Every year, the season of Epiphany begins with the account of the magi visiting the Christ child. The Sunday following the Epiphany looks to the baptism of Jesus. This year it is Matthew’s turn to teach us something about the Baptism of our Lord.
The Baptism of Jesus was a major milestone in the ministry of Jesus. When the apostles met to find a replacement for Judas, the Holy Spirit inspired Peter to set the requirements for his replacement. He said, “One of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, 22beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us—one of these men must become with us a witness to his resurrection.” (Acts 1:21–22) These words teach us that the event of Jesus’ baptism is the beginning of His public ministry. The baptism of Jesus in the Jordan points us forward to all the work Jesus did for us … His perfect life, His suffering, His death, His resurrection, His ascension, and the work He still does among us as our risen and ascended Lord. It points us forward to our own baptism as a means for the Holy Spirit to deliver Christ’s salvation to us.
As we work our way through the Gospel accounts, we learn that there were a select few people who had special knowledge of Jesus’ identity as both true man and true God. Angels told Mary and Joseph about Jesus before He was born. Angels also proclaimed His birth to shepherds. The Holy Spirit revealed the special nature of Jesus to Simeon and Anna who waited for the Promised One in the temple. God used a star to guide men from the East to worship the child. These are special cases. Everyone else, for the most part, saw Jesus grow up as a normal child in the town of Nazareth. Perhaps the rabbi at the synagogue would have noticed how precocious Jesus was, but there are many children who seem to be above average in this world. If you were to ask most people about Jesus, they might say, “Pleasant lad … hard worker … good head on his shoulders … ought to do well in life, but God? That’s stretching it a bit, don’t you think?”
Last Sunday we heard about Jesus’ circumcision and naming. As people who have the revelation of God in ink on paper, we know that this is one event in many that demonstrates that Jesus kept the law perfectly … even as an infant. Never the less, for most of the people of that day and place, this was just one more boy being inducted into the community. From the time that Jesus entered the womb of the Virgin, He lived in holiness without sin, and, even then, He took up the burden of the sin of the world. Up until the events that we just heard in today’s Gospel, Jesus did the work of saving us from sin in private … quietly … without publicity. That all changed when Jesus came to John for baptism.
After about thirty years, it was time for Jesus to take His work public. As He began His public ministry He came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him. (Matthew 3:13) He began to reveal Himself and His work in the water of the Jordan River with His cousin John.
Apparently, John was a member of the inner circle who knew the identity of Jesus. Perhaps he learned it as he grew up as part of Jesus’ extended family. Perhaps God revealed the truth to him as the last of the Old Testament prophets. Somehow, John knew. Therefore, John was confused when Jesus came to him for baptism. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” (Matthew 3:14) John was certain that the situation needed to be reversed. He needed the Messiah to baptize him.
Many people struggle in the same way that John struggled. The Bible tells us that John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. (Mark 1:4) The natural question is, “Jesus is holy. Why did He need a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins?”
Of course, Jesus had no need to repent of His own sins. He didn’t have any. Never the less, Jesus did have sins. He carried all that has gone wrong with us … all our sins. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Corinthians 5:21) Jesus takes all your sin into Himself so that, even though He never sinned, He becomes the greatest sinner. In becoming the greatest sinner, He becomes the perfect savior. Because our sin now belongs to Him, we belong to Him and He belongs to us. There is no separation between us and Christ. He stands with us in the water of repentance.
When we confessed our sins last week, we said, “I am heartily sorry for them and sincerely repent of them.” Sometimes, when I say those words, I think, “I am not nearly as sorry as I should be, and my repentance is not nearly as sincere as it should be either.” Even when I confess my sins, my old sinful nature is still beating away at me. What comfort I can have today as I think of Jesus, piled high with all my sins, there in the Jordan, and His repentance for my sins is perfect. When He gives me His righteousness, He even gives me the righteousness of His perfect repentance for my sin.
So Jesus replied to John, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” (Matthew 3:15) This is how God has decided that His righteousness and His judgment is to go. Jesus stands with us in the water. In this way, His righteousness is fulfilled. It is as Martin Luther has us pray in the order of baptism: Through the Baptism in the Jordan of Your beloved Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, You sanctified and instituted all waters to be a blessed flood and a lavish washing away of sin.
You can know that Jesus was baptized for you because of the great epiphany that happened afterwards. When Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; 17and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3:16–17) Here we have, not only an epiphany of Jesus who was baptized, but also an epiphany of the Holy Spirit descending like a dove and an epiphany of God the Father proclaiming His pleasure from heaven.
The delight and pleasure of God are in His beloved son. Since the Holy Spirit works through your baptism to join you to this very same son, the delight and pleasure of God are in you as well. What belongs to you is His. What is His is yours. Your sin belongs to Him. His righteousness belongs to you. When God the Father speaks, and says, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,” He is saying these words about you as well. You are His beloved. In You He is well pleased.
There is one great difference between the baptism of Jesus and your baptism. When you remember your baptism, you remember that you are clean. Your sins are gone. You remember that God saved you according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, 6whom he poured out on you richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, 7so that being justified by his grace you are an heir according to the hope of eternal life. (Titus 3:5–7) On the other hand, when Jesus came up from the water, He was dirty. He still had Your sin. For the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. (Isaiah 53:6)
God’s justice requires punishment for sin. Our sin has earned eternal hell for us many times over. God’s love for us seeks to save us from that eternal punishment. The only solution was for God to take up our human flesh so that He could take up our sin. That is what Jesus did. When John baptized Jesus, he baptized the only one who can carry the sin of the world. Jesus carried those sins to the cross. There on the cross, Jesus satisfied both God’s justice and His love. God’s justice was satisfied by punishing our sin IN Jesus Christ. God’s love was satisfied by punishing Jesus Christ instead of us. In this way, God punished our sin without punishing us.
In solidarity, Jesus in the water is one of us. He suffers with us. He died for us. He begins healing the corruption that limits us. He begins healing the corruption that hides the truth from us. He shows us that He is the sinner’s friend and savior. In His baptism, He publicly continues the work that makes me His own so that I may live with Him forever. Amen
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