Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen. According to one preacher, “The Christian church has never been comfortable with the baptism of Jesus.” Questions abound about the what’s and why’s and how’s of exactly happened in the Jordan River on that day Jesus came to John the Baptist. Christ’s baptism is quite a mystery. For instance, was Jesus baptized by immersion? Was John’s baptism the same as Christian baptism? Did Jesus know that he was the Messiah prior to God’s pronouncement of pleasure from the cloud? What Old Testament theophanies are recalled by this event? Did the Holy Spirit become a dove, or merely appear as a dove? Did Jesus need baptism? Why was he baptized? And how did his being baptized “fulfill all righteousness”? No doubt, you have your own questions to add to this list.
But don’t worry: I will not attempt to answer every single one of these questions in today’s message. I want to focus on just two: why Jesus was baptized and what he accomplished by it (purpose and result).
Over the centuries, many ideas have been proposed for the purpose of Jesus’ baptism. One idea we may quickly discount is the suggestion that Jesus was a sinner like us who needed to repent of his sins. As many people say, Jesus was a man—just a man. But the Bible goes to great lengths to prove that Jesus was the sinless Son of God and the only perfect man ever to live. He “has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Heb. 4:15). Jesus has walked in our shoes. He knows what it’s like to be human. He’s “been there.” He just hasn’t “done that.” He resisted “every temptation” that the devil threw at him (Luke 4:13). So the idea that Jesus needed to be baptized for his own purification or salvation is nothing but absurd.
Others have written that it was at his Baptism that Jesus became Messiah or Christ, titles that mean “anointed one.” In the Old Testament, prophets, priests, and kings were anointed with oil to inaugurate their service to God and his people. In a similar way, some argue, Jesus was anointed with the Holy Spirit at his baptism when the dove descended from heaven and alighted upon his shoulder. This serves as Jesus’ anointing. Indeed, in John’s Gospel, we are told that the Spirit “remained on him” (John 1:32). Thus, at his baptism, Jesus went from a man from Nazareth to the Christ of Israel.
However, there is a big hole in this argument: Jesus always had the Holy Spirit—even from conception, as the angel told Joseph in his dream: “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 1:20). The angel Gabriel told the virgin Mary, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you…” (Luke 1:35). So Jesus had the Holy Spirit even before his Baptism. He didn’t need a second “dose” just to assume the mantle of Messiah.
A far more common teaching I have encountered is that Jesus’ Baptism was meant to set an example for us also to be baptized. For instance, in his Epiphany sermon on our text, Martin Luther indicates a direct connection between Christ’s Baptism and our own.
Jesus certainly desires for all people to be baptized. God both commands Baptism and attaches great promises to it. “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:19, ESV). And “Baptism… now saves you…” (1 Pet. 3:21). For “whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned” (Mark 16:16).
Nevertheless, nowhere in Scripture do the apostolic writers explain our Baptism in terms of Jesus’ baptism. This does not mean that our Baptism has nothing to do with Jesus. After all, the New Testament does connect our Baptism to other events in Jesus’ life: namely, his crucifixion and resurrection. Paul writes in today’s epistle lesson:
“Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:3-4).
Baptism is a spiritual dying and rising with Christ. Our old, sinful Adam is drowned in the waters of Baptism, and a new man (or woman) emerges from the water full of the Holy Spirit and faith that clings to Christ.
But Jesus’ baptism is not explained in this way. When John tries to stop Jesus from coming, Jesus tells him, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness” (Matt. 3:15). Let it be so now—not for all time, but for now. For in baptizing Jesus, John and he would together “fulfill all righteousness”—whatever that means!
While the Baptism of Jesus occurs in all four gospels, Matthew alone gives us the detail of John trying to prevent Jesus. “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” (Matt. 3:14). And if we’re not just as shocked and perplexed by Jesus’ baptism as John was, then we don’t get it either.
Everything about Jesus’ baptism defied John’s understanding of right and wrong and who Messiah would be. John the Baptist liked to draw lines in the sand, demarcating the differences between the wheat and the chaff, the righteous and the wicked, the good and bad fruit, and the saved and sinners (3:10-12). John preached repentance: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (3:2). But Jesus didn’t have anything of which to repent! So when Jesus came to be baptized, he confounded John’s categories. Jesus is the only sinless person who ever lived. Yet he wanted to undergo John’s baptism of repentance—a sinner’s baptism?! John didn’t consider himself worthy even to untie Jesus’ sandals, yet Jesus wanted John to Baptism him. Something didn’t add up!
You see: Jesus crossed the line and blurred the edges of John’s neat ways of thinking about and judging people. Rather than bringing to bear God’s holiness in order to burn and bruise people, Jesus came to doff his holiness and become like us. By seeking baptism, Jesus stood in the water with sinners. He identified with us in all of our ugliness and sin. It was almost as if he was saying, “If I will be your Savior, I must first dive into the cesspool of sin with you.” St. Paul puts it this way: “For our sake [God] made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21). This is the Great Reversal of the Gospel—what Luther calls “the glorious exchange.” Jesus takes our sin—and even becomes sin for us—in order that we might become the righteousness of God. He takes our badness and gives us his goodness in return. It sounds like an unfair deal, but Jesus permitted it for our sake and our salvation. “Let it be so now,” he told John.
Barbara Brown Taylor writes: “We spend a lot of time in the Christian church talking about God’s love for sinners, but we sure do go to a lot of trouble not to be mistaken for one of them. Guilt by association and all that. Only Jesus—our leader and our Lord—did not seem too concerned about that. In him, God’s-being-with-us included God’s being in the river with us, in the flesh with us, in the sorrow of repentance and the joy of new life with us.”
It wasn’t enough for Jesus to wear our skin or walk in our shoes. He wanted also to walk in our sin so he could carry our sin to the cross and leave it there. At his baptism, Jesus took his stand with sinners. He cast his lot in with us. At the beginning of his ministry, he wore a badge of shame and underwent a baptism of repentance so that we would know he came to save sinners like us. Wow!
No wonder that God was so pleased with his beloved Son (Matt. 3:17). Jesus gave up what nobody else ever had and made himself nothing so that we could have everything in his kingdom of grace. After his baptism, Jesus traveled Galilee and Judea on foot as an itinerant preacher and healer for nearly 3 ½ years. But no matter where Jesus “wandered,” his road from the Jordan River went straight to the cross and empty tomb. And in this way, he fulfilled all righteousness for you. Jesus stands with sinners. In the name of Jesus. Amen.