“Christ the Baptized and Baptizer” (Luke 3:15-22)
Today in the church year is the Baptism of Our Lord, which we always celebrate on this, the First Sunday after the Epiphany. The Baptism of Our Lord is that auspicious occasion when our Lord Jesus Christ, as he was about to start his public ministry, was baptized by John in the Jordan, and the Spirit descended on him like a dove, and a voice came from heaven, attesting to Jesus as God’s beloved Son, with whom he is well pleased. And so every year on this day the Holy Gospel is the account of Christ’s baptism, as we have it in either Matthew, Mark, or Luke, depending on the year. This year it’s the account in St. Luke, reading especially these verses. “Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heavens were opened, and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form, like a dove; and a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.’”
But notice that today’s reading is prefaced with some words from John the Baptist about the Christ and what he will do, particularly these words: “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”
So, taking these two sections together, what we find in our text is that Christ was baptized and that he will do some baptizing of his own–he will baptize us. Thus our theme this morning: “Christ the Baptized and Baptizer.”
We start with Christ himself being baptized. It says that “all the people” were being baptized. That would be all the people who were coming out to John the Baptist in the wilderness, to hear his preaching and to be baptized by him. John was proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. That’s what makes Jesus being baptized seem a little strange. Because Jesus had nothing to repent of. He had no sins that needed to be forgiven. Nevertheless, he too is baptized. What’s going on here?
This is Jesus identifying with us poor sinners. He, the sinless Son of God come in the flesh, comes to bear our sins and suffer the judgment we deserve. And this he will do on the cross. But even here, at his baptism, Jesus begins the journey that will take him to the cross. He is baptized with us.
Then, having been baptized, and while Jesus is praying, three things happen: the heavens are opened, the Spirit descends, and the voice comes from heaven. Each part is significant.
The heavens are opened. This means that here in Christ’s baptism there is going on an intersection between heaven and earth. There is open access. No barrier. God is going to do something now. What will it be?
The heavens are opened, and the Holy Spirit descends on Jesus–“in bodily form, like a dove,” it says. Why just this? This remarkable manifestation of the Holy Spirit has a lot to say about who Jesus is and what he came to do. The descent of this dove speaks much about the person and the work of Christ.
Now you might ask: Why does Jesus need the Holy Spirit coming upon him? Is not Jesus the very Son of God, the Second Person of the Trinity, already in perfect communion with the Holy Spirit from eternity? Oh, yes, he is indeed. But remember this is the Son of God now come in the flesh. Jesus is both true God and true man. And so we can say that, according to his human nature, Jesus is anointed with the Holy Spirit at his baptism–which is pretty much what the Apostle Peter says in the Book of Acts: “how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power.”
In his baptism Jesus is anointed with the Holy Spirit to empower him for his ministry, for his office as the Christ. In fact, the word “Christ” means “the Anointed One,” the Messiah. The Holy Spirit here is marking out Jesus as the Christ, empowering him for his office, showing that God’s choice, God’s blessing, God’s favor and power are resting upon him, upon this man Jesus. He is taking up his office as the Christ now, as he’s about to begin his public ministry. That’s what the Spirit’s descent at his baptism is doing and saying.
And there’s even more going on here. Think back all the way to the beginning. I mean, the literal beginning, the creation of the heavens and the earth, Genesis 1. There we read that “the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.” So also here at the baptism in the Jordan: The Spirit of God is coming down over the waters. Creation, new creation–yeah, I think that too is the message being sent here. Jesus, the one being baptized, is going to bring in a new creation, restoring all that has been damaged and lost by our fall into sin.
Or think of the significance of the Spirit coming down over the water in the form of a dove. Think of Noah, at the end of the flood, and there’s a dove that comes, letting him know that now there’s brand new start for the earth, after the destruction that sin brought. So again, at Christ’s baptism: dove, Spirit, water–a new creation. Jesus, the Christ, baptized in the water of the Jordan, anointed with the Holy Spirit, the dove descending upon him–this Jesus is here to do the ultimate new-creation job.
The heavens are opened, the Spirit descends, and now, a third thing, a voice comes from heaven, saying, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” This of course is the voice of God the Father, attesting to his love for his Son and his choice of his Son to carry out the mission on which he sent him. Again, Christ has always been God’s Son from eternity, but now as he sets out on this journey that will take him to the cross, the Father assures Jesus of his love. God was well pleased to send his Son into the world to take on this mission that will win salvation for the world. Recall, even at Jesus’ birth the angel choir sang of God’s good will, his good pleasure, in sending Christ to bring peace on earth.
“You are my beloved Son,” the Father tells Jesus. How mysterious, how profound, then, when later the Father will forsake his beloved Son as he is hanging on the cross. It is like–but in an infinitely greater way–it is like when God told Abraham: “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and offer him up as a sacrifice.” And just as Abraham was about to sacrifice his beloved son, the Lord called him back at the last moment and provided a substitute. This was a picture of how God would not spare his own Son, his only Son Jesus, whom he loves. For God so loved the world, loved us, that he gave his one and only Son for us, that we might not perish but instead be saved, through faith in him. Friends, how much God must love us that the one he forsakes on the cross is this same Jesus, to whom he says here at his baptism: “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”
Yes, this is God’s own Son who sets out on this journey now, beginning from his baptism. He is Christ the Baptized. But he is also Christ the Baptizer. Remember what John said: “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” Christ our Lord baptizes us. What a difference this makes for us!
“He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” Now I think we can understand the Holy Spirit part pretty well, as we will see in a moment. But what about this “and fire”? Well, I think there are two possibilities here, both of which would accord with the teaching of Scripture elsewhere. One is that “and fire” refers to end-time judgment. Remember, John was speaking to the whole crowd that was coming out, which included both the repentant and the hypocrites. And he said the Christ would clear his threshing floor and burn the chaff “with unquenchable fire.” So “fire,” in this context, could refer to the coming judgment.
The other possibility for “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” is that it refers to what Christ will do on the Day of Pentecost, when our ascended Lord pours out the Holy Spirit on his church, and tongues of fire rest on each one, and the Spirit empowers their witness, as they speak of the wonderful works of God. That would fit, too. In either case, it is Christ the Baptizer who baptizes us, and for us who are baptized by Christ and believe in him and receive the Holy Spirit from him, that is a good thing.
Christ the Baptized is also Christ the Baptizer. He baptizes us. In our baptism we are joined to Jesus. All the benefits Christ won for us–by his ministry, by his suffering and dying for us on the cross, by his victorious resurrection–all those wonderful gifts are given to us and applied to us in Holy Baptism. We receive Christ’s righteousness and the forgiveness of sins. We are buried with Christ and raised to newness of life. We are given the Holy Spirit, who creates faith in our hearts and empowers us for a life of Christian service and witness. The heavenly Father’s voice comes from heaven and says to each one of us: “You are my beloved child. Because of my Son Jesus Christ, I am well pleased with you.”
Beloved, in the waters of Holy Baptism, the heavens are opened and the Spirit descends upon you and makes of you a new creation. “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” You are a new creation, meaning you are a new person in Christ. You walk in newness of life, and this is life everlasting. You are united with Christ in his resurrection. God has claimed your body, as well as your soul, and you will be raised, bodily, to eternal life, when Christ comes again and wonderfully restores all of creation.
Dear friends, the Baptism of Our Lord is one of the most significant events in all of the Bible. It tells us so much about our Savior, Jesus Christ, about his person and his work. It speaks such wonderful things for us, we who are baptized into Christ. For in the Baptism of Our Lord, we see Christ, both the Baptized and the Baptizer.