Bible Text: Matthew 3:13-17 | Preacher: Pastor Andrew Richard
When the Lord and water meet, great things happen. In the beginning the earth was without form and void and covered with water. And when God spoke, a whole creation came out of that water. In the days of Noah everything was going from bad to worse, and there was nothing Noah could do to change it. But then the Lord brought his waters upon the earth and destroyed what was wicked and saved alive the righteous. When the Lord brought Israel out of the land of Egypt, the people came up against the Red Sea and could do nothing. But when the Lord came up against the Red Sea, it parted, and the Israelites passed through on dry ground. When the people came to the Jordan River to enter the promised land, the Lord commanded the priests to bear the ark of God into the Jordan, and when their feet touched the water, the waters of the Jordan piled up in a heap, and the Israelites passed through. When the Lord told Naaman the Syrian to wash in the Jordan River, Naaman was cleansed of his leprosy. Indeed, when the Lord and water meet, great things happen.
And how can water do such great things? Certainly not just plain water. There’s plenty of water on earth that doesn’t have earth rising up out of it and that doesn’t part to let people pass and that doesn’t cleanse leprosy. The only reason water ever did any of those things was because the Lord’s Word was with it. “How can water do such great things? Certainly not just plain water, but the Word of God in and with the water does these things, along with the faith which trusts this Word of God in the water.” Today we see the Word of God in and with the water, and we see great things happen once more.
John the Baptist had been preparing the people to receive Jesus. Just before today’s reading John said, “I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fan is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clean out His threshing floor, and gather His wheat into the barn; but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire” (Mt. 3:11-12). The appearance of Jesus sounds frightening and exciting and mighty and impressive. The people were expecting a powerful man who would come in judgment, who would act with a strong hand, snatch His people from danger, consume His enemies. As His first act, Jesus could have come walking across the Sea of Galilee, filling fishermen’s nets with fish as He passed their boats, walked ashore, and multiplied loaves for the people. Jesus could have ascended a high mountain and shone forth in glory, with thunder and lightning like at Mount Sinai. Jesus could have come to the temple straight off, taken all the lame beggars by the hand in the gates and raised them up, touched the eyes of the blind and restored their sight. Then with them leaping for joy behind Him He could have entered the temple, driven out those who sold, torn the curtain in two from top to bottom, carried out His judgment.
But Jesus didn’t do those things when He first appeared. The first thing Jesus publicly did was to join the droves of sinners who were flocking to John at the Jordan River to be baptized. Why? If you have the answer to that question, then you can say why Jesus came to us at all, and you can know the very heart of God. Why would Jesus make His first public act His Baptism?
John wondered why Jesus sought Baptism at all, first, second, third, or last. It was a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins (Mk. 1:4). Jesus had nothing of which to repent. He committed no sins that needed to be forgiven. John says, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” (Mt. 3:14). Shall the dirty pot clean the soap? Shall the base metal purify the fire? I’m not worthy to stoop down and loose the strap of Your sandal. I am certainly not worthy to have You stoop under my hand as if You need to receive something from me. You are the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. So wash me; cleanse me; baptize me.
Jesus answers him, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness” (Mt. 3:15). John, you are right that I am Myself sinless. You are also right that I am the Lamb of God who bears the sin of the world. I am at the same time the most innocent and the most guilty man who ever lived. It is true, as Isaiah prophesied, “He committed no sin, nor was deceit found in His mouth” (Is. 53:9; 1 Pet. 2:22). According to those words, I need not partake of a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. I need it not for Myself. But it is also true, as Isaiah prophesied, “The LORD has laid on Him the iniquity of us all” (Is. 53:6). John, I stand before you as the greatest sinner you’ve yet seen or ever will see, not because I have sinned, but because I bear all sin: the sin of all those whom you have baptized, the sin of all who have come before you, the sin of all who will come after you, and, yes, your own sin as well. It is fitting that we do this to fulfill all righteousness, that is, that I may substitute Myself for unrighteous men in order to bestow on them My righteousness. So baptize Me, John. As Your innocent and holy God I have come to be Your substitute. As the One who even now bears your sin I intend to show you what Baptism has the power to do. So let it be so now.
“Then he consented.” Jesus stepped into the water, and John baptized Him. If Jesus had raised a man from the dead as His first public act, you could say that it was representative of what Jesus came to do. He came to give life to the dying. But there was something that needed to happen before dead sinners would live. If Jesus had started His public ministry by feeding the 5,000, or preaching the Sermon on the Mount, these likewise could be representative of what Jesus came to do. He came to teach sound doctrine and satisfy the hungry soul. But what is the core of His teaching, and what is it that ultimately satisfies man? Jesus made His Baptism His first public act because it shows so clearly what He came first and foremost to do, and what is the prerequisite for every good we receive from Him: Jesus came to identify Himself with sinners and identify sinners with Himself. From this flows everything else for our life and salvation, and in this we see the gracious heart of God, who loves us more than He loves Himself.
Jesus identifies Himself with sinners by bearing our sins, by standing where sinners stand in the waters of Baptism. Now to be clear, Jesus did not put off our sins in His Baptism. He continued to bear them, because He came to identify Himself with us so fully that He would be counted a sinner under the wrath of God, suffer all the punishment of sin on the cross, and thus make full atonement for us. In His Baptism Jesus shows and pledges that He will be that full and perfect substitute by whose death we will escape the wrath of God and the condemnation of the law. Jesus’ substitution for you in His Baptism reaches its culmination at His substitution for you in His death.
And Jesus identifies sinners with Himself in His Baptism. There are three things that happened to Jesus in His Baptism. First, heaven was opened to Him. Second, the Holy Spirit descended on Him. Third, the Father in heaven said, “This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” In these three things Jesus shows what Baptism has the power to do, for these three things happen at every Baptism. In fact, we shouldn’t even regard our Baptism as something different and separate from Jesus’ Baptism. There is “one Lord, one faith, one Baptism,” as Paul writes in Ephesians 4. When we were baptized, we were baptized into Christ. “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ,” as it says in Galatians 3. When you were baptized, you were united to Christ and clothed with Christ and His Baptism became your Baptism.
So when you were baptized heaven was opened to you. No more does an angel bar the way to paradise, but the gates of paradise stand open. Jesus says to you as He says to the church in Revelation 3, “See, I have set before you an open door, and no one can shut it” (Rev. 3:8). When you were baptized you received the Holy Spirit. This is what Peter preached on Pentecost, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38). When you were baptized the Father in heaven said to you, “This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased.” The Father looks at you and sees all the innocence and righteousness of Jesus, and for the sake of Christ He is well pleased with you.
When the Lord and water meet, great things happen. Realize what a profound gift Baptism is. When the Spirit of God hovered over the waters and God spoke, a new creation came forth, and life emerged, and so it is for you in Baptism. You are a new creation in Christ. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come! When the Lord brought His floodwaters on the earth in the days of Noah, He wiped out what was wicked and granted salvation to the righteous, and so it is for you in Baptism. The old man is dying by the power of Jesus’ death and the new man is rising by the power of Jesus’ resurrection. When the Lord brought the people of Israel to the Red Sea, He made a way for them through that water, salvation for them and destruction to their enemies, and so it is for you in Baptism. The devil may hound and pursue you with his threats and accusations, but when he tries to go after the baptized, he fares no better than Pharaoh and his host, and his every threat and accusation is quenched in the baptismal water.
When the Lord made the waters of the Jordan stand in a heap, He made a way for the people of Israel to enter their home and the land of promise, and so it is for you in Baptism. In Baptism you have been united to Jesus’ resurrection, and through Baptism you will enter your eternal home and fatherland. When Naaman came to the Jordan River at the Lord’s command and washed, he was cleansed of his leprosy, and so it is for you in Baptism. All your uncleanness and your sin has been washed away, and you are pure. How can water do such great things? Certainly not just water, but the Word of God in and with the water does these things. Jesus stood in that baptismal water. Jesus associated Himself and His institution with that water. That water has the power of the creation, of the flood, of the exodus, and more, all wrapped up together. And Jesus has poured that water on you and applied it to you and made you His own.
You are renewed. You are safe. You are clean. And realizing that is a great help in avoiding sin. Why should we live according to the old man and his sinful desires when we are a new creation? Why should we do the things that characterized life outside the ark and brought death, and not delight in the things inside the ark where men live? While passing through the Red Sea, with the water like walls on the right and left, what’s the sense of looking back? There’s nothing but slavery back there, the futility of gathering straw to make bricks for buildings that were wrecked by the wrath of God. Let Egypt fade away and the old masters drown. We have freedom and new life in Christ. You are no longer a slave, but a son, for so your Father in heaven has called you in Baptism. You are washed clean. There’s no joy in wallowing in the mud. There’s no joy in being a leper, but in staying clean and keeping yourself unstained from the world (Jas. 1:27). These are the things to ponder in connection with your Baptism, and sin will appear plainly as the folly that it is.
And when you do sin (for there is no one who does not sin), your Baptism still stands, for it is not your work that you could tear it down or destroy it, but God’s work, His Word, His water, and your sin will not prevail against it. Your sin has as little chance of survival as those outside the ark, as Pharaoh’s charioteers with their clogged wheels. The water of Baptism is always flowing over you. Baptism may have been a one-time event, but that event was not like taking one shower and never taking another. No, being baptized is like going from standing on dry land, scorched and caked in dirt, to standing under a waterfall and staying there, the water making it impossible that any dirt will stick to you ever again. The water of Baptism is like the constant flow of the Jordan River and the constant mercy of Him who stood in that river for your sake. Jesus has put Himself in the place of sinners for your salvation, and has put you in His place in Baptism, with heaven open, with the gift of the Holy Spirit, with the good pleasure of your heavenly Father. Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit. Amen.