Jesus’ Baptism For You
In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
St. Matthew 3:16-17 When He had been baptized, Jesus came up immediately from the water; and behold, the heavens were opened to Him, and He[a] saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting upon Him. And suddenly a voice came from heaven, saying, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.”
Dear fellow redeemed in Christ our Lord… Over the past two weeks we have celebrated Jesus’ conception and birth as well as His circumcision and naming. Today we celebrate His baptism. All of these things Jesus did, as we confess in the Creed, “for us men and for our salvation.”
Jesus came to John, from Nazareth in Galilee to the Jordan wilderness. John was out there in the wilderness blasting sinners, threatening them with the wrath of the coming judgment, calling them to repentance and telling them to be baptized. The people came in droves, confessing their sins, receiving baptism, watching and waiting for another, a greater One with a greater baptism.
St. Luke tells us that Jesus was about thirty years old when He was baptized – the minimum age of ordination for a rabbi. Before that a boy would sit quietly at the feet of his teachers. In a sense, Jesus’ baptism was His ordination for ministry, the public inauguration of His ministry, with the Spirit descending and the Father testifying. Now the whole world knows the fact that this man who grew up in obscurity in Nazareth is the eternal Son of God and the Christ, the anointed One.
Matthew tells us that John initially objected when He saw Jesus standing there in the water. “I should be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” John was right, and His objection is at the heart of all religion. Religion teaches us that we are supposed to come to God, that we are to do as God commands. God needs to be appeased, buttered up, bribed, flattered. You control the religious strings, you call the shots, you make the decisions that affect your salvation. It’s tidy, rational, and it’s terribly tempting. And it is dead wrong.
Jesus comes to John to be baptized. In Divine irony the Greater comes to the lesser; the one who is eternally worthy comes to the one who isn’t worthy to tie his shoes. Jesus is to be treated as a sinner. He stands in solidarity with the prostitutes, the tax collectors, the sinners – those whom the “religious” looked down upon. The religious refused John’s baptism; after all, in their minds they did not need to repent. They were solid church people. Who needs repentance when you’re well on your way on your own? And yet here is Jesus in the water with sinners, one with them, immersing Himself into a sinner’s baptism.
He tells John, “Let it be so now. For thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” That’s what Jesus came to do – fulfill all righteousness. Imagine the look on John’s face – perhaps a mixture of confusion, terror, wonder and outrage. What on earth was his cousin Jesus doing? He was supposed to be engaged in holy war. What sort of “messiah” is this? Yet this is why He was conceived and born of the Virgin. This is why He lived and suffered and died. This is why He rose from the dead and ascended – in order to fulfill all righteousness.
Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees, you can’t enter the kingdom of heaven. A sinner cannot fulfill all righteousness. You can’t even make a decent stab at it. You’re dead, you’re a stillbirth in sin. There’s not a trace of righteousness in any of us, at least not naturally. It’s like asking an apple tree to make peaches; good luck with that. So we need a substitute.
Jesus the Righteous One puts Himself into our sinner’s baptism – the Substitute, the Vicarious Victim. He’s the ram that saved Isaac; He’s the lamb of the Passover, the scapegoat of Yom Kippur, the sin offering, the whole burnt offering. He gives His life for your life. His death is your death. His righteousness is traded for your sin.
Jesus’ baptism lays the foundation for your Baptism, though they’re not quite the same thing. Jesus is sinless, we are sinful. Jesus is righteous, we are unrighteous. Jesus is holy, we are unholy. In His Baptism Jesus becomes the sinner in us. In our Baptism we become saints in Him.
The water meets its Maker, the Word incarnate, and it becomes a cleansing water, a birthing water. The Baptism of Jesus hearkens back to all the great watery events of history: the creation of all things by water and the Word, the Flood, the parting of the Sea and the Jordan river, the healing of Naaman the Syrian. It is water together with the Word. And you can’t get more “wordy” and ‘watery” than Jesus, the incarnate Word, standing in the Jordan. Great things happen when water and the Word get together.
The virgin-born Son is baptized so that in Baptism we might be virgin-born together with Him, conceived of water and Spirit, born from above, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but born of God. And quite contrary to what many teach, you don’t decide to be born again any more than you decided to be born the first time.
Here the Creator embraces His fallen creature in His own humanity. Jesus bears our humanity: in circumcision under the Law, and here in John’s baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. God takes on human flesh and humbles Himself under His own Law; He is the perfect penitent, not bearing His own sin, but the world’s sin – your sin – in His baptism.
What happens next tells you what this Baptism of Jesus is all about. As Jesus steps out onto the shore, Mark tell us that the heavens were “torn open.” There is violence in that word. The heavens were torn open like a piece of cloth being ripped apart. Mark won’t use that word again until the crucifixion of Jesus when the curtain of the temple that marked the Most Holy place was torn apart from top to bottom.
Heaven is ripped open; it is violent. Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God. Heaven is sealed shut to sinful humanity. The gates are opened only with the violence of death – the death of sinless Sacrifice. That’s why the heavens were torn open; it is a foretaste of Good Friday. Jesus is baptized into His death. In the OT, the sacrifice was always washed before his death. Jesus’ baptism sets Him on the road to Calvary and the cross. He even calls His death “a baptism with which I must be baptized.” (Mark 10:39)
This is the road from which the devil wanted to deter Jesus, tempting Him to go another way, the way of power or celebrity or religion – any way but the cross. Yet the cross is the only way “to fulfill all righteousness.” The Righteous One must die for the unrighteous.
This is how heaven is opened. Jesus’ death tears a narrow opening, a slight door, through which a sinner may enter and be declared righteous. No one else opens heaven to humanity, no other baptism tears heaven open to humanity.
The Spirit descended on Jesus, visibly and bodily, in the form of a dove. The same Spirit hovered like a hen over the waters of the creation. A dove signaled the retreat of the waters of the Flood. The Spirit here descends on the Son, showing Him to the Christ, the Anointed One, who has the Spirit without limit. Jesus was conceived in His humanity by the Spirit, and now the Spirit descends bodily on Jesus to visibly mark Him. He’s the One. John said, “I saw the Spirit descend as a dove from heaven, and it remained on Him. I myself did not know Him; but He who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is He who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’” (John 1)
A Voice came from heaven, the voice of the Father: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” Jesus knew that. This voice wasn’t for His benefit, but for ours. This Beloved Son is the Servant spoken of by Isaiah: “Behold my Servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight. I will put my Spirit on him, and he will bring justice to the nations.” (Isaiah 42).
This is the suffering Servant who does justice to sin by dying, who bears the sin of the inclusive “many,” who makes intercession for the transgressors (Isaiah 53). The world has seen many “religious” types, many claiming to be “the way.” Jesus warned that our day, the last days, would be full of false Christs, false messiahs.
Jesus is unique in His Baptism: the heavens open for no other man. On no other man did the Spirit descend bodily. To no other man did the Father make this declaration, “You are my beloved Son.”
What Jesus has uniquely, He uniquely gives to you. In your Baptism into Jesus, the heavens are torn open to you. In your Baptism into Jesus, the Spirit descends upon you and anoints you. In your Baptism into Jesus, the Father speaks words of His approval over you. “You are my beloved child.”
Jesus has borne it all for you in His own body – baptized, crucified, raised from the dead, glorified. Whether you live or die, whether you fall asleep deep underground in a West Virginia mine or in a flood or fire, whether disease or disaster should strike you, however and whenever, Jesus is with you, joined with you in Baptism. And if that weren’t enough already, He is committed to you with His very Body and Blood.
He opens heaven for you. He pours out His Spirit on you, calling, gathering, enlightening, sanctifying and keeping you. He brings you to the Father as one of the family of God; you are beloved, chosen, elect, holy.
This is God’s Son, chosen and beloved, the Servant of all who came to fulfill all righteousness for you.
In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.