Interplay of the Word and the Spirit


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I recently heard a Sermon on Matthew 3:15. The verse was posited for the proposition that believers in Christ should be baptized as a public expression of faith in obedience to God. This is a pretty fundamental proposition that most Christian denominations would advocate in some form or another.

In Matthew 3, John the Baptist has been preaching repentance, turning to God and baptism to make the way for one who “is coming soon who is greater than I am – so much greater that I’m not worthy even to be his slave and carry his sandals”.[1] This was Jesus, of course. Then we are told that Jesus went to Galilee to the Jordan River to be baptized by John, and John tried to talk him out of it, saying, “I am the one who needs to be baptized by you….”[2] This is the context in which Jesus makes the statement that was the focus of the sermon.

The New Living Translation of the Bible was used for the textual reference. I tend to use the ESV and NASB translations because they are more literal. They are word for word translations, rather than phrase for phrase (or idea for idea) translations, like the NLT. The word for word translations tend to be considered more accurate and more authentic to the original text. These are things I was thinking as I listened to the message, and I wondered what difference a more literal translation would make.

After John the Baptist tried to talk Jesus ought of the request Jesus made to be baptized, Jesus responded. This is how the translations of that response compare:

 “It should be done, for we must carry out all that God requires.” (NLT)[3]


“Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” (ESV)

The NLT suggests a generalization of the act that Jesus sought to “carry out” as if he were setting an example of all of us to follow as God “requires”. That is, indeed, how the preacher applied the verse, suggesting that we should all be baptized, as Jesus was, in obedience to God. The way this verse is translated, Jesus seems to be saying to us that we should do as he did and be baptized.

The ESV translation conveys a different sense altogether. It doesn’t read like a command to us to follow the example of Jesus. It is written in the passive tense that conveys the idea that doesn’t read like a universal command. It focuses on the present interaction between Jesus and John, and we understand the “us” to be the two of them engaging in an act that “fulfills all righteousness”.

As I looked at other translations of this verse, I discovered that most of them read more consistently with the ESV, focusing on the engagement of Jesus and John, and not on the act of Jesus as an example of people, generally, to follow.

A closer look at the Greek words and sentence structure illuminates the text further. In the NLT, the response by Jesus is translated, “It should be done…”; while the ESV states, “Let it be so now….[4]” The emphasis on the present moment is absent from the NLT translation, but is highlighted in the Greek text. The “now” qualifies the phrase, “it is fitting”, conveying the idea that the action Jesus was requesting was what was appropriate in that moment in response to what God was prompting.[5]

Indeed, we learn elsewhere that Jesus asked his followers to do as he did, but he wasn’t simply referring to particular actions. He was talking about following his example of responding to the prompting of God. We see elsewhere that believers are urged to be baptized as prompted by God’s Spirit to express outwardly the inward conviction of faith in Jesus.

In other words, the emphasis is not on ritualistically copying of what Jesus did. The emphasis is on responding to God, not on the ritual, not on simply copying Jesus in his outward example, but copying him in the way he related to God the Father, responding in faith and obedience to the prompting of the Spirit.

When I first wondered what the difference was in the translations and discovered that a more accurate translation had nuance that was lost in the modern, less accurate translation, I was tempted to respond with an intellectual “I thought so.” But something else stirred within me.

I realized that the sermon was “right” in its emphasis on responding to God as prompted by faith to be baptized, as Jesus was in that moment. Just as we have followed Adam in our bondage to sin, we now follow our spiritual Adam, Jesus, to newness of life by believing in Him and responding to the promptings of the Holy Spirit who prompts us to respond in faith through acts of obedience, like being baptized as a public expression of that faith.

God works through His word, the Bible, which is “living and active”[6], and, God also works in us by His Spirit to work out the salvation that is offered us in Jesus.[7] And, Jesus demonstrated how we do this, whose attitude we are urged to adopt:

“Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped [asserted], but emptied Himself [laid aside His privileges], taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”

Jesus is not only our example of how to relate to God, He is the Living Word.[8] This is the Jesus who said to John the Baptist “it is fitting for us to fulfill righteousness” (what is appropriate) by having John baptize Him. And, like the preacher said in his sermon, Jesus is our example to follow.

Although, the NLT is not as accurate as other translations, and the nuances of meaning are lost in the NLT, the basic truth of the message is still there. God still works through “the word” He gave us through the writers of the New Testament, along with His Spirit working in us to guide into truth.[9] The initial temptation to be critical of the use of the NLT was proven hasty as I worked through the meaning of the passage.

Still, other translations, like the ESV (English Standard Version) and NASB (New American Standard Version) are more accurate to the original Greek and more nuanced. Even they lose something in translation, though. Online tools like the Biblehub and The Discovery Bible are available to dig further into the nuances and reveal layers of meaning and depth of meaning that you may not have known existed. The important thing, though, is having a heart and attitude that is open to God and a willingness to respond to His present promptings.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

[1] Matthew 3:11

[2] Matthew :13-14

[3] To be fair, the NLT provides a footnote that states”(or “for we must fulfill all righteousness”).

[4] The Greek word translated “now” is árti (an adverb) meaning literally now (this instant); here-and-now; exactly now, in the immediate present. It conveys the idea of the immediate, strict, present time.

[5] The Greek word translated “fitting” is prepō which refers to acting appropriately in a particular situation. In the context of faith, prépō is used consistently in the NT to convey the idea of doing what the Lord persuades a person to do. It is a response to the prompting of God.

[6] Hebrews 4:12 )“For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.”)

[7] Philippians 2:12-13 (“ So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling;  for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.”)

[8] John 1:14-15 (“And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth. John testified about Him and cried out, saying, ‘This was He of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me has a higher rank than I, for He existed before me.’”)

[9] John 16:13 (“When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth….”)

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