The third chapter of Matthew opens on what, for John the Baptist, was a fairly ordinary day of baptism and preaching. Then Jesus showed up. We know that their mothers were related, but we have no idea how well they knew each other.
Up until this moment, Jesus had lived a perfectly ordinary life and had done nothing noteworthy, but when he lined up with everyone else for baptism, John got uncomfortable, even though, according to John 1:31, he had no idea that Jesus was the Messiah.
Jesus wanted John to baptize him, but somehow John suspected that Jesus had no sin to repent of. He suggested that Jesus should baptize him. Jesus did not argue with John’s assessment of his spiritual state, but asked him to go through with the baptism anyway in order to fulfill all righteousness. John consented, having no idea how baptizing Jesus would change literally everything.
It changed John’s ministry
As soon as Jesus came up out of the water, the Holy Spirit descended upon him like a dove. It is by that sign that John recognized him as Messiah. John’s entire ministry had led up to this moment. Now, it would decrease while Jesus’ ministry increased. He would have to watch as those who had followed him gradually left to follow the greater one.
It changed Jesus’ life
He was Son of God and son of man by birth, but he had lived as a man 30 years without the divine empowerment to minister. The heavens opened up to reveal the glory of God, and God introduced him to all who had ears to hear in an audible voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
Nothing in Scripture demanded baptism of the Messiah or anyone else. It does contain the general principle that the kings of old could not begin their reigns until their anointing. It requires that all people live righteously, and John’s baptism constituted a public announcement of their intention to do so. It also portrays God himself as righteous.
And so God himself, born into the world as a man, came to John to fulfill righteousness as a man. The King of the Universe came to John for anointing so he could begin his reign.
It changed the law
From the time of Moses until the day of Jesus’ baptism, the law had set the people of Israel apart from the rest of the world. Although they seldom acted like it, the Jews’ mission was to demonstrate godliness and redeem the world. The law made heavy demands on them that no one could keep. No one realized that the purpose of the law was to demonstrate that no one could ever be good enough to earn right standing with God.
John bitterly denounced sin, and like the prophets of old, promised divine punishment for it, but with one critical difference. Old Testament prophecy had been directed to society as a whole.
John spoke to personal sins and demanded personal righteousness. When he said that the coming Messiah would burn the chaff with unquenchable fire, only the Sadducees and Pharisees thought themselves good enough to be the wheat gathered into the barn.
But when the heavens opened up and the glory of God rested on Jesus, it did not come as a fire, but as a dove, a symbol of peace and gentleness. The fire that Christians experience is like a refiners fire, purifying precious metal. Jesus will return with his winnowing fork and burn up the chaff as John promised, but the sign at his baptism ushered in a time of grace—and not for Jews only, but for the whole world.
God, living the life of an ordinary man empowered by the Holy Spirit, paved the way for anyone at all to be empowered by the Holy Spirit. God, dying the death of an ordinary man not for his own sin but everyone else’s, paved the way for anyone at all to lay aside the burden of sin by casting it on the crucified Jesus.
It changed baptism
John preached a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins (Mk. 1:4). There was a sect of Jews called Essenes who practiced baptism as a daily purification ritual, but for John is was apparently a once in a lifetime public display of repentance, resulting in forgiveness. John’s baptism had no power to help anyone live free from sin afterward.
Christian baptism, on the other hand, represents an initiation into a new life of grace. The moment a person truly and earnestly repents of sin and turns to God, that person is justified. In other words, that person becomes righteous in the sight of God, and God forgives all his or her sins—past and future.
As baptized members of the universal church, we have the possibility of living for God, which did not exist before. We enter into the grace of sanctification, which enables us to conform more and more, day by day to the image of Christ. We become a temple of God, a dwelling place for the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And because we become his house, God cleans the place up, rearranges the furniture, and fits us for heaven.
He doesn’t make us be the wheat in his barn. A baptized person has free will and can be chaff if he wants, but baptism ushers in a state of grace that enables us to be wheat in the barn. Christian baptism is a promise of grace, and God will keep his part.