Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, "I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?" But Jesus answered him, "Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness." Then he consented. 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 3:13-17
Common sense should teach us that Jesus' baptism is significant based on the fact that it's referenced in all four gospels (see also Mk. 1:9-11; Lk. 3:21-22; Jn. 1:29-34). But what significance does it carry? What's revealed in Jesus' baptism that's important for us to understand?
Especially when reading narrative portions of Scripture, it's helpful to gain additional understanding by recognizing allusions to other passages. For instance, the Passover meal from the Old Testament is related to Jesus' crucifixion (1 Cor. 5:7). Paul also associates Israel's passage through the Red Sea and eating manna in the wilderness with baptism and the Lord's supper (1 Cor. 10:1-4). So as we think through the Old Testament, can we find any parallels between Jesus' baptism in Matthew 3 and other passages of Scripture?
Examining Matthew's account, we can see the following elements in Jesus' baptism:
1. the presence of the Spirit of God in the form of a dove (Matt. 3:16),
2. a baptism with water (Matt. 3:16), and
3. a declaration of God's pleasure and blessing (Matt. 3:17).
Looking at the flood account in Genesis 6-8, we see strong parallels:
1. the dove flying over the earth (Gen. 8:8-12),
2. a baptism of water (Gen. 7:18-20), and
3. a declaration of God's pleasure and blessing (Gen. 8:21-22).
However, the flood can be read as a re-creation story that parallels the original creation story:
1. the Spirit of God hovering over the earth (Gen. 1:2),
2. a baptism of water (Gen. 1:6-10), and
3. a declaration of God's pleasure and blessing (Gen. 1:31-2:3).
So what do these parallels teach us about baptism? Put simply, we should understand that Jesus is inaugurating His kingdom as a new creation. Consider what Paul declares about Christ and His work?
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. 2 Corinthians 5:17
For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation. Galatians 6:15
Jesus' baptism foreshadows His becoming the first citizen of this new creation by his death and resurrection:
And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. Colossians 1:18
Further parallels can be drawn between Jesus' baptism and the creation account in Genesis if we continue reading into the narratives of Matthew 4 and Genesis 3. In Genesis, we move from blessed creation into the temptation of Adam and Eve and their fall into sin. After his baptism, Matthew recounts the temptation of Jesus, but He does not fall like Adam and Eve. Jesus' victory in the face of temptation is a declaration concerning the new creation - it will not be corrupted like the old creation. The new creation established by Jesus and marked by His baptism will "fulfill all righteousness" (Matt. 3:15) by overcoming sin and eradicating unrighteousness.
But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells. 2 Peter 3:13
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more...And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away"...Then came one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls full of the seven last plagues and spoke to me, saying, "Come, I will show you the Bride, the wife of the Lamb." And he carried me away in the Spirit to a great, high mountain, and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God...But nothing unclean will ever enter it, nor anyone who does what is detestable or false, but only those who are written in the Lamb's book of life. Revelation 21:1, 3-4, 9-10, 27
Our baptism is an identification with this incorruptible new creation, which is why Paul connects our baptism with the new life made possible by Jesus' death and resurrection:
Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. Romans 6:3-4
In this new creation, righteousness overcomes the corruption of the old creation as we're taught:
to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. Ephesians 4:22-24
Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator. Colossians 3:9-10
Adam was created in the image of God (Gen. 1:26); likewise, we are being renewed - or re-created - after that same image as disciples of Jesus.
In our own baptism, we identify with Christ in his baptism. We proclaim our hope and longing for the new creation He has established through his death and resurrection. We declare that we have turned from unrighteousness to righteousness. For "He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son." (Col. 1:13) We present ourselves to God, confessing our desire to walk in obedience to his commands. "Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions. Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness. For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace." (Rom. 6:12-14). And with the corruption of our former life washed away, we look forward to the inheritance of an incorruptible kingdom. "For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality." (1 Cor. 15:53)
More than mere church tradition or simply a "first act of obedience", our baptism reminds us that we begin to experience personal transformation and restoration even now, being conformed to the image of Christ and enjoying His fellowship day by day. But our baptism also points to a future time when the sin that stains all of the present creation will be washed away and everything will be made new. It points us to something bigger than ourselves - something that will one day encompass all of the world around us - for we've joined an everlasting kingdom that will not be overcome in which Jesus will reign forever and ever. Amen.