What Exactly Did God the Father Say at the Baptism of Jesus?
Immediately following Jesus’ baptism, Matthew, Mark, and Luke record how God the Father spoke from heaven. Most Bible students are familiar with the words, “My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” However, it may have never dawned on some that Mark and Luke’s accounts differ from Matthew’s in that they record God speaking directly to Jesus (“You are My beloved Son”—Mark 1:11; Luke 3:22, emp. added), while Matthew records the Father speaking to others, saying, “This is My beloved Son” (3:17, emp. added). Does this represent a legitimate Bible contradiction as some contend (cf. Wells, 2009; Ehrman, 2009, pp. 39-40), or is there a reasonable explanation to the different wordings?
First, it is possible that God made both statements. Similar to how someone officiating a wedding might say to the bride and groom, “I now pronounce you husband and wife, Mr. and Mrs…,” and then a moment later say to the audience something like, “I present to you Mr. and Mrs…husband and wife,” God could very well have spoken to Jesus at one moment and then to John the Baptizer (and others) at the next. It is unwise to think that every similar statement recorded by the gospel writers must refer to the exact same moment in time. Consider, for example, the difference in the wording of the accounts of Peter’s denials of Jesus and the rooster crowing. It could be that Jesus first said, “Before the rooster crows, you will deny Me three times” (Matthew 26:34). Then, after Peter declared that he would not stumble (Mark 14:29), Jesus could have repeated His first statement and added another detail, saying: “[E]ven this night, before the rooster crows twice, you will deny Me three times” (Mark 14:30, emp. added; cf. Lyons, 2004). Similarly, it is very possible that just after Jesus’ baptism, the Father directed the same truth at two different times to two (or more) different people.
Second, one must keep in mind that the message Matthew, Mark, and Luke recorded was one that literally came down from Heaven. The gospel writers were referring to a marvelous, miraculous event. It is very possible that the omniscient, omnipotent Father God spoke from heaven once: Jesus hearing, “You are my beloved Son” (Mark 1:11; Luke 3:22, emp. added) and John the Baptizer (and others) hearing, “This is My beloved Son” (3:17, emp. added). This suggestion should not seem absurd for at least two reasons: (1) The infinitely powerful God was the One speaking (and if He desires that two or more individuals hear different things at the same time, He certainly could make that happen); and (2) Scripture records other instances of people hearing different things (at the same time) when God spoke from heaven. When Jesus spoke to Paul on the road to Damascus, Paul clearly understood the Lord’s voice (Acts 9:4-6), while those around him heard a sound (Acts 6:7), but did not understand what Jesus said (Acts 22:9; cf. Lyons, 2009). Similarly, following Jesus’ statement, “Father, glorify Your name” (John 12:28), God spoke from heaven, saying, “I have both glorified it and will glorify it again” (12:28). Interestingly, the apostle John indicated: “[T]he people who stood by and heard it said that it had thundered. Others said, ‘An angel has spoken to Him’” (12:29). Given (1) Who God is, and (2) references to other occasions when by-standers heard two or more different things when God spoke from heaven, it should not be surprising why Matthew, Mark, and Luke’s accounts of God speaking at Jesus’ baptism are slightly different.
A final reason why this small difference exists among the synoptic writers may be the same reason why there are several other differences among their accounts: the writers’ purpose was to record precisely what the Holy Spirit deemed necessary (cf. John 16:13), but not necessarily exactly what someone said. That is, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit (2 Timothy 3:16-17; 2 Peter 1:20-21), one writer may summarize a person’s (e.g., Jesus’) words, while another writer may quote the exact words. Consider again the accounts of Peter’s denials and the rooster crowing. The differences may very well be the result of Mark quoting the exact words of Jesus, while the other writers (under the guidance of the Holy Spirit) saw fit to employ the less definite style to indicate the same time of night—“the crowing of the rooster” (Mark 13:35; McGarvey, 1875, p. 355).
Consider the variation in notes taken by honest, intelligent college students in the same class on the Civil War. At the close of the class, when the notes of the students are compared and contrasted (as the gospel accounts are) differences are evident. If one student recorded that the teacher said Abraham Lincoln delivered his famous Gettysburg Address “in November of 1863 to honor those who died in the American Civil War Battle of Gettysburg,” and another student wrote that Lincoln’s speech was delivered “on November 19, 1863 in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania,” their notes would never be considered contradictory. Though there are slight differences in what the students indicate the teacher said, they both are faithful testimonies of what the teacher taught—one student simply chose a less definite style of note-taking (i.e., not mentioning the precise day on which the Gettysburg Address was given).
Throughout the gospel accounts, we find accurate statements that the Father, Jesus, and others made, but not necessarily the exact quotations. Inspired summaries or paraphrases of what someone said do not take away from the sacredness of the God-given Scriptures, nor our ability to apply those Scriptures to our lives. What’s more, differences among statements recorded in the gospel accounts also may be the result of the statements being made at different times. Or, as in the case of God speaking directly from heaven, it may be that one or more heard one message (or noise), while others heard something different. In whichever category a difference among the gospel accounts falls, Bible students can be confident of the Scripture’s reliability.
Ehrman, Bart (2009), Jesus, Interrupted (New York: HarperCollins).
Lyons, Eric (2004), “Cock-a-doodle-do...Twice?” http://apologeticspress.org/articles/573.
Lyons, Eric (2009), "What Did Saul's Companions See and Hear on the Road to Damascus?" http://apologeticspress.org/AllegedDiscrepancies.aspx?article=997.
McGarvey, J.W. (1875), Commentary on Matthew and Mark (Delight AR: Gospel Light).
Wells, Steve (2009), Skeptic’s Annotated Bible, http://www.Skepticsannotatedbible.com.