Before Baptizing Jesus – The Misinterpretation of Matthew’s Words Concerning John the Baptist
Before baptizing Jesus, John the Baptist stood in the waters of the Jordan River and tried to deter him. This moment in time, recorded in Matthew’s account of the gospel, has often been used to say that John knew then, before the baptism, that Jesus was God in the flesh. This is a misinterpretation of Scripture.
It assumes the reasoning behind John’s resistance to baptizing our Lord. But note the words and you will see that never once does the conversation imply that John is resisting due to a clear understanding that Jesus is God in the flesh. Here, refresh your mind:
“Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John. But John tried to deter him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” Jesus replied, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” Then John consented.As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3:13-17 New International Version).
At first glance, it may seem that John is fully aware of the dual nature of Jesus. It seems only natural that this supposed knowledge moves him to argue against baptizing this Messiah in the flesh. And without reviewing further Scripture, the argument lends itself to such a conclusion. Surely before baptizing Jesus, John the Baptist trembled to be called to such a position of honor. However, herein lies the primary reason that no doctrine should be based upon what seems the natural interpretation of a single section of Scripture.
Before Baptizing Jesus, John Knew Only That The Holy Ghost Would Confirm
I call your attention to the first chapter of John, verses 26 through 34 and with special attention to verse 33.
The beginning of the text (v.26) closes with John baptizing in Bethabara beyond Jordan. The tail end of a discussion with the representatives of the Jews from Jerusalem concludes in verse 28, and a new day arrives. Here we see John announcing Jesus as the “Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world.” Further reading makes clear that this statement comes not before the baptism of Jesus but rather after the baptism and even most likely after the temptations of Jesus as recorded in Matthew chapter four.
Thus as we enter into verse 33, we see John make a clear statement that he received not evidence that Jesus was the Christ until after the baptism. Note his words: “And I knew him not…” So understand, this is not an argument of reason that I bring unto you; it is a precise and definite statement from the Word of God. John said:
“And I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, ‘The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.’” (John 1:33 New International Version).
Let there be no confusion here. No matter how men desire to interpret the events of the baptism as described in Matthew chapter three, our full understanding must also take into consideration the account as given in John chapter one. By his own words, John the Baptist defines the sign that was necessary before he could know or confirm that Jesus was and is the Lamb of God. They were:
- A baptism with water
- The descending from heaven of the Holy Spirit
- And the abiding presence of the Spirit as he remained upon Jesus.
Clearly a prophesy of this sign was given to John the Baptist by “he that sent me.” Any conclusion that John knew Jesus as the Son of God before baptizing Jesus is a false conclusion. Here is the full, uninterrupted text:
“John answered them, saying, I baptize with water: but there standeth one among you, whom ye know not; He it is, who coming after me is preferred before me, whose shoe’s latchet I am not worthy to unloose. These things were done in Bethabara beyond Jordan, where John was baptizing. The next day John seeth Jesus coming unto him, and saith, Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world. This is he of whom I said, After me cometh a man which is preferred before me: for he was before me. And I knew him not: but that he should be made manifest to Israel, therefore am I come baptizing with water. And John bare record, saying, I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it abode upon him. And I knew him not: but he that sent me to baptize with water, the same said unto me, Upon whom thou shalt see the Spirit descending, and remaining on him, the same is he which baptizeth with the Holy Ghost. And I saw, and bare record that this is the Son of God,” (John 1: 26-34 King James Version).
Revisit Matthew With a Clear Understanding
I believe that John resisted baptizing Jesus because he perceived Jesus as a greater teacher, greater leader and better-educated man than himself. After all, how could he live anywhere close to his younger cousin and not have heard the tales of how Jesus taught the Scribes even at the age of twelve (see Luke 2:46-47). And perhaps he even heard whispers from the lips of Mary the mother of Jesus, or even from the lips of his own mother. Yet recall that Mary ponder these things in her heart and kept them to herself (Luke 2:19). So perhaps John was in the dark concerning those things that surrounded the birth of his younger cousin.
And I do not say that he did not leap in the belly of his mother when the expectant Mary came to visit. Neither do I claim that he did not, perhaps, have a conviction and an expectation. I say only that before baptizing Jesus, John had a word from God which declared how and when John would be able to identify the Son of God. And prior to the baptism, this prophecy had not been fulfilled.
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