The Baptism of Our Lord
St. Matthew 3:13-17
Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan to be baptized by him. And John tried to prevent Him, saying, “I need to be baptized by You, and are You coming to me?” But Jesus answered and said to him, “Permit it to be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he allowed Him. When He had been baptized, Jesus came up immediately from the water; and behold, the heavens were opened to Him, and He 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.”
Christ’s baptism by John in the Jordan River shows us who God is. God is the almighty Father who speaks his approval from heaven of his beloved Son. God is the Son, our Lord become our brother, standing in the Jordan River. God is the Holy Spirit, our Comforter, who descends on Jesus like a dove. These are not three gods, but one God. This is the only God. All other gods are idols. It is not true that all people who worship only one god worship the same god. There is only one true God. The true God is the God revealed at the baptism of Jesus. The true God is the Triune God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The true God is the God in whose name we have been baptized. Christ’s baptism shows us who God is. Nowhere is the Triune God more clearly revealed as triune than at the baptism of Jesus.
But why should Jesus be baptized? John’s baptism gave the forgiveness of sins. St. Mark’s Gospel (1:4) reads “John came baptizing in the wilderness and preaching a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins.” Why should Jesus come to John to be baptized? Jesus had no sin that needed to be forgiven. Not only that, Jesus was, as John had already publicly preached, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Why should the innocent Lamb of God come to receive a washing that was for sinners?
Jesus explained why. He said, “Permit it to be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” What does this mean: “to fulfill all righteousness?” It means that Jesus came into this world to obey God. God demanded righteousness of those he made in his own image. They had fallen into sin. Jesus came to provide the righteousness that fallen humanity could not achieve. He came to live a righteous life as the substitute for all sinners and he came to suffer and die on the cross to receive the divine punishment against all the unrighteousness of all sinners. This perfect obedience of Jesus is called “righteousness” in the Bible. When the Bible teaches us that we are justified – or declared by God to be righteous – through faith, this means that we are justified by receiving Christ’s righteousness when we trust in Christ as our Savior. We Christians are righteous because Christ did what God required of us and gave us the credit for it. We are righteous because Christ took the blame for our sins and fully suffered our punishment on the cross. We are righteous because God has given us the righteousness of Jesus.
We are justified by faith, and by faith alone, because faith is how we receive the righteousness that Jesus has done. He came to fulfill all righteousness. He came to do for us what we could not do for ourselves. He came to love with a perfect love and he did. He loved his Father more than he loved anything else, and he loved God with his whole heart, soul, strength, and mind. He loved those who hated him. He didn’t falter in that love, but he constantly prayed for their welfare, even pleading with God for the forgiveness of his enemies when they were mocking him on the cross. Jesus lived the righteous life that God commanded us to live. This is why we are justified by faith in Jesus. Faith receives Jesus.
Faith saves or justifies, not by what it does, but by what it receives. Faith receives Christ. Faith receives God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Faith receives. Faith cannot receive what God does not give. God must give before there can be any faith. Faith receives only what God promises. Faith receives from God by trusting what God says.
Faith does not receive anything from God simply by agreeing with whatever God says. Faith trusts in what God says. Faith adds two crucial words to the teaching of the gospel: for me. It is all for me! It is mine! God not only wants me to know what Jesus did. He wants me to believe that it is all for my benefit, for my salvation, for by wellbeing now and forever. Faith is knowledge, assent, and trust. It is this third facet of faith that I’m talking about. Faith is trust. It is confidence that what God says and does he says and does for me. Faith is personal. This is why faith needs baptism.
My faith cannot carry me back to Jesus. I cannot fly back to the time and the place where Jesus was saving me from hell. I did not see him heal the sick and raise the dead and preach with such authority that the crowds marveled. I was not there when they crucified my Lord, when he suffered on the cross, bearing away my sins and setting me free. I wasn’t there. I cannot go there. But I need this Jesus in my life. So do you. Everyone does. But our faith cannot bring Jesus into our hearts. We are too weak for that.
God knows our weakness. So he baptizes us. Listen to how St. John the Evangelist describes Jesus’ baptism and our own. He writes in 1 John 5.
This is He who came by water and blood – Jesus Christ; not only by water, but by water and blood. And it is the Spirit who bears witness, because the Spirit is truth. For there are three who bear witness . . . the Spirit, the water, and the blood; and these three agree as one.
Jesus came by water. He was baptized. He also came by blood. He was crucified. His baptism sent him to the cross. There are three witnesses here and now today in our lives: the Spirit, the water, and the blood. The Spirit is the absolution – the gospel of the forgiveness of sins that is preached. The water is baptism. The blood is the Lord’s Supper. When Jesus died, water and blood flowed from his side. This signifies that the sacraments of holy baptism and the Lord’s Supper are joined to and join us to the crucifixion of Jesus on the cross.
See your baptism for what it is! Not a mere religious rite that initiates you into a religious club of likeminded religious people. Your baptism bridges time and space and brings you back to the Jordan River to hear the words, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” Your faith was too weak to bring Jesus into your heart or life. But God’s grace is almighty. God joins his grace to holy baptism. When you were baptized, you were washed in the blood of the Lamb. God invites you to find in your baptism the blood that washes you clean of every sin and every stain. Baptism and Jesus go together. This is what our Lord’s baptism tells us. Jesus will not be separated from holy baptism. It is as St. Paul says in Ephesians 4, “One Lord, one faith, one baptism.” Baptism and Jesus go together.
Baptism and faith go together. Baptism doesn’t save anyone who doesn’t believe the gospel of Jesus Christ. “He who believes and is baptized shall be saved.” Not, “he who believed” – as if once you are saved you can never fall away – but “he who believes” and is baptized shall be saved. Faith is always in the present, and so is baptism. Baptism is not just for babies. It is for adults. It is for those entering into this world, it is for those who are leaving this world, and it is for those who are busy living Christian lives in this world. And baptism is what our Lord Jesus has made it. It is as the hymnist put it.
Within the Jordan’s sacred flood
The heavenly Lamb in meekness stood
That he of whom no sin was known
Might cleanse his people from their own.
The baptism of Jesus is like a negative of a photograph: the exact opposite of our own. When he was baptized, he was identified as the sinless Son of God the Father. When we are baptized, we are identified as the sinful children of Adam. Jesus was baptized to take on himself our sin. We are baptized so that we may lay on Jesus our sin. Jesus was baptized to put into baptism his righteousness. We are baptized to receive from baptism Christ’s righteousness. In Jesus’ baptism and our own, the blessed exchange takes place. Our sin becomes Jesus’ sin, though he didn’t do it. Jesus’ righteousness becomes our righteousness, though we didn’t do it.
Right after he was baptized, Jesus went into the wilderness to do battle against the devil. Our baptism sets us at war against the evil one, the father of lies and the murderer of souls. The first question asked of the candidate for baptism is: “Do you renounce the devil and all his works and all his ways?” We reply, “I do renounce them.”
When you claim your baptism, you claim Christ’s righteousness as your own. You confess that you are clothed in the righteousness of Christ himself. St. Paul writes in Galatians 3:26-27, “For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” When you claim your baptism, you claim Jesus’ victory over the devil as your victory.
Baptism is not the work of men. It is the work of God. If it were the work of men, we couldn’t trust in it or rely upon it in any way. That would be sinking sand. Baptism is what God’s word makes it. God’s word calls it a “washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Ghost.” God’s word is almighty. When God, through the mouth of his servant, calls you by name and joins his name to yours, you are his and he is yours. You can depend on that.
Were it to depend on our doing, it would all fall apart. But Jesus has that perfect goodness God requires of us, and he freely gives it to us, and he never asks us how many times we’ve come back for it. He does not despise our weakness. When our faith is bruised and broken because of our sin; when our faith is flickering and about to be extinguished because of our weakness; he does not break off the bruised reed or snuff out the dimly burning wick of our faith. He meets us where we are: in our poverty, sin, and weakness, just as we are. He gently restores us, pardons us, speaks kindly to us, and covers our sin with his righteousness again and again. This is what it means to be baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
We have a treasure in our baptism. When we doubt, are tempted, and begin to lapse into sin, we can reply to the lies of the devil, the world, and our sinful flesh: “I am baptized! I have Christ and Christ has me! He has fulfilled all righteousness and his righteousness is mine. His victory is mine. I will believe like a Christian and live like a Christian. My faith cannot fly up to heaven to bring Christ down. In my baptism, God has brought Christ to me. And he will never leave me.” Amen