Text: Matthew 3:13-17
Today we celebrate the Baptism of our Lord Jesus Christ by John in the Jordan River. Sometime toward the end of John the Baptist’s ministry, Jesus came out to him to be baptized; and, when He had come up from the water, God the Father and the Holy Spirit proclaimed the Gospel – Jesus is the Son of God, who has come to do the Father’s will. John initially tried to prevent Jesus from being baptized. He said, “I need to be baptized by You, and do You come to me?” John was right about that, but Jesus said to permit it, for thus it was fitting to fulfill all righteousness.
The celebration of this day is a relatively new one. Historically, the celebration of Epiphany on January 6th also included celebrating the Transfiguration and today’s text all in one day. In the Eastern Orthodox churches, it still does. In the Western churches, such as our own, the Transfiguration was moved to a separate Sunday to give full weight to both the Epiphany and Transfiguration – to give them room to breathe, and us opportunity to hear about them both. More recently, this has been done for the Baptism of Jesus. Recent, as in, within the last generation. We celebrate this Sunday because it is a milestone in the life of Christ and within His ministry, because we get to see all three members of the Trinity at work at the same time, because God the Father Himself speaks from heaven, and more. Today, I’d like us to consider this: By being baptized, Jesus united Himself with us in our sin. By our being baptized, He unites us to Him in life.
That is the answer to a question we might have upon hearing this text; why was Jesus baptized? Before we go further, let’s back up and talk a little about John the Baptist. During the Advent season, we talked about him a few times. Our 5-6th graders have been hearing about him in their lessons, too. John the Baptist was the one sent in the “spirit and power of Elijah,” to prepare the way of the Lord. He was a stark figure, dressed in “camel’s hair and a leather belt.” His diet of locusts and wild honey betrayed a ritually pure diet. John, in short, was a holy man of God; and the way that he prepared people for the coming of the Messiah was by preaching the Word of God, in both Law and Gospel.
John preached the Law to people (the Ten Commandments) to show them their sin and need for the savior. The Holy Sprit worked through that preaching of the Law then, as now, to bring about repentance in the hearts of those people. They heard John preach and were convicted of their sins. The Holy Spirit brought them to confess their sins, and then John would baptize them. That was the other aspect of John’s work to prepare the way of the Lord. People would confess their sins and John would baptize them for the forgiveness of those sins. St. Mark says, “John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”
Over the course of time, Jesus came to be baptized. St. Matthew writes in our text, “John would have prevented Him, saying, I need to be baptized by You, and do You come to me?’ But Jesus answered him, ‘Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.’ Then he consented.” After Jesus was baptized, the heavens were opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon Him in the form of a dove. God the Father spoke from heaven, declaring that Jesus is His beloved Son. We remember and confess this wonderful event today. But, the question on my mind, and it might be on yours, too, is this: why was Jesus Baptized?
Most of us here are probably post-Confirmation. That means we have spent some time looking, learning, and memorizing Martin Luther’s Small Catechism. Part of the Catechism talks about Baptism. It says that Baptism works, “forgiveness of sins, rescues from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to all who believe.” That means the people who should be baptized are people who need forgiveness of sins. St. Luke tells us about who was going to see John: Pharisees and the Jewish leadership, sure, but also regular people – tax collectors and soldiers and such. They, like us, were born of natural flesh and blood and in need of the saving washing of Holy Baptism. But, Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. He neither inherited the corruption of original sin nor did He commit any sin of His own. So, why be baptized?
John the Baptist himself said that he was sent to baptize so that Jesus would be revealed to Israel. But, maybe there’s a little more here. The point of Jesus’ life, from conception to death, is that He is our substitute. We sin, He didn’t. We break the Law; He kept the Law. Rather than God’s wrath against sin being poured out on us, Jesus bore it in our place on the cross. Jesus was baptized to be united with us, to step into our place. He did not have sin, but He became identified as one having sin by being baptized just as any other sinner – you or I – would. The prophet Isaiah spoke of Jesus in this way, “[He] was numbered with the transgressors…He bore the sins of many.” Jesus was baptized so that He might unite Himself with us in sin and death. He united Himself with us in our sin and death, and then carried it all to the cross.
A day like today also gives us the opportunity to talk about the Baptism we have received. We learned from the Catechism that Baptism gives the forgiveness of sins, rescues from sin, death and the devil, and grants eternal salvation. St. Paul wrote to Titus that Baptism is a washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit. He also wrote to the Romans that in Baptism we are united to Christ. He says it this way, “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.”
Jesus was baptized by John so that, even though He Himself was without sin, He might become identified with us sinners – so that He might be united with us sinners. He united Himself to us in our sin, so that He might be our substitute in carrying that sin on the cross. In our Baptism, He unites us to Himself in life. In Baptism, we receive the fruits of His cross – the forgiveness of sins, rescue from death and hell, eternal life, and the faith which receives these things. For all these things and more, we rejoice.
In the Epiphany season, we celebrate that the man Jesus Christ is our true God and Lord in the flesh. He has come to bear our sin and be our savior. By His perfect life, by His fulfillment of the Law, and by His death in our place, He has secured for us eternal salvation. Today we give thanks that, by His Baptism, Jesus united Himself to us and that, in our Baptism, He unites us to Himself.