Messiah's Baptism & the Trinity

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"Baptism of Christ" by Pietro Perugino (c. 1482)

Read the series so far.

Jesus’ baptism has nothing to do with the Trinity. It is a lie. At least, this is what the United Pentecostal Church International believes and teaches. No, what really happened was that God, being omnipresent, spoke from heaven to His incarnate self, about Himself, while sending another manifestation of Himself in the form of the Spirit to descend upon the other manifestation of His incarnate self as He came up out of the Jordan River.1 He can do this, because He’s God. Simple.

Not.

Jesus’ baptism is a watershed passage for the doctrine of the Trinity. It is a mountain peak which undergirds and supports the less explicit points of Trinitarian theology this series has made so far. As one commentator noted, “An implicit divine Christology runs throughout this gospel.”2 Indeed; but here John Mark was led by the Spirit to drop the implicit hints and speak plainly. This is a marvelous passage, a glittering diamond in an already packed jewelry box, and you will be blessed by studying it.

John the Baptist’s Ministry

The text tells us John the Baptist, the one whom his father prophesied would “be called the prophet of the Most High. For you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give his people knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins” (Lk 1:76-77), began his ministry by calling God’s covenant people to repent (Mk 1:4).

His job was to prepare the way for Yahweh;3 who was coming to lead His children from exile to the figurative promised land. John’s task was to bring knowledge of salvation through forgiveness of their sins. In short, John the Baptist’s mission was to call God’s people back to faithfulness to the Old Covenant Scriptures; to throw off the shackles of dead legalism and cast aside the putrid corpse that was intertestamental Judaism.

The people responded. They were baptized as they confessed their sins (Mk 1:5-6). John did not call attention to Himself; instead, he pointed to the One to come. “He proclaimed, ‘One more powerful than I am is coming after me; I am not worthy to bend down and untie the strap of his sandals. I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit’” (Mk 1:7-8).

What would a Jewish person have thought John was talking about that day? Where is the doctrine of the Holy Spirit in the Old Covenant Scriptures? We can do some logical guesswork and say this much:

  1. It was related to John’s call for repentance and faithfulness to the Scriptures,
  2. It was related to water and the figure of immersion,
  3. It had to be a common enough allusion from the Scriptures for the Jewish audience to “get it” without too much trouble.

The prophesies of the New (and better, cf. Heb 7:22, 8:6) Covenant spoke of God’s Spirit and the cleansing power of this “water” He would sovereignly apply to their hearts. First, God promised, “I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries; then I will bring you to your land” (Eze 36:24). In this context, here is John the Baptist preaching and preparing the way for Yahweh Himself to come, cradle His own sheep in His arms, and march His chosen ones out of captivity and straight to His Celestial City in Jerusalem (cf. Isa 40:9-11)!

Next, we are told,

I will sprinkle you with pure water and you will be clean from all your impurities. I will purify you from all your idols. I will give you a new heart, and I will put a new spirit within you. I will remove the heart of stone from your body and give you a heart of flesh. I will put my Spirit within you; I will take the initiative and you will obey my statutes and carefully observe my regulations. Then you will live in the land I gave to your fathers; you will be my people, and I will be your God. (Ezekiel 36:25-28)

Do you see it? Yahweh will sprinkle them with water. This sprinkling results in a moral and ceremonial cleansing from all impurities. He provides a new heart and new spirit for all who are “baptized” with this water. Whose spirit will be within these New Covenant believers? God’s Spirit. Yahweh’s Spirit; “my spirit.” This is the “Holy” Spirit with which4 Yahweh will baptize John’s audience5,6 – those “destined to live” (cf. Isa 4:3). This is the impetus for the Baptist’s passionate plea for the Israelites to repent, so they are prepared to accept Messiah when He arrives on the scene.

However, we already know Yahweh Himself did not come—He sent His unique one and only Son, Jesus. It is the Son Himself7 who will have the power to sovereignly dispense salvation to God’s people with the baptism of the Holy Spirit. It is the Son who will “sprinkle many nations” (Isa 52:15). It is clear Jesus is not simply “a man born at Bethlehem.”8 If we are correct in assuming John was alluding to the New Covenant prophesies, then he was also equating Jesus with Yahweh. He, at least, understood it wouldn’t be God Himself who came, but God’s “messenger of the covenant” (Mal 3:1) who was equal in every respect to Himself.

Messiah’s Baptism

Now in those days Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan River. And just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens splitting apart and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: ‘You are my one dear Son; in you I take great delight (Mark 1:9-11).

Several things are taking place at the same time. Consider what is happening here, and who is performing these actions:

  1. Jesus is baptized
  2. As Jesus was coming up out of the water, He saw the heavens being opened, and He saw the Spirit descended upon Him. The Spirit descended just as Jesus was raised from the water by John. It was contemporaneous.9
  3. The Spirit descended upon (εἰς)10 Jesus. One Person acted upon another. The Spirit came down onto Jesus and made real, spatial contact with Him. Two Persons are in view here.
  4. A voice spoke from heaven just as (εὐθύς) Jesus rose from the water and the Spirit descended upon Him. The voice presumably belongs to the One who split the heavens opened;11 it belongs to the Father. This is the third actor, the Father in heaven, who spoke at the same time as the Son rose out of the water and the Spirit came down upon Him.
  5. Then we have the last in a series of rapid-fire events – the Father from heaven speaks. He speaks to the Son specifically and directly. He uses a second-person, singular pronoun (“you”). He uses a possessive pronoun (“my”), meaning the Son is a distinct Person and belongs to Him.

The prophet Isaiah wrote that a descendent from Jesse’s linage would sprout up (Isa 11:1; cf. Isa 53:2), a man whom God’s spirit would rest on (Isa 11:2). Here is where this prophesy became a reality. Jesus is the One who will take genuine delight in obeying Yahweh. He will obey the law perfectly and rule the earth “with the rod of His mouth” (Isa 11:4). The curse of the fall will be partially lifted (Isa 11:6-8), and all the world will submit to Yahweh’s authority through His divine mediator and chosen King. “For there will be universal submission to the LORD’s sovereignty, just as the waters completely cover the sea” (Isa 11:9).

The Father speaks to the Son, while the Spirit anoints Him, and references Psalm 2; “You are my one dear Son; in you I take great delight” (Mk 1:11). In David’s psalm, the King who has been installed by Yahweh upon His holy hill announced this to the world:

The king says, “I will announce the LORD’s decree. He said to me: ‘You are my son! This very day I have become your father! (Psalm 2:7)

This is the day when this prophesy became a reality. God anointed His Messiah for service, ripped the very heavens open, spoke from His holy throne (cf. Rev 4) and publicly quoted His own inspired Scripture to “people from the whole Judean countryside and all of Jerusalem” (Mk 1:5) just so they would connect the dots. This is the servant whom God will support, “my chosen one in whom I take pleasure. I have placed my spirit on him; he will make just decrees for the nations” (Isa 42:1).

It is clear the Old Covenant Scriptures present a singular figure, distinct from Yahweh, who will come on the scene, be anointed as King, and will rule the whole earth in truth and righteousness. This is the same person who came in Yahweh’s stead, who acts as Yahweh, who is Yahweh, who wields the Holy Spirit of God and dispenses salvation to God’s people.

In this short passage, all three Divine Persons of the Trinity work in concert and in public to begin the work of redemption of God’s creation and God’s people … just as it is written in the prophets (Mk 1:1). “All three are equally interested in our salvation, and the three are One.”12

Notes

1 David Bernard, General Superintendent of the UPCI, wrote, “With the omnipresence of God in mind we can understand the baptism of Christ very easily. It was not at all difficult for the Spirit of Jesus to speak from heaven and to send a manifestation of His Spirit in the form of a dove even while His human body was in the Jordan River. The voice and the dove do not represent different persons any more than the voice of God from Sinai indicates that the mountain was a second intelligent person in the Godhead … The baptism of Jesus does not teach us that God is three persons but only reveals the omnipresence of God and the humanity of the Son of God. When God speaks to four different people on four different continents at the same time, we do not think of four persons of God but of God’s omnipresence,” (Oneness of God, revised ed. [Hazelwood, MO: Word Aflame Press, 2001; Kindle ed.], KL 1684-1687, 1713-1715).

2 Mark L. Strauss, Mark, in Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2014), 67.

3 The “Lord” here could be referring to either Christ or Yahweh. In the clear Old Covenant context of Luke 1, Zechariah’s prayer and the appropriate Old Testament prophesies about John the Baptist, Yahweh is probably the “Lord” being referred to here. See Darrell L. Bock, Luke 1:1 – 9:50, in Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1994), 188-189 and Alfred Plummer, The Gospel of Luke, in International Critical Commentary (Edinburgh, UK: T&T Clark, 1892), 42.

4 The preposition in this phrase (βαπτίσει ὑμᾶς ἐν πνεύματι ἁγίῳ) could be expressing agency (“by the Holy Spirit”), means (“by means of the Holy Spirit”) or manner (“with the Holy Spirit”). It is likely parallel to the clause which came before, where John baptized with, by or by means of water. This is a very complicated issue, but I’ll stick with a dative of manner for John the Baptist, and a preposition expressing manner for the Holy Spirit for now. So, I use “with.”

5 Ezra Gould remarked, “The contrast between the work of the Baptist, and that of the Messiah, amounts to this, that the mightier one who is to follow John will do the real work of which the Baptist is able to perform only the sign. Water cleanses only the body, and represents figuratively the inward cleansing of the man. But the Holy Spirit is the element in which man is cleansed inwardly and really, and it is this real baptism which the coming one was to perform,” (A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel According to St. Mark, in International Critical Commentary [Edinburgh, UK: T&T Clark, 1896], 9-10).

6 Strauss wrote, “While a ‘baptism’ by the Spirit is not explicitly referred to in the OT, prophetic references to the eschatological outpouring of the Spirit abound (Isa 44: 3; Ezek 36: 26– 27; Joel 2: 28; cf. Jer 31: 33– 34). John’s words would likely have been understood in this context, with ‘baptism’ indicating a powerful eschatological deluge by the Spirit of God, which would purify the righteous and purge the wicked,” (Mark, 66).

7 John Mark used an unnecessary nominative personal pronoun (αὐτὸς δὲ βαπτίσει ὑμᾶς) for deliberate emphasis (cf. Richard A. Young, Intermediate New Testament Greek [Nashville, TN: B&H, 1994], 72).

8 David Bernard wrote, “The Son came in the fullness of time—not in eternity past. The Son was made of a woman—not begotten eternally. The Son was made under the law—not before the law … We can deduce the following points from these verses: the Son was begotten on a specific day in time; there was a time when the Son did not exist; God prophesied about the Son’s future existence (‘will be’); and God brought the Son into the world sometime after the creation of the angels,” (Oneness of God, KL 955-956, 963-965.)

9 The word εὐθύς is an adverb of time (BDAG, s.v. “3236 εὐθύς,” 1) modifying the participle translated “coming up.” This is why English translations translate it, “just as Jesus came up” (NET, NIV), “as soon as He was come up” (Tyndale) or even “And immediately, coming up” (NKJV, NASB).

10 The UBS-5 has the preposition εἰς. The TR and the Byzantine (Robinson & Pierpont) have the preposition ἐπ᾽. Both prepositions, in this context, express spatial extension. It makes no difference in translation.

11 The participle is passive (“He saw the heavens being split open”), not active (“He saw the heavens split open”). Most English translations seem to assume this is a deponent passive. It doesn’t have to be. The ESV is the only major English translation I’m aware of which translates the participle as a passive. God is breaking into His creation in a very dramatic way for a very deliberate purpose – His beloved Son is being anointed for His service. Thus, He parts the heavens to clear the way for the Holy Spirit’s decent and anointing of the Son, and then the Father speaks.

12 William Hendrickson, The Gospel of Mark (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1975), 45.  

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