Baptism of our Lord
February 10, 2013
“The Wonderful Exchange of Holy Baptism”
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." St. Matthew 3:13-17
The baptism of Jesus is one of the most striking events of his ministry. It marks its beginning. While he joined the human race when he was conceived by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, and he was born under the law to redeem those who were under the law, he did not begin to preach until after he was baptized. The first thing he did after his baptism was to go into the desert to fast for forty days and forty nights where he was tempted by the devil. For us Christians that event marks the beginning of Lent. It is therefore appropriate for us to consider our Lord’s baptism before we enter into the Lenten season.
This event is striking because at first glance it makes no sense at all. John couldn’t understand why Jesus wanted to be baptized. He said, “I need to be baptized by you, and are you coming to me?” After all, the chief benefit of baptism is the forgiveness of sins. John the Baptist preached a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Repentance and forgiveness are necessary for sinners. All sinners need to repent. This is why all sinners need baptism. This is why Jesus doesn’t need baptism. It cannot possibly be for his benefit. He is the only human being who has ever lived who doesn’t need the forgiveness of sins.
No wonder John reacted as he did. Why should a sinless man want baptism when baptism is for the forgiveness of sins? Why would Jesus choose to be baptized? Jesus explained to John why. He said, “Permit it to be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Let us pay close attention to Jesus’ words.
Jesus did not say that the law required him to be baptized. It didn’t. Baptism is not a legal matter. As you know, everything God teaches us in the Bible falls under two doctrines: the law and the gospel. The law gives us God’s commands that we must obey. It tells us what we are to do and not to do. It sets before us the will of God for our behavior. It tells us right from wrong. It threatens us with God’s punishment for our disobedience to it.
The gospel, on the other hand, does not give us commands to obey. It doesn’t set before us the will of God for our behavior. It doesn’t teach us right from wrong. It doesn’t threaten us. The gospel is the good news that God, for Christ’s sake, forgives us all our sins that we have committed against his law. Since Jesus fulfilled the law for us and suffered and died for us on the cross, God forgives us for his sake. The gospel isn’t a message about what we must do. It is a message about what we should believe. The gospel doesn’t call for obedience. It calls for faith.
Baptism is gospel. It is not law. Baptism is not a good work that we do. Baptism is a work that God does. By baptizing us God gives us the forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation that Jesus has won for us. Baptism is gospel. It is not law. Baptism is necessary because we need what God gives us in Holy Baptism, not because we meet a legal requirement to fulfill all righteousness. Jesus fulfills all righteousness. We don’t. The necessity of Holy Baptism is our need for a grace-bestowing, life-giving sacrament by which God rescues us from sin, death, and the power of the devil.
Jesus said to John, “Permit it to be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” To fulfill all righteousness is something Jesus does as our substitute. He fulfills what is required of us. He takes our place. When he fulfills all righteousness he is not just doing what is righteous he is doing it for us. He didn’t need to be baptized for his own sake. His baptism was necessary for our sake.
Christ’s baptism and our baptism are joined together in a wonderful way that transcends space and time. They are precise opposites. Jesus leaves in the water his righteousness and takes from the water our sin. We leave in the water our sin and take from the water Christ’s righteousness. It is a wonderful exchange. All that belongs to Christ becomes ours. All that belongs to us becomes his.
So then, our sins are not ours anymore. They belong to Christ. He must bear them. That’s what he does. Jesus went to the cross. This was what God had determined in love for us from before time began. His baptism was his public acknowledgement of this. It was at the Jordan where John was baptizing that John identified Jesus as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Christ’s baptism was his public promise that he would fulfill all righteousness for us and that included his promise to go to Jerusalem to suffer and die. St. John ties together Christ’s baptism and crucifixion in his First General Epistle, chapter 5:
This is He who came by water and blood—Jesus Christ; not only by water, but by water and blood. And it is the Spirit who bears witness, because the Spirit is truth.
The water and the blood go together. This was vividly displayed at the cross after the Roman solider thrust his spear into Jesus’ side. Water and blood came out, signifying that from the pierced side of Jesus the Church receives the benefits of the sacraments and these holy sacraments are the testimony of the Lord and giver of Life: the Holy Spirit.
Christ’s baptism reveals the Trinity of God more clearly than any other event recorded for us in the Holy Scriptures. The Bible teaches that God is Triune: three distinct persons and one divine essence. This is taught throughout the Holy Scriptures, in the Old Testament as well as the New Testament. At our Lord’s baptism in the Jordan the Trinity in Unity and Unity in Trinity is clearly revealed.
God is revealed as triune after Jesus has been baptized. Our text says,
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."
The Bible says here that he came up immediately from the water. It does not say that he came up immediately from under the water because it is very unlikely that Jesus was ever under the water. The Jordan River flows shallow. It is a myth that all baptisms in the Bible featured the immersion under water of the baptized. It is more likely that John poured water over Jesus’ head as Jesus stood in the water.
It was after his baptism that the Holy Spirit descended on him like a dove and a voice came from heaven saying, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” The dove symbolizes peace. That’s what baptism provides. For when Jesus fulfills all righteousness for us he sets us at peace with God. God the Father speaks from heaven and pronounces his approval on his Son. He loves him. He is well pleased with him.
From eternity the Father and the Son have loved each other. The pure and holy and eternal divine love of the Father and the Son is a love deeper and more wonderful than we can imagine. It is removed from our sight and experience. It is so high above us, so beyond us, so transcendent that we mere mortals must only imagine and wonder.
But see. It is revealed to us. This love speaks. This is my beloved Son. The eternal God, begotten of his Father before all worlds, is a man. The Father loves his eternal Son become flesh and blood. So his love, his divine love, his eternal and unmatchable love for his only begotten Son is his love for this holy man standing in the Jordan River, wet with the waters of Holy Baptism, ready and willing to fulfill all righteousness for us.
And the mystery is even more wonderful than that! For this love is also divine approval. He says, “In whom I am well pleased.” The Father is well pleased with his Son who is not only his Son but also Mary’s Son and thus our brother, come into our world to fulfill all righteousness for us. What can this mean but that when we in Holy Baptism receive from Jesus everything that belongs to him we receive as well that verdict of divine approval: “In whom I am well pleased.”
Oh, you say, God must be kidding! If only he knew! If he only knew what I did last week. What I said in anger. What I was thinking. Oh, if God saw me as I really am he couldn’t possibly say concerning me, “In whom I am well pleased.” Yes, yes, the Father loves and approves of the Son. That I can believe. But that God the Father Almighty is well pleased with me? How can that be?
That can be and that is, dear Christian, and this is the gospel. It is the gospel of Holy Baptism. It is the gospel of that wonderful exchange where all our sin becomes the property of Jesus and all Jesus’ righteousness becomes ours. That’s the wonder of baptism – the miracle of God’s grace joined to water and the Word of God. The voice identifies Jesus. He is the Son I love. With him I am well pleased. But this same Jesus must go to the cross. That’s what he promised to do by submitting to Holy Baptism. He must go to the cross. Not that we force him to go. But his love compels him. And there, the One who is loved from eternity by his Father and the One with whom the Father is well pleased will suffer as the sinner, the worst of all sinners, for he will suffer and die as he bears the sin of the whole human race. Thus he will fulfill all righteousness.
We find these treasures in our baptism. It remains for us a source of forgiveness and peace with God every day of our lives. Have you fallen down in your Christian life? Have you lied? Stolen? Wasted? Have you neglected your duty? Have you been unfaithful? Have you wronged somebody by word or deed? Confess these sins to God, and place yourself under the waters of Holy Baptism where all your sin is washed away. Lay claim to your inheritance. The wonderful exchange of Holy Baptism makes you an heir of heaven. Don’t let your sins define you. Confess them to him who bore them and then listen to the Father’s verdict upon his Son. He is speaking to you, his beloved child. He sees you in your baptism robed in the righteousness of Christ and he is well pleased with you. Amen