Matthew 3:13 – 17
Today is the day we celebrate the Baptism of Jesus. Why would we want to celebrate his baptism? Do you celebrate your own baptism? I was baptized by Brother Milton Clem on March 21, 1962. It was the 4th night of our annual Spring Revival, and a dear brother came from Flint, Michigan to El Sobrante, California for a week to lead us. I saw my need for God and responded to the Gospel. I can still remember the thrill I felt when I realized that Jesus had died for me, in spite of the things I had done. Do you remember when you first realized how much God loved you? That is a pretty good thing to commemorate.
But did Jesus have different thoughts on his mind that day? He certainly had nothing that he needed to look back on with shame. His heart had always been turned toward his father and he needed no repentance. John saw that immediately. So the reason for his baptism had to lie somewhere other than in his own need for repentance.
If you look back through the writings of many of the church fathers, they make much of the fact that John is surprised that Jesus wanted to be baptized at all. Because they lived in a day when men were constantly looking for ways to deny one or the other of the natures of Jesus, they were understandably eager to look for ways to establish his preeminence in everything. Since Jesus himself had said that John was the greatest prophet ever born, it was certainly positive to have John acknowledge the superiority of Jesus. As we have discussed over the past two weeks, there are still those today who wish to lower Jesus’ status, so this is a good lesson for us to draw. It is not the only lesson, so let’s look more closely at the interchange between Jesus and John.
John understood his own position in life. He knew that he was sinful and that the sacrifice to cleanse his sin was beyond anything he could do. The sacrifice stood in front of him and asked to do the last thing that John expected. John’s question makes perfect sense. It is Jesus’ answer that raises eyebrows.
In verse 15 he tells John to, “Permit it to be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Jesus and John had to do this together to fulfill all righteousness. Whatever “all righteousness” might be, this duty fell to them both. John, as the greatest prophet of God ever born, baptized the Messiah and thus together they fulfilled all righteousness. Certainly that righteousness was not a new concept, but rather fit into the Jewish history and tradition into which Jesus came. So let’s think about that context.
1n 1st Peter 3:18 – 22, Peter tells us that the flood of Noah was type of baptism. In much the same way that Noah was saved in his arc, we are saved in our baptism. The arc is not magic, and neither is baptism. It is a sacrament of the church and a rite that has real effects. Think of a rite as being like a wedding. When we stand at the back of the church, we would be creepy to sneak out and find another girlfriend. But just creepy. However, if we walk down to the front of the church and exchange vows we become a husband and sneaking around is now adultery. A big difference for two little words – I do – to make.
In 1st Corinthians 10:1 – 4, Paul tells us that the Jews who left Egypt were baptized in the cloud (the glory of God that lead them by day) and in the sea. He plainly says that the baptism placed them into Moses and then explains that in reality they were eating and drinking Christ. You remember the times Jesus said he was the real manna from heaven. The manna and the water that the Jews ate in the wilderness were the precursors of the bread and drink that Jesus gives us in communion. In just the same way, their passage through the sea and following the cloud in the wilderness were a picture of our baptism.
There were a number of washings that also gave pictures of baptism. Touching unclean items would make you unable to participate in worship, and some of the cleansing rites involved washing in water.
The Pharisees were of course familiar with all of these concepts. They came out to John to be baptized because they understood that John’s baptism was a cleansing rite that would accompany the arrival of the Messiah. This is what Zechariah was talking about in Zechariah 13:1 “In that day a fountain shall be opened for the house of David and for the inhabitants of Jerusalem, for sin and for uncleanness…”
So Jesus statement about baptism and righteousness makes perfect sense from a historically Jewish viewpoint. This is what Messiah was supposed to do. He came to bring the righteousness that comes from God. Jesus said that many times in his earthly ministry. The Jews trusted that their law-keeping would justify them before God, but Paul knew better. In Galatians 3:11 he told us, “But that no one is justified by the law in the sight of God is evident, for “the just shall live by faith.”” Our righteousness cannot come from ourselves. No matter how well we do at law-keeping, we cannot be justified by our efforts.
But Jesus had to worry about none of these things. He was able to live sinlessly and to be justified in God’s sight. At the end of his baptism, two things happened which help explain things. First, the Holy Spirit descends and lights upon him. This something that we should have expected from reading Isaiah 42:1. Isaiah 42 is all about the Messiah and his ministry in Israel and the Gentile world. The ministry starts with the coming of the Holy Spirit. Our epistle reading in Acts 10:38 confirms that. Peter confirmed that Jesus did what he did in the power of the Holy Spirit, because God was with him.
Then God spoke and said that he was pleased with his son. This is, I believe the point at which Psalm 2:7 – 9 was literally fulfilled. The Arians in the first centuries taught that Psalm 2 was proof that Jesus was a creature and not co-eternal with God. But Psalm 2 has nothing to do with the birth of Jesus as a creature of God. It has everything to do with the approval of the father for the son. It is all about the ministry that Jesus was about to embark upon.
So to Jesus, his baptism was about anointing with power for his ministry. That ministry is laid out in all of readings for today. Isaiah 42:5 – 7 tells us what Jesus would do, and worked exactly in that way. Peter realized when he was Cornelius’s house what God’s purpose was.
Why did God select baptism to do this? And why did Jesus have to go through baptism? I believe it was at this point that God established his New Covenant with men. Daniel foretold it in his vision of the 70 weeks. This takes place in the middle of the 70th week when Messiah establishes his covenant with many. This is the reason that Paul tells us that baptism places us in Christ. Our physical birth places us in Adam, and our spiritual birth in baptism places us in Christ.
In covenant with God through Jesus gives us the righteousness of God. We never need to worry that we are not being good enough to please God. God is always pleased with our efforts to obey him, but accepts in Jesus and not our own obedience.
So we celebrate Jesus’ baptism because it is the foundation on which all of our lives are built. Without that baptism we have no covenant with God. When I look back at my baptism, I can hear the words of the Father echoing down to me through Jesus: This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased.