Monday, July 7, 2014

When God spoke from heaven: Matthew 3:13-17



We believe that the entire Bible is the word of God.  The Bible is our burning bush, and it behooves us to listen to what it has to say.  But there are differences in the ways God has spoken to men which are not equal in every way.  Equal in truth, yes.  Equal in authority, yes.  And yet, sometimes the manner in which God speaks points up the solemnity of what is said and the seriousness by which it is to be taken.  

For example, Paul puts a distinction between God’s words spoken by him and God’s words spoken by Christ (1 Cor. 7:10, 12).  The author of Hebrews puts a distinction between the “many times and in many ways” that God spoke by the prophets and the way he spoke to them by his Son (1:1-2).  In all cases, God spoke.  But there is a gravity and glory about the words of God coming directly to men through his Son as opposed to a human instrument like Paul or one of the prophets.

Thus, when God chooses to speak to men directly from heaven, I take it that what is being said is infinitely important and serious and solemn.  And, as far as I can tell, God only did this a few times in history.  One of the times is in our text.  The previous time was at Mount Sinai in the giving of the Law.  There we read:
And the LORD said to Moses, "Behold, I am coming to you in a thick cloud, that the people may hear when I speak with you, and may also believe you forever."
On the morning of the third day there were thunders and lightnings and a thick cloud on the mountain and a very loud trumpet blast, so that all the people in the camp trembled.  Then Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God, and they took their stand at the foot of the mountain.  Now Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke because the LORD had descended on it in fire.  The smoke of it went up like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled greatly.  And as the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Mose spoke, and God answered him in thunder.  The LORD came down on Mount Sinai, to the top of the mountain.  And the LORD called Moses to the top of the mountain, and Moses went up.  (Exod. 19:9, 16-20)
Then God gave the Law (20:1-17), at the end of which we see the people's response:
 Now when all the people saw the thunder and the flashes of lightning and the sound of the trumpet and the mountain smoking, the people were afraid and trembled, and they stood far off and said to Moses, "You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, lest we die."  Moses said to the people, "Do not fear, for God has come to test you, that the fear of him may be before you, that you may not sin."  The people stood afar off, while Moses drew near to the thick darkness where God was. (20:18-21)
The people weren't the only ones to be afraid.  Moses himself, according to Hebrews 12:21 is recorded to have said in response to God's appearing and speaking, "I tremble with fear."  It's very clear that God wanted it to be a big deal when he descended from heaven to earth to speak with men.  And it was so terrifying that the people begged God to speak to them by prophets instead of in this direct way.  And this is exactly what God did for the next 1500 years or so.

And then Jesus shows up at John's baptismal service and God speaks from heaven again.  And so I take it that we need to pause and to reflect upon these words from heaven.

The baptism of Jesus

The occasion of the message from heaven was the baptism of Jesus by John.  At first John tried to stop Jesus from going through with this, excusing himself on the basis that he was the one who needed to be baptized by Jesus, not the other way around.

Now there are perhaps a couple of things about this text that might confuse some people.  First, some might be confused by this because, according to the Baptist’s words in John’s gospel, he did not recognize Jesus as the Christ until after he had baptized him and the Spirit had descended upon him (John 1:31-34).  According to Matthew’s account, it seems like he knew Jesus was the Christ before he baptized him since he obviously recognized the superiority of Jesus to himself.

However, there need be no contradiction here.  John clearly knew Jesus before his baptism, but not as the Christ.  After all, their mothers were related (cf. Luke 1:36) and probably the families spent time together when Jesus’ family came to Jerusalem once a year.  John probably had heard the story about Jesus sitting in the temple, dazzling the teachers of the Law with his understanding and answers (Luke 2:41, ff).  So John knew that Jesus was a holy man who knew and lived the Scriptures as few others did.  Thus, when Jesus shows up to be baptized, John humbly recognizes the moral superiority of Jesus to himself and offers to be baptized by him instead.  Only after heaven opens and the Spirit descends on Jesus does John fully recognize that Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world (Jn 1:29).

Second, some might be confused as to why Jesus would need to be baptized.  After all, wasn’t John’s baptism a baptism of repentance?  Why, then, would Jesus need to be baptized if he was sinless?  Jesus helps us here when he responds to John’s hesitancy to baptism him, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness” (Mt. 3:15).  In other words, Jesus’ baptism was not part of a confession of repentance, but functioned as part of his obedience to God.   John’s baptism was not only a baptism of repentance, it also heralded the coming of the kingdom.  When Jesus submitted to baptism, he was identifying himself with the message of the kingdom, a message which he himself would soon take up (Mt. 4:17).

I can’t help from pointing out that this passage underscores the importance of baptism.  If Christ himself submitted to baptism in obedience to the Father, how much more should we who have believed in Christ obey his command to identify with him in the waters of baptism?  It was Jesus who said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.  And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Mt. 28:18-20).  Baptism is not optional; it is a part of our obedience to Christ.  If you truly believe in Christ and are not baptized, then you are in disobedience to God.  I will say to you what Ananias said to the apostle Paul after his conversion: “And now why do you wait?  Rise and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on his name” (Acts 22:16).

At the same time, this text also corrects an unbiblical view of baptism that elevates it to a place it is not meant to hold in the Christian life.  Some say that baptism is important, not only because it is an act of obedience to Christ, but also because by it we are given new life.  But baptism is not regenerative.  Christ was not born again when he was baptized (he didn’t need to be), and for the others repentance was necessary before being dipped in the water (cf 3:8).  In other words, baptism does not effect our conversion, it witnesses to it.  So this text saves us from a view that ignores the importance of baptism in the Christian life as well as from a view that unduly exalts it.  

The witness of the Trinity

We are told that when Jesus was baptized, this amazing thing happened.  God the Father speaks from heaven.  “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; and behold, a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased’” (Mt. 3:16-17).

In these two verses we have the Trinity.  In fact, according to John Gill, “The ancients looks upon this as so clear and full a proof of this truth, that they were wont to say; Go to Jordan, and there learn the doctrine of the Trinity.”[1]  The doctrine of the Trinity is this: God is one in essence but three in person.  This doctrine comes from the Biblical teaching on the unity of God and the fact that the Father, Son, and Spirit are all properly God and yet distinct from each other.  In our text, the Father speaks of and to the Son (so they are distinct from one another), and the Spirit descends from the Father to the Son (so he is distinct from both).  The Father who speaks is God; Jesus who is spoken to is the Son of God (and therefore God), and the Spirit who descends is the Spirit of God.

The fact that Jesus is here referred to as “My beloved Son” shows that he is God.  Some argue that Jesus never referred to himself as the Son of God (though this is not true, since he agrees with the High Priest that he is the Christ, the Son of God, in Matthew 26:63-64; cf. Mk. 14:61-62), so he is something less than God.  But surely the testimony of God the Father is enough!  He is the Son of God, and as the Son of God, he shares the same nature and attributes as the Father.  

One early creed puts it this way:

We believe in one God the Father All-sovereign, maker of all things visible and invisible; And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father, only-begotten, that is, of the substance of the Father, God of God, Light of Light, true God of true God, begotten not made, of one substance with the Father, through whom all things were made, things in heaven and things on the earth; who for us men and for our salvation came down and was made flesh, and became man, suffered, and rose on the third day, ascended into the heavens, is coming to judge living and dead; And in the Holy Spirit.[2]

Thus, in the very act of speaking from heaven, God reveals one of the most profound and mysterious realities about himself in all of revealed truth.

The pleasure of God in his Son

But God the Father reveals more than just that Jesus is his Son.  He tells for all to hear that Jesus is his beloved Son, the Son in whom he is well-pleased (ver. 17).  

God is saying, “Look at my Son!  I love him and I love what he is doing.”  He is not just cheering his Son on.  He is doing that, but more than that, he is calling us to look at him and love him, too.  And God the Father parted heaven to say it.  We ought to listen! 

Later in the earthly ministry of Jesus, the Father had to do this again.  This time it was on the Mount of Transfiguration, where Jesus was revealed in all his glory as he spoke with Moses and Elijah (Mt 17:1-3).  As Peter woke up from his nap, he stammered around for something to say, and of course ended up by saying the wrong thing, putting Jesus on a par with Moses and Elijah (ver. 4).  Then this happens: “He was still speaking when, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well-pleased; listen to him’” (ver. 5).  In other words, God was saying, “Stop looking at Moses and Elijah – look at my Son, listen to him!”  Jesus’ voice, above all other voices, is the one we should be listening to.  He, above all others, ought to have our attention and our affection.  

There is no better recommendation in the universe than this.  To ignore it is to sin.  Do you want a reason to love Jesus?  Then here it is: God the Father loves him.  If Jesus is an appropriate object of the Father’s love, then how much more is he worthy of our love and affection?

If you understand who Jesus is, you’re going to love him.  In him “are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge (Col. 2:3).  All the attributes of God find their place in him in perfect harmony, because he is God.  “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.  For by him were all things created, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities – all things where created through him and for him.  And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Col. 1:15-17).  He is loving and kind and merciful and gentle and just and powerful and sovereign.  He is infinitely exalted and welcomingly approachable.  It is the blindness of our hearts that keeps us from seeing the glory of Christ, and once the blindness is removed, we cannot help but love him: “And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled only to those who are perishing.  In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. . . . For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 4:3,4,6; cf. 2 Cor. 5:14).  

If you understand the Christian message, you’re going to love Jesus. Christianity proclaims salvation from sins to an inheritance of eternal fellowship with the living and eternal God through Jesus Christ.  This is the basic message of the gospel: that Jesus is the one who will save his people from their sins (Mt. 1:21).  To really believe that all my sins have been forgiven on account of what Christ has done – to recognize that I who should have been cast into the pit of hell forever, and that this would have been just, but that Jesus by the cruel death on the cross has rescued me from this – means that I cannot help but to love Christ.  “If anyone has no love for the Lord, let him be accursed” (1 Cor. 16:22).  “Grace be with all who love our Lord Jesus Christ with love incorruptible” (Eph. 6:24).

Moreover, if you know and understand the hope of the gospel, you’re going to love Jesus.  Our hope is in the age to come.  We don’t offer others – and we can’t offer – better health, or a better work situation, or a bigger paycheck, or a bigger house, or perfect children.  We don’t promise your best life now.  Why?  Because that’s not what the gospel promises.  We are not promised that if we walk with God we will start and end every day on top of the world.  Paul told the believers of his day that “through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22).  In fact, life was so bad with Paul that he said, “If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Cor. 15:19).  For Paul, suffering precedes glory (cf. Rom. 8:17).

But that was okay with Paul because he considered “the sufferings of this present time . . . not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Rom. 8:18).  In other words, what motivated Paul through the sufferings that he endured in the here-and-now was the promise of glory in the age to come.  Christians are heavily invested in the hope in the age to come.  Without it, Christianity is meaningless.

But what does this hope consist in?  Paul puts it this way in Romans 5: “Through him [Christ] we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God” (ver. 2).  We hope in the glory of God.  Thus, when Paul writes to Timothy, he describes the gospel as “the gospel of the glory of the blessed God” (1 Tim. 1:11).  

What makes heaven so infinitely desirable – so desirable that it makes one who really believes in it to endure unimaginable sufferings in this present life so as not to fall short of it (Heb. 11:35) – is the glory of God.  Seeing, enjoying, and exulting in the glory of God is what makes heaven what it is.  

The glory of God is to a large extent tied up with his happiness.  That’s why Paul said “the gospel of the glory of the blessed God.”  “Blessed” means happy.  Paul was entrusted with good news, news about the glory of the happy God.  He is infinitely, perfectly, fully, and eternally happy.  When we “bless God,” we are not adding some joy to him, but simply saying what is in fact the case.  He is blessed.  Our only hope is to share in that blessedness, that happiness.  And that is what the gospel is about.

As John Piper has put it, “No one would want to spend eternity with an unhappy God.”[3]  If God was unhappy, there would be no glory to see and enjoy, and there would be no gospel to share and no hope to rejoice in.  That is to say, there would be no Christianity.  Our religion rests entirely upon the happiness of God and his willingness to let us in on it.  The hope of the one who follows Christ is to hear these words in the end: “Well done, good and faithful servant. . . . Enter into the joy of your master” (Mt. 25:21).

But God’s happiness is wrapped up in the love he has to his Son.  This is what our text tells us.  Thus, what makes heaven glorious and what makes us ultimately happy forever is our participation in the love God has for his Son.  Jesus said it this way, “I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and love them even as you loved me” (Jn. 17:23).   Our happiness, our hope, the gospel, the glory of God, and the perfection of heaven – it is all wrapped up in God’s love to his Son.

Do you love him?  Then ask yourself this: Do I listen to him?  Is it his voice that I love to hear? (Jn 10:27)  Do I seek him in prayer and in his word?  Do I follow him?  Do I strive to obey him? (Jn 14:21,23-24)  May Christ claim our affections above all others, may the love of Christ control us!


[1] From his commentary on Matthew 3:17.
[2] This is the “Creed of Nicea” from which the Nicene Creed is derived.  It is quoted in John Piper, The Pleasures of God, p. 38.
[3] The Pleasures of God, page 26.

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