The Branding of Jesus: Why Jesus Was Baptized

Read Mt 3:11-17

Baptism can be a confusing topic. This symbol, however, is so important that God the Father had God the Son baptized. Thankfully, he also provides clear information on baptism’s import.

Baptism is a symbol; it’s a logo of sorts. It is a visible stamp. While I normally shy away from using marketing terms in church matters, it is not that far off to think of baptism as a branding. We often talk about ‘keeping the brand clear.’ If, for example, you want to buy a luxury car, the Jaguar emblem is well known; it is not confused with a Chevrolet. The same is true for the following brands:

  • The Volkswagen Super Bowl commercials identify VWs with car-ness, using the German, “Das Auto.”
  • A degree from Harvard is a strong brand.
  • SEC sports merchandise is a protected merchandise for a reason.
  • Just mention “The North Face” or “Brooks Brothers,” and a standard is in mind.
  • The Apple icon on a computer says tons about fashionableness.
  • Coke.

And many others. Baptism brands us. It stamps us as belonging to God and to his family. It is like an adoption ceremony—and the child may not know all that is involved until he reaches maturity much later. It may not be tied to the moment, but it is tied to the Author of the brand: God.

And at the heart of baptism’ brand-meaning, at any time, is cleansing. It says that all who wear that brand are people who need cleaning. No baptized human, with the exception of Jesus, may rightly profess his own goodness or perfection. That is an early gospel truth. If we were clean ourselves or could make ourselves clean, we would not need this. It is a blow at self-righteousness and any over estimation of one’s own goodness. It is downright insulting to those who think God should automatically be impressed with them. That is part of why our Lord at the end of his ministry, following the resurrection, told his disciples to continue in the outward mission and to teach as part of their discipleship and to continue until he came back again to baptize in the name of the Trinity.

If we understand this branding properly, we will see that baptism is a symbol that points to us being ingrafted into God’s family as clean and loved as he loves his Son.

1. First, baptism uses water as a symbol for one of its most basic uses: cleansing. Go out and work hard or play hard, come back covered with mud or other stains, and if enough water is added, you will be clean. Water cleans.

And in this case, it is specifically sin that needs to be washed. The water from baptism, remember this is a symbol, does not effect the cleansing. But God does by his Holy Spirit.

John’s baptism in the Jordan rested upon the previous teaching that all human beings need to repent. Might some of you be at that intersection in life where you’ve run out of gas, out of resources, out of strength, and you will admit your helplessness? If so, God calls you to repent—to stop trying to profess your perfection. You don’t have it, you will not have it, but he offers it in Christ.

Baptism signifies repentance from sin. If it is an adult being baptized, that person is standing before his church, acknowledging that he is a sinner, he is helpless to save himself, and he is turning from his sin and dirt, knowing that it is better to please God than to persist in the seduction of sin.

If the baptism is for an infant, then the parents are assuming the covenant for that child and when he/she can assume his own moral obligations, he, too, will admit that he is a sinner, dirty, and cannot save or cleanse himself. Only God can save in any case.

Water symbolizes both our need for cleansing and God’s gracious washing away of our sin. That is basic, and that is where baptism begins. All of God’s adopted children have and embrace that branding.         

2.   No human being or visible act is the proper focus for baptism. John is eternally admirable for not confusing a growing following with the unparalleled superiority of Christ, the Lord and focal point of baptism.

After years of calcification and deadening, the people of Israel knew that their religion and its leaders were out of gas; corrupt; and devoid of power. John was a breath of fresh air. He didn’t suffer foolishness easily and got right to the point. And face it, a lot of the listeners of the day, loved and applauded that. Who wouldn’t?

But he never let this go to his head. He didn’t read his own press clippings. He was too busy pointing to Christ. At the end of v. 11, John makes this crystal clear. He says: “After me will come one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not fit to carry.” A house slave would collect the sandals of the Master or the guests. When Palestinians of Jesus’s day entered a home, they would normally take their shoes off and leave by the front door (as is still done in some countries) so as not to track dust and dirt into the house. Later, the servants would collect those and take them to where the owner’s needed them.

This was clearly the activity of a slave. John freely compares himself to that indentured servant. He is to Christ as a servant is to the Master. John was intent on making sure that his audience did not worship him and did not confuse him with our Savior’s greatness. He also freely affirmed that Jesus was more powerful than he.

In baptism, never forget that this shows the Divine-human relationship. None of us are greater than Christ, none of us deserve more attention than Christ, and no visible act or event, even in baptism, should displace attention away from Christ, the true focus of baptism.

3. Baptism fundamentally signifies not an outward event, but an inner, spiritual one. At the end of v. 11, John says that Christ “will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” The branding symbolizes that an inner, spiritual transaction is what is really important—never the outward rite only.

Jesus’ work is inner and spiritual. If it is authentic it works its way out.

Holy Spirit baptism is what happens at true conversion. There the Spirit by an internal work cleanses and washes away our sin nature. The mere application of water outwardly cannot cleanse a human soul. Christ (and John) knew that we need our souls cleaned. So, John faithfully declares that Christ will come after him and baptize with the Holy Spirit.

This is a figurative way of describing the conversion/change of a human soul.

4. Christ’s baptism will also purify. As v. 11 concludes with a reference to Christ’s baptism being with the Holy Spirit, it is also with fire. Then v. 12 extends that symbol to draw a frightening portrait. There, the baptism of Christ separates the wheat from the chaff.

This description of Messiah’s work is as follows: set in an old Palestinian barn, Christ has a winnowing fork and he goes throughout the threshing process, gathering when into his storage barn, while he burns up the chaff with “unquenchable fire.” Christ is not fooled, in either winnowing or baptism. He weeds out. And baptism is designed to be a symbol for those that are good wheat, stored and protected by the Savior.

Baptism is a brand that announces the divine separation of belief from unbelief.

So, these are John’s teachings about the meaning of baptism. Then Jesus comes on the scene When we move on to v. 13 we encounter another key application.

John has been telling his audiences that Jesus is coming and that he is superior and that he does an internal work and that he separates the wheat from the chaff. So, Jesus comes from Galilee and presents himself to John to be baptized (v. 13)

John practiced what he preached, and initially protested that he needed to be baptized by Jesus, not the other way around (14). John was clear on the need for humility – and so was Jesus!

5. Note from v. 15 that Jesus our Lord, in all his greatness, did not consider himself above the standards that God had established. Rather than insisting on privilege, he said, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.”

Jesus never insisted on privilege. He didn’t take privileges or treat himself as ‘entitled.’ Instead, in this case, he bowed to the religion of the day. This was also a way of strengthening John’s credibility. Jesus was baptized by John; and the rationale was that it was “proper” (orthos) and that it would fulfill all righteousness.

What does that mean? Obviously, Christ was not sinful; he had no sin that needed to be washed away. He needed no branding stamp. But he also did not come on the scene as a revolutionary, seeking to overturn everything at once. He knew that he could trust in God’s Spirit to work and that external things weren’t the most important matters in the world.

Christ was willing to submit himself to all God’s will. He did so when he took on the flesh. Philippians 2 teaches that rather than grab for power or recognition, Jesus took on the servant role. Also, Hebrews 5:7 talks about him learning submission. Christ was happy to conform himself to God’s ways and laws.

When Christ is baptized, when he comes up out of the water, a rather impressive display was given by God: A dove came down from heaven and settled on Jesus. The dove was a symbol of peace and God’s blessing. Linking this to the conclusion of Noah’s flood is likely intentional. And here, as a symbol of God’s pure peace and approval, a visible stamp is given. God wanted people to know of his love and satisfaction with Jesus. Even if they did not hear these words, or even if they’d not heard John’s testimony, God did not want anyone to miss this: Jesus was his chosen Son, and God’s favor rested on him.

But if that were not enough, God also makes a verbal announcement in a loud voice from heaven. God audibly confirms what John has taught and what the dove symbolizes in the final verse of this chapter.

There are three parts of this public blessing:

  1. This is my Son. God does not treat Jesus like a hired employee. No he is given the highest possible description.
  2. I love my Son.
  3. I am pleased with my Son.

The son is the heir, the most trusted one in passing on the family legacy. He is the one who has seen the father at the closest. The son has seen the father at times that no others see him (Mt. 11:25-27). A son sees his dad come home, bone tired, frustrated, exhausted, and yet sees that he trusts God and his faith will get him through whatever. The son sees his dad lose loved ones close to him and sees his real character. The son also observes what lights dad’s fires and what brings him great joy. The son has the privilege of frequent exposure. He is the best interpreter of the father; and the son is blessed with that title.

And God loves the Son—that never changes. Also the Father is pleased with the Son.

Besides being the three things dads should reiterate over and over (“This son belongs to me; I love him. I am pleased with him.”), God adds his highest seal of approval to the branding.

Romans 8 teaches that we are heirs with Christ of all the family promises from God. We are baptized with Christ, in union with Christ, and risen with Christ. Baptism is the brand of all the inner aspects of union with Christ. Jesus approved the brand. When applied to him and when applied to us it communicates the truth about God and our need for washing.

David Hall