Matt. 3:16–17

“Then Jesus, when He had been baptized, came up immediately from the water; and behold the heavens were opened to Him, and He saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting upon Him. And suddenly a voice came from heaven, saying, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.”

The Lord’s baptism was the model and representation of the Christian believer’s place in grace before God through redemption. It speaks of Christianity instead of Judaism, of the soon-coming Christian dispensation instead of the Jewish. It should be noted that Matthew’s gospel is uniquely characterized by the Holy Spirit in two recognizable themes – the first is the presentation of Jehovah/Messiah to Israel; the second is the dispensational transition from the Jewish age to the Christian. Everything in Matthew’s gospel can be categorized under one of these two themes.

The first theme mentioned begins in the very first verse of the book.

“The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the Son of David, the Son of Abraham.” (Matt. 1:1)

Every Jew knew that the Messiah would have to be a descendent of David in order to fulfill the promise of prophecy (Matt. 22:42). To be a Jew, or a Jewish Messiah, he had to be a son of Abraham as well. In the first verse of the gospel we have the two great heads of the nation of Israel, Abraham and David.  The remainder of the genealogy is the proof, very much suited to the Jewish mind, that Jesus was a natural descendent of these two. Further, Matthew’s genealogy goes through Solomon, showing the royal pedigree of kings according to God’s promises to Israel. His genealogy is that of Messiah, king of Israel like David and Solomon were. Jesus had the necessary lineage from which the Messiah was to come.

From the outset, Jesus is presented as the accomplishment of prophecy and promises.

…that it might be fulfilled what was written by the prophets (Matt. 1:22, 2:5, 15, 17, 23, 3:3, etc.).

“Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel,” which is translated, “God with us.” (Isa. 7:14, Matt. 1:23)

Matthew presents Jesus as Messiah, but the promises involved more than this. He was Jehovah come to His people Israel, and the Baptist would be preparing the way of the Lord (Matt. 3:3). This is the name in which God revealed Himself to the nation, the God who would always keep covenant (Ex. 6:2–4).  Here, Matthew’s gospel declares Jesus to be Immanuel, God present with Israel.

The first theme of Matthew is strictly a Jewish concern and interest. The apostle Paul makes this clear when he discusses the privileges given to Israel by God in Romans:

Rom. 9:3-5 (NKJV)

“…my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh, who are Israelites, to whom pertain the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the service of God, and the promises; of whom are the fathers and from whom, according to the flesh, Christ came…”

There were never any Gentiles told by God to look for a coming Messiah. The promises and prophecies were all Jewish, spoken by Jewish prophets as expectations which would comfort the hearts of a faithful and believing remnant, which God always kept among the Jewish people.223 These passages found in Matthew’s gospel depicting Jesus presented as Jehovah/Messiah connect themselves to the Jewish dispensation.

223 [Everything listed by Paul in this passage pertains only to the Jews. There is nothing in it that was given to the Gentiles or remotely pertains to them. The list has its reality only when God, to some degree, acknowledges Israel’s calling. These are Jewish things and only were/are substantive during the past Jewish dispensation or the future millennium. They have no direct application to Christianity or the present Christian dispensation. To give them such would be a form of Judaizing the teachings of the Christian faith. A large part of Paul’s career as an apostle was spent fighting against this error and evil. It is not just an error in properly understanding God’s word (which is always a serious issue), but a failure to properly understand dispensations]

The second theme presented by the Holy Spirit in this gospel begins early in the book as well (Matt. 2:1–2). It starts having a larger presence in the passage quoted above depicting the baptism of Christ (Matt. 3:16–17). Here we find a definite Christian form with a Christian understanding, instead of Jewish thoughts. Eventually the reader should see that Christ’s baptism is representative of the Christian position and has significance for the coming Christian dispensation (transitional).

  1. The heavens are opened to Jesus after He is baptized (v. 16)
  2. The Holy Spirit descends on Him (v. 16)
  3. The Father’s voice proclaims Him to be His Son (v. 17)

In His baptism account in Matthew, we have the revelation of the Trinity of God in Scripture for the first time – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit together in one short passage. This is distinctly a Christian revelation and teaching. The Trinity is the basis of Christianity – the full revelation of the three persons in the oneness of God. Yes, we do see the three persons of the Godhead spoken of by Jesus throughout His discourse to the disciples the night before His crucifixion (John 14, 15, 16, 17). But in Matthew, when we see all three persons of the Trinity together, it is usually in a passage that is more compressed and without much explanation. The commission at the end of Matthew has a similar form.

“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you…” (Matt. 28:19)

This commission is the most formal statement of the Christian revelation replacing Judaism. It contains the Trinity of God, all Gentile nations to be sought, and Christ’s commands substituted for the law – Christian ground replacing Jewish ground. Both the baptism passage and ending commission in Matthew are transitional and serve as further evidence of the dispensational character of this gospel.

Also (still referring to the baptism passage – Matt. 3:16–17), knowing God as Father and having this relationship with Him as a son, is strictly a Christian truth and experience (Matt. 11:25–27, John 17:1–3, 25–26, 1:14, 18, 14:6–7, 9–11). The revelation of the name of the Father was not associated with the Jewish dispensation (compare Ex. 6:2–4 with John 17:1–3). God revealed Himself to Israel by the name Jehovah, not by the name of Father, and not by the revelation of the Trinity. Further, the name of the Father and the Son carry with them eternal life.

“For as the Father raises the dead and gives life to them, even so the Son gives life to whom He will…. For as the Father has life in Himself, so He has granted the Son to have life in Himself.” (John 5:21-26)

That the giving of eternal life is connected with these two names, and these names associated with the Christian revelation and dispensation, is confirmed by Scripture (John 17:1–3, 1 John 5:11–12, 1:1–3).  Also, having the Holy Spirit descending from heaven as the seal of God upon His Son, is another feature exclusive to the Christian dispensation (John 16:7, 1 Cor. 2:12, I John 4:13)). Nothing in the Lord’s baptism is Jewish in character; nothing there is really Jewish ground; nothing in the passage should be associated with the Jewish dispensation.

All true Christians are made sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus (Gal. 3:26). As believers, we are placed into the same relationship Jesus has with God, as a Man raised from the dead (John 20:17) – Jesus says, “I am ascending to My Father and your Father, and to My God and your God.”  God declares the believer His son by sending down the Holy Spirit to seal him (Eph. 1:13). Regarding this, Jesus said to His disciples before the crucifixion (John 14:16), “And I will pray the Father, and He will give you another Helper, that He may abide with you forever.”  For the Christian, He is the Spirit of adoption to sonship, and by His dwelling in us we may cry out to God in our hearts, “Abba, Father” (Rom. 8:15–16, Gal.4:5–6). As sons, we are heirs of God and distinctly co-heirs with Christ (Rom. 8:17, Gal. 4:7). Again, emphasis is on being given the same relationship and place Jesus has with God.224

224 [This relationship and place Jesus has with God is in reference to His humanity alone. It is as a man He was crucified and died. Therefore, as a man He was raised from the dead by God, and glorified to God’s right hand in heaven. These passages mentioned above only focus on His humanity. Jesus is the God-man, the only one there is or ever will be. We can find passages in Scripture which only reference His divinity (John 1:1–4, 8:58, 17:5). We also can find passages which merge the two together, the human and the divine (Rev. 1:12–18). The relationship with God that all true Christians gain from being found in Christ by faith was the outcome of what this Man accomplished in perfect obedience to God, and in consequence, God raising and glorifying Him (John 13:31–32). But His intrinsic nature as the Son of God and His divine attributes as God can never be given to men or acquired by men]

The baptism passage tells us that heaven opened up to Him (Matt. 3:16). Never have we had this in Scripture before this, that heaven so opened; never had there been an object on earth that God could acknowledge as bringing forth His good pleasure. Now there was in Jesus, His Son. For the believer also, the veil is rent, and heaven is open. The Spirit has descended upon us, sealing us, and our Father declaring us as His sons in a similar manner as for Jesus. For all true believers the heavens are open, in this sense – we have a heavenly calling (Heb. 3:1); we have a heavenly citizenship; our destiny is to eventually go where Jesus has gone, to the Father’s house (John 14:1–3).

By the redemption that is in Christ Jesus (Rom. 3:24), the Christian believer is brought by God into the same place Jesus has as a Man raised from the dead and glorified (John 20:17, Eph. 1:17–23, 2:4–6). God is the God of Jesus Christ, the Son of Man (Eph. 1:17); He is our God as well, as believing men in Christ. God is the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ (Eph. 3:14); Jesus is the Son of God; God is our Father for we are made sons of God by faith in Christ (Gal. 3:26). But God bringing the Christian into this relationship was only after Christ’s resurrection – after He went through death and judgment for us, and He was risen and glorified. Our new position before God is really a new existence, a new life. And it had to be this way. God couldn’t have done this unless Jesus died – unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone (John 12:24). While Christ was upon the earth, while He was in the flesh as Messiah of Israel, He remained entirely alone. No one could be with Him, in His place and relationship, unless He died and made atonement. No one could be really with Him until redemption work was completed. Now that He has died, and has been raised and glorified, He can bring us into the same place now belonging to Himself. He meets Mary by the empty tomb and tells her, “Go to My brethren and say to them…”  This is the first time He really uses this designation for them – “My brethren.”  Now we are in the same relationship with Him before His God and Father (Eph. 1:3).

Many teachers and theologians interpret the baptism of Jesus to be the time when God anointed Him as Messiah/King of Israel. But I feel strongly this misses the truth concerning this event as it is presented by the Spirit of God in Matthew. Such an interpretation or conclusion would make His baptism a Jewish thing, connected to the Jewish dispensation. No doubt there are other truths present in the content of the chapter (Matt. 3). The preparatory testimony of John goes before the face of Jehovah (v. 3), according to the fulfillment of Scripture (Isa. 40:3 and Mal. 3:1) – the voice of him who prepares the way of Jehovah. This is Jewish and is specifically one of the Holy Spirit’s presentations of Jesus in this gospel. Jesus is Jehovah – not as it was before, the presence of Jehovah in the glory behind the veil of the tabernacle or Solomon’s temple – in Jesus, Jehovah’s veil was now human flesh. The truth of His divinity is meticulously maintained throughout Matthew’s gospel (Matt. 14:25, 17:27). Jesus is Jehovah in the midst of men, particularly among the Jews. This is confirmed by the tenor of John’s testimony in this chapter. He warns of Jehovah’s wrath (v. 7), His ax laid to the root of the trees (v. 10); it is God who baptizes with the Holy Spirit (v. 11); it is His hand that holds the winnowing fan, which He uses to purge His threshing floor, gathering His wheat into the barn; He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire (v. 12). John heralds the approach of the kingdom of God, and without repentance individually, there would be no entering in, even if one was a physical descendent of Abraham. God is able, in His own sovereign power, to raise up from stones His own sons of Abraham (vs. 5–9).

Although we can find many passages that present Jesus as Jehovah in the midst of Israel, or as the Father declares Him here to be the Son of God, still this baptism passage uniquely presents Him as a man, and in obedience to God, taking the form of a servant (Matt. 20:24–28). This is the place of the Christian disciple imitating the example set by Jesus, the Son of Man. It is the believer’s proper portion during the time of the Christian dispensation. It is remarkable how this position is illustrated by Jesus presenting Himself for baptism. Yes, He is Jehovah, but He comes to place Himself in the midst of His people, where grace is conducting them for repentance and water baptism. He never joins Himself to the rebellious and proud of Israel. From the beginning, a faithful, repentant remnant is being gathered, who listen and heed the word of the testimony of God. Jesus is found with them in His infinite grace. He needed no repentance, and John was aware of this; we know it as well. But contrary to this, He was fulfilling all righteousness (Matt. 3:14–15). That is, with this faithful remnant of Israel, whom He considered His own, being baptized with them and identifying with them was just the thing to do according to the mind of God. He takes His place among them. After redemption was accomplished and He was risen from the dead and glorified, this remnant would take their place with Him, not in His divinity, but rather by virtue of His humanity and in union with Him as members of His body, the church. His baptism shows His place as the Son, sealed by the Spirit of God, and His relationship with His Father. This same place would belong to all those who believed on Him on the day of Pentecost, albeit a Christian position instead of a Jewish one. It wouldn’t be long after Pentecost for the Holy Spirit to gather up this believing Jewish remnant, and by the Spirit’s baptism, have them added to the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:12–13).

As mentioned above, in this account of the Lord’s baptism I do not find application to His title of Messiah, or to God anointing Him as Messiah. We see reference to Jesus being Jehovah, and even to His intrinsic title of the Son of God. But in a touching and beautiful way the passage shows us His humility in identifying Himself with this poor remnant of Israel. This is more associated with His humanity and His Son of Man title. It is ever with this title that He speaks of His sufferings and dying, the work of redemption on behalf of all mankind, not just Israel (Matt. 17:22–23, 26:24, Luke 18:31–33, John 3:14, 12:23–24, 32–34). The Son of Man is the second Adam and references all mankind as the first Adam indeed does. The disobedience of the first man brought sin and condemnation upon the entire human race (Rom. 5:12, 18). And the events which directly follow this account of His baptism – His temptation by Satan in the wilderness – also reference Jesus as the second Adam. Where the first man succumbed to the devil, Jesus the second Adam, in far different conditions than the first, in wilderness instead of paradise, in the midst of the misery and sin of this world brought in by the first man, overcame and defeated Satan, and spoiled the strong man’s goods (Matt. 4:1, 12:29). The account of His baptism prefigures the Christian position found in the glorified Son of Man.

Matthew’s gospel is one of dispensational transition – of the Jewish dispensation ending, and the bringing in of the Christian dispensation. The questions in this gospel will always be, is this passage Jewish, or is it Christian? Is this the instructions of Judaism or is this teaching the practices of Christianity? Is this portion referring to the close of the Jewish dispensation, or the beginning of the Christian dispensation? The baptism of Jesus is not God anointing Him as King of Israel. Rather, His baptism by John was a model, a representation, of the place in Him the believer will have as a result of accomplished redemption – the Christian position according to this grace in Christ Jesus, before God our Father, accepted in the Beloved (Eph. 1:3–6), and sealed by the Spirit (Eph. 1:13). This account of the Lord’s baptism in Matthew is connected to the Christian dispensation; it prefigures the believer’s relationship with God through Him.