All three synoptic Gospels – Matthew, Mark, and Luke – report that Jesus was baptized by John in the Jordan River. Clearly, the Holy Spirit – the real author of Scripture – wants us to know that Jesus was baptized. Jesus was baptized. Do you find that strange? If you don’t think that is strange, just remember what John’s baptism was all about. John [preached] a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. (Luke 3:3) Why did the sinless Son of God need this baptism? For what did he need to repent and receive forgiveness? Why did Jesus, the Master, need his servant, John, to baptize him? What impact does Jesus’ baptism have on us and how does it relate to our baptism? All of these questions and more we will summarize under the theme: why was Jesus baptized?
Our text begins not with Jesus, but with his baptizer: John. John was a man’s man, a prophet’s prophet. He was a wilderness man who wore camel’s hair and ate locusts (Matthew 3:4-6), who boldly called people from all walks of life to repentance, who challenged the authority and teachings of the religious leaders, and even, as our text relates, fearlessly spoke the truth about sin to powerful King Herod and got himself thrown into jail for it. Just as people have always done with bold, powerful, revolutionary leaders, they were tempted to make him out to be more than he was; they were wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Christ, the Savior they had been waiting for, longing for, hoping for.
But John’s work was not that of the Christ, his work was not to save the world from sin. John’s work was to preach and baptize, to prepare and point. John preached to people to repent of their sins and he baptized them for the forgiveness of their sins. Now this was something new and novel. Before this, throughout the OT, if you wanted forgiveness you had to sacrifice an animal. You were forgiven because that animal bled and died as payment for your sins. (Leviticus 4) John preached something new and different. Not blood but water. Not a sacrificial death but a bath. Not something done at the Temple but in the Jordan River. John’s ministry formed a sort of bridge between the Old and New Testaments. He pointed people away from sacrificial animals to the sacrificial Lamb of God who would take away the sins of the world once and for all. (John 1:29)
And John makes it clear that his ministry is not about him but about the one more powerful than [him who would come]. Sinners came to John to be baptized to get ready to meet Jesus. And then came that fateful day when Jesus stood before John in the water of the Jordan. Luke doesn’t record it, but Matthew tells us that John initially objected, saying that he needed to be baptized by Jesus – not the other way around. (Matthew 3:14) That’s what we would think too, right? The greater should baptize the lesser; the sinless one should baptize the sinner. But Jesus didn’t come obey our sense of propriety. He came to obey his Father’s will. Over and against John’s objections, Jesus said, let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness. (Matthew 3:15)
That verse is the key to understanding Jesus’ baptism. It was necessary to fulfill all righteousness. It was necessary for Jesus to get drenched in the water of a sinner’s baptism and be treated like someone who had sins that needed forgiving because he had to become one with us, with all our humanity – including our sin. He took a bath in our dirty bathwater because he didn’t only carry our sins: God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Corinthians 5:21)
At first this may appear to be at odds with what John had said about Jesus. John had taught that Jesus would appear with a winnowing fork in his hand to clear the threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire. You can imagine John’s surprise, perhaps even disappointment, when Jesus shows up and asks to be baptized alongside the unwashed masses. This was hardly the fork-wielding, fire and brimstone judge that he was expecting – the one who would finally bring judgment on the godless and immoral people of Israel – not to mention the pagan nations around her. Was John wrong? Not at all. That day is coming. But according to God’s plan of salvation, before Jesus could judge the living and the dead he had to be judged; he had to humble himself and become obedient to death on the cross. Before the wheat could be gathered into the barn and the chaff burned, Jesus himself had to endure the unquenchable fire of God’s wrath over sin in our place on the cross.
It’s good for us to see Jesus baptism and his crucifixion as two sides of the same coin. (Later he even refers to his death as the “baptism” he must undergo (Mark 10:38)) His work, his public ministry, begins with the Spirit descending, the voice of the Father testifying; it ends with the Spirit departing, the voice of the Father falling silent. His work begins with him standing in solidarity with sinners, shoulder to shoulder with prostitutes, tax collectors, and all manner of society’s rejects; it ends with him hanging between thieves on a criminal’s cross. His work begins with water; it ends with water and blood flowing from his side. At the Jordan, the heavens are opened to him; on Calvary heaven is closed to Jesus but opened to every sinner who believes.
And even though Jesus’ baptism by John is not the same as our baptism, it sets the stage and lays the foundation for it. The sinless Son of God walked into that dirty Jordan River and purified it so that you might be purified from all sin. What happened to Jesus in his baptism is also what happened to you. The heavens were opened to Jesus; heaven was opened to you; the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus and the Holy Spirit descended on you – not in the form of a dove – but through the Word of God; as the Father declared his love for Jesus, so he declared over you “you are my son [or daughter], whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”
In being baptized, Jesus took our place – he took on our sin, our guilt, our punishment, our death. When we were baptized, we took Jesus’ place – we were baptized into his perfect life, his death, his resurrection. (Romans 6:1-7) In our lesson from Titus, Paul spells out exactly what God does for sinners like us through baptism: when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared (there’s the word for epiphany!) he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing (baptism!) of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life. (Titus 3:4-7)
Because there is so much confusion regarding the purpose and meaning of baptism today, we’re going to take a few minutes to expose some common false teachings and practices. 1) There are many who say that infants and children aren’t sinful, don’t need forgiveness and shouldn’t be baptized until they are old enough to decide for themselves. 2) Closely related is the idea that baptism is something that we do for God – kind of like a spiritual “pledge of allegiance” where people who had just been living for themselves, now dedicate their lives to God. 3) There are also many, perhaps even right here, who view baptism as nothing more than a symbolic ritual, that some words are said and someone gets wet, and that’s about it. 4) Finally, there are an awful lot of parents and grandparents who see baptism as kind of a lifetime lucky charm – that as long as you get your child or grandchild baptized it doesn’t matter how you raise them, whether you ever bring them to worship and Sunday school, whether when they grow up they ever hear the Word or receive the Sacrament – because they’ve been baptized, they’ve got the force field of holy water around them, they will be saved – whether they believe in Jesus or not. Of course, given the powerful meaning and purpose of baptism, given that God works to save sinners from hell in baptism – we can understand why Satan would work so tirelessly to confuse and cloud and pervert the meaning and blessings of this sacrament.
But, by God’s grace and led by his Word, we are not going to accept his deceit, we are going to repent if we have ever treated baptism in those ways, we are going to expose his lies under the brilliant light of Scripture. 1) Does God ever deny baptism to or exempt babies and children from baptism? No, David testifies in Psalm 51 that we are all sinners from the moment we were conceived – babies need forgiveness as much as anyone else. (Psalm 51:5) Jesus gave the explicit command to go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. (Matthew 28:19) And Peter explicitly told the crowd on Pentecost that the promise [of baptism] is for you and your children. (Acts 2:39) 2) Is baptism our “pledge of allegiance” to God? What did Paul write? Paul called it a washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit. (Titus 3:5) Were any of us active participants in our first birth? Absolutely not, we were passive – and some of us may have fought against it. The exact same is true of the rebirth of baptism. 3) Is baptism just an ancient, empty ritual which makes for a good excuse to throw a party and makes grandparents happy to see a family tradition continued? In speaking to Nicodemus, Jesus didn’t mince any words about the importance and necessity of baptism: I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the spirit gives birth to spirit. (John 3:5-6) 4) Does baptism remain effective even if through the irresponsibility of the parents or the recklessness of the baptized person their faith later flickers out and dies from neglect of the Word and Sacrament? Remember what Jesus said in Mark 16: whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. (Mark 16:16) In other words, it is not the lack of baptism which damns, but the lack of faith – which will always be the result if someone cuts themselves off from God’s grace in Word and Sacrament – yes, even if that person had at one point been baptized. (John 15:5)
Don’t let the devil’s deceptions regarding baptism cloud your faith or rob you of the rich blessings God has given you in this sacrament! Why was Jesus baptized? He was baptized to take our place. He was baptized to take upon himself our sin, our guilt, the death and the hell we deserved. His baptism was his public anointing, God’s announcement to the world that this man from Nazareth, this baby of Bethlehem, is, in fact, his Son (and thus true God) and the One commissioned by God to be our Savior. Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan is what gives the power to the water in which we were baptized. We were baptized into Jesus’ place, his perfectly innocent life – the only life that can stand up to the scrutiny of Judgment Day; his death – by which we, too, have died to sin (Romans 6:3-4); his resurrection – so that we will rise just as surely as he rose on that first Easter. In baptism, Jesus pours out the Holy Spirit on us, creates faith in our hearts, tears us out of Satan’s power and adopts us into God’s family. In baptism, God the Father looks at us in a totally different way – completely apart from anything we do or say – instead of seeing us as the wretched sinners we are, he sees us clothed in the righteousness of his perfect Son – and declares “I love you. I have called you by name. You are mine.” And, furthermore, baptism is not just a onetime event – it’s something we are reminded of every time we worship in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit – every time we pray “our Father” – hopefully every time we look in the mirror, so that every second of every day when we can be confident that our identity and our eternity don’t depend on who we are or what we have done, but on whose we are and what Jesus has done! If you have been baptized, you belong to the one true God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit! And that is true whether life is good or bad, whether you are sick or healthy, whether you have just taken your first breath or are about to take your last. Because of the blessings God has given you through his washing with water and the Word, your baptism is the single most important thing that has ever happened in your life.
All because Jesus was baptized to take your place in life and your place on the cross under God’s wrath and you were baptized into Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection – his place in God’s family. This is no ordinary water. This water is your life and your salvation. God grant that we always cherish this Sacrament for the amazing gift that it is. Amen.