Today we read some important foundational stuff in Matthew Chapter 3.
First, a word on the Pharisees and Sadducees. Both of these were movements within Judaism. Neither of them are the levitical priests. In other words, you could be a levitical priest and you might count yourself among the Pharisees. Or you could be a levitical priest and count yourself among the Sadducees. Today, we might LOOSELY analogize them to liberal and conservative (like you could have a liberal Baptist preacher or a conservative Baptist preacher). However, I would not extend this analogy to far as follows. The Pharisees were a Jewish national renewal movement. They believed in restoring Jewish national identity by strict adherence to the Mosaic law and ritual purity. Pharisees wanted to separate themselves from sinners and gentiles. They accepted the larger cannon of the Old Testament. In contrast, the Sadducees were Jewish aristocracy centered in Jerusalem. They were willing to work with the Romans to maintain their status. Theologically, they believed in the “Pentatuch Alone” or that only the first 5 books of the old testament were scripture. They rejected the traditions of the Mosaic law. Jesus only deals with them one time (in Mark 12). The Sadducees reject the idea of the resurrection of the dead. Jesus shows them that because they have taken a “sola scriptura” approach to reading of the bible that they have missed this fundamental and important teaching. He shows them how Exodus (a book they accept) teaches the resurrection of the body when it says that God is, “the God of the living”. This will be an important lesson for us going forward. We can see that taking the natural and necessary inferences from scripture is the proper way to interpret the Bible, after all, that is how Jesus does it.
Next, notice the words of John the Baptist.
7* But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 Bear fruit that befits repentance, 9* and do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 10* Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 11 “I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry; he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. 12* His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the granary, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
John’s command to them is not just to “repent” or “accept salvation”. John sets a higher mark. They must “bear fruit that befits repentance”. Those that do not bear good fruit are cut down and thrown into the fire. First, this implies free will, once they repent and are baptized they must choose to act in a different manner. Second, if the coming salvation was “once saved always saved” what would it matter what fruit they bared? Thus, subsequent to conversion, you must continue along God’s path, not your old path. Third, works matter. What you do after your conversion is the fruit by which you will be judged.
Next, we look at the Baptism of Jesus. If Jesus had no sin, why is He baptized in the first place?
The simple answer to this is the John’s baptism has no actual effect, it was completely symbolic. However, by Jesus descending into the water and undergoing baptism he consecrates it. Thus, when He institutes baptism later, it will have actual effect. In addition, Jesus’ baptism reflects his humility. He is humbling himself to be more with us.
Also, notice that the text says, that Jesus “came up from the water”. While we would imagine that someone being baptized in a river was fully submerged in the water that is not explicitly stated in the text. In fact, first century Christian art found in the Roman catacombs shows Jesus standing in the water with John using a shell to pour water over Jesus’ head. Thus, while full immersion in water is an acceptable form of baptism, it is not required by the Bible.
Jesus’ own stated reason for being baptized is, “to fulfill all righteousness”. In Biblical language “to fulfill” often means to fulfill prophecy. We can see Jesus’ baptism as the further fulfillment of several prophesies including that, “He will be called Emmanuel or “God is with us’”. As again Jesus more fully aligns himself with us by undergoing baptism. Righteousness means “to do the will of God”. Thus, Jesus stated reason can also be seen as he is being baptized to fulfill the work God wants done. Lastly, the Jesus’ baptism begins his public life. He is the messiah, which means “anointed one”. Thus, the baptism can be seen as the public anointing of God’s chosen one.
Finally, after the Baptism we see the descending of the Holy Spirit onto Jesus and hear God’s voice, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” This is the first appearance of the Trinity, one of the Great truths about God that Jesus came to reveal to us.