Four Accounts; One Truth

Editor’s note: In preparation for this article, you should read the four accounts of Christ’s Baptism: Matthew 3:13–17; Mark 1:9–11; Luke 3:21–22; John 1:29–34.

Darkness and confusion are not in Holy Scripture. It is light to guide us (Psalm 119:105), not darkness to mislead us. It is truth to set us free (John 8:32), not falsehood to ensnare us. Darkness and confusion lie always in us, not in God’s Word. If we find something obscure or confusing in the Bible — something that might appear to be a contradiction — the best place to look for change is in our own minds and in our own hearts. Without the help of the Holy Spirit, our minds and hearts are too small to grasp what the Word of God shows us. When the disciples could not see the truth of the Lord’s victorious resurrection, our Lord “opened their minds to understand the Scriptures” (Luke 24:45). Minds too narrow and hearts too small do not fathom the unsearchable riches of God in Jesus Christ: the sum and substance of the whole Bible. When we understand Scripture well, we find Christ everywhere.

The four accounts of our Lord’s Baptism exemplify the ease with which we may become confused about the wonders of God’s saving purposes in Christ Jesus. Reading the four different accounts raises some questions: Did Jesus speak at His Baptism, or did He not? Did John think Jesus should be baptized or not? Was Jesus praying while being baptized or not? Where did His Baptism happen? When and how did the Spirit descend on Jesus in His Baptism? Each evangelist must speak in turn as the Spirit has given him time and room to speak. Why not have a camera rolling, telling us everything blow-by-blow with the blank clarity of a gas station’s closed-circuit TV? The Holy Spirit was not so minded. He did not want one account of Jesus’ Baptism but four. Obscurities clear away when we do not demand that the evangelists write everything just the way we might have. No contradiction is left once we understand that the evangelists used inspired pens, not cameras, to recount our Lord’s Baptism and to proclaim His salvation.

Matthew features Christ’s words, His insistence that His Baptism must take place although He has no sin of which to rid Himself (Matt. 3:15). Christ’s desire to fulfill the righteousness of God, the divine delivery on divine promises, is clearest here. Righteousness is demonstrated by Joseph’s merciful care for Mary, fulfilled in the Son of Mary’s entire work and ministry (Matt. 5:20) and given to those with ears to hear (Matt. 6:33; 13:43), who have the righteousness that exceeds the merely human righteousness of the scribes and the Pharisees (Matt. 5:20). Righteousness is needful, desirable and glorious in Matthew’s Gospel (Matt. 5:6; 21:32; 25:37, 46), and in His Baptism, Jesus fulfills the righteousness God demands just as He will in His righteous death (Matt. 23:35).

The drama of Mark’s account of the Baptism characterizes the intensity of God’s presence and the connection between Jesus’ Baptism and His atoning death. The heavens are ripped open (Mark 1:10) with the Spirit’s descent, as the temple curtain will be at the death of Jesus (Mark 15:38). The heavens’ ripping open and the rending of the temple curtain from top to bottom are things only God can do, and the intensity of His desire to reach mankind with salvation is visible throughout Mark’s Gospel in the ferocity of Christ’s ways (Mark 10:14; 11:14; 12:24; 15:37; 16:14) and the focus on exorcism of demons particular to Mark (Mark 1:27; 3:11; 5:13; 6:7; 9:25). The Baptism here, too, foreshows the ways and works of God in Christ.

Luke’s portrayal of the Baptism highlights Jesus’ status as the chosen Son of God (Luke 3:22) and the true priest who will bless His people with peace. Luke’s Gospel begins in the Jerusalem temple (Luke 1:22) and ends with the priestly benediction only Jesus can give His disciples (Luke 24:51). In between, Jesus’ habits of prayer and worship are hallmarks of the Savior’s life in communion with His Father (Luke 3:21; 5:16; 6:12; 9:18, 28; 11:1; 18:1; 22:41–45). The Baptism shows us how moments of high drama are moments of prayer and contemplation for Jesus; the overwhelming vision of the transfiguration shocks the disciples into sleep (Luke 9:32) while Jesus discusses His death and resurrection with Moses and Elijah (Luke 9:30) just as He calmly discussed the Scriptures in His boyhood (Luke 2:46–47). Christ’s prayerful contemplation of God’s will is evident in His Baptism, His transfiguration and in His prayers for forgiveness and promises of paradise at His crucifixion (Luke 23:42–43). He is a faithful High Priest always ready to understand human weakness and to bless us with God’s salvation.

John’s description of the Baptism is in the mouth of the Baptist, who identifies the Savior as the Lamb of God on whom God’s Spirit rests (John 1:32, 36). Only John’s Gospel gives us the sense that at some early point in Christian history there was controversy about John the Baptist’s potential status as the Messiah. John emphatically denies that he is the Christ (John 1:19–20; 3:28). The Baptist’s recounting of Jesus’ Baptism marks out Jesus as the unique Messiah (John 1:41; 4:42; 6:69; 11:27; 17:3; 20:31) and the unique sacrifice for sins (John 1:29), who after all is accomplished will give the Spirit freely to His disciples after His resurrection (John 20:22–23).

Each evangelist ties the Lord’s Baptism to the Lord’s death. The distinctions among the evangelists are not to confuse but to illuminate in each evangelist’s particular way how the Lord’s Baptism and His death are linked. Matthew shows the Lord’s fulfillment of each prophecy and of the Father’s will that the Son should die to save His people from their sins. Mark points out where God breaks in on the world to cleanse and to cast out unclean spirits so that men may be restored. Luke shows the calm prayer of the faithful High Priest, Christ Jesus, who will, after His death, bless His people forever. John powerfully preached the Christ as the Lamb of God, the unique Sin-Bearer who was greater than John the Baptist. With opened minds and new hearts, we have four evangelists, four inspired and distinct accounts, and one truth everywhere proclaimed.

This article originally appeared in the August 2022 issue of The Lutheran Witness.

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