The Baptism of our Lord
March 6, 2011
1 Peter 3:21
“Baptism doth also now save us (not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God,) by the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” 1 Peter 3:21
In the fifth chapter of Second Kings we read of a great Syrian general by the name of Naaman. Naaman was the supreme commander of the Syrian army. He had the confidence of the king. He was a powerful and highly respected man. But he suffered from leprosy. His wife had a servant girl from Israel who knew of the prophet Elisha. This servant girl told her mistress that the prophet could cure her husband of his leprosy. So the king of Syria sent Naaman to Israel with a generous gift of silver and gold in search of the prophet who could cure him of his leprosy.
When Naaman arrived at the home of the prophet Elisha, Elisha sent a messenger out to him with instructions to wash himself in the Jordan River seven times. Naaman was furious. He had expected the prophet to come out and wave his hand over his leprosy and thereby to cure him. Now he was told to go and wash himself in a river. There were rivers up in Damascus where he could have washed himself. He considered Elisha’s instructions to be foolish, insulting, and arbitrary. He left Elisha’s house in a rage.
Then his servants came to him and persuaded him to do what the prophet said to do. “If he had asked you to do something great you would have done it,” they said. “Why not do something as simple as washing yourself in the Jordan River seven times?” So Naaman did as Elisha said. He washed himself in the Jordan River seven times. And he was immediately cured of his leprosy. His skin became as smooth and healthy as that of a little child. He tried to pay Elisha for what he had done, but Elisha refused payment. It was God’s gift and it wasn’t for sale.
Naaman needed help from God. He went to God to get it. He had his own ideas on how God would help him. But God had other ideas. As long as Naaman was unwilling to accept the help on God’s terms he would remain afflicted with leprosy. God decides how he is going to help us. We don’t. We’re not in charge. God is. God had the power to cure Naaman without requiring him to bathe in the Jordan River. But God chose to cure Naaman through a baptism or washing in the Jordan. God chose to save Naaman by means of a specific washing.
St. Peter speaks God’s word when he writes, “Baptism now saves us.” The Jordan River had no magical power to cure lepers. In the case of Naaman, God attached his promise to that water. He told his servant Elisha to tell Naaman to wash himself in the Jordan seven times. The water of Holy Baptism is not magic water. But God attaches his promise to this water. He tells his ministers to baptize in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. When they follow Christ’s command and so baptize this baptism is now water used by God’s command and connected with God’s word. It is a washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit, as St. Paul says in Titus 3:5. It is the means by which the Holy Spirit gives us the new spiritual birth and ushers us into the kingdom of God, as our Lord Jesus says in John 3:5. It is a washing of water by the word that makes us holy, as St. Paul says in Ephesians 5:26. It washes away our sins, as the Apostle says in Acts 22:16. It saves us, as St. Peter says in our text for this morning. How can water do such great things? It is not water that does them. It is God’s word that is in and with the water.
There is a popular teaching and belief among millions of Christians in America today that baptism has no power to save us. It is just a sign of our faith. Christians should be baptized in obedience to Christ, but baptism does not actually give us the Holy Spirit, the forgiveness of sins, the new birth, or eternal salvation. Baptism is just a sign that we have these things apart from baptism. And so sinners are taught that the way they become Christians and enter into the kingdom of God is not by means of Holy Baptism, but by means of praying a prayer that invites the Lord Jesus to come into their lives to become their Lord and Savior. And since babies are incapable of praying such prayers, they further teach that babies shouldn’t be baptized. They make baptism into no more than a sign by which we signify our faith to the world. They deny that baptism is a means by which God calls us to faith and gives us the treasures of heaven.
I don’t believe that Christians would deliberately deny what God clearly says. Why then, do so many Christians deny that baptism is a means by which God saves us from our sins? For the same reason that Naaman didn’t want to wash himself in the Jordan River seven times. We want to be in charge of how God helps us. We want to tell God how to do his job. And when he chooses a way that doesn’t make sense to us, we want to help him do it right.
But baptism isn’t our offering to God. It’s God’s work, not ours. Oh, you may see a minister pouring water and hear him saying words but the minister doesn’t save anyone anymore than Elisha healed Naaman of his leprosy. God is the one doing what needs to be done in Holy Baptism.
And this is why Jesus insisted on being baptized. He was baptized to fulfill all righteousness. The power of baptism comes from Jesus Christ himself who fulfilled all righteousness. Right after his baptism, the Holy Spirit let him into the desert where he fasted for forty days and was tempted by the devil. He was baptized. He joined us in our struggle against the devil. Then he went out to fight. He fought our fight for us. In being baptized Jesus assumed the obligation to purchase by his most holy obedience all of the blessings that Holy Baptism provides.
That obedience wasn’t partial. It was perfect. It was complete. He went all the way to the suffering of the cross. There his obedience faced the sin of the world. The innocent Lamb of God confronted the mass of wickedness of the whole human race throughout all of human history. Divine innocence confronted human guilt in the person of Jesus Christ. This is what his baptism obliged him to do. And he did it.
Now we receive from our baptism what Jesus put into it. He faced our sin and guilt with his obedience. This is how our baptism gives us a good conscience. St. Peter calls it, “the answer of a good conscience toward God, by the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” Christ’s resurrection from the dead is God’s public proclamation of approval of everything he did. “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.” He never stopped being pleased. His beloved Son never stopped obeying. He said he would fulfill all righteousness and that’s exactly what he did.
So here we are, baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. God’s name and ours are joined. The washing by which we are born from above and made citizens of heaven didn’t just get us wet. It united us with the Lord Jesus in his obedience, death, and resurrection. It washes us clean of all our sins. Every day we arise from the waters of Holy Baptism and every day we begin a new life.
The rite of confirmation is not commanded in the Holy Scriptures. Since Jesus did not establish it we don’t consider it to be a sacrament. But our Lord does command that we confess the faith. He said,
Whoever confesses me before men, I will also confess before my Father who is in heaven. But whoever denies me before men, I will also deny before my Father who is in heaven.
In Confirmation we confess the faith into which we were baptized. We confess the truth that we were taught in the Catechism. We promise to be true to the God whose name we bear. We promise that by God’s grace we will go to church, receive God’s gifts in gospel and sacrament, and live lives as faithful Christians. Everything we promise to do God gives us the grace to do through the waters of Holy Baptism that flow through our lives like a life-bestowing river bearing us to heaven.
To live under judgment is no way to live. We can ignore the judgment or point the finger back at whatever convenient target we can find. Folks who feel judgment against them try all sorts of ways of diverting it, most frequently by standing in judgment of others, thus compounding their own sins.
The good conscience comes from the good life. Christ lived it. He gives this life to us to live in Holy Baptism. Baptism doesn’t save by some magical power in the water. Baptism saves by the word and promise of Christ. Baptism covers our shame and displays us before God as holy and pure. For in baptism, God’s honor is at stake and God will protect his good name. He has given us his holy word. He will forgive us and wash us clear. Nobody can accuse those whom God has chosen. Baptism displays us before God as his chosen ones, his dear children, those with the right to call him Father and to expect from him every good thing in this life. In baptism we put on Christ as his holy people.
The power of our baptism is Christ’s resurrection. He died once. He cannot die again. His obedience was perfect. So was his death. There is nothing that needed doing that he did not do. No obedience can be required of anyone that Jesus did not already render to God. Baptism binds us to Christ and makes him ours. It is not mere water. It is not just an outward sign. It is God’s guarantee that, because Christ lives, we shall live also.
Many Christians wander away from their baptism and live lives of which they are ashamed. They neglect God’s word. They stop praying. They live for themselves and set aside the life God prepared for them. Then they come to see the emptiness of their lives. Sometimes they want to be re-baptized, as if the first time didn’t take but maybe this one will. But there is no such thing. When the individual Christian wanders away from the truth, God remains faithful. When we fall into sin, God remains ready to forgive. And when we return to our God and confess our sins and ask for his forgiveness, he doesn’t put us on trial or probation. He forgives. He washes us clean in the same baptism by which he made us his child. So we cherish our baptism as the vehicle of God’s grace and forgiveness that keeps on washing us clean and setting our conscience at peace. Amen