Calvin's Commentaries, Vol. 31: Matthew, Mark and Luke, Part I, tr. by John King, [1847-50], at sacred-texts.com
MATTHEW 3:13-17; MARK 1:9-11; LUKE 3:21-23
13. Then cometh Jesus from Galilee to Jordan to John, that he might be baptized by him. 14. But John forbade 289 him, saying, I have need to be baptized by thee, and dost thou come to me? 15. And Jesus answering said to him, Suffer it now: for thus it becometh us to fulfil all righteousness. Then he suffers him. 16. And Jesus, having been baptized, went up immediately from the water: and, lo, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending as a dove, and coming upon him. 17. And, lo, a voice from heaven, saying, This is my be loved Son, in whom I am well pleased.
9. And it happened in those days, Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee, and was baptized by John in Jordan. 10. And immediately, when he was going up out of the water, he saw the heavens cleft assunder, and the Spirit descending as a dove, upon him. 11. And a voice came from heaven, Thou art my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.
21. And it happened, that, while all the people were being baptized, 290 when Jesus had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, 22. And that the Holy Spirit descended in a bodily appearance, 291 as a dove, upon him, and a voice came from heaven, saying, Thou art my beloved Son: in thee I am well pleased. 23. And Jesus himself began to be about thirty years of age.
Matthew 3:13. That he might be baptized by him. For what purpose did the Son of God wish to be baptized? This may be learned, in some measure, from his answer. We have already assigned a special reason. He received the same baptism with us, in order to assure believers, that they are ingrafted into his body, and that they are “buried with him in baptism,” that they may rise to “newness of life,” (Ro 6:4.) But the end, which he here proposes, is more extensive: for thus it became him to fulfill all righteousness, (Mt 3:15.) The word righteousness frequently signifies, in Scripture, the observation of the law: and in that sense we may explain this passage to mean that, since Christ had voluntarily subjected himself to the law, it was necessary that he should keep it in every part. But I prefer a more simple interpretation. “Say nothing for the present,” said our Lord, “about my rank: 292 for the question before us is not, which of us deserves to be placed above the other. 293 Let us rather consider what our calling demands, and what has been enjoined on us by God the Father.” The general reason why Christ received baptism was, that he might render full obedience to the Father; and the special reason was, that he might consecrate baptism in his own body, that we might have it in common with him.
14. I have need to be baptized by thee. It is certain, that John acknowledged Christ to be not only a distinguished prophet, as many foolishly dream, but the Son of God, as he really was: for otherwise he would have dishonored God by lowering his holy calling to a mortal man. How he came to know this, the reader will learn by consulting John’s Gospel, (John 1:15, 33) There was, no doubt, plausibility in this ground of refusal, that Christ had no need of his baptism: but John was mistaken in not considering, that it was for the sake of others that baptism was asked. 294 And so Christ bids him consider, what was suitable to the character of a servant, (Php 2:7,) which he had undertaken; for a voluntary subjection takes nothing from his glory. Though the good man 295 remained ignorant, for a time, of some part of his public duty, this particular error did not prevent him from discharging, in a proper and lawful manner, his office of Baptist. This example shows, that we do not act rashly, in undertaking the commission which the Lord has given us, according to the light we enjoy, though we do not immediately comprehend all that belongs to our calling, or that depends upon it. We must also observe his modesty, in giving up his opinion, and immediately obeying Christ.
16. And, lo, the heavens were opened to him. The opening of the heavens sometimes means a manifestation of heavenly glory; but here it means also a cleft, or opening, of the visible heaven, so that John could see something beyond the planets and stars. The words of Mark can have no other meaning, he saw the heavens cleft asunder 296 An exact inquiry into the way in which this opening was made, would be of no importance, nor is it necessary. It is sufficient for us to believe, that it was a symbol of the Divine presence. As the Evangelists say that John saw the Holy Spirit, it is probable that the opening of the heavens was chiefly on his account. Yet I do not hesitate to admit that Christ also, so far as he was man, received from it additional certainty as to his heavenly calling. This appears to be the tendency of the words of Luke: while Jesus was praying, the heaven was opened, (Lu 3:21:) for, though his prayers were always directed towards the benefit of others, yet as man, when he commenced a warfare of so arduous a description, he needed to be armed with a remarkable power of the Spirit.
But here two questions arise. The first is, why did the Spirit, who had formerly dwelt in Christ, descend upon him at that time? This question is answered by a passage of the prophet Isaiah, which will be handled in another place.
“The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me; because the Lord God hath anointed me to preach good tidings unto the meek; he hath sent me to bind up the broken-hearted,” (Isa 61:1.)
Though the grace of the Spirit was bestowed on Christ in a remarkable and extraordinary manner, (Joh 3:34,) yet he remained at home as a private person, till he should be called to public life by the Father. Now that the full time is come, for preparing to discharge the office of Redeemer, he is clothed with a new power of the Spirit, and that not so much for his own sake, as for the sake of others. It was done on purpose, that believers might learn to receive, and to contemplate with reverence, his divine power, and that the weakness of the flesh might not make him despised.
This was also the reason why he delayed his baptism till the thirtieth year of his age, (Lu 3:23.) Baptism was an appendage to the Gospel: and therefore it began at the same time with the preaching of the Gospel. When Christ was preparing to preach the Gospel, he was introduced by Baptism into his office; and at the same time was endued with the Holy Spirit. When John beholds the Holy Spirit descending upon Christ, it is to remind him, that nothing carnal or earthly must be expected in Christ, but that he comes as a godlike man, 297 descended from heaven, in whom the power of the Holy Spirit reigns. We know, indeed, that he is God manifested in the flesh, (1Ti 3:16:) but even in his character as a servant, and in his human nature, there is a heavenly power to be considered.
The second question is, why did the Holy Spirit appear in the shape of a dove, rather than in that of fire? The answer depends on the analogy, or resemblance between the figure and the thing represented. We know what the prophet Isaiah ascribes to Christ.
“He shall not cry, nor lift up, nor cause his voice to be heard in the street. A bruised reed shall he not break, and the smoking flax shall he not quench,” (Isa. 42:2, 3.)
On account of this mildness of Christ, by which he kindly and gently called, and every day invites, sinners to the hope of salvation, the Holy Spirit descended upon him in the appearance of a dove And in this symbol has been held out to us an eminent token of the sweetest consolation, that we may not fear to approach to Christ, who meets us, not in the formidable power of the Spirit, but clothed with gentle and lovely grace.
He saw the Spirit of God That is, John saw: for it immediately follows, that the Spirit descended on Christ There now arises a third question, how could John see the Holy Spirit? I reply: As the Spirit of God is everywhere present, and fills heaven and earth, he is not said, in a literal sense, to descend, and the same observation may be made as to his appearance. Though he is in himself invisible, yet he is spoken of as beheld, when he exhibits any visible sign of his presence. John did not see the essence of the Spirit, which cannot be discerned by the senses of men; 298 nor did he see his power, which is not beheld by human senses, but only by the understanding of faith: but he saw the appearance of a dove, under which God showed the presence of his Spirit. It is a figure of speech, 299 by which the sign is put for the thing signified, the name of a spiritual object being applied to the visible sign.
While it is foolish and improper to press, as some do, the literal meaning, so as to include both the sign and the thing signified, we must observe, that the connection subsisting between the sign and the thing signified is denoted by these modes of expression. In this sense, the bread of the Lord’s Supper is called the body of Christ, (1Co 10:16:) not because it is so, but because it assures us, that the body of Christ is truly given to us for food. Meanwhile, let us bear in mind what I have just mentioned, that we must not imagine a descent of the thing signified, so as to seek it in the sign, as if it had a bodily place there, but ought to be abundantly satisfied with the assurance, that God grants, by his secret power, all that he holds out to us by figures.
Another question more curious than useful has been put. Was this dove a solid body, or the appearance of one? Though the words of Luke seem to intimate that it was not the substance of a body, but only a bodily appearance; yet, lest I should afford to any man an occasion of wrangling, I leave the matter unsettled.
17. And, lo, a voice from heaven From that opening of the heavens, which has been already mentioned, a loud voice was heard, that its majesty might be more impressive. The public appearance of Christ, to undertake the office of Mediator, was accompanied by this announcement, 300 in which he was offered to us by the Father, that we may rely on this pledge of our adoption, and boldly call God himself our Father. The designation of Son belongs truly and naturally to Christ alone: but yet he was declared to be the Son of God in our flesh, that the favor of Him, whom he alone has a right to call Father, may be also obtained for us. And thus when God presents Christ to us as Mediator, accompanied by the title of Son, he declares that he is the Father of us all, (Eph 4:6.)
Such, too, is the import of the epithet beloved: for in ourselves we are hateful to God, and his fatherly love must flow to us by Christ. The best expounder of this passage is the Apostle Paul, when he says
“who hath predestinated us into adoption by Jesus Christ in himself, according to the good pleasure of his will; to the praise of the glory of his grace, in which he hath accepted us in the Beloved,”
(Eph. 1:5, 6)
that is, in his beloved Son. It is still more fully expressed by these words, in whom I am well pleased They imply, that the love of God rests on Christ in such a manner, as to diffuse itself from him to us all; and not to us only, but even to the angels themselves. Not that they need reconciliation, for they never were at enmity with God: but even they become perfectly united to God, only by means of their Head, (Eph 1:22.) For the same reason, he is also called “the first-born of every creature,” (Col 1:5;) and Paul likewise states that Christ came
“to reconcile all things to himself, both those which are on earth, and those which are in heavens,” (Col 1:20.)
“Empeschoit fort;” — “strongly opposed him.”
“Quum baptizaretur omnis populus;” — “en baptizant tout le peuple;” — “in baptizing all the people.”
“En apparence corporelle, ou, forme;” — “in bodily appearance, or, shape.”
“Je laisse maintenant ma dignite a part.” — “I now lay my rank aside.”
“Lequel de nous deux est plus grand ou excellent;” — “which of usboth is greater or more excellent.”
“Que c'est pour le profit des autres, et non pas pour le sien, que Christ demande d'estre baptize.” — “That it is for the benefit of others, and not for his own, that Christ asks to be baptized.”
“Quelque excellent personnage qu'il fust.” — “However excellent a person he was.”
“Il vid les cieux mi-partir, ou se fendre.” — “He saw the heavens divided in the middle, or deft.”
“Un homme rempli de Dieu;” — “a man filled with God.”
“A parler proprement, il ne descend point, et semblablement ne peut estre veu.” — “Strictly speaking, he does not descend, and in like manner he cannot be seen.”
“C'est une maniere de parler par Metonymie, (ainsi que parlent les gens de lettres.”)—”It is a way of speaking by Metonymy, (as learned people talk.”)
“Avec ce tesmoignage et recommandation;” — “with this testimony and recommendation.”