Rev. VanderWal is pastor of Covenant Protestant Reformed Church in Wyckoff, New Jersey.
The great King of the Jews demands a certain preparation before His visitation to His people. The way must be prepared. A messenger must announce the coming of this Dignitary, and arrangements must be made. Christ is coming, and John the Baptist prepared His way. It is the work of the forerunner to prepare His way, making all the necessary arrangements.
But what peculiar arrangements we find! And what a contrast with earthly royalty! Certainly, an earthly king will send an entourage preceding his personal appearance. Such forerunners will make sure that accommodations are prepared, travel arrangements are made, personal visits are properly scheduled, and security is provided. The visits will take place in the city, to maximize their effectiveness—the greatest number of people in the shortest possible time. As such cities are the political centers, it is here that the important people live, the people worthy—more or less—of the king’s visitation. He is likely to have an interest in seeing them above any others.
How strange the work of John the Baptist, then, as it precedes the King of the Jews, Jesus Christ. He does not do his work in the city, but in the wilderness, far away from the din of the crowded streets. He does not wear such clothes as will impress those who see him. People will not be able to see, in the forerunner, the vast wealth and power of the kingdom this messenger represents. The luxuries of life he does not indulge in. He has a bare, meager existence. What kind of a King, and what kind of a kingdom does this messenger represent? A kingdom so unlike any earthly kingdom that it must be the kingdom of heaven.
In close harmony with the mode of this herald is his message: “Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” This is the means by which this messenger prepares the way. Matthew, under the inspiration of the Spirit of God, draws a wondrous tie between this message and the fulfillment of the prophecy spoken by Isaiah, in chapter 40, verse 3. “The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” From the next verse of Isaiah’s prophecy we see exactly how this preparation is to take place. “Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain.”
The one word by which John reflects the commandment given in Isaiah 40:3, “Prepare ye the way of the Lord,” is the command to repent. The great highway of the King is to be built by repentance. By repentance, the once proud sinner is humbled: the mountain is made low. By repentance, the sinner is exalted to salvation: the valley is raised. The highway is prepared, and the penitent eagerly stand along its shoulder, waiting for the coming of the King. For this King, bringing righteousness, means life to them.
John’s work is to prepare the way by calling attention to the fact of sin. All must come to the conclusion that they are sinners, and, as such, are unworthy of the love and favor of God. They must come to know the truth that they are wholly undeserving of any place in that kingdom as far as they themselves are concerned. They must behold the King as their only hope of entrance into the kingdom. The only entrance must be by His good graces, and not by their own merit.
Multitudes find entrance into this kingdom in the way that John prescribed. “Jerusalem, and all Judea, and all the region round about Jordan” come to John. They are baptized by Him in the river Jordan, while confessing their sins. They are humbled by the preaching of John. They understood that they were sinful and perverse, wholly unprepared for the coming of the King. They mourn over their sin, humbling themselves. They are baptized by John, as a symbol of that repentance, receiving the cleansing of their sins. By thismeans the people are prepared for the coming of the King.
There are, however, those who will not have this kingdom. They will not enter into it. They have no knowledge of their need of this particular King. They stand obviously apart from the multitudes of Jerusalem and all Judea. They have come, not to be baptized of John, confessing their sin, but merely to observe. They have no sin to be repented of, no guilt to be washed away. As such, they scoff at this holy messenger. But John is not to be shaken or cowed by their casual attitude. Toward them he grows most fierce, denouncing them as children of the devil. Upon them he pronounces the heavy wrath of God, that wrath about to be revealed. They may not take refuge in the fact that they are the mere physical children of Abraham. Fact is, God was able to raise up physical children of Abraham out of the stones of the wilderness. Their heritage was of no advantage to them without the cleansing from sin. They had no entrance into the kingdom apart from the King.
They must bring forth fruits meet for repentance. A good tree bringing forth good fruit. That good fruit was to be found in repentance first of all. The first step was a certain humility, a humility by which they might identify themselves with the common multitude. They had to see themselves as sinners, under the curse of the law. They had to recognize that their father was not only Abraham, but also Adam. They must understand that, as the children of Adam, they are wholly corrupt, even dead in sin. They had to be washed and cleansed, just as much as the worst sinner.
Thus it must be with every generation. As each generation is born into the church, that generation must not think that they have so-and-so to their father. They, too, must recognize that the kingdom of heaven is at hand, and that they have no entrance into that kingdom, except by the same cleansing from sin as their parents. Those tenderly nourished from youth in the bosom of the church have set before them the very same calling: Bring forth therefore fruits meet for repentance.
The meeting of the messenger and the King is most unusual. The King seeks out the messenger, and asks that he do to Him what he has down for the multitudes. He seeks to be baptized. Why should the King be baptized? As Jehovah, the One for whom the way must be prepared, He is righteousness Himself. It is only by His righteousness that there is any entrance into the kingdom of heaven. The sinners need Him. He has no sins to be confessed and repented of. He has no need for the baptism of John, for He himself came, exactly as John had declared, to baptize with the Holy Ghost and with fire. We can very easily understand John’s reluctance: “I have need to be baptized of thee, and comest thou to me?” Why must the sinless and righteous be baptized by the sinful John? Even John, himself so separate as a Nazarite and the herald of the king, has need to be baptized of the King.
The reason for the baptism of Christ is one of pure grace. As the King answers, so it must be. “Thus it becometh us to fulfill all righteousness.” The confession of sins made by the people whom John baptized implied a certain lack. On account of their sins, they were without hope of eternal life in themselves. They needed a perfect righteousness, by whose power they would find the love and favor of God resting upon them. They needed the righteousness of this King. That righteousness, though existing outside of them as an alien righteousness, had to be communicated to them. Somehow, they had to know that the King’s righteousness would be theirs. This communication was part of baptism. Those baptized formed a certain class. The marvelous grace is rich in its expression here. The righteous King so identifies Himself with this people, so condescends to be baptized with their baptism, that they might know that His righteousness is their everlasting possession.
Such is what we must understand about the glorious signs found in connection with Jesus’ baptism. There were two signs, the Holy Spirit descending in the form of a dove, and the voice from heaven, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” These signs we must see in the closest connection with Jesus’ baptism, as that baptism signifies His identification with His people. This is God’s eternal good pleasure, which is declared to rest upon His Son, exactly as His Son undertakes to justify His people. Through Christ, that same good pleasure comes to rest upon all those who are in Him. First, by election; second, by faith as the fruit of election. Those penitent, waiting the arrival of their Righteous King, are comforted with the truth that His righteousness is theirs.
The same thing we must say of the other sign, the descent of the Holy Spirit. To be sure, the Holy Spirit descended upon Christ as authorizing, equipping, and directing Him to His great work as the Mediator of His people. But we must also attend to the particular form the Holy Spirit took in that descent: the form of a dove. Most commentators agree that the significance of this form teaches us the gentleness of Christ in His work toward those humbled in penitence. He gently and tenderly restores them to communion with God. This stands, therefore, in marked contrast to His work toward the reprobate wicked, hardened in impenitence. He comes to those in the power of God’s wrath, to burn them with unquenchable fire. For the penitent believer, He is a most gentle and merciful King, crowning all those who come to Him with His righteousness. He grants to the most unworthy sinner a glorious place in His kingdom.
The baptism of Christ gives to our baptism its rich meaning and significance. This is one of the greatest reasons why we must identify John’s baptism with the sacrament as instituted by Christ prior to His ascension into glory. By our baptism we are so closely identified with Christ that we are cleansed by His blood of our sins and made partakers of His righteousness. Our baptism signifies our entrance into the very same kingdom that John proclaimed. By the reality of our baptism into Christ — to which the sprinkling of water points — we receive the same Holy Spirit and the same glorious word of God that His good pleasure rests upon us.
Questions for Meditation and Further Study:
1.What aspects of Matthew 3 demonstrate that the nature of the kingdom is heavenly and spiritual, rather than earthly and carnal? How does Matthew 3provide a firm foundation for the Reformed doctrine of amillennialism? On this matter confer Romans 14:17.
2.How does the context of Isaiah 40:3 contribute to the proper understanding of John’s preaching as fulfillment of that prophecy? Does the Holy Spirit’s descent in the form of a dove address the work of Christ as a shepherd?
3.How can John’s address to the Pharisees and Sadducees serve as a warning to us against abusing the grace of God’s covenant? In that light, what calling must we set before our children, and with what urgency? Are the words of verse 11 appropriately addressed to these Pharisees and Sadducees? Why or why not?
4.How do the signs recorded in connection with Jesus’ baptism prove the doctrine of the Trinity? How does the particular manifestation of each person demonstrate His unique property, both in the Trinity and in the working out of our salvation? How does Christ’s receiving the Spirit here differ from the work of the Spirit prior to this time?