The Baptism of Our Lord

January 8, 2017

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." Matthew 3:13-17



The Gospels are historical accounts.  What Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John report as having happened happened.  All four Evangelists record Jesus’ baptism by John in the Jordan River.  It happened in space and time.


You and I live in space and time, separated from Christ’s baptism by nearly two thousand years.  But his baptism and our baptism are joined together.  In our baptism we leave our sins in the water.  In Jesus’ baptism, he took our sins from the water.  In Jesus’ baptism he put in the water his righteousness.  In our baptism we receive Christ’s righteousness.  It clothes us in Christ’s innocence.  It renders us holy.


This was not without cost.  Baptism isn’t magic water.  There is no forgiveness without suffering and death.  There is no righteousness without perfect obedience.  Jesus was baptized to fulfill all righteousness.  The baptism of Jesus sends him into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.  Why should he be tempted by the devil?  It’s not as if he can sin.  He’s God.  God can’t sin.  But he must do battle against the devil.  He must feel the temptations of the devil.  Why?  Because he is our champion!  He is our man!  He is the One who will fulfill all righteousness.  Jesus is the representative of the human race.  His baptism obligates him to obey God as the representative man, to do the righteousness God demands of us all.  His baptism obligates him to suffer.  The blood of Jesus takes away sin.  Baptism takes away sin.  How can this be?  How can baptism take away sin if it’s the blood of Jesus that takes away sin?  We are baptized into Christ’s death – that’s how.


God, the Holy Trinity, revealed himself when Jesus was baptized.  The Father spoke from heaven.  The Son stood in the water of the Jordan River.  The Holy Spirit descended on him like a dove.  God is revealed where Jesus is baptized.  God is revealed where you are baptized.  You aren’t baptized in the name of some generic god.  You are baptized in the name of the one and only God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.


Christ gave baptism to his church, but it isn’t the church’s to do with as she pleases.  The church doesn’t choose her head.  Christ is the head of the church because he bought her.  The church did not institute baptism.  Jesus did.  Jesus did not institute confirmation.  This is a custom of the church.  You don’t become a member of the church by following the customs of the church.  You don’t become a member of the church by being confirmed.  God makes you a member of his church by baptizing you.


John’s baptism was preparatory.  It was for the forgiveness of sins, as the Bible clearly says.  But it was only temporary.  It had to end when Jesus personally instituted baptism.  John’s baptism was for the remission of sins.  Jesus submitted to John’s baptism that was for the forgiveness of sins.  This appears strange and this is why John objected, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and are you coming to me?”  Strange, indeed: Jesus, who is not a sinner, receives the washing that is for the forgiveness of sins.  He with whom his Father is well pleased joins us sinners.  Without sinning personally, he personally bears all our sin.  Christ’s baptism in the Jordan cannot be separated from his crucifixion on Calvary where he obtained by his holy precious blood and his innocent suffering and death the forgiveness he gives us in baptism.


Jesus forgives us in baptism.  Jesus does.  Jesus baptizes.  St. Matthew records what Jesus said when he instituted this sacrament.  He said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.”  Then he said,


Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Amen.


We are baptized by Christ’s authority.  Christ is the One who baptizes us.  The minister is just his voice and hands.  Since Christ is the One who baptizes, we may not re-baptize someone.  If someone has been baptized in a Christian church in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, he has been baptized by Christ.  To re-baptize such a person is to deny what Christ did.  That’s wrong.  Churches have no right to require baptized Christians to undergo another baptism to become members of their churches.  This is to oppose Christ’s authority.  It is impossible to be re-baptized.  To be re-baptized is to deny baptism.


The word “baptize” means to wash, whether by sprinkling the water on the head, pouring it over the head, or by a complete immersion of the baptized under the water.  All of these modes are valid.  Some argue that the Greek word “baptizo” can only mean to immerse, but that’s not so.  The word means to wash with water.  The Bible uses different words for this holy washing, with baptizo being only one of them.


There is no distinction between water baptism and Spirit baptism.  The only Spirit baptism that exists in Christ’s church is the baptism with water in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Modern Pentecostalism, which grew out of the holiness movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, teaches that there is a baptism in the Holy Spirit quite separate from baptism with water.  The alleged proof that one has been baptized in the Holy Spirit is the ability to speak in tongues.  They teach that if you are baptized in the Holy Spirit you have more spiritual vibrancy and power than mere carnal Christians who have only been baptized in water.


Don’t you believe it!  It is Jesus Christ himself who joins water to the Holy Spirit.  When he told Nicodemus that he had to be born from above and Nicodemus asked him how, Jesus said that unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.  Jesus joins water to the Holy Spirit.  Jesus is God.  What God has joined together, let not man put asunder!


It is a crying shame that, during the Reformation of the sixteenth century, Protestants were divided over the sacraments.  Do the sacraments give us forgiveness of sins and eternal salvation?  Or do they only remind us of forgiveness of sins and eternal salvation that are given elsewhere?  Are the sacraments God’s gracious work that he works in us?  Or are they our public display of our commitment to God?  Protestants disagree on the sacraments.


In the face of this tragic division that goes back nearly five hundred years, many Protestants have suggested that we should downplay our differences on the sacraments and instead emphasize those topics of Christian doctrine on which we can agree.  There are two problems with this.  First, we are dealing with what God teaches, and not just human opinions about what God teaches.  What God teaches matters.  Second, what God teaches us about the sacraments has a direct bearing on how we understand the gospel.


The gospel, or good news, is not just words that preachers preach.  The gospel is God’s power.  Baptism is God’s work.  It is his powerful work.  If baptism were our work, it could not save us because our works cannot save us.  Baptism is not our work.  It is the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit.  St. Peter writes: “Baptism also now saves us.” (1 Peter 3:21)  Our work cannot save us, cannot give us forgiveness of sins, and cannot deliver us from death and the devil.  But God’s work can.  Baptism is God’s work.  Since it is God’s work we trust in it.  To trust in God’s work is to trust in God.


We have in our home a little boy by the name of Lars who is two and a half weeks old.  He was baptized when only two and a half days old.  Everyone born into this world is born into sin.  You don’t have to teach children to sin.  They just do what comes naturally.  Human nature is depraved ever since the fall of Adam.  Baptism gives us the forgiveness of sins that the Lord Jesus, the second Adam, has won for us all.  But how can baptism give forgiveness to a little baby who can’t even talk?  He cannot make a decision to follow Jesus.  He’s not old enough to choose Christ as his personal Savior from sin.


If we are to wait until someone is old enough to choose Christ as his personal Savior before we baptize him, we are not going to baptize anyone at all.  Original sin is not just a spiritual sickness.  It is death.  Jesus says, “That which is born of the flesh is flesh.”  Jesus says, “Whoever sins is a slave to sin.”  There is no deliverance from sin and death except by God’s grace and by God’s grace alone.  If we wait until the child is able to choose salvation, no one will ever be saved.


Nothing more powerfully teaches the precious doctrine of salvation by grace alone than the practice of baptizing babies who cannot do a thing.  But can an infant believe?  Nobody can believe, except by God’s grace.  John the Baptist believed in Jesus six months from his conception.  St. Paul tells Timothy that he had known the Holy Scriptures that make us wise for salvation since he was a baby.  The Bible recounts instances where entire households were baptized.  The practice of infant baptism is clearly established in the Bible.  But still the question of infant faith troubles people.


Perhaps it’s because they think of faith as a decision we make.  Faith does involve knowledge of and agreement with what God says, but the very essence of faith is trust.  Our entire lives are spent learning more and more about what we as Christians believe. 


Baptism is the beginning of the Christian’s life.  But it is more.  It is also the end.  The faith that God implants in the little baby at the font is the same faith that God sustains in the Christian who is facing death.  When our lips can no longer confess and we are unable to articulate the faith that God has wrought within us, the faith will remain.  The power of baptism will remain.  The washing of rebirth and renewal that God accomplished in us in Holy Baptism will lead us through death and the grave.  Just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, our baptism gives us a new life to live.  We see and feel this life now only through faith.  When faith gives way to sight, we will see with our own eyes the fulfillment of all righteousness in Christ. 


There is nothing worth comparing

To this life-long comfort sure!

Open-eyed my grave is staring:

Even there I’ll rest secure.

Though my flesh awaits its raising,

Still my soul continues praising:

I am baptized into Christ;

I’m a child of Paradise! 


Rolf D. Preus


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