New Creation. Do you remember we saw this in the first week—how Matthew used Genesis language to describe Jesus as being the New Adam or even the New Creation? This theme will surface later in Matthew, and it shows up most clearly in Paul in 2 Corinthians 5:17—“If anyone is in Christ, he is [a] new creation.”
And here the Spirit, just like in Genesis, marks out Jesus as the New Creation.
Second, the Spirit coming to rest on Jesus is fitting with His mission as the perfect Israelite, or perhaps even the true and better Israel or the new Israel. God had long promised to give His Spirit upon His people. Isaiah 44:3: “For I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground; I will pour my Spirit upon your offspring, and my blessing on your descendants.” Ezekiel 36:27: “And I will put my Spirit within you.” And here these promises are dramatically fulfilled in the person Jesus.
Third, do you remember Jesus’ role as the Suffering Servant foretold by Isaiah? Isaiah 42 contains another prophecy about this servant, and there God says about this servant, “I have put my Spirit upon him” (Isaiah 41:1). And so here Jesus is being marked out as the servant of God. He’s the one who will fulfill these prophecies and save His people.
Fourthly and finally, the Spirit coming to rest on Jesus should be seen in connection with his mission as God’s anointed king. He’s already been identified in Matthew as “the Christ,” which means “the Messiah, the anointed one.” God’s anointed king.
But if He’s the anointed one, when does He actually get anointed? The answer is right here.
In the Old Testament, when kings were anointed with oil, that was just a symbol. The real anointing, which the oil just pointed to, was the Holy Spirit who empowered them for their ministry.
We see this with David in 1 Samuel 16. “Then Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the midst of his brothers. And the Spirit of the Lord rushed upon David from that day forward” (1 Samuel 16:13).
David was wet with oil, and Jesus was wet with the water of the Jordan River, but their real anointing was the Holy Spirit.
And this is why this is so important here. Because the Spirit coming upon Jesus marks the beginning of His mission. He is now officially the Messiah-designate. He is the Lord’s anointed. He’s been marked out for this mission and now everything that He does is a part of that mission.
So one event with four layers of meaning. The Spirit resting on Jesus marks Him off as the New Creation, the true Israel, the Lord’s servant, and the Anointed One.
3) The Father Speaks
Thirdly and finally, let’s consider verse 17: “and behold, a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased’” (Matthew 3:17).
“Behold” isn’t just a filler word; it means “look!” “Check this out!” As these events take place, a voice from the opened heavens speak these words about this anointed king.
And once again, there’s a lot going on here. These words that God speaks correspond to at least three of the layers that we just considered.
First, remember Jesus’ mission as the true Israel. You’ll remember how often God spoke about Israel as His son. Consider this verse from Jeremiah 31: “Is Ephraim my dear son? Is he my darling child? For as often as I speak against him, I do remember him still. Therefore my heart yearns for him; I will surely have mercy on him, declares the Lord” (Jeremiah 31:20).
And in the Greek Old Testament, the two words used there for “dear son” are the exact same words used by God in Matthew 3:17. Jesus is the truly beloved son, the embodiment of everything Israel should have been, and the one who, through His righteousness, will be able to save all of the unfaithful who believe in Him.
Second, there is Jesus’ role as the suffering servant. Just a moment ago I read from Isaiah 42:1. Here’s what the whole verse says: “Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations” (Isaiah 42:1).
Here is the servant, with God’s Spirit upon Him, and the father speaking His delight and pleasure over Him.
Third, we remember the Messiah, and God’s promise to David that He would take David’s son as His own son and make him the eternal king of the world (2 Samuel 7). And there on the banks of the Jordan, God acknowledges Jesus to be this son, this Messiah, this global and eternal king.
It’s hard to miss the echo in these words of Psalm 2:7: “I will tell of the decree: The Lord said to me, ‘You are my Son; today I have begotten you. Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession’” (Psalm 2:7–8). The Father is making it very clear who this Son is.
Fourthly and finally, we can’t miss the beautiful truth, reflected in the reality of the virgin birth, that Jesus is truly and ultimately the Son of God.
In the words of the ancient creed, He is of the same essence as the Father, begotten, not made. “Son of God” is who he truly is. Each of these other aspects and meanings of “Son” is, in some ways, still a shadow. Jesus the real Son of God is the reality. Which is why this passage gives us such a beautiful picture of the Trinity at work. Father, Son and Holy Spirit—distinct but unified.
Zooming Out: A Microcosm of His Ministry
Until I started studying this week, I had no idea how much was packed in to these few verses. It’s almost overwhelming, isn’t it? As we end here, I want to wrap everything up by zooming out and seeing how the reason for Jesus’ baptism and these results of Jesus’ baptism fit together to give us a preview of the whole mission and ministry of Jesus.
Don’t miss that this is the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. This is where it begins. And it begins with God the Son being obedient and submissive to the Father’s will, humbling Himself and identifying with sinners, being treated like a sinner, and yet with the result that God the Father honours and exalts Him in a dramatic way.
Doesn’t that remind us of Philippians 2, where Paul describes the humility of Christ Jesus who took “the form of a servant” (Philippians 2:7) and was obediently identified with sinners all the way to His death? “Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:9–11).
The beginning of Jesus’ ministry is a preview of his whole mission. The humility of His baptism is just a preview of the humility of the cross, and the glory of the Father’s words here are just a preview of the day that is yet coming when everybody acknowledges His glory.
And that’s where we want to land this morning: worshipping Jesus. We should be taken aback, amazed, as we see Jesus in this passage. As we see just how thoroughly He fulfills the Scriptures at all of these different layers, just how clearly this is all about Him.
We should be taken aback to remember again that Jesus did not just die for us, He also lived for us. He lived the perfect life that each of us has failed to do. He perfectly fulfilled all righteousness, doing absolutely everything that the father required of Him. He was the faithful son that none of us have been And as a result He can make righteous all who come to Him. So rejoice in the good news that the life and death of Jesus was more than enough to save you.
And finally let’s remember how we worship Jesus. Yes, with songs of praise like we’re about to do now. If you don’t want to sing about this Jesus you need to ask God to do something in your heart.
But it doesn’t stop there. Our worship of Jesus needs to spill out into lives lived in submission and obedience to Jesus, lives lived in identification with Jesus, lives lived in the service of Jesus and His mission.
And that’s why I’m so thrilled to cap off this service today with Simon Hildebrandt’s baptism. Simon is going to publicly identify Himself with Jesus, acknowledge that Jesus has saved him, and pledge to follow Him. What a perfect way to worship Jesus—not just the baptism, but the life that will flow out of this baptism.
So we’re going to sing, and then rejoice with Simon as he is baptized, and then we’re going to worship Jesus by leaving here and going to go live lives that submit to Jesus and obey Jesus and trust in Jesus and honour Jesus and make much of Jesus.