Bible Text: Matthew 3:13-17 | Preacher: Pastor Andrew Richard | Series: Epiphany 2020 | During the Christmas season we focused on Jesus’ humility in coming in the flesh and the wonder of the Incarnation. Last Sunday began the season of Epiphany, during which time we see that Christ’s humility does not mean a loss of his divine nature. Magi from the east came to worship the child Jesus as their king and their God, and rightly so. As the season of Epiphany continues, we get a multifaceted view of this God-man Jesus, as if the most brilliant diamond is being illuminated from every direction by the most brilliant light.
Today’s Gospel reading is one of the shortest. But while the account of Jesus’ Baptism is very brief, we dare not for that reason underestimate its importance. Our Lord often puts the greatest gifts in the smallest packages: himself in human flesh, salvation in water, the account of his Baptism in five verses.
John the Baptist was preaching in the wilderness and baptizing the people with “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,” as it says in Mark 1. And it says in Matthew 3, not long before today’s reading, “Then Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.” And John led them to expect a greater Baptism and directed them to Christ, “I baptize you with water for 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.”
Then something unexpected happens. The one who is mightier than John, who will baptize with a greater Baptism than John’s baptism, comes seeking baptism. Jesus joins sinners in their pilgrimage to the Jordan River, not to preach or heal or replace John, but for the same reason the sinners are going: to be baptized.
Jesus approaches the Jordan River, and you can picture the waters trembling. The last time their Lord passed this way, seated on the ark of the covenant, carried by the priests, the waters of the Jordan piled up in a heap. Its flowing stream was made to act in a miraculous way not according to its nature, and the people of Israel were given a way through the water on dry ground. And now here he comes again, the true Fount and spring of the water of life, and the river is glad.
John likewise rejoices in his soul, but his hand trembles at what Jesus asks him to do. “John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’” Lord, what are you doing? You are my greater. I ought to bow my head under your hand, not the other way around. I baptize with a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. What sins do you have to confess? You are sinless! You are the forgiveness of sins! I’m the sinner. Baptize me! O Lord, do not enter into this water. Sinners have been washed in it. Do not sully yourself with our filth. Uphold your position of honor and maintain your purity.
“But Jesus answered him, ‘Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.’” John, my faithful Forerunner, do not be concerned for my sake. I have come out of concern for you and for all mankind. My honor will not be lost in my humility, nor will my purity be soiled by bearing sins. Rather, my Father will give me honor in my Baptism because I am fulfilling righteousness: the salvation of man. And you, John, are my helper, for it is through you that my Father is putting me in the place of sinners. Do not worry on my account: my purity is so far greater than man’s sin that rather than man’s sin washing away my purity, my purity shall sanctify these waters to be a washing away of man’s sins. So lend me your hand. It is for this reason that my Father sent you to baptize with water, that I might be revealed to Israel as the Son of God who takes the place of sinners.
“Then he consented.” Our Lord stepped into the river. The waters did not pile up in a heap as before, but something far greater was about to happen. Jesus bowed his head under John’s hand. And in an event that changed the course of human history more than World War 2 or the invention of the airplane or the discovery of electricity, John baptized Jesus.
“And 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; and behold, a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.’” We see that the Baptism of our Lord is no mere splash of water, but opens heaven and manifests the whole Trinity. The Holy Spirit descends from heaven to earth. And just as the dove signaled the end of the flood and peace for Noah and his family, so also the Holy Spirit as a dove signals for us the end of God’s wrath and hovers over the waters of a better flood: the waters of Baptism.
The Father proclaims to all that he is well pleased with his Son. Jesus has come and stood in the place of sinners, and this makes the Father glad. It makes the Father glad that Jesus offers himself as our substitute, first being baptized like a sinner, even though Jesus is no sinner, and then suffering death on a cross like a sinner, even though Jesus still committed no sin. Why is the Father pleased with Jesus for doing this? Because the Father desired your salvation.
It’s good to recognize your need for this salvation. It’s good for you to recognize, like John, that you are not worthy of Jesus. You can even balk like John did when Jesus comes to you in this place and say, “Lord, what do you want with me? I’m nothing. You deserve better than dealing with my filth.” This is true, and a fine confession of sin. But Jesus will press on, like he did with John. He’ll grant your point. It’s not as if a confession of sin on our part is false or wrong. But that won’t make Jesus turn around and leave or stop him from doing what he came to do. The Son of God wants to please his Father, and he knows that his Father desires your salvation. And so Jesus comes to save you, and not only because it is the greatest desire of the Father’s heart, but because it is Jesus’ greatest desire as well.
And so we see in the Baptism of our Lord what a kind and gentle God we have. He does not deal with us according to our sins, but through his Son he opens heaven to us. If Jesus had not been baptized, heaven would be shut, Jesus would not be our substitute, the Holy Spirit would not come to us, the Father would be silent toward us, and we could be baptized ten thousand times and it would accomplish nothing more than getting us wet. But now Jesus has been baptized, and heaven is open, and Baptism is instituted, through which the Holy Spirit comes to us and the Father claims us as his dear children.
And don’t let it surprise you that we’ve jumped from Christ’s baptism to your baptism. Your baptism is not a separate or different baptism from the Baptism of our Lord. Rather, when you were baptized you entered into Christ’s baptism. When you were baptized it’s like you were put right there in the Jordan with Jesus, such that heaven was opened to you and the Holy Spirit descended on you and the Father recognized you as his beloved child. There is in truth only one baptism, as Paul writes in Ephesians 4, “one Lord, one faith, one Baptism,” and that one Baptism is the Baptism of Jesus, into which you have been baptized.
Against this Baptism the devil rails and raves, and teaches others to do the same. “Baptism is just plain water! How can a handful of water save the soul?” Really devil? Who in his right mind would look at Jesus being baptized and call that “plain water”? No water is plain water that has Jesus standing in it. Is it the nature of water to pile up in a heap instead of flowing downstream? Yet the water did so when the ark of the Lord was standing in it. No plain water there. And neither is the water of Baptism plain water, not when Jesus has put himself into it, not when it has the Word of God with it, “I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”
But we’ll leave the devil and his heretics to their madness. As for you, you cling to the Word of God lest the treasure of Baptism be taken away from you. It says in 1 Peter 3, “Baptism now saves you.” Peter likewise preaches at Pentecost in Acts 2, “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.” You have been baptized, and thus you are saved, your sins are forgiven, and you have received the Holy Spirit, assuming you believe these words. For without faith no one can receive the benefits of Baptism.
But I don’t say this to stir up doubt. Faith, after all, does not look to faith for assurance of salvation. Faith looks to Jesus. And there he is, standing there in the waters, in your place, substituting himself for sinners. There he is instituting Baptism by joining himself to the water, putting you in his place with heaven open to you and the Holy Spirit attending you and the Father calling you his own. The Baptism of our Lord is a glorious gift, not only because it reveals who he is, but also because it reveals who you are in him: a beloved child with whom God is well pleased. Amen.