DESCENT OF THE DOVE
BY PASTOR GLENN PEASE
What a surprise it would be to see a fish climbing a tree. Yet such a sight is possible because of the climbing perch of India. These three to eight inch fish have movable spines on their gills, and by thrusting with their tails and front fins they can scoot up a slanting tree by the water and catch insects. Some have been seen as high as five feet up the trunk.
There are a lot of surprising things in this world of infinite variety, and one of the most surprising is the Son of God coming to John the Baptist to be baptized. To John this was like a fish out of water, or even worse, up a tree. It just did not fit, and Matthew tells us he resisted the request.
After all, his was a baptism of repentance where people were confessing their sins. For the Lamb of God that taken away the sin of the world to come for a sinners baptism was out of line, he felt, and many Christians through the ages have felt the same. It seems incompatible for the sinless Savior to be seeking this symbol of the sinners surrender to God. From the earliest Christian writings to the latest life of Christ the question every author has to deal with is why would Jesus be baptized?
In the early church this act of Jesus led to a debate over his sinlessness. Jerome, back in the 300's, tells of the Gospel used by the Nazarenes in which this conversation is recorded. "The mother of the Lord and his brethren said to Him, John the Baptist baptizes unto the remission of sins, let us go and be baptized by him. But he said to them, in what have I sinned, that I should go and be baptized by him? Unless, by chance, this very thing which I have said is the sin of ignorance." The hint here is that Jesus may have been guilty of the sin of ignorance, or of omission. The apocryphal book called The Preaching Of Paul, has Jesus making confession of His sin at His baptism.
Others suggest that Jesus was not yet aware of His sinlessness, and so was just doing what He felt was right for all Godly Jews to do. The point is Jesus created a problem for a lot of people by His coming to John for baptism. Our task this morning will be to eliminate the burden of this act and expound the blessings of it. We will begin by seeing the baptism of Jesus as-
I. AN ACT OF IDENTIFICATION.
G. Campbell Morgan, The prince of expositors, says of this act of Jesus, "In that hour he repented. He confessed sin. But the repentance was not for Himself, the sin was not His own. In that hour He identified Himself with the multitude who had been thronging out to baptism." In other words, Jesus did not wait to take the place of the sinner on the cross, but He began His public ministry by taking the place of the sinner in baptism. He started as one with the masses of repentant sinners.
This identification with the least, the lowly, and the last, confirms the conviction of many, who like Howard Marshall says, "The evangelical wing of Christianity has a strong temptation to concentrate its attention on the crucified and risen Lord Jesus, and to ignore His earthly life." He says we tend to have a Christmas and Easter Christology. We go from the manager to the cross, and the rest is just filler. But this is a denial of God's revelation.
What Jesus does here at the very start of His ministry is recorded by Matthew Mark and Luke, and is a vital part of our understanding of our Lord. His baptism, of course, was not His first act of identification with man. His birth was first, and then He was dedicated in the temple, and He lived a life of identification with the common man. He labored as a carpenter; attended the synagogue every Sabbath; went to the temple to worship and sacrifice. He paid his tax, and just lived a life for 30 years that was not enough different than anyone else's life, so that neither His family nor His community noticed anything highly unusual about Him. He so identified with man that He was one with His time and culture.
Now, at His baptism, Jesus goes one step further in His identification. This is a first sign that Jesus was going to identify with man as a sinner. We know Jesus in His first 30 years did not run with a wild bunch and break laws or defile Himself with wine, women, and song. He did not do anything that would be considered a sin. He lived a life of righteousness, for only as a spotless lamb would He be an acceptable sacrifice for sinners. But here in His choice to baptized with the baptism of repentance, Jesus is taking that first step that will make Him so one with sinners that He will become the supreme sinner as the only way by which He can become the supreme Savior.
Jesus was sinless, yet nobody ever had to pay the penalty for more sin than He did. He who knew no sin became sin for us. On Him was laid the iniquity of us all. He died for the sins of the whole world. He actually experienced the full penalty of sin which is separation from God. The paradox is that the sinless Savior experienced more of the penalty of sin than do millions of sinners whom He saves. You and I who trust Jesus as our Savior do not need to experience hell and separation from God. We are, therefore, incomplete sinners. We do not take the destiny of sinners all the way, but Jesus did . He went all the way to hell to save us, and thus, the sinless one was the complete sinner. He never once sinned or violated the will of God. He had to be a perfect and spotless lamb to atone for our sin. But the cost was to become sin, and take on Himself the wrath of God against all sin.
This complete identification with the sinner began with His baptism. He had a choice. He could have said," I'll not get involved. I am sin free and do not need to be baptized. But God is calling His people to repent through John, and I can chose to identify with this movement of sinners back to God. I'll make that choice," said Jesus, "and I'll be one of them."
People watching Jesus being baptized would see Him as another sinner repenting and confessing His sins. But He was confessing our sin and repenting for our sin. It was a tremendous act of humility for Jesus to identify Himself with sinful men. And God the Father said He was well pleased with His Son's choice, for He knew Jesus would get the job done He had set out to accomplish. Wilbur Smith, one of the greatest Christian scholars of the 20th century said this is the most sound of all the theories as to why Jesus was baptized.
Jesus had two choices. He could stand with the self-righteous who said we do not need to repent, and there by reject John's baptism, or He could stand with sinners who said we will repent and return to God. He chose the second, and however many problem this creates in the minds of those who do not understand his choice, it was pleasing to God the Father, and that is all that mattered to Jesus. God sent Him to identify with fallen man, and Jesus shows He came to obey by His baptism which was His first public act of identification with sinners. He never went back on His choice, but went all the way to the cross. J.D. Jones wrote, "If we want to understand the full meaning of the baptism, we must see in it an anticipation of Calvary." It was the same boundless love that sent Him to the cross that was motivating Him into the waters of baptism. The second thing we want to see is His baptism was-
II. AN ACT OF INAUGURATION.
I have always known this was the beginning of the public ministry of Jesus, but I did not realize that it was His inauguration into the office of Messiah. Christ means the anointed one. When was He anointed to be the Christ-the Messiah of Israel? It was right here at His baptism. The Holy Spirit came upon Him as a Dove, and the Father gave His words of approval, and from this point on Jesus was no longer a carpenter, but was the King-the Anointed One. As John was baptizing His humanity in water, God was baptizing His deity in the Holy Spirit. This empowered Jesus to exercise His deity in history, which He never did before He was baptized.
The parallels with the Old Testament story Joshua are amazing. Jesus and Joshua are the same name. Jesus is the Greek word for the Hebrew name of Joshua. Is it just coincidence that Joshua began his leadership of Israel at the Jordan River? We read in Joshua 3:7, "And the Lord said to Joshua today I will begin to exult you in the eyes of all Israel." This was right in the context of their preparing to cross over Jordan. In 3:12 God said to him, "Now then chose twelve men from the tribes of Israel...." Is it mere coincidence that Joshua and Jesus were each to chose twelve men of Israel to be leaders?
Then God says as soon as they enter the Jordan, the water will be divided and the people will cross over on dry ground. But you say there is no parallel there, for the Jordan did not divide for Jesus. That is true, but I want you to look closely at what Jesus saw when He came up out of the water of baptism. Verse 10 says, "He saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on Him as a Dove." There was no need for the water to divide for Jesus was not leading His people over into a new earthly kingdom. What Jesus saw was heaven divide, for He was to lead His people over to a heavenly kingdom.
The Greek word here is schizo, from which we get schizophrenia, the split personality. Jesus saw the heavens split apart and rent asunder. That is the same word all the Gospel writers use to describe the veil in the temple when it was rent in two. Here, heaven is torn in two, and for the first time man is exposed to the presence of the trinity. What a paradoxical picture: The heavens are literally ripped apart like a cloth violently torn in half, and then the Holy Spirit comes down in the form of a gentle Dove. It is one of the most momentous moments in all of history. Heaven and earth are linked, and all three persons of the triune God are on the stage of history for the first time.
It always seemed a minor incident in the life of Jesus, but like everything in His life, the more you meditate on it and study it, the more significant it becomes. Now, it seems impossible to exaggerate the importance of this event. Though Luther did by saying Jesus was here a substitute for all men, and buried the sin of the world in Jordan. This goes too far and makes the cross unnecessary. Luther was just trying to give it a place of great importance. It was that. It was the inauguration of the King of Kings, the greatest leader the world has ever known. He would not merely lead God's people over Jordan into the promise land, but as the new Joshua he would lead God's people from earth to heaven where He will reign forever and ever.
From this moment on Jesus was the anointed one, and began to demonstrate His power over the kingdom of darkness.
In the ancient world some peoples would select their king by letting a bird loose before the aspiring candidates, and the one on whom the bird landed was considered the choice of the gods. We do not know that Jesus knew of this practice, but the decent of the Dove did mean that to Him. He was the chosen one, and God confirmed it by a verbal message as well as by the symbol of that Dove. The Dove of the Holy Spirit revealed just what kind of a king Jesus was to be. Almost every king in history has had to be violent to defeat his foes and maintain his kingdom. Jesus went right from His inauguration to face His fiercest foe, and even there he fought and won by the power of dove-like gentleness. He won by the sword of the word, and that would be the weapon by which He would conquer all the powers of darkness.
The Old Testament Joshua wiped out the enemies of righteousness by the sword of metal. This new Joshua never used the sword of metal, but only the sword of the spirit. He took his enemies captive, and made them part of his army. No other king in history has been able to conquer so much territory with the power of gentleness. The Dove descended on the Lamb of God, and this Dove-filled Lamb became the world greatest conqueror. He sent forth his army telling them to be wise as serpents and harmless as doves, and the church only wins when they follow these instructions of the Lamb. The third thing we want to see is that His baptism was-
III. AN ACT OF ILLUMINATION.
There is a lot of speculation about the silent years of Jesus from age 12 to 30. Many wonder if Jesus fully understood that He was the Messiah. We do not know for sure, but we do know that if there was any doubt, it was all eliminated at His baptism, for His eyes were opened and He saw and heard what no eyes have ever seen and no ears have ever heard. He was given the full light of heaven on His path, and however dark it might get God assured Him He was pleased with His Son.
This is the key to any man's success in life. He has to know that He is loved by those who matter most. Jesus had to take a lot of rejection and a lot of sorrow, but He could always look back at His baptism where He heard His heavenly Father's words of approval. Every father owes this to his children: This assurance that however rough life gets they have won who loves and cares for them. God gave His Son this kind of illumination at His baptism.
Alexander White commenting on the Father's words from heaven, "Thou art my beloved Son," said this: "Think of it, my brethren. Never once since the fall of Adam and Eve had the Maker of men been able to say these words till he said them to Jesus Christ that day at the Jordan. Almighty God had often looked down from heaven to see if there were any that did good and sinned not. But when his eyelids tried the children of men, it was always with the same result. Not one. Not Noah, not Abraham, not Jacob, not Joseph, not Moses, not David; no, not one single patriarch, or prophet, or psalmist, or saint, in all the house of Israel. But here at last is a man after God's own heart. Here at last is the second Adam, with whom God is well pleased."
Jesus would also be illumined by the decent of the Dove as to the nature of His kingdom. We have already referred to this. But consider further that the first image of the Holy Spirit in the Bible is in Genesis 1:2, where He is hovering over the waters, and God said let there be light, and with this illumination the Holy Spirit began creating of the universe. Milton wrote of the Holy Spirit, "...Thou from the first wast present, and with mighty wings outspread Dove-like sat'st brooding on the vast
At the baptism of Jesus we see the Holy Spirit again hovering over the waters, and again God gives this illumination, let there be light, and the Lord Jesus, the Light of the world is installed as Messiah. The Holy Spirit descends again to begin a new creation. Jesus received a clear message as to His mission at His baptism. He was to be a gentle ruler, and one whose goal was to be to make all things new. A new Genesis begins at His baptism-a new beginning for a new creation.
Jesus was illumined and enlightened by this event like none other. He had emptied Himself of equality with God, and we do not know all the limitations He endured in those silent years, but God knew He needed this experience. From this point on Jesus begins to do miracles. There is not a hint of a miracle before His baptism. This illumination was also His inspiration, and His motivation to portray by action who He really was.
John the Baptist in John 1 emphasizes that he saw the Holy Spirit come down and remain on Jesus, and that this was the sign God gave him that the one on whom this would happen was the Messiah. The Holy Spirit came upon many in the past, but on no one but Jesus did he abide. Godet remarks, "This luminous appearance, then, represents and inspiration which is neither partial as that of the faithful, nor intermittent as that of the prophets." In the Old Testament the Holy Spirit came and went, but at the baptism of Jesus he came down to abide on earth in Jesus, and when Jesus ascended he sent the Holy Spirit to abide in His body the church. The baptism of Jesus marks the beginning of a special relationship of the Holy Spirit and man.
At His birth God the Son came to dwell with man.
At His baptism God the Holy Spirit came to dwell with man.
At His betrothal God the Father came to dwell with man.
We read this in Rev. 21:2-3, "I saw the Holy City, the New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband and I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, now the dwelling of god is with men, and He will live with them." The goal of God is to dwell with men, and each person of the Godhead accomplished this goal at different times. The baptism of Jesus was when the Holy Spirit entered history to dwell here. He came first into to Jesus and later into His body the church. The baptism of Jesus was his Pentecost, and like his body later, when He was filled with the Holy Spirit He began His public ministry in power.
The Holy Spirit made Jesus His temple, and then Jesus shared the abiding spirit with His whole body. One of His missions was to baptize with the Holy Spirit that all of His followers might also have the spirit abiding in them. That which makes all Gods people one, in spite of all their many differences, is the abiding Holy Spirit. Every Christian is a temple of the Spirit, and it all began at the baptism of Jesus and the decent of the Dove. The fourth thing we see is the baptism of Jesus was-
IV. AN ACT OF ILLUSTRATION.
He was baptized to fulfill all righteousness. It was fitting that He take this step of obedience and become and illustration of what all believers are to do. Obey God in all of His ordinances because it pleases God more than anything when we have a spirit of obedience.
Jesus left His church two ordinances-baptism and the Lord's Supper. Objectively they both point to the finished work of Christ in His death and resurrection. We could argue that both are really unnecessary because they add nothing to His finished work. But Jesus wants us to keep these two ordinances as acts of obedience.