Matthew 3:13-17 Baptism


The progression to this point in the Gospel of Matthew has been from the genealogy of the legal, royal descendancy of Jesus, to His lowly birth to the virgin Mary in Bethlehem; then to the visit of Gentile astrologers (maji) from the East, signaling the first-fruits of pagan homage to the King of Kings; then to the royal pretender – Herod – who killed babies in a vain attempt to kill God’s Anointed King so he could keep his usurped throne – Herod also being the descendant of Esau (the one who continued to try to recapture the birthright from the sons of Jacob); then to the flight to Egypt, from the bondage of which God brought out His elect in the Christ; then to the return from Egypt and the resettling in Nazareth, in Galilee of the Gentiles – a term of loathing and derision among the elites in Judea.

 And then having skipped the next twenty-five years, Matthew’s next revelation is that of John the baptizer preaching the coming of the King, and baptizing – his baptism being one of judicial acceptance, and, at the same time, one of judicial rejection due to God’s covenant law-suit against Israel.

Which leads us directly to our text, because, at the preaching of John concerning the imminent arrival of the King, the Lord Jesus Christ comes forth out of Galilee – going directly to John to be baptized of him.  The hour had come.  The Day of the Lord was at hand.  The time was fulfilled for the Kingdom of the Heaven to be revealed.  The mission of the forerunner was understood by Jesus, and His Messianic Calling was now.

I need to briefly make mention of something, here, before we go on with the text.  And that is the fact that, when we’re reading and studying the Scriptures, especially the historical narratives, special note needs to be made of things that seem, at first glance, to be of very little consequence.  We, as believers, are all tuned in to the things said by Jesus, and the apostles and the prophets; and we love to read the accounts of the Mighty Acts and “miracles” of God (so-called).

But we also must pay attention to little things, such as where people are coming from, where they’re going, and the sequence in which they do these things.  Especially the coming and going of our Lord.  And especially as we’re coming to the most focal events in the history of God’s salvation of His people and His creation.  The coming of the King and His ministry, and His suffering, death and resurrection, signal an intensification of language and a heightened investment in every word, deed and movement.

It seems that every word and every turn has not only its immediate significance, but also representative significance as all of the prophetic Word is filled up; and there must also then be an intensification of our awareness so that we get what is being signified…what is being fulfilled.

At the beginning of our text, for example, Matthew says that Jesus came forth in public out of Galilee to be baptized of John.  The natural sequel to that “coming forth from Galilee” is the account of John’s being imprisoned and killed, after which Jesus left Judea to go back to Galilee.  Gentiles.  The natural significance of that is, that when John’s preaching and baptism was rejected by the Jews (that is, when he was imprisoned and beheaded), Jesus then left Judea for the Gentiles, indicating God’s rejection and final judgment of Israel.  So, not only the teaching and mighty deeds of Jesus are vital to our understanding, but so, too, are his movements!

So, Jesus came forth in public out of Galilee toward the Jordan, to John, to be baptized of him.  Verse thirteen.  What was John’s baptism?  Just like the water ordeal of the flood, in which Noah and his family were accepted, saved by water, and all others rejected and inundated; and just like the water ordeal in which Israel walked through the Red Sea unharmed, saved by water, but the Egyptians were inundated; and just as Israel passed through the dry Jordan River – dispossessing the rejected Canaanites; so John’s water baptism signifies a water ordeal after which God receives the accepted and judges the rejected.

Israel had continued to violate God’s covenant stipulations until their sins were full.  And there was a pending covenant law-suit against them.  And the coming of the King and His Kingdom indicated that God had passed sentence and was ready to execute judgment.  So the forerunner of the King, John the Baptist, comes and causes Israel to pass through the water ordeal, which is the prelude to acceptance and rejection (inundation)… the prelude to salvation and condemnation.  The rite of water baptism is the sign of covenantal acceptance and covenantal rejection!

The apostle Peter calls all of these ordeals in the Old Testament – baptisms!  He also refers to them as fiery ordeals!  And he also refers to them as circumcisions!  But these are all signs and terminologies which have reference to God’s covenant, you see, which has, simultaneously, terms of both acceptance and rejection; both eternal salvation and eternal destruction; both rescue and inundation!

So John’s call for repentance, since the Kingdom of the Heavens was at hand, was a crying out to the nation of Israel to flee the wrath to come.  The fiery ordeal – the execution of the wrath of God due to the broken covenant – was upon them; and his baptism was God’s sign of that wrath to come.  It was a sign of God’s acceptance and rescue of some, and, at the same time, a sign of God’s inundation of Israel and the eternal condemnation of many.  And history tells us of the results – Israel, symbolized by a tree, or a vine, was cut off at its root, only a remnant being accepted, and its nation being destroyed forever (the present Israel being only a pretender – a non-theocratic, secular nation, still circumcised from its own root, and still under the sentence of the covenant law-suit).  And if God continues to act in His history as He’s done in the past two thousand years, the Jews will continue to receive harsh treatment until their repentance and re-grafting back into their own root and vine.

Now.  As we see in verse fourteen, John seems to be shocked at Jesus coming to him for baptism.  And he seeks to prohibit Him!  In the former verses, John towers over the Pharisees and Sadducees as the prophet of God.  But when he speaks of the coming Messiah, he takes an extremely humble and subservient position, saying that he isn’t worthy to even carry His sandals!

And when Jesus comes to him for baptism, he recognizes Jesus for Who He is, and he rightly assumes the attitude of abject humility.  And it’s a humility that we all ought to assume before Christ our Lord.  But his prohibiting of the Lord from receiving his baptism is indication that John did not yet understand all of the implications of Christ’s being baptized.  He said, “I have need to be baptized of You, and You are coming to me?”

John’s statement, of course, means that he had the need to be cleansed.  And that the cleansing required could come only from Messiah!  But Messiah didn’t need cleansing, since He was the Lamb of God, Who takes away the sin of the world!

Now, while I’m on this word “cleansing,” and before we get to the actual baptism of Jesus, I want to say some things about the mode of baptism.  I don’t want to say too much, since the text doesn’t – it just assumes a mode, because it’s so clear in Scripture that God’s people were “saved” or “rescued” by water; and the rest were drowned in it.

Some would have us believe that, since the Bible doesn’t command a method, then it’s a relatively unimportant issue to God.  Others would translate the verb “to baptize” as synonymous with “to immerse,” or “inundate”, and make their faulty translation a vital point of orthodoxy.

But our reformed forefathers were wise in the Scriptures, and they said, as is recorded in the Westminster Confession of Faith, “baptism is rightly administered by pouring or sprinkling water upon the person.”

Now, as John has indicated in this passage, he baptized in water.  But the One coming after Him will baptize in Holy Spirit and fire.  And Scripture speaks often about the outpouring of Holy Spirit, such as in Jeremiah thirty-one; and the actual outpouring of Holy Spirit from the “Head” at Pentecost, and the outpouring of the cup of wrath, as in the book of Revelation (which we’ll see next in chapter eight).  And these equate perfectly with the two things which John’s baptism signified – acceptance and rejection, eternal salvation and eternal judgment!

As we said earlier, the covenant, signified by water baptism, has two aspects to it.  It is the sign of covenant law-suit against disobedient men, and the sign of that law-suit is baptism, which signifies acceptance and rejection, salvation and damnation, Holy Spirit and fire.

The rite of water baptism is also thought to signify the cleansing blood of the Lord Jesus Christ our Atonement.  But in the Old Testament, His cleansing blood was signified by the sprinkling of the blood of the sacrifice on everything in the temple.  And if the New Testament Church is the new Temple of Holy Spirit – the body of Christ – and if that new Temple has been cleansed by the shed blood of its Savior, then baptism by sprinkling or pouring is the appropriate symbol and needs no specific command, since its significance is all through the Scripture!

In addition to that, the word Baptizo means wash – not immerse.  Immersion is inundation, so it is the exact opposite sign of acceptance and rescue!  Inundation is the sign of rejection and damnation.  And when the Jewish scholars of Alexandria, Egypt translated the Hebrew text into Greek, they used the word Baptizo to describe the washings of purification that were required before temple ministrations and before eating.  And every one of those washings were done by pouring water!

And Matthew doesn’t describe a mode of baptism here in his text, because he knows that the Jews to whom he is ultimately writing will know what Baptizo is! Matthew was a Jew!

In all of the early history of the Church, the art work depicting the rite of baptism renders baptism in this same way, lending historical credence to the assumptions made in Scripture that we all already know how to do it.

Now, that ought to lay that issue to rest without any further preaching time being spent on it.

Verse fifteen.  “But answering, Jesus said to him, ‘Permit it now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness’; then he permitted Him.”  John the Baptist, recognizing that he needed to be cleansed of Jesus, was prohibiting Jesus from receiving his, John’s, baptism.  And please look at how Jesus responds.  Jesus could have simply commanded the rite.  He could have destroyed John with words for being so foolish as to deprive Him of baptism.  But He, instead, shows total respect for John’s office as he prophet of God and the forerunner of Himself – the Anointed Son of God.  “Permit it now.”

“It is fitting for us…” the forerunner and preparer of the Way, and the Anointed One of God, “to fulfill all righteousness.”

The key to this passage and the key to understanding Jesus’ baptism rests in his words, which John correctly interpreted immediately… “to fulfill all righteousness.”

Righteousness is not that which God stands under, but that which God perfectly is.  And God’s righteousness is correctly described as – the judge justly allotting to each what is his due.  From man’s point of view, a righteous man is one who meets certain claims that another has upon him, including God; or God allotting to each what is his due.  He is righteous.

And Jesus says, “It is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.…”  All that God is, in His allotment of justice – each to his due – is what the Lord is saying.  It is for us to fulfill that.  Place the sign of the covenant on me, He says.  That sign of acceptance and rejection!  Allot to me what is due.

For the Son of God is surely accepted of God, is He not?  He is accepted by His Father into the office of King, He is accepted into the office of Prophet, He is accepted into the office of Priest; He is the acceptable, sinless God-man, He is the perfect spotless Lamb, He is the Offerer – the Offering – and the Priest; He is the perfect, sinless, acceptable Son of God, Who, after His baptism, receives the commendation of God His Father: “This is My Beloved Son in Whom I take delight.”

Remember, Jesus and John are fulfilling all righteousness in administering God’s Covenant sign and seal to Jesus – a Covenant of acceptance and rejection.  This is all through the prophets!  He’s accepted of God – but is He rejected?  Yes He is.  The God of all righteousness perfectly allots to each what is His due.  And Jesus was the Light of the world, but the darkness knew Him not.  He was despised and rejected of men.  And God turned His face from Christ on the cross – vile person that He was; for all the depravity, and sin, and iniquity of God’s elect was heaped upon Him – and he became sin for us.  And God turned the fury of His wrath – due to us individually – upon Him, and He became God-forsaken.  He was judged, rejected and condemned in our place!  All of the allotment of justice due to us, was allotted to Him!

So, in the sign of baptism, Jesus submitted to the judgment of the God of the Covenant in the waters of baptism.  And in doing so offered Himself up to the curse of the covenant and consecrated Himself unto His sacrificial death in the judicial ordeal of the cross.  As He Himself would say later, “I have a baptism to be baptized with.”

And, then, as we read in the text, in verses sixteen and seventeen, Jesus’ baptism unto judgment appropriately concluded with a divine verdict – the verdict of justification (acceptance) expressed by the heavenly voice, “This is My Beloved Son in Whom I take delight.”  And then the verdict was sealed by the Spirit’s anointing, the earnest of the Kingdom inheritance.

“Permit it now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.”  “And he permitted Him.”  John the Baptist then saw his own justification – and yours and mine – in the ordeal which Christ had to endure for us – signed and sealed in the waters of baptism.

And in the voice of God the Father, John then heard the verdict of justification pronounced for himself in Christ.  And in the descent of Holy Spirit, John saw the down payment of his own Kingdom inheritance in Christ.

And, now, all of us who are His are assured that we will emerge from the overwhelming curse and flood of sin with a blessing.  Jesus’ passage through the water ordeal is our passage with him.  And in Him.  And the meaning of His water Baptism is expressed in the promise of God through Isaiah the prophet, as he says,


 “But now thus saith Yahveh Who created you, O Jacob, and He that formed you, O Israel, ‘Fear not, for I have redeemed you, I have called you by your name; You are mine.  When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overflow you; when you walk through the fire, you shall not be burned, neither shall the flame kindle upon you.  For I Am Yahveh your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.” (Isaiah forty-three, verses one through three)


Passing through the water ordeal, we in Christ are accepted because of Him.  The apostle Paul says (Romans chapter six) that we are co-crucified in Christ; and he says that we are co-buried in Him; and that we are co-resurrected in Him.

There’s the “baptism”, you see.  That’s when we were “baptized” into Him – in His crucifixion, burial and resurrection.  We went “under” with Him, and we were “raised” with Him, and we ascended with Him.

And the outpouring of Holy Spirit at Pentecost from the “Head” is the living proof of that!  The Head being the buried, risen and ascended Jesus Christ, the One Who is the Anointed High Priest, and Whose anointment pours from the “Head” all over His body – those who are “In Him” (Paul’s words). 

And, by the way, while I’m here let me just say that it is an outright denial of Paul’s words in Romans six to use that text as proof of immersionist baptism!  Because, as the apostle says, if we were co-crucified and co-buried and co-resurrected in Him when He went through that ordeal, then how does the “going-down-under” and “coming-back-up” out of the water constitute “real baptism”?  Our real baptism occurred when our Lord was inundated in the wrath of the Father! So, the very best thing that can be said about that sacramental “inundation” theology is that it outright contradicts Paul!

Now.  We are told to put the sign and the seal of that baptism on our bodies and on the bodies of our children.  On our entire households.  It is the sign of covenant inclusion.  And it is the seal that it is true.

Our Lord went through His ordeal of ultimate circumcision on the cross. He was “cut off”.  And He went through it for us!  And the sign of that ordeal is water baptism.  And it is the “seal” – the verification – of the blessings and the sanctions of the covenant.  There are great blessings in obeying the terms of His covenant (all of those blessings IN Christ Jesus); and there are terrifying sanctions for disobedience.  Baptism is the verification of all of that.  That’s what the word “seal” means. 

In other words it’s true that the “mark” of baptism is the sign of the covenant.  It doesn’t mean that you’re justified; it doesn’t save you; it doesn’t mean that you’ve “accepted” Jesus.  Don’t shroud it and veil it and disguise it with foreign content!

It means that God has covenanted with His people.  It’s the sign and seal of the covenant!  It’s all about what God did – not what you did!  And the covenant has stipulations!  Faith, obedience, holiness, anticipation, exclusive worship.

And it has horrible sanctions… not only  for those who have no mark, but especially for those who ignore the mark that they do have.

And God has the “right” as our Creator to mandate that which pleases Him and gives Him glory.

Now.  The sign and seal of God’s covenant means that you say to God, “salvation is created!  All of Your people were in Your dear Son when He was circumcised (cut off) on the cross – when He went through His baptism ordeal.  And all of Your people were there, and were in Him when He died and was buried.  All of Your people were there and in Him when He was raised from death.  And O God I believe that.  I believe that You did that for us; and I am filled up with thanksgiving.”

“Therefore I obediently place Your sign on myself and on my children.  I acknowledge that salvation is of You and not of us.  And I believe that now I must live IN HIM.  I was circumcised when He was circumcised; I was baptized when He was baptized – I was co-buried in Him, I was co-raised in Him.  You have rooted me in Him; You are building me up in Him, You are establishing me in Him; and now I will live in Him!”

Today a covenant family comes before God and His people claiming the sign of the circumcision/baptism of Christ for their baby.  And they are saying, “I receive the sign of Christ’s ordeal for my daughter.  And I receive and acknowledge the “seal” of God that the crucifixion, death, burial and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ is true, and that all of His people were IN HIM when He did that.