The crowds continued to flock to John, the wild preacher who gave his message in the open places, far from the Temple in Jerusalem. As he baptized the repentant in the waters of the Jordan River, the people could see that his bold declarations were full of the Spirit of God, and so they began to wonder who he was. Is he the prophet Elijah come back to life as foretold in Malachi 4:5?:
“See, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and dreadful day of the LORD comes. He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers; or else I will come and strike the land with a curse.”
Could he be the Messiah? Or perhaps he is the prophet that Moses said would come in the book of Deuteronomy:
“The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own brothers. You must listen to him.”
What did it mean that God was working in this new and powerful way?
To all of their questions, John the Baptist would only give one answer. He said there was One coming that was far greater than himself. It was his job to prepare the way for the Messiah, and he was faithful to point to Him at every turn. He said:
“‘I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me will come one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not fit to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.’”
In the culture of the people of Israel, only a slave would be asked to take off someone’s sandals and carry them. John was saying that compared to the holy worth of the Messiah, he was lower than the lowest slave. That was quite a statement coming from the most powerful preacher of his time! Yet his deep humility was not a sign of insecurity. He was very certain about the extreme worth of his message of the Kingdom. John said that that those who listened to him would be gathered to God the way a farmer gathers precious, wholesome kernels of wheat into his barn. It is the most valuable information in the world.
On the other hand, John declared that those who rejected his words would be like chaff. That is the useless part of a wheat plant. After the precious kernels of wheat have been separated from the chaff, the chaff is thrown into the fire and burned up.
These were stern, hard words. They were grave and fearsome, but they were true. There are only two choices for humanity: wheat or chaff. The rebellious needed this severity to break though their hard heartedness. What else could shake them from their deception? What else would get them to see that they were headed towards destruction? If God is the only source of good in the universe and they rejected that good, then what was left for them? The heart of the prophet in John cried out to give the people warning from their sin.
John had been baptizing at the Jordan River near the town of Bethany for some time when Jesus showed up. He travelled down from Galilee to be baptized by His cousin. Up to this point in His life, Jesus had worked as a carpenter. He followed in the trade of His father. But the time had come for Him to begin His ministry, and so He went to visit His cousin who had worked so diligently to prepare the way.
When John saw Jesus move towards him in the river, he tried to stop Him. “‘I need to be baptized by You, and do You come to me?’” John knew that he was the one who needed purification from Christ, not the other way around! He might have known that Jesus had no need to repent. He had never sinned! But Jesus understood that this baptism was an important part of God’s plan. He said, “‘Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.’” So John agreed.
Jesus went down into the water in humble submission to the will of God. As soon as He came back up, the heavens opened up and the Holy Spirit descended on the Lord like a dove. The Anointed One had come. A voice spoke out from Heaven and said:
“‘This is my Son, whom I love, with him I am well pleased.’”
Wow. We should pause here. There are some things that happen in the stories of the Bible that are so great and magnificent that they are hard to grasp. We almost skip over the majesty because our imaginations are too small to see! It is like an ant that crawls along a bridge by a beautiful waterfall. All the ant can understand is the wood beneath his tiny feet. He has no idea of the glory falling all around him. In this story, God the Father spoke from His glorious throne in Heaven!
Out of His great love and perfect plan, Almighty God parted the heavens and spoke words of infinitely great importance. He declared that this Man, Jesus, was His own Son. And He used the words from His own sacred Scripture to describe His pleasure. It is from Isaiah 42:1-4:
“‘Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
My chosen one, in whom I delight;
I will put my Spirit on him
and he will bring justice to the nations.
He will not shout or cry out,
or raise his voice in the streets,
A bruised reed he will not break…
he will not falter or be discouraged
till he establishes justice on earth.’”
Any of the Jews standing by the Jordan that day who knew their Scripture would have known that the Voice from Heaven was quoting from Isaiah, and they would have known it was about the Messiah.
What a day of awe for John! The glory of the Trinity showed itself right before his eyes! Before him stood the very Son of the living God, whose Father spoke from Heaven itself. Meanwhile, the Spirit of God descended to show His special anointing of power on this Man who was also God!
It is impossible for us understand how God the Father, God the Son, and God the Spirit are the three Persons of God, and yet perfectly united and perfectly one. It is a mystery far beyond the human ability to know. It’s kind of like a canary trying to understand calculus. We have to humbly submit ourselves to this truth that the Bible teaches so clearly about an infinite Being so far beyond the limits of the human mind. And we can rejoice that we are surrounded by the grace and perfection of divine, triune love!
What we do know was at the moment of the baptism of Jesus, God revealed Himself all at once in all three Persons. He honored His Son by publicly anointing Him for His ministry of salvation to the lost. The ministry and the words of Jesus Christ to come were all a part of God’s perfect will and plan for the history of humankind. What a powerful beginning to the new work Christ was about to do! All of John’s hopes in Jesus were confirmed by God’s glorious presence on that day at the Jordan, and he preached his message of the Kingdom all the more boldly.