Gospel Matthew 3:13-17
Baptism in View of Death
For us Christians Baptism is a cornerstone upon which the church is founded. It is a cornerstone upon which our faith and our lives rest. We confess, “5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6 one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.”1 Of course there are serious differences within the Christian church regarding whether these things are so. So we must take care to learn what the Holy Scriptures tell us about this Sacrament.
The Baptism of our Lord which we celebrate today points us in the right direction. It’s worth hearing again those five verses from St. Matthew’s Gospel:13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him. 14 John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” 15 But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. 16 And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; 17 and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” 2
Here we see the moment of intersection between John who is called the baptizer and Jesus who now begins His earthly ministry. John’s baptism is called “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins3” by St. Mark, and earlier St. Matthew calls it a baptism of “water for repentance.” John had come to prepare the way and to prepare hearts with contrition and confession. Yet in this contrition and confession John does not have the fullness of salvation to give. He always stressed that, there there was someone coming after him, “mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry.4” What was lacking in the baptism of John? A Saviour, the forgiveness of sins, the Gospel promise of repentance, the turning away from sin and turning toward God, for all who believe. So John rightly points to Jesus, the Lamb of God who comes to do just that, to take away the sins of the world.
Now the Lamb of God comes to John, “to be baptized by him.” Like John we see the problem right away. Why does Jesus need a baptism of repentance? Repent for what? Jesus comes to be baptized and yet we hear St. Paul who writes, “21 For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. 5” He has no sin and yet there He is, wading into the Jordan with everyone else. What John says when Jesus comes to him makes sense to us! “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?6” Jesus has the answer. And in Jesus’ response we hear the very first words of our Lord recorded by St. Matthew in his Gospel: “let it be so now.” In that moment Jesus fulfills what the prophets had longed for, because when Jesus stands in the Jordan river He is there as the Servant who comes to suffer for His people. We heard of this in our Old Testament reading from Isaiah, who proclaims, “Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.”7 Jesus the Suffering Servant has come to suffer and die for His people.
You see, this forgiveness of sins that we seek and desire, it will not occur without payment, without satisfaction. But you can’t pay. There is nothing you have to offer because the payment is not yours. Who can do this? No offering is acceptable to God to pay for sin, says the Scriptures, except the one sacrifice of Christ. It is His sacrifice and only His that works, because only there His innocence and righteousness are given to you. These things come to you and drown your sin and your death. So “let it be so now” says Jesus. At that moment He takes on the commission of Suffering Servant and Messiah, the anointed One of God. “Let it be so now,” let the One who is marked to be the atoning sacrifice for the whole world be confirmed as the bearer of the Spirit of God. Let the One who is both Messiah and Suffering Servant go forth in obedience.
Everyone else has come to the Jordan for their own sins. But Jesus has come not for His sins, but for those of the entire world. At His Baptism He stands in solidarity with all of us, for He is our brother, flesh and blood just like we are. “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.”8 Righteousness is fulfilled because in Christ the will of the Father is truly known and really done. “16“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”9 That none would perish – this is the will of the Father, to gather all people to himself in Christ Jesus, to restore the lost and the broken – sinners – back to a new life of forgiveness and hope through faith. Therefore we know that the Baptism of Our Lord is accomplished in view of His death. This is because the obedience of the Suffering Servant that He shows in the river Jordan is made manifest on the cross. In that same obedience He goes forth to Calvary, praying, “not my will, but yours, be done.”10 So when He goes forth out of the Jordan, He doesn’t just go back home to Nazareth but instead He goes into the desert, and then He goes on to begin His earthly ministry, and then He goes on to Jerusalem. There are no dark clouds and terrible lightning and thunder to mark this occasion. Rather the Holy Spirit descends as a dove and the voice of the Father announces and confirms the glory of what has been and is yet to be revealed: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”11
So the Baptism of Jesus in the Jordan points us to His death and resurrection. Now the Baptism that brings us the forgiveness of sins and eternal life is possible, because it is His Baptism, for the forgiveness of sins and eternal life. It becomes possible only because these events have been accomplished. So this is how you should understand your Baptism. It is something God does for us. Through the water and the Word he meets us and brings us into communion with the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We heard St. Paul in the letter to the Romans: “3Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4 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.”12 What St. Paul speaks of is our election in Christ. This is how we are saved, for unless one is born again to this new life he or she cannot receive the Kingdom of God. And how does this happen? “Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.”13 Water and spirit. Christ our Lord is Baptized in view of His death, and so are you. At your Baptism the old Adam was drowned and then you were raised again to a new life in Christ. Yes, that old Adam is a good swimmer, the sinful nature is always trying to bob to the surface. But you are Baptized, you stand in the forgiveness won on the Cross, and one day you will be raised again to everlasting life in Christ.
So a person is brought to the Baptismal font and nothing happens except that by God’s command water is poured over that person and these words are spoken: “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” And when and where this happens there is no doubt that in this Baptism, which is the outer sign of water along with the Holy Spirit, that this Baptism brings about new life, in faith. This is God’s promise. This is His Word. At Pentecost St. Peter said, “the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off.”14Yes, even little children, even babies, ought to and should be Baptized. They too belong in Christ’s Kingdom, they too are members of His body. Remember that salvation is a gift of God. Remember that Baptism is an act of God: “when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, 5 he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit.”15
But don’t people walk away from this gift which they have received? Indeed they do. We must be faithful and hold fast to what we have received. But it can happen that those who “have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come”16 will fall away. We know the signs of this, don’t we? A person consciously neglects the Divine Service, the Sacrament of the Altar, the Word, prayer. The Bible becomes a closed book, prayer is silenced, visits to church are limited. But this does not somehow invalidate the promises of God given through Baptism. The promise of Baptism is still there, repentance is available for those who have turned away from the grace and mercy of our Father. God has never been unfaithful, his promises never go unfulfilled. So in faith keep hold of what has been given, and “let it be so now” and forever more, for you in your Baptism.
Now may the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.
1 Eph 4:5–6.
2 Mt 3:13–17.
3 Mk 1:4.
4 Mt 3:11.
5 2 Co 5:21.
6 Mt 3:14.
7 Is 42:1.
8 Mt 3:15.
9 Jn 3:16.
10 Lk 22:42.
11 Mt 3:17.
12 Ro 6:3–4.
13 Jn 3:5.
14 Ac 2:39.
15 Tt 3:4–5.
16 Heb 6:5.