The Baptism of Our Lord, 2017
Rev. Benjamin Tyler Holt
There’s an episode of Malcolm in the Middle where Hal, the dad, walks in and turns the light on only to find that the lightbulb’s burnt out.
In his search for a new lightbulb, he realizes the shelf on which the lightbulbs sit has a loose screw.
In his search for the screwdriver, he realizes that the drawer suffers from a squeaky, grinding noise.
So, he finds the can of WD-40, which is empty.
So, needing to get a new can of WD-40, he gets in his car, which, let’s just say, needs a tune up.
Then, Lois, his wife, walks into the garage and says, “Hal, would you replace the lightbulb in the kitchen?”
And from under his car, parts and tools all around him, he says, exasperated, “What does it look like I’m doing?”
Now, I told you that, because to understand Jesus’ baptism correctly, you need to hold on to several threads at the same time, but—I promise—it’s worth it.
Now, if I asked you why you were baptized, you would likely reply, “Because I needed it. For the forgiveness of my sins.”
And you’d be right.
The plain reading of Scripture regarding Holy Baptism is that it, Baptism, saves, and regenerates, and unites us to Christ’s death and resurrection, and washes us clean, and gives us the Holy Spirit. All of those are ways to talk about being forgiven, about being saved.
But if I asked you why Jesus was baptized, how would you answer? For Him personally, it can’t be for the forgiveness of sins—Jesus is without sin (cf. Hebrews 4:15).
He needs nothing. He lacks nothing. So why be baptized?
Ah, it must be as an example for us, right? In many cases, Jesus does something, and one response that we should have is, “I should do that, too!”
He prays. We should pray. And all that.
But, strictly speaking, you’re not baptized simply because Jesus was baptized.
We shouldn’t attempt everything that Jesus did.
I remember hearing Bob Lenz speak at a National Youth Gathering once. He made a comment about WWJD, the “What Would Jesus Do?” flair that was so common.
He said something like this:
“’What would Jesus do?’ He would be the eternal Son of God, born of a Virgin. Keep the Law perfectly. Die for the sins of the world. Be raised on the third day. Ascend to heaven. And sit at the right hand of the Father. Can you do that?”
And of course we have to answer, “No.”
Jesus is an example for us to follow, but being a Christian isn’t about us doing perfectly everything that Jesus did perfectly.
Christianity, rather, is this: fully relying on God for salvation.
The answer to why Jesus is baptized is profound, but—more importantly—it’s comforting.
But before we get to that, we have to realize that John the Baptizer had this same question. He doesn’t think Jesus needs Baptism, or—at least—he doesn’t think Jesus should submit to John’s baptism.
In Matthew chapter three, John has been preaching, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:2). And “Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins” (Matthew 3:5-6).
That’s why John had a problem with this.
Jesus has no sins to confess.
So, knowing who Jesus is, John “would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’” (Matthew 3:14).
There’s our question.
Why would Jesus, who will save His people from their sins, why would Immanuel, God with us, submit Himself to a sinner’s baptism?
And I mean that both ways—why would Jesus submit to being baptized by a sinner? John, while great, was still in need of redemption.
And why would Jesus submit to what’s necessary only for a sinner—while He, Himself, is sinless?
He’s not showing you what you need to do. We do teach that Baptism is necessary for salvation (meaning there’s zero reason for you not to be baptized and to refuse baptism is to spurn the gifts and promises of God). But Jesus isn’t baptized so as to require us to be baptized. That’s not what’s going on.
Rather, He’s showing you the length to which God goes to save you.
Jesus takes the place of sinners.
He is Israel, the Church, reduced to one.
As Paul says it, “As one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous” (Romans 5:18-19).
He takes the sinner’s place. To save the sinner.
We see this first in His Baptism. And you have to keep in mind that John and all those waiting for the Christ had different expectations about what the Christ would do when He got there. John told us what to expect.
He says, “I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (Matthew 3:11-12).
Jesus will perform the judgment, the separation, the baptism with the Holy Spirit and fire of which John spoke, but—and this is the part that’s unexpected—not now.
Regarding his Baptism and taking the place of sinners, Jesus says, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness” (Matthew 3:15).
And, right there, how you define righteousness will determine how you understand salvation.
This is the righteousness that Jesus has in mind.
Notice that God’s righteousness is always accompanied by God’s action. God’s work. To save.
From Psalm 71: “In you, O LORD, do I take refuge; let me never be put to shame! In your righteousness deliver me and rescue me; incline your ear to me and save me…With the mighty deeds of the Lord GOD I will come; I will remind them of your righteousness, yours alone…Your righteousness, O God, reaches the high heavens. You who have done great things, O God, who is like you?” (Psalm 71:1-2, 16, 19).
The righteousness of God is His work to save you.
The righteousness of God is not Him having more merit badges than you. Or more gold stars. Or fewer cavities.
The righteousness of God is the story of your salvation: the mighty acts of God to seek and save and find and feed and redeem.
With that in mind, consider this verse: “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you” (Matthew 6:33, KJV).
In context, “all these things” refer to the daily bread that God promises to provide the faithful. Food, drink, and clothing.
But what are you to seek?
The kingdom of God? The righteousness of God?
How do you seek that?
The kingdom of God isn’t a place. The kingdom of God is better understood as when and how God is reigning. And God is reigning now, by His Word, in Christ.
And how do you seek the righteousness of God?
You can’t be perfect like God.
But if the righteousness of God is His work to save you.
Then it’s gift.
The righteousness of God, then, is yours because He did it. Because He gave it to you by faith in Jesus Christ.
So, the righteousness of God that you’re to seek is something that God accomplishes and freely gives.
The righteousness that Jesus fulfills, likewise, is His work in your place and on your behalf.
God with us. To save us from our sins.
This is the length to which our God goes to save us.
He takes the place of sinners. To save sinners.
Listen to how we sang it our first hymn:
“The Father’s word, the Spirit’s flight / Anointed Christ in glorious sight / As God’s own choice, from Adam’s fall / To save the world and free us all. // Now rise, faint hearts, be resolute; / This man is Christ, our substitute! / He was baptized in Jordan’s stream, / Proclaimed Redeemer, Lord supreme” (“To Jordan’s River Came Our Lord,” stz. 5-6).
With that in mind, Jesus’ baptism is a most comforting gift.
He takes the place of the sinner, submits to a sinner’s baptism, and our Father in heaven reveals, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17).
He’s pleased because He desires to save you, and Jesus takes the sinner’s place.
That’s true at His baptism. That’s why He’s baptized.
And that’s true at His crucifixion. That’s why He’s crucified.
“The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28).
To take the punishment you deserve upon Himself.
That you may receive the reward.
He takes the sinner’s place.
That you may have the place of the Son.
This is the righteousness that Jesus fulfills.
The answer to why He would be baptized.
He will return to judge. He will separate. He will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. But not now.
Now, in His Baptism, and on the cross, He humbly, willingly, and lovingly takes the place of a servant, He takes the place of a sinner, He takes your place.
That you would trust in Him for salvation.
Now, if I asked you why you were baptized, you would likely reply, “For the forgiveness of my sins.” And you’d be right.
But now you know that if I were to ask you why Jesus was baptized, that the answer is exactly the same:
For the forgiveness of your sins.
To fulfill all righteousness.
To take the sinner’s place, to die and rise, and to save you from your sins.
In Jesus’ name, Amen!