The Baptism of our Lord
February 11, 2018
“Baptism and Righteousness”
St. Matthew 3:13-17
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."
Baptism is a precious gift of God. Its benefits are greater than can be described in a single sermon. In fact, if we read and took to heart what the Bible teaches us about baptism, we would learn more than what could be written in many books.
Just consider this text before us today. In baptism the Holy Trinity reveals himself. The Father speaks from heaven. The Son is baptized in the Jordan River. The Holy Spirit descends on him like a dove. Baptism identifies God. When Jesus instituted this sacrament he said, “Baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” Baptism is about the Triune God. He is the only true God. All other gods are idols. The Father is the only God. The Son is the only God. The Holy Spirit is the only God. They are not three Gods, but one God. The Father is begotten of no one. The Son is begotten of the Father alone. The Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. This eternal relationship is revealed in time most clearly at the baptism and crucifixion of Jesus. If we wish to extol God, worship him, adore him, praise him, and give him the glory due his name, we will extol and honor the holy sacrament of baptism and trust in the promises God gives us in this sacred washing.
In baptism God’s righteousness is revealed. Everybody talks about righteousness even if few use the word or know what it means. When the child argues his case against his mother’s correction by explaining to her the true facts that justify whatever it is she is scolding him for doing, he is engaged in a theological conversation about righteousness. He is saying, “Mom, I am righteous.” Mom is saying, “No, you’re not.” Everybody talks about righteousness.
Jesus reveals true righteousness. When John, amazed and unsettled by the fact that the only sinless man in the world would come to him to be baptized for the forgiveness of sins, Jesus explained to him why. He said, “Thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” What does the baptism of Jesus have to do with fulfilling all righteousness? What did Jesus do right after he was baptized? Where did he go? The Holy Spirit led him into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. There, the righteous man withstood the temptations of the devil. He fulfilled all righteousness. He did what was righteous in the face of temptations to sin against God.
St. John explains what the fulfilling of all righteousness means in his first general Epistle, chapter five verse six:
He came by water. He was baptized. He came by blood. He was crucified. He came by water, not only by water, but by water and blood. This is the testimony of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of truth. After baptizing Jesus, John the Baptist identified him as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
Christ’s baptism and his crucifixion go together. Water and blood are joined together. When Jesus died, water and blood flowed from his pierced side. When we are baptized into Christ’s death, we are washed in the blood of the Lamb, cleansed from all our sins, raised up from death to life, filled with the Holy Spirit, rescued from sin, death, and the power of the devil, given new desires, new hope, and filled with love. In short, we are saved. St. Peter writes that baptism saves us, not by washing the dirt from the body, but by granting to us a good conscience by Christ’s resurrection from the dead. When Jesus rose, God absolved us. When we are baptized, we are made partakers of Christ’s death and resurrection.
“To fulfill all righteousness” means that Christ’s baptism gives to our baptism the merits, the virtue, the treasure of his holy life and sacrificial death. Do you want to be righteous? Be baptized. Why? Because by being baptized you are doing a righteous deed that will make you into a righteous person? No, but because God is the One who baptizes in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and when God baptizes you he clothes you with the righteousness of Christ, as St. Paul writes in Galatians 3:27, “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.”
The biblical teaching about baptism is clear. It is a tragedy that most Protestant churches do not teach it. The Bible teaches that baptism is God’s work, whereby the Holy Spirit washes away our sins and makes us holy. But many teach that baptism is our work and as our work doesn’t wash away sin, doesn’t makes us holy, and doesn’t save us. They turn God’s work into our work. In so doing, they strip from baptism the treasures that God gives us in this holy sacrament. They turn baptism into an outward expression of an inward experience. It is a sign that doesn’t give what it signifies.
This is the main reason why many of these churches refuse to baptize babies. If baptism is our work, we need to know what we are doing when we do it. If we cannot explain why we are doing it we should wait until we are able to do so before we do it. That would make sense if baptism were our work, but it makes no sense at all when baptism is God’s work. A child who is born of his mother has done nothing to make himself alive. It was God’s doing. Likewise, a child who is born again in Holy Baptism has done nothing to bring about his new birth. It was God’s doing. But if baptism is our work and not God’s, obviously a baby can’t do anything.
But this is just the point! Our salvation is God’s work and not ours. The forgiveness of our sins is God’s work and not ours. The indwelling of the Holy Spirit is God’s work and not ours. When you confess our faith in the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting, are you confessing your confidence in you or are you confessing your confidence in God? Baptism is God’s gracious, life-giving washing.
Your baptism places obligations on you. Yes, it is a gift. Yes, God graciously bestows it. But when you, through faith, receive this gift you obligate yourself to live a certain kind of life. This is why the first question asked of the candidate for baptism is, “Do you renounce the devil and all his works and all his ways?” We deny our baptism when we refuse to live the life of a baptized child of God.
The last question we ask and answer about baptism in Luther’s Small Catechism goes like this:
The Christian life is the life of returning to our baptism every single day. Baptism washes away all sin and gives us a new nature that wants to please God in everything we say and do. But until we die, our old sinful nature will remain. We will feel temptations to sin. When we yield to these temptations, our baptism calls us to repentance. It isn’t just a onetime event that is done and that’s that. It defines our relationship with God. It is the power to resist temptation to sin and when we don’t, baptism provides us with forgiveness of sin and the strength to resist in the future.
You cannot be baptized more than once. It’s not just wrong. It’s impossible. God’s covenant of baptism is sealed by Christ’s blood and God doesn’t renege on his promises. Let God be true and every man a liar. If you have fallen into sin, soul-destroying sin, vile, disgusting, damnable sin, and you think that this has brought your faith to an end and destroyed you as a Christian, stop and think. Consider two questions. First, does God’s promise depend on God or on you? Second, is your baptism God’s promise to you or is it not? Return to your baptism! No matter how far you have fallen, no matter how deep and offensive the sin, confess it to God and believe Jesus when he says that he fulfilled all righteousness for you. Take heart, sinner! Your baptism robes you in the righteousness of him who fulfilled all the righteous requirements of God’s law.
Watch Jesus leave the water of the Jordan and do battle against the devil in the wilderness, opposing his lies with biblical truth. Watch Jesus submit to every law of God and man and remain the obedient Son in whom his Father was well pleased. Watch him stand before those who falsely accused him, who delivered him up to be crucified on a cross as if he were a criminal. Look to Jesus dying for you. See there that every lustful thought, every cruel and false word, every selfish deed you ever thought, said, and did was laid on him and he bore it all away. He fulfilled all righteousness. He who knew no sin was made to be sin for you so that you might become the righteousness of God in him.
Now look to your baptism where God’s name and your name were joined together. There is the forgiveness of all your sins, for you were baptized into Christ’s death. There is God’s promise to you of eternal life, for you were baptized into Christ’s resurrection. There is your innocence before God because there the Holy Spirit entered into you to stay.
Rolf D. Preus