Who is the Spirit and Fire Baptizer? During Advent 2022, we are studying the preaching of John the Baptist’s in Matthew chapter 3. In the previous post, we looked at verses 11-12 where John introduced us to a person who would come, a person who is greater than John because while John baptizes with water, this person will baptize with the Spirit and fire baptizer. Now in verse 13 Matthew reveals the identity of that person.
“Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John.”
It’s Jesus! My guess is you knew that. But the people in John the Baptist’s day did not. In fact, we’re uncertain if John himself knew.
Remember that John the Baptist and Jesus were relatives. They lived in different parts of Palestine. John in Judea near Jerusalem in the south, and Jesus in Nazareth of Galilee in the north. But family being family, it is unlikely in my mind that they knew nothing of each other growing up, especially given the special connection their moms had when the babies were born.
Jesus’ mom, Mary, visited John’s mom, Elizabeth, as they were relatives and pregnant at the same time. Elizabeth was due first, so John was a few months older than Jesus. My guess, then, is that the two moms and kids stayed in touch at least a bit, particularly when you consider the wild circumstances they each had surrounding the birth of their babies. Elizabeth was too old to get pregnant, and yet she got pregnant. In fact, an angel had visited her husband to tell him the news, and as a result, Zechariah couldn’t talk the entire pregnancy.
Then there’s Mary who wasn’t even married, just engaged, so she shouldn’t be getting pregnant, and yet she did. But by the Spirit, after an angel also visited her to tell her she was going to be the mother of the Messiah. That alone is astounding. But when her baby was born, shepherds showed up saying more angels had told them about the baby who was the savior of the world. Eight days later they took the baby to Jerusalem to have him circumcised according to Jewish custom. There they were met by an old prophet and prophetess who said their baby was the Messiah, not just for Israel, but for the whole world.
Around that same time, royal men from a faraway country, who said they were following a bright star, showed up in Jerusalem for an audience with the king, Herod. When Herod heard that these men were looking for a newborn king of the Jews, Herod, wanting eliminate any contender to his throne, decided to slaughter all of the newborns in the area. The men then followed the star to the house where Mary, Joseph and the baby were staying, and the royal men gave precious gifts to the baby. Just then another angel visited Joseph, telling him about Herod’s plot. So Joseph quickly got his fiancé and her baby packed, and they left as refugees to Egypt, where they were safe for two years until Herod died. Then they returned to Nazareth.
Given the wild circumstances surrounding their births, I suspect John knew about Jesus. That’s the kind of story that close family members talk about. But how much did John know? Did he know ahead of time that Jesus was the Messiah? We can read between the lines and makes guesses. Perhaps John had a hunch. Soon enough though, there would be little doubt. For now though, what we just read in Matthew 3:13 is surprising, perhaps enough to make John confused. Why? Because Jesus asks John to baptize him.
Why would Jesus need to be baptized? Actually, I should edit that sentence. “Need” is the wrong word. Given what we know of baptism and given what we know of Jesus, he does not need to be baptized. Baptism, as John described it, was for people who were repenting of their sins, helping them get ready for the Messiah who would come. But Jesus is the Messiah. He has committed no sins. Meaning…he doesn’t need to be baptized. In John’s viewpoint, then, Jesus’ request seems wrong. Why would Jesus need to be baptized? It seems these questions are going through John’s mind. Look at verse 14.
“But John tried to deter him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”
It seems John did know that Jesus was the Spirit and Fire Baptizer, and therefore, John rightly concludes, it was John who needed to be baptized by Jesus. In this one encounter, John correctly realizes that everything has changed. John is thinking rightly.
John baptized with water to prepare a people who would be ready for the coming of the Messiah. Now the Messiah was here. John didn’t need to baptize anymore, because the Messiah would baptize with Spirit and Fire, just as John said he would in verses 11 and 12. John has his theology correct. He knows his Bible, that he, John, was the forerunner who was prophesied in Isaiah, which we learned in Matthew 3, verse 3.
John puts all this biblical info together and realizes, “My job is done. As the forerunner to the Messiah, I did the work I was called to do.” Of course, in the months to come, when John was thrown in prison, and Jesus didn’t come to his rescue, John would start to have doubts. But here in Matthew 3, John knows what he believes. His conclusion: “The Messiah is here! And I don’t need to baptize the Messiah! He needs to baptize me!”
Except for this. John is actually wrong. We’ll found out how John so right and yet so wrong in the next post.
Photo by Marek Piwnicki on Unsplash
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