The Baptism of the Saviour

In chapter 1 verse 5 Mark describes the widespread response which John’s ministry produced, “And there went out unto him all the land of Judaea, and they of Jerusalem, and were all baptized of him in the river of Jordan, confessing their sins”, Judaea, occupied by the Jews, was the southern territory of the land, and distinct from Samaria the middle territory, and Galilee in the north. Samaritans and Galileans were despised by the Jews, who regarded themselves as the true descendants of God’s chosen people, the custodians of His laws and the objects of His favour. This accounts for the words of the woman of Sychar when the Saviour asked her for a drink of water, “How is it that thou, being a Jew, askest drink of me, which am a woman of Samaria? for the Jews have no dealings with the Samaritans”, John 4. 9; and for the contemptuous words of the Jewish leaders to their colleague Nicodemus, when he defended the Lord Jesus. “Art thou also of Galilee? Search, and look; for out of Galilee ariseth no prophet”, 7. 52.

It says much for John’s ministry that it made a tremendous impact upon a people of such religious pride and complacency. The crowds flocked to hear him. and they responded to his Spirit-filled preaching. They submitted to his baptism and they confessed their sins. Later on. during John’s imprisonment. the Lord Jesus spoke very highly of the Baptist, and it quickly became clear that the religious leaders did not share the willingness of the common people to accept the Baptist’s authority: “all the people that heard (Jesus), and the publicans, justified God, being baptized with the baptism of John But the Pharisees and lawyers rejected the counsel of God against themselves, being not baptized of him”, Luke 7. 29, 30. Towards the end of the Lord’s ministry. He challenged the leaders in the temple as to their attitude to John’s baptism, “The baptism of John, whence was it? from heaven, or of men? And they reasoned with themselves, saying. If we shall say, From heaven; he will say to us, Why did ye not then believe him? But if we shall say, Of men; we fear the people; for all hold John as a prophet”. Matt. 21. 25, 26

It is sad to reflect that Judaea as a whole failed to acknowledge the Lord Jesus as unreservedly as they responded to His fore-runner. The lowly Christ, although He authenticated His ministry by miracles and signs, was not the kind of Messiah that they wanted. He showed no interest in overthrowing the Roman powers and in re-establishing Israel’s earlier precedence and prosperity among the nations.

Verse 6 indicates that John’s entire way of life was subordinated to his service to Christ: “And John was clothed with camel’s hair, and with a girdle of a skin about his loins; and he did eat locusts and wild honey”. The wilderness of Judaea was not simply John’s sphere of service, it was his habitual dwelling place. He derived his clothing and his food from that desert region. He did not live in domestic comfort, making regular preaching tours into the Jordan region He lived where he preached, and dressed and fed consistently with his arduous surroundings This shows us his total commitment to his life’s work. On the occasion already referred to, when the Lord Jesus spoke so approvingly of John to a gathered crowd. He challenged them as to their assessment of the Baptist thus, “What went ye out into the wilderness to see? … A man clothed in soft raiment? behold, they that wear soft clothing are in kings’ houses”, Matt. 11. 7, 8 John never chose an easy pathway. And the fact that he lived where he worked and worked where he lived should speak to us today. Those of us whose church life is necessarily located away from our homes and neighbourhoods should be alive to the dangers of leading a double life. We should cultivate a growing concern for the spiritual well-being of our neighbours and those among whom we work, as well as those within the outreach of the local church. We should seek ways and means of influencing with the gospel everyone with whom we have contact in daily life.

In verse 8 John adds to the statement concerning his personal unworthiness to minister to the Lord, v. 7, by comparing his own activity with that which the Lord was going to undertake, “I indeed have baptized you with water: but he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost”. Those who submitted to John’s baptism would qualify for a second baptism which would be administered by the Lord. He would baptize them with (or “in”) the Holy Spirit. Before considering the implications of these words, it is noteworthy that verses 9 and 10 describe how the Lord Jesus Himself underwent such a two-fold experience as John describes He was “baptized of John in Jordan. And straightway coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens opened, and the Spirit like a dove descending upon him”.

Why did the Lord insist upon being baptized? “Insist” is the right word, for Matthew records what Mark omits, that John was reluctant to baptize the Saviour, saying, “I have need to be baptized of thee, and comest thou to me?”, Matt. 3. 14. John seems to be saying, “I need your baptism; surely you don’t need mine!”. We have already referred to Gabriel’s prediction to Zacharias that John would be filled by the Holy Spirit from his mother’s womb, and it is therefore remarkable that he here declares his need of the Lord’s baptism with the Holy Spirit. Perhaps the lesson for us is that a Spirit-filled man is unlikely to regard himself as a Spirit-filled man. He will always be longing for a life of increasing submission to the power of the Holy Spirit. He will never be satisfied with his spiritual growth or attainments. He will never regard himself as having arrived, will never be complacent. will never conclude that he has reached the limits of holiness and devotion to Christ.

But again we ask, why did the Lord urge John to baptize Him ? Many repentant sinners had been plunged beneath Jordan’s waters, to emerge with a firm resolve to receive and enthrone the coming King in their hearts and lives. But now the coming One Himself insists on going where they have gone, and on being immersed where they have been immersed. He had no need of repentance, and had no sins to wash away. But He now identified Himself thoroughly with the sinners whom He had come to redeem. If John’s baptism was symbolic for the multitudes who submitted to it, of what was it symbolic for the Lord Jesus? In Luke 12. 50, the Lord is on record as having declared. “But I have a baptism to be baptized with; and how am I straitened till it be accomplished!” Calvary was to be the scene of that baptism where He would be immersed beneath the floods of divine judgment. He would thoroughly take the place of sinners then, and at the Jordan He anticipated and set forth this mighty work Jordan, the symbol of death, became for the Saviour the symbol of Calvary. There are a number of prophetic Scriptures which depict the sufferings of Christ on the cross as a submersion beneath the waves and deeps of divine judgment; for example, “Save me, 0 God; for the waters are come in unto my soul … lam come into deep waters, where the floods overflow me”, Psa. 69. 1, 2; “Deep calleth unto deep at the noise of thy waterspouts: all thy waves and they billows are gone over me”, 42. 7

As the Lord emerged from the Jordan, there was nothing outwardly to distinguish Him from the hundreds who had preceded Him into the water, apart from John’s initial reluctance to administer the ordinance in this case. To any disinterested observers it looked as though this young carpenter from the hills of Galilee was just another man, responding to John’s message and repenting of His sins. But then God acted swiftly to dispel any such impression. It is not indeed clear from the narratives how many bystanders were present to see the opening heavens and the descending dove, or to hear the Father’s voice. But these three events were a decisive attestation of the divine Sonship of Christ and of the Father’s pleasure in Him.

(i) The Opening Heavens

It is striking to observe that Mark uses a different and more violent word to describe the opening of the heavens than do Matthew and Luke, both of whom use the normal Greek word to “open, used elsewhere of the wise men opening their treasures and of the opening of a door. Mark’s word is rendered in the Revised Version, “he saw the heavens rent asunder”, and it is in fact the same word used by all three synoptic writers to describe the rending of the veil in the temple at the time of the Lord’s crucifixion. Exactly what the Lord saw when the heavens were thus torn asunder we cannot say; the word used for the “heavens” can mean the air, the sky or the actual dwellingplace of God. Perhaps the thought is that the skies were somehow opened to give to God’s dear Son and Servant a glimpse of heaven and home. The Father’s action conveys His delight in His Son, which was such that He must remove the barriers and speak from the opened heavens. How this must have gladdened the heart of Christ!

(ii) The Descending Dove

As Christ ascended from the dark waters of the river, the heavenly dove descended to meet Him. We cannot but be reminded of Noah’s dove, which on the first occasion of its being sent forth from the ark returned later because it “found no rest for the sole of her foot”, the cleansed and renewed earth not yet being in evidence. But here at the Jordan the divine Spirit comes forth as a dove and finds an immediate resting-place on the flawless, holy, spotless Man Christ Jesus. This fulfilled perfectly Isaiah’s words. “And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots: and the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him”, Isa. 11. 1, 2. The dove conveys the ideas of harmlessness and tenderness (disciples are told to be as “harmless as doves”, and in the Song of Songs both the lover and the beloved are said to have dove’s eyes). At Pentecost the Spirit descended upon the gathered disciples like “cloven tongues of fire”, suggesting His refining and purifying activity, but He did not so descend upon Christ, in whom there was nothing which required refining. The holy Dove found perfect rest on the pure and gentle Lamb.

(iii) The Father’s Voice

“Thou art my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased”, Mark 1. 11; “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased”. Matt. 3. 17. We need not assume that the two writers contradict one another. It seems that the Father spoke twice, once to the bystanders. “This is my beloved Son”, and once to His Son, “Thou art my beloved Son”. If we wonder why the Father chose to address His Son at this moment, we should notice a detail supplied in Luke’s account of this event which is omitted by the other Gospel writers. Luke never mentions that the Lord saw the opening heavens and the descending dove, but he writes. “Now when all the people were baptized, it came to pass, that Jesus also being baptized, and praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Ghost descended in a bodily shape like a dove upon him, and a voice came from heaven, which said, Thou art my beloved Son, in thee I am well pleased”, Luke 3. 21-22 How important are those two words, “and praying”! They tell us that as the Son emerged from the river He was talking to His1 Father. What could be more natural, then, to learn that the Father answered in these words so full of divine love and appreciation, “in thee I am well pleased”. As has often been stated, these words tell out the Father’s unreserved approval and pleasure of the silent years spent by His Son in Nazareth.

For the Lord Jesus, His baptism was followed immediately by His reception of the Holy Spirit. For John’s candidates, their baptism with water preceded by a considerable period their baptism with the Spirit. When did the Lord Jesus fulfil these words of John, and baptize men with the Holy Spirit? The opening verses of the book of Acts supply a clear answer: “being assembled together with them (the disciples), (He) commanded them that they should not depart from Jerusalem, but wait for the promise of the Father, which, saith he, ye have heard of me. For John truly baptized with water; but ye shall be baptized with the Holy Ghost not many days hence”, Acts 1. 4, 5. Immediately before His ascension the Lord referred to this matter again, “ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you: and ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth “, v. 8. Acts 2 records the fulfilment of these promises, “And when the day of Pentecost was fully come, they were all with one accord in one place. And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance”, 2. 1-4. In Acts 11, Peter describes to the believers in Jerusalem the conversion of Cornelius and his friends, and declares, “And as I began to speak, the Holy Ghost fell on them, as on us at the beginning. Then remembered I the word of the Lord, how that he said, John indeed baptized with water; but ye shall be baptized with the Holy Ghost. Forasmuch then as God gave them the like gift as he did unto us, who believe on the Lord Jesus Christ; what was I, that I could withstand God?”, 11. 15-17. Chapter 19 describes Paul’s arrival in Ephesus and narrates how, “finding certain disciples, he said unto them, Have ye received the Holy Ghost since ye believed? And they said unto him. We have not so much as heard whether there be any Holy Ghost. And he said unto them. Unto what then were ye baptized? And they said. Unto John’s baptism. Then said Paul, John verily baptized with the baptism of repentance. saying unto the people, that they should believe on him which should come after him, that is, on Christ Jesus. When they heard this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. And when Paul had laid his hands upon them, the Holy Ghost came on them; and they spake with tongues, and prophesied. And all the men were about twelve”, 19. 1-7.

Perhaps the clearest doctrinal reference to these events in the New Testament Epistles occurs in 1 Corinthians 12. 13, “For by one Spirit (in one Spirit, J.N D. and Newberry) are we all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free; and have been all made to drink into one Spirit”. Thus the Lord Jesus baptized with the Holy Spirit all His disciples who were gathered in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost; later on, the company in the home of Cornelius who heard the gospel from Peter, and the men at Ephesus to whom Paul preached faith in Christ, were brought into the good of that baptism. In a particularly helpful passage in his letter to the Ephesian Christians, Paul writes, “that we should be to the praise of his glory, who first trusted in Christ. In whom ye also trusted, after-that-ye-heard (having-heard) the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation: in whom also after-that-ye-believed (having-believed), ye were sealed with that Holy Spirit of promise, which is the earnest of our inheritance unto the redemption of the purchased possession, unto the praise of his glory”, Eph. 1. 12-14.

This review of the references to the baptism of the Holy Spirit and related passages, enables us to establish certain truths:

  1. Just as John was the baptizer, immersing repentant sinners in the waters of the Jordan, so the Lord Jesus Christ is a Baptizer, bringing believing sinners under the authority and power of the Holy Spirit.
  2. The baptism of believers with the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost united them into one body, and all who have subsequently believed the gospel are baptized into that one body as the Holy Spirit takes possession of them at conversion.
  3. Baptism in the Holy Spirit is not presented in these passages as a blessing to be prayed for, longed for or waited for. It is seen as a historical event which occurred on the day of Pentecost, involving in its scope all who afterwards trust the Saviour.
  4. As to the experience of the Holy Spirit’s fulness in daily Christian life, this is the subject of many passages of exhortation in the Epistles, perhaps the most challenging of which occurs in Ephesians 5. 18, 19, “And be not drunk with wine, wherein is excess; but be filled with the Spirit; speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord”. This plain instruction. “Be filled with the Spirit”, so plain and direct and so removed from the emotional and excitable atmosphere with which some would surround the matter today, lays the responsibility for obedience at our door. The surrounding context in the three closing chapters of the Epistle is full of exhortations to purity and holiness of life and conduct in church life, home life and working life. Only a disciplined life of daily Bible study and secret prayer, together with the maintenance of regular fellowship in the local church, and the cultivation of a constant sense of dependence upon the Holy Spirit for personal holiness and fruitfulness, are likely to lead to obedience to this demanding instruction, “be filled with the Spirit”. He is a divine Person, and there is abundant truth in the well-known statement that whilst I cannot have more of Him, He may well desire more of me, more access into, my heart, life and affairs until He has absolute sway.

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