Matthew 3:13-17: The Baptism of Our Lord

Early Church Baptismal Mosaic (610x352)As Christians, we usually point to Jesus’ death on the cross and say, “That’s why I’m saved.”   And, yet, we often miss that we could just as easily point to Jesus in the water of the Jordan River and say the same: “There is my salvation, forgiveness, and life!”

But how can we say that? It’s because Jesus’ baptism is a death, and His death is a baptism. That’s what Jesus said. Getting ready to die, Jesus said, “I have a baptism to undergo” (Luke 12:50). Jesus called His coming death on the cross a “baptism.”

Why? Jesus didn’t want His disciples to miss the link between baptism and death. Jesus was connecting His death to the baptism that He would soon command pastors in His Church to do. By His own words, Jesus links His death and baptism together.

So, here we are, three years before His death, and Jesus is coming to John to be baptized. Doesn’t that seem strange? It did to John. The sinless Son of God comes to receive a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sin at the hands of a sinner. Did Jesus need to repent? No. Did Jesus need the forgiveness of sins? No.

And so John objected. There they were, two men facing each other. John then looked deep into Jesus’ eyes and said, “You should baptize me. I’m the sinner; you’re the sinless one. I’m baptizing people to prepare them for You, and You come to me to be baptized? This is backwards!”

But Jesus insisted. “Let it be, John.” You won’t catch what Jesus was doing in our English translations. When Jesus said, “Let it be,” he was using the Greek word for “forgiveness.” For that’s what forgiveness means: Let it go; leave it behind. Jesus was saying: “Let go of any idea that you have on how you think I’m going to work righteousness. This baptism is proper for us to do to fulfill all righteousness.”

But how could John baptizing Jesus “fulfill all righteousness”? It could only do that if baptism, in some way, connected to Jesus’ cross, where He died for our sins to give us His righteousness. When Jesus used the same word as “forgive,” He pointed everyone to the righteousness that He would give in the cross-connected waters of holy baptism, which He would soon put in place for our salvation.

When John baptized Jesus, we see a picture of how God saves the world. The sinless Son of God becomes the world’s sin. He stands in the water of John’s baptism, alongside sinners with the worst of sins to the sins that didn’t look so bad. But all sin separates us from God (Romans 3:23).

So, Jesus stands in the water, not because He needs His sins to be washed clean. No; He steps into the baptismal water for the opposite reason. He steps into the water full of sinners and sin to take it all into Himself. He becomes the world’s sin.

Jesus, as the second Adam, embodies all humanity, even the world’s sin in His sinlessness (1 Corinthians 15:45). He’s the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world, and He takes away the world’s sin by taking it all into His dark death.

He stands in John’s baptismal water, polluted by sin, and He purifies it. He takes John’s baptism and turns it into His own. Imagine that every sin was physically washed into that water. Imagine a bathwater filled with, not just dirt and germs, but our sin. One person, any one of us, would pollute that water.

In the Old Testament, during Israel’s wilderness wandering, God made the bitter waters of Marah sweet when Moses put the wood into the water at God’s command. That wasn’t just a coincidence. It was an event to teach us about Jesus (John 5:39).

In His baptism, Jesus steps into the bitter, polluted water of our sin to make it sweet by the wood of His cross. He purifies our dirty bath water and turns it into a pure baptismal water, “a washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:4-5). But for that to happen, it will require the wood of the cross and the water of baptism. Just like at Marah, God will use both the wood and the water.

St. Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians: “God made the One who did not know sin [that is, Jesus] to be sin for us, so that in Him we would become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). Now that’s a good deal! Christ becomes our sin: He embodies our sin in His own body, baptized in the Jordan, and crucified on Calvary. And we, in Him, become His righteousness, innocence, and blessedness. But it will need both the wood of the cross and the water of baptism.

Baptism is like the great flood in Noah’s day. In that flood, we usually think of who died, not who lived. But in that flood, God saved Noah and his family. And like that saving flood for Noah and his family, “baptism now saves you” (1 Peter 3:21). It’s clear cut, black white, straight from the words of Scripture: “baptism now saves you.” It’s like Jesus told Nicodemus: “Unless someone is born of water and Spirit he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (John 3:5).

Salvation is like a new creation. In the first creation, God spoke His Word into this watery world in the Spirit, and there was light, land, plants, animals, and man. It was a creation through water, Word, and the Spirit.

In Jesus’ baptism, we see that same creating God at work. But this time, the Son of God, the creative Word in the Flesh is standing in the water, the Father is speaking from heaven, and the Spirit is descending visibly as a dove. At that moment, God unveiled a new creation, a new humanity in Christ. It was Father, Son, and Holy Spirit making everything new in the Son, Jesus Christ, the Savior of the world.

But the baptism you received is different from John the Baptizer’s baptism. Your baptism came from Jesus, not from John. Your baptism came with the fiery Pentecost wind of the Holy Spirit that Jesus had sent to His Church from the Father.

When Jesus stood in the water for John to baptize Him, He fulfilled John’s baptism. It was when the heavens opened, the Spirit descended, and the Father said, “This is my beloved Son”; and John said, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”

The purpose of John’s baptism was to prepare the people for Jesus’ coming as their Savior. The purpose of your baptism is also to prepare you. It’s to prepare you for Jesus’ coming as Your Savior on the Last Day, when He will raise your body and give You salvation in all its fullness. Baptism joins you with Him in His death AND life, so you will rise from death to live forever. Your baptism will reach its final fulfillment on the Last Day, when you physically rise from the grave, just like Jesus!

Like faith, baptism also needs to come to you individually. We hear again Jesus’ words: “Unless SOMEONE is born of water and Spirit he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (John 3:5). Someone refers to a person as an individual. So, baptism becomes God’s personal word to you that the Father gives, the Son speaks, and the Spirit breathes upon you. It’s God saying and applying to you personally, “I died for you, took your sins away, and now you’re safe in my death.”

The Apostle Paul calls baptism a burial. He says:

Don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore, we were buried with him through baptism into his death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the Father’s glory, we too may live a new life. [Romans 6:3-4]

Do you see it fit together now? Your sinful nature with all your sin is crucified and buried with Christ. In baptism, God gives you a new identity, a new way of looking at yourself. You’re not a sinner, but a saint, a child of God. Paul says, “Consider yourself dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Romans 6:11). In yourselves, you are dead. But in Christ Jesus, you are alive as alive can be.

You are baptized. That’s who you are. You are a baptized child of God. Don’t forget it; remind yourself of it every day. That’s why Luther told parents to teach their children to make the sign of the cross. It’s to remind them: “I am baptized. I know who I am and whose I am, to whom I am connected and to whom I belong.” What a wonderful way to live! You’re dead to self but alive to God in Christ Jesus.

We worry a lot about dying. But we’re already dead: In baptism, God the Holy Spirit, through the water and the Word, crucified you with Christ, connecting you to His death. The beauty of being dead is that you have nothing to lose. When you drive home from here, you leave as someone who is dead to sin but alive to God in Christ. And if you die in a car crash, you don’t lose your life. Jesus holds your life in Himself. That’s what baptism tells you. You’re in, you’re home, and you’re safe in the death of Jesus.

In Jesus’ baptism, the heavens opened, the Spirit of God descended like a dove, and the voice of the Father spoke. He said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” In Jesus’ baptism, all three persons of God the Holy Trinity were there.

It’s the same with you in your baptism: God has opened heaven for you, the Spirit descends on you, and the Father smiles approvingly and speaks. He says, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” That’s true, even if you are female. For in baptism, you become, not just a child of God, but even a son of God. For it’s as His son that you inherit all that God has for you in His own dear Son, Jesus Christ.

In baptism, you are born from above, renewed, and resurrected. You are baptized, all thanks to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Amen.