The Baptism of Our Lord
February 23, 2020
“Baptism and Righteousness”
Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan to be baptized by him. And John tried to prevent Him, saying, "I need to be baptized by You, and are You coming to me?" But Jesus answered and said to him, "Permit it to be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness." Then he allowed Him. When He had been baptized, Jesus came up immediately from the water; and behold, the heavens were opened to Him, and He saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting upon Him. And suddenly a voice came from heaven, saying, "This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased." Matthew 3:13-17
Christ’s baptism shows us who God is. God is the Father Almighty who speaks his approval from heaven of his beloved Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. God is the Son, our Lord and brother, standing in the Jordan River. God is the Holy Spirit, our Comforter, who descends on Jesus like a dove. These are not three gods, but one God. This is the only God. All other gods are idols. The true God is revealed at the baptism of Jesus. The true God is the Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: one divine substance and three distinct persons. The true God is the God in whose name we have been baptized. Christ’s baptism shows us who God is. Nowhere is the Triune God more clearly revealed as Triune than at the baptism of Jesus.
There is something strange about Christ being baptized by John. John’s baptism gave the forgiveness of sins. St. Mark writes, “John came baptizing in the wilderness and preaching a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins.” (Mark 1:4) Since John’s baptism was for the forgiveness of sins, it made no sense to John that Jesus should come to him to be baptized. Jesus had no sin that needed to be forgiven. In fact, as John had already publicly preached, Jesus was the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Why should the innocent Lamb of God come to receive a washing that was for sinners?
Jesus explained why. He said, “Permit it to be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River by John to fulfill all righteousness. What does it mean to fulfill all righteousness? It means that Jesus came into this world to obey God. God made Adam and Eve to be righteous. He made them in his own image. They were the crown of his creation. He loved them. They sinned against him. They lost their original righteousness. The whole world became sinful. Jesus came to do the righteousness that fallen humanity needed done but could not do. He came to live a righteous life as the substitute for all sinners and he came to suffer and die on the cross to receive the divine punishment against all the unrighteousness of all sinners. This perfect obedience of Jesus is called “righteousness” in the Bible. The Bible teaches us that we are justified (declared by God to be righteous) through faith. We receive Christ’s righteousness through faith in Christ our Savior. We are righteous because Christ did what God required of us and gave us the credit for it. We are righteous because Christ took the blame for our sins and suffered for them on the cross. We are righteous through faith in Christ.
We are justified through faith alone because faith is how we receive the righteousness that Jesus has done. He came to fulfill all righteousness. He came to do for us what we could not do for ourselves. He came to love with a perfect love and he did. He loved his Father more than he loved anything else. He loved God with his whole heart, soul, strength, and mind. He loved those who hated him. His love didn’t falter. He prayed for his enemies, pleading with his Father to forgive them when they were mocking him on the cross. Jesus lived the righteous life that God commanded us to live. This is why we are justified by faith in Jesus. Faith simply receives Jesus. It doesn’t do anything. Faith saves or justifies, not by what it does, but by what it receives. Faith receives Christ. Faith receives God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Faith receives. Faith cannot receive what God does not give.
Faith is trust. It includes knowledge, but it is more than knowledge. Faith doesn’t receive anything from God just by agreeing that what God says is true. Faith trusts in what God says. Faith adds two words to the teaching of the gospel: for me. It is for me! God not only wants me to believe that the gospel is true, but he wants me to believe that it is for me. Faith is knowledge, assent, and trust. Trust is confidence that everything God does and says to rescue sinners from their sins and give them eternal life is for me. Faith is personal. This is why faith needs baptism.
My faith cannot carry me back to Jesus. I cannot fly back to when and where Jesus rescued me from hell. I did not see him heal the sick and raise the dead and preach with such authority that the crowds marveled. I was not there when he was crucified between two thieves, mocked and ridiculed, hated and murdered, all out of his infinite love for me. I wasn’t there when he rose from the dead, victorious over death and the devil. I was not there. I cannot go there. But I need what happened there. I need Jesus. I need him and what he has done for me. So do you. Everyone does. Our faith cannot bring him to us. It is too weak.
Our loving God knows this. So he baptizes us. Look at your baptism today and see what it is. Not just a religious rite that initiates you into a religious club of likeminded religious people. Look at it and see that it bridges time and space and brings you back to the Jordan River to hear the words, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” Your faith was too weak to bring Jesus into your heart or life. But God’s grace is almighty. And it has been placed into Holy Baptism. When you were baptized, you were washed in the blood of the Lamb. Your baptism washes you in the blood of Jesus every single day. It washes you clean of every sin and every stain. Baptism and Jesus go together. This is what our Lord’s baptism tells us. You cannot separate Jesus from baptism. St. Paul writes in Ephesians 4, “One Lord, one faith, one baptism.” Baptism and Jesus go together.
Baptism and faith go together. Baptism doesn’t save anyone who doesn’t believe the gospel of Jesus Christ. “He who believes and is baptized shall be saved.” Not, “he who believed,” as if once you are saved you can never fall away, but “he who believes” and is baptized shall be saved. Faith is always in the present. So is baptism. Baptism is not just for babies. It is for adults. It is for those entering into this world and it is for those who will shortly be leaving it and it is for those who are busy living Christian lives. And it is always what our Lord Jesus has made it. It is as the hymnist put it.
Within the Jordan's sacred flood
The heavenly Lamb in meekness stood
That he of whom no sin was known
Might cleanse his people from their own.
The baptism of Jesus is a mirror image of our own. Jesus is baptized to be displayed as the sinless Son of God the Father. We are baptized because we are the sinful children of Adam. Jesus is baptized to take on himself our sin. We are baptized to lay on Jesus our sin. Jesus is baptized to put into baptism his righteousness. We are baptized to receive from baptism Christ's righteousness. In Jesus’ baptism and our own the blessed exchange takes place. Our sin becomes Jesus’ sin though he didn’t do it. Jesus’ righteousness becomes ours, though we didn’t do it.
Christ’s baptism sent him into the wilderness to do battle against the devil. Our baptism is a declaration of war against the evil one, the father of lies and the murderer of souls. The pastor asks the candidate for baptism: “Do you renounce the devil and all his works and all his ways?” We reply, “I do renounce them.” We repeat this at our confirmation.
I ask you today, do you agree with your baptism? Do you claim Christ’s righteousness as your own? Do you confess that you are righteous, clothed in the righteousness of Christ himself? St. Paul writes in Galatians 3:26-27, “For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” Do you claim Jesus’ victory over the devil as your victory?
Baptism is not the work of men. It is the work of God. If it were the work of men, we couldn’t trust in it or rely on it. That would be sinking sand. Baptism is what God’s word makes it. God’s word calls it a “washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Ghost.” (Titus 3:5) God’s word is almighty. When God calls you by name and joins his name to yours, you are his. You can depend on that.
Were it to depend on our doing it, it would all fall apart. But Jesus has that perfect goodness God requires of us. He freely gives it to us. He never asks us how many times we've come back for it. He doesn’t chide us in our weakness and humility. When our faith is bruised and broken because of our sin; when our faith is flickering and about to be extinguished because of our weakness; he does not break off the bruised reed or snuff out the dimly burning wick of our faith. He meets us where we are: in our sin and weakness, just as we are. He gently restores us, pardons us, speaks kindly to us, and covers our sin with his righteousness again and again. This is what it means to be baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
We have a treasure in our baptism. Every time doubts about our relationship with God come up in our hearts; every time we face temptation to sin and to deny what God has called us to be; every time the truth of God’s holy word is questioned and we begin to question it too; we can stand up against the lies of the devil, the world, and our sinful flesh.
I am baptized! I have Christ and Christ has me! His righteousness is mine. His victory is mine. His life is mine. I will believe like a Christian. I will live like a Christian. I will die like a Christian. My baptism takes me to the Jordan River, to Calvary’s cross, and to the open tomb. There I take my stand.
Rolf D. Preus