Note: See Introduction for context on this series on the Gospels.
Summary of Matthew 3:13-17
Jesus is baptized by (a reluctant) John the Baptist. A dove descends and a voice from heaven speaks.
Detailed Thoughts about Matthew 3:13-17
The story is so familiar to me that it's hard to ponder the significance, but I'm going to try. First of all, Matthew implies that John knew who Jesus was, and that John believed Jesus was the Messiah. How does John know about Jesus? Does he know him personally? Did Jesus already have a reputation? Was it another one of Matthew's dream sequences?
In any case, John thought so highly of Jesus that he felt their roles (baptizer and baptizee) should be reversed. But Jesus said no. He said this arrangement is how it should be for now. "We must all do what God wants us to do." This sentence and this scene actually remind me of a sermon my pastor gave about baptism a few weeks ago. He had a completely different take on it than anything I'd heard before.
Previously, I had been taught that baptism was a symbol of being born again, and that it was an outward expression of (1) God's ownership and (2) our commitment to obedience. I grew up in that slice of Christianity that did not really believe that baptism had anything to do with salvation from eternal hell; but, it was a choice you made to show that you were really a Christian. Being baptized meant that you were willing to go anywhere for God...even if it was a tarantula-infested village in Africa. It was a big deal for me to be baptized, because I didn’t want to go to Africa. I felt guilty and then petrified: if I didn’t have the willingness to go to Africa, maybe I wasn't really a Christian! This twisted logic led me to believe that the choice was eternal hell or a lifelong Fear Factor scenario. Baptism (and the decision to be baptized) was just another way to be filled with shame and fear.
Fast forward to today. I’ve been going to a small, progressive church for the past 3 months or so. As I mentioned earlier, the pastor recently spoke about baptism in a sermon. He suggested that baptism is a sacrament that sets us apart...not to demonstrate how holy or righteous we are, or how willing we are for God to use us for His glory. (Ugh. What does that even mean? C’mon. Anyway I digress....) No, baptism, he explained, sets us apart in order to love people. That’s it. There's no mandate to convince people in other countries to believe the same things that a group of homogeneous Westerners believe about Jesus and God. It sets us free to love. "We must all do what God wants us to do." Jesus is being baptized—set apart—to love others; to be the ultimate example of love for us. That concept of baptism rings truer to me than the former interpretation. It’s a concept that I can embrace.
Back to the text. When Jesus came out of the water, Matthew describes the familiar scene: the sky opens up; Jesus sees the Holy Spirit descending upon him like a dove; a voice from heaven claims Jesus as “my own dear son” with whom he is pleased. That’s the story.
Could it be that THAT is what God is thinking of us when we are baptized?
Ok. I feel a need to take a step back. Am I bringing a lot of my old beliefs—along with some wishful thinking—to this passage? Matthew is telling a story about Jesus to persuade readers that Jesus is the Messiah. I don’t know if I should be scooping out all these ideas about the true meaning of baptism just from this one event. Perhaps that’s all it is: an event that provides another "proof" from Matthew about Jesus. Not meant to convey some deeper, profound truths about baptism.
Even though I went away from "Christianity" for awhile, my brain has still retained so much. I don’t want to fall into the same traps, the same convenient arguments, the same black-and-white theology that attempts to package complex literature (with an even more complex history) into a silly, 20-minute devotional.
Final note: I debated whether to edit out some of these thoughts, but I decided to keep the stream-of-consciousness vibe. It’s a truer snapshot of what’s going on in my mind as I read and struggle through the book.