Jesus was baptized by John in the Jordan River. If that doesn’t strike you as strange, then you need to think a bit more about what John’s baptism meant. John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance. Of what did the sinless Son of God need to repent? John’s baptism was for the forgiveness of sins. Of what did the sinless Son of God need to be forgiven? John was the lesser; Jesus the greater. John’s baptism was with water; Jesus’ baptism with the Holy Spirit and with fire. Yet here, in the baptism of our Lord, the greater is baptized by the lesser, the sinless One is treated as a sinner. And when you comprehend this, you have comprehended the Gospel of your salvation.
The emphasis is on the Jesus not on John. People were impressed by John. He cut an impressive prophetic figure – a wilderness man resembling Elijah, calling people to repentance, baptizing, challenging the religious leaders. Some people thought that Johnwas the Messiah, the Christ, the Anointed One of God whom they had been waiting for, longing for, hoping for.
John’s work was to preach, to baptize, to prepare and point. John preached people to baptism for the forgiveness of their sins. It was a new thing. In the OT, you sacrificed an animal for forgiveness. It’s blood in exchange for your life was your forgiveness. John preached something different and new. Not blood but water. Not a sacrificial death but a bath. Not something done at the temple, but in the Jordan river. John’s baptism formed a kind of bridge between the old and the new. John’s baptism called Israel as a nation back into the wilderness for a fresh start, an extreme makeover.
Sinners of all sorts from every walk of life came to John to be baptized, to get ready to meet the Messiah. And John pointed them to Jesus. John was simply a voice and a finger, pointing to Another, a greater One with a greater Baptism. 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 should be baptized by Jesus. That is the way you and I would conceive of it, wouldn’t we? The greater should baptize the lesser; the Sinless One should baptize the sinner. And that’s the way it would be, but not now and here. Over and against John’s objections, Jesus says, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.”
This is the key to understanding John’s baptism and Jesus’ participation in it. It was necessary to fulfill all righteousness. It was necessary that Jesus had to get down in the water of a sinner’s baptism and be treated like a penitent. He became one with us, with all of humanity, in our sin. He joined us in the filth of our rebellion. He took a bath in our bathwater. He became Sin for us, who knew no sin. He didn’t simply bear our sins, became our Sin.
This appears to be at odds with what John had preached. John’s version of Jesus has Him with a winnowing fork in His hand, ready to thresh and separated the wheat from the chaff, ready to burn the chaff in unquenchable fire. You can imagine John’s surprise, his shock, when Jesus submits to being baptized. Hardly the fork-wielding, hell, fire and brimstone judge John had proclaimed. Was he wrong? No, not at all. It’s just that this had to be taken through the cross. Before Jesus could judge the living and the dead, He had to be judged. Before the wheat could be gathered into the barn and the chaff burned, Jesus Himself had to take on the fire of the Law’s condemnation.
Jesus’ baptism and His cross are one thing. He even refers to His death as a “baptism” he must undergo. His work begins in the water; it ends on the cross. HIs work begins with the Spirit descending, the voice of the Father testifying; it ends with the Spirit departing, the voice of the Father silent. His work begins where He stands in solidarity with sinners, elbow to elbow in the same bath water as prostitutes, tax collectors, and all manner of religious rejects; His work ends on the cross where He hangs in solidarity with thieves, promising the faithful one Paradise. His work begins with water; His work ends with water and blood flowing from His side. At HIs baptism, the heavens are opened to Him; at His cross the heavens are opened to sinners.
Though Jesus’ baptism by John is not the same as our Baptism, it sets the stage and lays the foundation for it. What happens to Jesus in His Baptism also happens to you. The heavens were opened to Jesus when He was baptized; heaven was opened to you in your Baptism, as you were declared to be justified for Jesus’ sake, your sins washed away by His blood, your identity as a child of Adam is now a child of God.
The Spirit descended upon Jesus in the visible form of a dove, the dove being a sign of the Spirit’s brooding, creative presence over the creative waters in the beginning, over the waters of the Flood at the time of Noah. The Spirit descended upon you in your Baptism, not visibly as with Jesus, but revealed by the Word and the Name of God, marking you as a child of God, sealing you with the mark of inheritance and ownership that you trace on yourself when you make the sign of the cross.
The voice of the Father spoke from the opened heavens, revealing Jesus to the world and addressing Him as Father to Son: “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” In the same way, the Father testifies to you in your Baptism, declaring you to be His beloved child, declaring His pleasure over you for His Son’s sake.
In Jesus’ baptism, He is joined in solidarity with us – in our sin and our death. In our Baptism, we are joined in solidarity with Jesus – in His perfect life, His death, and His resurrection. I’m pleased to see Romans 6 as the companion passage to this morning’s Gospel. It is was one of the clearest passages in the Bible on the working of Baptism. The apostle Paul has just finished the main point of Romans, that a sinner stands justified before God by faith in the promise of forgiveness through the shed blood of Jesus Christ apart from any works he might do. That justification is a “forensic” act of God – God declares it to be so through His Word; we don’t make it so by our believing or our works. And this rests on the objective fact that Christ is the second and new Adam, the new head of humanity, so that as through one man (Adam), sin and death entered the world, so through one man (Jesus), justification and life have come. And that brings us to chapter six and today’s reading.
Paul begins with a question he’s undoubtedly heard many times, and you still hear whenever the good news of free forgiveness is preached. “Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?” If God is gracious and forgives the sinner for Jesus’ sake, why not then keep on sinning? It’s logical and even expected, but Paul says “Impossible!”
Why? Because you, being baptized, as now dead to Sin but alive to God in Christ. Once you were dead to God and alive to Sin, but no more. “Or don’t you know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death?” Baptism buries us in the death of Jesus. The baptismal font is the tomb in which we are buried with Christ. It’s the only thing you can do with the dead. Give them a decent burial. God buries the sinner in the death of Jesus in the water of Baptism. In His Baptism, Jesus joined Himself to us in our death; in our Baptism we are joined to Jesus in His death.
And this is no ordinary grave. This is the grave of the One who died and rose. And so Baptism is not simply a death and burial, but a resurrection – now by faith, and in the end by sight. We are united with Christ in His death and His life. We are crucified with Christ, His body is our body. And that, my friends, means freedom. The dead in Christ have nothing to lose and everything to gain.
We know the outcome. Christ is risen from the dead. And that is the promise for us as well. And now, as we live in this life, we no longer live but Christ who lives lives in us, so that the life that we now live, awaiting the resurrection, we live by faith in the Son of God who loved us and gave Himself up for us. In other words, we now live by faith in the death and life of Jesus, so that Paul says, we are to consider ourselves dead to Sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus. That’s how God see us through our Baptism, and that’s how we, His baptized children, are urged to see ourselves. Dead to Sin, alive to God in Christ. New creations. The old has gone, the new has come.
Israel was revealed to be God’s nation in the baptism of the Red Sea. It was born as a nation through the parted waters. Dead to Egypt; alive to God. Jesus was revealed the Son of God and Savior with the Spirit in Baptism. Let no one say this water has no power! You are made a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s treasured possession in Baptism. And in those waters, sanctified by the blood of Jesus, God says to you, “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.”
In the Name of Jesus,