First, a careful examination of the relevant passages is in order. Beginning in Matthew’s Gospel we will consider them in order.
“Then cometh Jesus from Galilee to Jordan unto John, to be baptized of him. But John forbad him, saying, ‘I have need to be baptized of Thee, and Thou comest unto me?’ And Jesus answering said unto him, ‘Suffer it to be so now: For thus it becometh us to fulfill all righteousness.’ Then he suffered Him. And Jesus, when He was baptized, went up straightway out of the water, and lo, the Heavens were opened unto him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and lighting on Him: and lo, a voice from Heaven, saying, ‘This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.’”
If this were the only thing scripture had to say on this issue, we would probably have to agree with the traditional interpretation of the events. From these verses alone things appear pretty straightforward—Jesus is in the water, the Holy Ghost descends from Heaven and the Father speaks.
We must, however, always remember that we are never permitted to base our doctrine on a single passage of scripture taken in isolation. The principle laid down for us in both testaments and confirmed to us by both Jesus and Paul, is that two or three witnesses are required to establish truth. So, before we take verses like these in Matthew at face value and build our case from them alone--we should first examine any related passages for any data that might be relevant.
Jesus’ baptism is one of the few incidents in His life to be recorded in all four Gospels. This is significant for a number of reasons. First of all, it indicates the importance of the event itself. It was considered significant enough to warrant coverage by each of the Gospel writers. Secondly, and more importantly for our purposes, it provides four independent sources and four different accounts from which we can draw the information on which to base our conclusions regarding what actually took place.
“And it came to pass in those days that Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee, and was baptized by John in Jordan. And straightway coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens opened, and the Spirit like a dove descending upon Him; and there came a voice from Heaven, saying, ‘Thou art my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased.’ And immediately the Spirit driveth Him into the wilderness.”
“Now when all the people were baptized, it came to pass, that Jesus also, being baptized, and praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Ghost descended in a bodily shape like a dove upon Him, and a voice came from heaven, which said, ‘Thou art my beloved son; in Thee I am well pleased.’”
Even when we investigate these additional sources we find little to argue with.
Jesus was born a Jew under the dispensation of the law; therefore He was baptized under the Law. He was not baptized for sin, for He knew no sin in regard to Himself. John recognized this when he exclaimed that Jesus should be the one to baptize him. Jesus was baptized, according to scripture, to fulfill all righteousness, and as our example. He was both the sacrificial Lamb of God and our High Priest. As High Priest, Jesus fulfills the high priestly function under the law of going to the laver of water--in this case the Jordan River--prior to going to the Altar of Sacrifice.
The Laver of water in the Tabernacle was a type or symbol of water baptism. With all of this in mind, we will now consider our fourth and final witness and see what it adds to our discussion.
“The next day John seeth Jesus coming unto him, and saith, ‘Behold, the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world. This is He of Whom I said, after me cometh a man which is preferred before me: for He was before me. And I knew Him not; but that He should be made manifest to Israel, therefore am I come baptizing with water.’ And John bare record saying, ‘I saw the Spirit descending from Heaven like a dove, and it abode upon Him. And I knew Him not: but He that sent me to baptize with water, the same said to me, ‘upon whom thou shalt see the Spirit descending and remaining on Him, the same is He which baptizeth with the Holy Ghost. And I saw, and bare record that this is the Son of God.”
This passage presents some interesting details not contained in the other accounts and it is on these we will focus our attention. The scriptures indicate that John did not know Jesus. This is especially intriguing in light of the fact that they were cousins and only six months apart in age. How is this possible? Palestine is not that large of an area. Surely they would have known each other as they grew up. Various theories exist to account for this confusing statement. Some authors believe that Jesus spent a majority of His early life away from the area of Palestine. Another view is that John himself had not been around much, having spent most of his life alone in the deserts, preparing for the work for which he was born. There is however, a third consideration and it is here I believe we should look for our answers.
In comparing the Old Testament prophecies in Isaiah 40:3 as well as Malachi 3:1, we discover that John the Baptist had a very unique and quite specific call on his life.
“The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, prepare ye the way of the LORD, Make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”
“Behold, I will send my messenger, and he shall prepare the way before me: and the LORD, whom you seek, shall suddenly come to His temple, even the messenger of the covenant, whom ye delight in: Behold, he shall come saith the LORD of Hosts.”
We understand from these passages that John the Baptist was to be the forerunner of Jehovah God, preparing the way for the one true God of Israel. John’s ministry could not be fulfilled or complete therefore, until Jehovah Himself appeared on the scene in flesh.
It is, I believe, in this understanding that we find the explanation for John’s declaration, “I knew Him not.” Certainly he knew Jesus, the man from Galilee—but how was he to know and understand that Jesus was the manifestation in the flesh of Jehovah God? The Lord had spoken directly to John and commissioned him into his calling and ministry as “The Baptizer” and forerunner. He let him know that one day while John was baptizing, there would come to him one desiring baptism who would be the Messiah, the savior and redeemer of Israel. God would identify Him to John in a very specific way. He would give to John a unique vision that would allow him to know that this was the one he had been waiting for (John 1:33, 34). John was to know and bare record that Jesus was the Christ by seeing the Spirit, in a vision, descending and remaining on Him. This then, would be the one who baptizes with the Holy Ghost.
Who is this Jehovah that John was making way for? Does the Bible reveal this name as the name of the trinity as many claim or does it in fact limit the use of the name Jehovah only to the Father?
“Do you requite the LORD (Jehovah), O foolish people and unwise? Is not He thy father that hath bought thee? Hath He not made thee, and established thee?”
“…Thou, O LORD (Jehovah), art our father…”
-----Isaiah 63:16; 64:8
In Jeremiah 31:9 Jehovah speaks declaring, “I am a father to Israel.” Taken together, these and many other scriptures reveal clearly that Jehovah is the covenant and redemptive name of the Father of the Old Testament. We will see later that, in the New Covenant, God accompanied the revelation of Himself in the flesh with a new name.
By giving attention to John’s own words and the specific details in the various accounts, I believe we can arrive at a very clear and accurate understanding of the facts more in keeping with the overall testimony of scripture. Rather than finding support for the concept of a trinity, I believe we will have a very satisfactory explanation of the baptismal events more compatible with the oneness of God.
Returning to the Gospel accounts, I want to focus specifically on the phrase “the heavens were opened” and “the voice from heaven.” Based on a careful study of scripture, I no longer believe either of these statements are to be taken literally. In fact, there is nothing in the text itself to suggest that anyone in the crowd understood what was happening. If either of these events occurred in a manner visible to those gathered at the river, surely there would have been some sort of reaction on their part. An event of this magnitude would have been a notable occurrence.
Consider the phrase, “the heavens were opened.” In addition to the four accounts we have in the Gospels, the same phrase occurs in several other places throughout scripture. In Ezekiel 1:1 it is connected with Ezekiel’s vision of God beside the river Chebar. Malachi 3:10 speaks of God opening the “windows of Heaven,” and pouring out a blessing on His obedient children. In each of these cases this is obviously, a symbolic figure of speech, pointing to a spiritual reality.
Turning our attention to the New Testament, Jesus tells the astonished Nathaniel. “…Hereafter ye shall see heaven open and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” (John 1:51). This is hardly a reference to a literal and visible occurrence. In the well-known account of the stoning of Stephen and his vision of Jesus “standing at the right hand of the Father,” we have no indication that anyone but Stephen saw this vision.
When the “Heavens were opened” to Peter inaugurating his mission outreach to the gentiles at the house of Cornelius we are, again dealing with a spiritual vision and not a literal visible manifestation. Finally, when the heavens were opened to John in Revelation 4:1 and 19:11, we have, as with all seven previous accounts, not the slightest indication that this was anything other than a revelatory vision experienced by only one person.
Each of these references is figurative and symbolic. In Revelation 6:14-17 however, we find a very different picture altogether. Here the “heavens depart as a scroll,” all men see it and are terrified and hide themselves in caves, rocks, and mountains. Such would be the natural and expected reaction of all men if the heavens were literally and visibly opened to them.
At the baptism of Jesus the scriptures do not say that the heavens were opened unto all of the people, but rather “to him,” meaning John the Baptist. It was John alone that saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove. This was the sign promised, by which he would recognize the Messiah.
But what about this “voice from Heaven”? That this is the Father speaking is made clear from His statement “This is my beloved Son…” Was this then an audible voice heard by the multitude? Let’s examine some other scriptural accounts and see what we can learn.
In Exodus 20:18-19 we have the story of the giving of the Law to the people of Israel at Sinai, the children of Israel who heard the literal and audible voice of God were terrified (compare Heb. 12: 18-21). The physical manifestation of God, speaking to His people provoked an immediate reaction of tremendous fear.
Compare the account of Jesus and the disciples on the Mount of Transfiguration. Here we find the Father making virtually the same statement as recorded at the baptismal scene. Upon hearing the audible voice of Godthe disciples fell to the ground in terror. Finally, in Acts 9:3-7 we find the account of Saul of Tarsus on the road to Damascus. While on the surface, there seems to be no reaction on the part of those present with Saul, the Greek phrase translated as “speechless” is quite reveling. Occurring only here it literally means “breathless.” Do you find yourself a little breathless when you are frightened?
Quite significantly and contrary to every other recorded instance in scripture in which a voice was heard from Heaven or the heavens literally opened, here at the baptism of Jesus we see not a single reaction from the crowd; not the slightest indication that anyone except John and Jesus were aware of what was taking place. Why? Because the things recorded here were part of John’s vision. The revelation was for him alone; no one else apparently saw or heard anything.
It is important for us to understand that the phrase, “the Heavens were opened,” is an Hebrew idiom—a figure of speech, signifying that a vision was taking place or that a revelation was being given. John saw the Spirit of God, in what I believe to be a vision, descending like a dove. This served to identify Jesus to John as Jehovah-Elohim manifested in the flesh—the anointed Messiah of Israel. On Jesus’ part it signified His anointing and commissioning for ministry—He was now thirty years old, the age at which Jewish men became eligible to enter the priesthood.
Additionally, the total lack of response on the part of the crowd gives us good reason to believe that only John and Jesus heard the voice from heaven. Taking all of this together, we can therefore conclude that, according to the scriptures rightly divided, John the Baptist, in a vision only, saw the heavens opened, the Spirit descend like a dove, and heard the voice of the Father from Heaven confirming to him that this was indeed the promised Messiah.
There was no actual dove sitting on Christ’s shoulder. The Holy Ghost is not a bird—He doesn’t have wings or feathers. This is simply a description of the anointing presence and power of God descending and remaining on Jesus. All that the people saw there on that day was the person of Jesus, standing with John in the waters of the Jordan River. John the Baptist, however, saw by revelation, the carpenter from Nazareth, become the anointed Messiah, now commissioned as the one who baptizes with the Holy Ghost. It is this that John bore record and saw (Jn 1:32-34). It came to him by revelation knowledge to show him that Jesus was the Christ, the Jehovah God of Israel—manifested in the flesh.
Consider this from another angle: suppose for a moment that indeed, as many believe, the heavens were literally opened, an actual dove floated down from Heaven, landing upon Christ, and the voice of God thundered from Heaven. Without question this would have been one of the greatest events ever to have happened in their day. Were this to have taken place in a manner visible to all, everyone there that day, including John the Baptist would immediately began to broadcast this event to any and all who would listen. News of this momentous occasion would have spread like wildfire, drawing crowds from all the surrounding towns and villages. This would have been a complete contradiction of Jesus’ desire in the early phase of His ministry, as recorded in scripture, of maintaining a low profile. He repeatedly warned people not to broadcast His miracles, so as to minister unhindered.
Additionally, with the presence of so many eyewitnesses, no one would have been able to long doubt or be likely to forget something of this significance. It is therefore telling that just a short time later, while in prison John sent two of his disciples to Jesus with the question, “Art thou He that should come, or do we look for another?” (Mt 11:3). In other words “Are you really Him, or was it all just my imagination at the river?”
Why not simply confer with the others who supposedly saw the same thing? If John experienced, along with everyone else, the heavens literally opened, a physical dove land on Jesus’ shoulder, and an audible voice from Heaven—can we honestly believe he would so soon forget? Would anyone for that manner be so quick to doubt or call into question such an experience?
Jesus’ response to this inquiry is highly significant. As recorded in the Gospel of Luke, it seems that Jesus ignored their question. He continues on with His business of healing the sick and ministering to the afflicted. He casts out demons and restores sight to the blind (Lk 7:19-23). Only then does He turn to the disciples of John and with gentle love and patience He says, “Go and show John again those things which you do see and hear: the blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up and the poor have the Gospel preached to them.” (Mt 11:4-5).
The baptism of Jesus was not meant to introduce to the devout Jewish onlookers, a radical and innovative doctrine of plurality in the Godhead. Instead it signified the authoritative anointing of Jesus as the Messiah. A proper understanding of God’s omnipresence will dispel any notion that the heavenly voice and “dove” either indicate or require separate persons. But what about Jesus’ enigmatic response to John’s question? In verses that John would have been intimately familiar with, the Prophet Isaiah prophesies in chapter 35:
“Strengthen ye the weak hands, and confirm the feeble knees. Say to them that are of a fearful heart, be strong, fear not: Behold, your God will come with vengeance, even God with a recompense; He will come and save you. Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf shall be unstopped. Then the lame man will leap as a hart, and the tongue of the dumb sing: for in the wilderness shall waters break out, and streams in the desert.”
(Compare also Isaiah 61:1-2)
A careful examination of all these accounts in harmony leads one to believe with confidence that before his death, John had the assurance that indeed, the Messiah had come. Jesus Christ—Jehovah-Elohim—the Lord of Glory walked among men.