(Mat 3:15-17 ESV) 15 But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented.
16 And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; 17 and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”
(Mark 9-11; Luke 3:21-22).
Richard Lusk has written an extraordinary article in Theologia on the meaning of this event, and I heartily recommend it. I’ll only hit a few independent thoughts and tie Jesus’ baptism to the Spirit — and leave the reader to study Lusk’s work.
Why was the Spirit in the form of a dove?
(Gen 8:11-12 ESV) 11 And the dove came back to him in the evening, and behold, in her mouth was a freshly plucked olive leaf. So Noah knew that the waters had subsided from the earth. 12 Then he waited another seven days and sent forth the dove, and she did not return to him anymore.
(Mat 10:16 ESV) 16 “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.”
The dove has been a symbol of peace with God since the time of Noah. The dove carrying an olive leaf symbolizes that God’s time of wrath is over and that man is at last in right relationship with God.
Mat 10:16 tells us that doves were a common metaphor for innocence. And so, the Spirit descends as a dove, telling us that Jesus is bringing peace with God — because he is innocent.
It’s also true that the Spirit “hovered” over the face of the deep as God began his creation — and “hover” is a word used to describe a mother bird hovering over her hatchlings. It’s a subtle comparison of the Spirit’s actions with a bird caring for its young.
Therefore, the image of a dove was rich with meaning for the Jewish audience. They might have seen God making an offering for his Son. They might have seen a fresh creation. They might have seen a symbol for innocence. And most likely, they saw a sign of peace, goodwill toward men.
Fulfilling all righteousness
In baptism, we have solidarity with our Savior and King. In Jesus’ baptism he identified himself with us, just as in our baptisms we become identified with him. In fact, in our baptisms, we come to share in his baptism, and its rich, variegated connections with every other facet of his life and ministry. Jesus’ baptism was efficacious: it accomplished something. In his baptism, his identity was revealed. He officially entered into his public calling as the Royal Priest of God’s people. And his mission of rejoining and reconciling God and man, the Creator and his creation, was initiated.
We must derive our understanding of Christian baptism first and foremost from Jesus’ own baptism. Since his baptism was efficacious, ours must be as well. Christian baptism is not an empty sign. It is not a dramatized picture of things that happen apart from the rite. Rather, in baptism, we are given a new identity. We are now children of God. The Father adopts us. His heavenly voice sings and shouts over us: “You are my dearly loved and chosen child! I rejoice in you!”
In baptism, we enter into our calling as members of the royal priesthood of the new covenant. We are ordained into the order of Melchizedek. Just as Jesus lived his whole life under the sign of baptism, so we are to live our whole lives under this sign as well. The anointing of baptism is to flow over every aspect of our lives, leaving nothing unconsecrated or untransformed. In baptism, heaven is opened to us, for we now have sanctuary access in Christ.
We become servants in the Lord’s house, with liturgical, communal, and missional responsibilities. In baptism, we find peace between ourselves and God. The dove of the Spirit alights upon us in the water, revealing the forgiveness of sins and reconciliation with the Holy One of Israel. Finally, in baptism we find ourselves swept up into God’s glorious new creation. We are given a new name, a new status, a new family, and a new life.
[paragraphing modified]. Jesus didn’t need the baptism to be saved, but he had to be baptized to fulfill his mission for us. He modeled for us the baptism we all receive. When we are baptized into Jesus and thus into his baptism — we receive the same Spirit and the same heavenly proclamations. We emerge from the water, the Spirit descends upon us, and God declares us his beloved child and that he is well pleased with us.
Jesus’ baptism is a vivid picture of our baptism and, in a sense, is our baptism.
The temptations in the wilderness
(Mat 4:1 ESV) Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.
(Luk 4:1 ESV) And Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness
(Compare Mark 1:12 ff).
Jesus’ baptism is immediately followed by his being led by the Spirit — a concept we’ve already seen in the Old Testament. Being led by the Spirit means that Jesus was made a leader for God’s people — and it means he had a mission to fulfill.
It’s a bit puzzling that the Spirit quite literally led Jesus into temptation! Why would God lead Jesus to be tempted? There are plenty of theories. D. A. Carson, in the Expositor’s Bible Commentary, notes the comparison to Israel’s wandering in the wilderness. God led him into the desert for 40 days (like Israel’s 40 years) and he suffered many temptations — but unlike Israel, which succumbed to temptation, Jesus prevailed.
But while God has a taste for parallels and types, there must have been more to it than that. Perhaps the purpose is to show us not only that Jesus overcame temptation by relying on the scriptures, but that Jesus overcame the temptation to be an earthly king and to use his power for his own good. And these are important lessons that church needs to learn even today.
Jesus shows that even in the most extreme circumstances, his gifts are to be used for others. He is the ultimate servant king — and the prototype of how the church — his body — is to live.
(Luk 4:14-15 ESV) 14 And Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit to Galilee, and a report about him went out through all the surrounding country. 15 And he taught in their synagogues, being glorified by all.
Notice how Luke emphasizes that Jesus was not only “led by the Spirit” but also “full of the Holy Spirit” immediately before his fasting and temptations. Luke then emphasizes the “power of the Spirit” in Jesus immediately afterwards.
To readers familiar with the Old Testament, being filled with the Spirit would indicate that Jesus is at least a prophet and perhaps even a king. Certainly, it shows both that Jesus was on a heavenly mission and equipped for that mission by God.
Less obvious is the lesson that Jesus’ followers are also promised the Spirit — and thus Luke illustrates for us what the Spirit can do, and here the emphasis is not on the ability to do spectacular miracles, but on the ability to resist Satan and to teach the gospel.