January 8: God’s Side of Baptism

January 8: God’s Side of Baptism

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God’s Side of Baptism (1/2)

Scripture: Matthew 3:13-27

Other sermons in this series

Have you ever wondered why Jesus had to be baptized, especially considering the purpose of John’s baptisms?

Today’s reading picks up in the middle of explaining the ministry of John the Baptist. The Gospel writers gave him the moniker “John the Baptist” because the focus of his ministry was baptizing people. (It also differentiated him from Jesus’ disciple named John.) John’s baptisms were referred to as “baptism(s) of repentance.” Matthew 3:6 tells us he baptized persons “as they confessed their sins.” Confession of one’s sins was paramount to being baptized by John. It was the sole prerequisite. What mattered most to John was a changed heart and life. To all who wanted to be baptized, his mandate was, “Produce fruit that shows you’ve changed your hearts and lives” (v. 8). In more traditional versions of the Bible, “Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.” Verse 11 makes this purpose very clear. He says, “I baptize you with water for repentance.” In essence, John’s clear message to the crowds was, Coming to me to be baptized means you recognized your sinfulness and are choosing to turn away from it. ‘Turning away from sin’ is the traditional meaning of repentance.

rending of Jesus' baptism using wall tiles
Artistic rendering of John baptizing Jesus

So, again, considering that purpose as stated by John, why Jesus came to him to be baptized? Had he done something necessitating his need to repent?

It doesn’t take much pondering to realize that this idea doesn’t fit with what the rest of the New Testament says about Jesus—that he was: God’s virgin-born (Matthew 1:19-25), sinless (2 Corinthians 5:21; Hebrews 4:15), perfectly obedient Son (Hebrews 5:8-9; John 17:4), who was fully pleasing to the Father (Matthew 3:17); and who was pre-existent as divine (John 1:1-2; Philippians 2:5-8). If we understand Jesus in this way, and believe him to be so, then it’s a fair question to ask why he proactively came to John to be baptized, because it’s our historical understanding and belief that he hadn’t done anything to necessitate being repentant. Even John himself questioned it, in essence saying to Jesus, Who are you to come to me to be baptized? If anything, you should be baptizing me! (v. 14).        

But what was Jesus’ response? He told John, “Allow it for now, because this is the way for us to fulfill all righteousness” (v. 15).

My baptism (said Jesus) is one of the ways I will fulfill all righteousness.

One of the main themes throughout Advent is fulfillment. God came into our world in order to fulfill the plan of salvation, a plan which he set into motion the moment sin became a reality in our world. Jesus came into our world in order to fulfill God’s promise of making righteousness and right living a possibility, even in our fallen world. Through his own baptism, Jesus said he would “fulfill all righteousness.”

Let’s take a quick look at the word “righteousness.” Righteousness has a specific meaning to the Apostle Paul, and it has to do with being in a relationship with God such that the blameless life and nature of Jesus has replaced our sinful nature, thus making us holy in God’s eyes.

cross with text "Obedience to God"

But Matthew’s understanding of righteousness reflects the Old Testament sense of heart-deep, faithful obedience to God. Righteousness in the Hebrew Scriptures is more about right living than right believing. So, for Matthew, righteousness refers to whole-person behavior that corresponds to God’s will, God’s nature, and the coming Kingdom of God. In submitting to John’s baptism, Jesus is showing himself to be the good and obedient Son who perfectly does God’s will. When he says that his baptism will “fulfill all righteousness,” he’s indicating that it (his water baptism) will be the sign that he will fulfill his role as the obedient Son of God by practicing the required righteousness of submitting to God’s will to ‘repent,’ that is, to live in the world wholeheartedly devoted to God.

I’ll say that again because it’s important, and it explains why Jesus came to John to be baptized. When he says that his baptism will “fulfill all righteousness,” he’s indicating that it will be the sign that he will fulfill his role as the obedient Son of God by practicing the required righteousness of submitting to the Father’s will. How so? By ‘repenting’ in the sense of living in the world wholeheartedly devoted to God. “Repentance” for Jesus isn’t about turning away from sin, like it is for us. Rather, it’s fully about choosing the way of God, being obedient to the Father, choosing to listen and follow only what the Father tells him to do. Jesus’ baptism was his outward sign to everyone else that his life would be wholly devoted to fulfilling the Father’s plan for him, which, of course, included eventually going to the cross and taking the guilt of our sins upon himself.

So, was his baptism just a symbolic act on his part? Or did something actually happen to him when he was baptized? Personally, I believe it was the latter; that when Jesus was baptized, something mysterious took place within him that couldn’t be seen by the eye. However, those around him were given something they could see with their eyes, something that symbolized what was taking place deep within him.

Let’s listen again to verses 16 and 17: “When Jesus…went up…from the water, the heavens suddenly opened for him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming down on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son whom I dearly love; I find happiness in him.” Matthew reports that at the moment Jesus was baptized, “heaven was opened” to him. And from heaven came the Holy Spirit who descended and “rested upon” Jesus.

a dove

What does the Holy Spirit look like? He’s indescribable, but he was presented to the people that day in a manner such that, to the human eye, he had an appearance similar to that of a fluttering, hovering dove. (Interestingly, in the book of Acts, Luke describes his appearance as “flames of fire,” also something that seemingly fluttered.) So, while the physical appearance of the Holy Spirit was somewhat mysterious, what he did was clearly seen by those around him. Matthew says he came upon Jesus. I take that to mean that on the outside—what they could see with their eyes—the Holy Spirit seemed to come and rest upon Jesus in some way, but that beyond what they could see, the Spirit entered into Jesus in a new and mysterious way. This Holy Spirit filling empowered him to fulfill his earthy call and ministry. I believe Jesus was endued with divine power to fulfill his promise to live only to glorify the Father through obedience, even obedience unto death on the cross. To be clear, I’m not suggesting that it was at this moment that Jesus became divine. No! To suggest that would be heresy. He was already fully divine and fully human, as we profess in the Nicene Creed. But I do think that at that moment he fully accepted his call. He fully and officially submitted to his divine call and purpose and nature, and the human part of him was fully empowered by the Spirit to live into it. That he was already God’s Son was affirmed by the voice which came from heaven at that same time. “This is my Son whom I dearly love” (v. 17). We believe this to be the audible voice of God the Father. “This is my Son whom I dearly love; I find happiness in him.”

In saying this, not only did the Father affirm Jesus as the divine Son—whom Christians have come to understand to be the Second Person of the Trinity—but he was also affirming the effectiveness and intrinsic value of all baptisms which would be done in his name from that point on. John didn’t make up the practice of immersing people in water as a symbolic act of indicating their repentant hearts. The act of ritualistic washing had been an important element in the Jewish law for centuries. A vital component to the wilderness tabernacle (and later, Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem) was the copper basin which was placed between the tent and the altar. This basin was filled with water, and before the priests could perform their sacrificial duties they had to dip their hands and feet into the water in order to make themselves ritualistically clean. In fact, doing so was so important that the same instructions to “wash with water” were given twice in two consecutive sentences, and in both cases, they were told to do it “so that they don’t die”! (Exodus 30:20-21).

We believe there’s a vital aspect of baptism which is solely what God does—what Jesus does—in the life of that person apart from their ability to understand or even profess their own faith. It’s the grace of God which he freely gives to all persons. And through water baptism, we receive that cleansing grace of Jesus Christ.

So, it’s out of this historical practice of washing to become ceremonially clean that John baptized people. He “washed” people with water in the hopes that they would be inspired to change their lives for the purpose of living for God. But as important as his baptisms were, even he knew that water only washed skin-deep. He knew that a more effective, soul-cleansing baptism was needed for people to truly change—that is, from the inside out. Which is why he said, “I baptize with water those of you who have changed your hearts and lives. The one who is coming after me is stronger than I am. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 3:11). These days, to be “baptized with the Holy Spirit” has different meanings and connotations within the Christian community. But the bottom line is this: it means being washed and cleansed and made new at the soul-level. And only Jesus has the power and authority to administer this soul-cleansing baptism.

When the Father said to those present at Jesus’ baptism, “This [man standing before you on whom you just saw my Spirit descend] is my Son whom I deal love; I find happiness in him,” I think he was affirming the truth that as the Son, Jesus was fully “clean” and could “perform his duties” of baptizing us with his Spirit such that we would be washed of the guilt of the sin with which every one of us was born, the sin we call ‘Original Sin.’ To “wash” in the water used in the sacrament of baptism—a human event—is to receive a cleansing that goes soul-deep. At the moment we immerse a person under water, or pour water over their head, or even sprinkle water on their head, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, our Great High Priest, washes us at the soul-level by the Holy Spirit and forever removes forever the guilt of Original Sin so that we’re no longer held accountable for that inherited sin.

The effectiveness of this spiritual cleansing is not dependent upon the age of the one who receives it nor their ability to cognitively understand it. This is why United Methodists have historically baptized infants and young children in addition to baptizing adults and new converts. We believe there’s a vital aspect of baptism which is solely what God does—what Jesus does—in the life of that person apart from their ability to understand or even profess their own faith. It’s the grace of God which he freely gives to all persons. And through water baptism, we receive that cleansing grace of Jesus Christ.

When Jesus was baptized, something happened to (in) him at the soul-level. When we’re baptized at whatever age and for whatever reasons, something happens to (in) us at the soul-level. The Holy Spirit acted upon Jesus, and the Holy Spirit acts upon us when we’re baptized into him. That’s God’s side of baptism.

But that’s only half of the picture. You and I play an important role in carrying out the cleansing that Jesus did in us. To a certain degree, we have a part in Jesus “fulfilling all righteousness” in us. And this is what I’m going to talk about next week. Today has been about God’s side of baptism. Next week, I’m going to talk about our side of living out the soul-cleansing of our baptism.

In the meantime, however, let’s quickly remind ourselves of the professions made our own baptisms, whether we made them ourselves or someone else made them on our behalf.

  1. First is the acknowledgement that we have renounced evil and repented of our sin.
  2. Second is the acknowledgment that we need and have accepted the Holy Spirit power to resist sin and evil in all its forms.
  3. Third is that we have professed our faith in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord, and that we’ve entrusted ourselves into his grace as the means by which we’re made right with God.
  4. Fourth is the promise to live our life of faith through an active connection to the body of Christ—a local church.

In just a moment, you’ll have an opportunity to reaffirm those promises and professions of faith that were made at your baptism. Doing this keeps before us our commitment to live into those important promises. You’ll have the opportunity to do this by way or your words as well as coming forward and physically touching this water. And just to be clear, touching this water does not constitute a rebaptism. Rather, it’s simply a reaffirmation of your baptismal covenant.

Finally, as a quick reminder, while this ritual isn’t meant to be exclusive, by the simple fact that it’s a reaffirmation of one’s baptismal vows, only those who’ve been baptized should come forward for the reaffirmation portion where you’ll be invited to come and dip your finger in the water as an act of remembering. With that said, if you’ve not been baptized, you’re absolutely invited to participate in the first part of this ritual, which is the profession of faith portion. And if there’s anyone here, or anyone listing online, who hasn’t been baptized and wants to be baptized, I would love to talk with you. Please feel free to contact by calling the church or sending an email to me. I’d love to talk with you about it. Please know that being baptized doesn’t mean you’ve figured everything out, or that you’ve got your life fully on track. No, it means that you’re responding to the gentle nudging’s of the Holy Spirit to make a conscious decision to let Jesus Christ be your source of life and direction.

Let’s pray.

Creator God, when everything first began, water became a symbol of refreshing, of washing away, of renewing.  Through the waters of creation, you brought forth abundant life. We’ve gathered this day to remember Jesus’ baptism, how your Spirit proclaimed that He was your beloved Son in whom you were very well pleased. Our spirits resound with that proclamation. In His baptism, Jesus’ ministry was initiated. He dedicated his life to you completely and without reservation. Help us to dedicate our lives to you, to offer our best for you, to be of service to you by serving in your world. As we lift before you the names of people near and dear to us who need your healing touch and your tender mercies, we also lift ourselves up as people in need of your grace. In our world there is war, oppression, hunger, and alienation. We confess we’ve not always been good stewards of the world. We’ve not always cared for one another. Heal us and this world, Lord. Renew us with your life-giving waters and re-affirm our baptisms as your children. Let us go forth to be people of peace and mercy. For we ask this in Jesus’ Name, praying as he taught us, saying: Our Father…

[Reaffirmation ceremony]


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