St. Matthew gives us a very abbreviated history of Jesus’ early life. Matthew records that Jesus is born, the wise men come and visit Jesus, and then Jesus is taken to Egypt for protection from Herod. All of this occurs before Jesus is 5 years old. Then there is no recorded history of Jesus from that point on until we get to our text.
Our account takes place after John the Baptist was performing baptisms a plenty at the Jordan River, for those who confessed their sins and were repentant and refusing to baptize the Pharisees and Sadducees for their lack of repentance. Now we find Jesus around 30 years old. Suddenly, He bursts upon the scene with little fanfare. Jesus is a grown man and makes a trip from Galilee to the Jordan River. Our Lord comes to John in order to be baptized.
Before we go any further, we need to ask a question. Why? Why would Jesus need to be baptized if He is the Son of God who is sinless? Is there a reason why Jesus needs to be baptized?
Jesus arrives at the very place where the people have been confessing that from which He has come to save them: their sins. As they confessed their sins, John was baptizing the people in response to his message, “Repent!” But what about Jesus? What does He need to repent of? Does Jesus need to be converted from unbelief to faith? The answer is clear to John – no.
Imagine the scene that is set before you. You have John the Baptist preaching a message of repentance. You have a crowd of people coming to be baptized, while at the same time confessing their sins. You have the Pharisees and Sadducees who saw no real need for repentance and yet desired John to baptize them, their true intentions unknown. And to top everything off, here comes Jesus desiring to be baptized. What is John supposed to do? He did what he knew to do – he tried to prevent Jesus from being baptized. He said, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”
It seemed to be a reasonable request from John. You have sinners and then you have Jesus. One obviously needs to repent, confess, and be baptized while the other clearly does not. Everyone seems to get it except one person, Jesus. Jesus insisted, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” We are left with a question. How has righteousness been fulfilled if Jesus is already righteous?
Here is the crux of the disagreement. It is not for Christ’s righteousness but it is for your righteousness. In order for sinful man to come to righteousness and receive salvation, Jesus must be baptized. He stands in the place of and for the sake of the sinner to fulfill that which God requires of the sinner – perfect obedience to God’s Law.
Here Jesus begins His ministry. Here He stands in the place of the sinner. He takes the place of John. He takes the place of those gathered. He takes the place of the Pharisees and Sadducees. He takes your place and mine. He takes upon Himself the sin of the entire world, offering us His holiness. He becomes the greatest of sinners, not with His own sin, but with our sin.
St. Paul expands on this in today’s Epistle reading from Romans: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 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.” Our baptism joins us to Christ and His baptism. Our sin becomes His and His perfection becomes ours. His innocent suffering and death are credited to us. The eternal life and salvation that He earned becomes ours. It is this great reversal that fulfills all righteousness. It is Christ taking our sin and giving us His perfection. It is Christ taking our death and giving us life.
Jesus’ baptism identified Him with the world of sinners. Paul describes Christ’s substitution for sinners by telling us, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Even though Jesus never sinned, God made Him to be sin. Paul then takes us back to today’s Gospel. Through baptism, we are joined to Christ. His life is for us. His death is for us. His resurrection is for us. Jesus came to John to be baptized for us.
The opening of the heavens after Jesus’ baptism was much more than the parting of clouds so that the sun could shine through. It was more like the experience of the prophet Ezekiel, “the heavens were opened, and I saw visions of God.” Immediately following Jesus’ baptism, we now see the Trinity present. What is the purpose of the Holy Spirit descending upon Jesus? The Holy Spirit manifests Himself as a dove descending upon the Son. As the symbol of peace, it is a reminder to us that, being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. At this time, the Holy Spirit bestowed upon Jesus the special gifts He would need to carry out the responsibilities of His office as the Messiah. The prophet Isaiah had foretold what these gifts would include: “And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.”
When the voice of God from heaven speaks, He says something very simple, yet very profound: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” The Son has been obedient to the Father’s will. Here the Father acknowledges that the Son is indeed living a life of perfection and fulfilling the promises given through the prophets. The Father tells us that Jesus is the cause and target of His good pleasure. He tells us that Jesus is His beloved Son. Since Jesus stands in our place, the Father’s pleasure with His Son is also His pleasure with you and me. Because the Father is pleased with His Son, Jesus, He is pleased with us. We are now the Lord’s beloved children because of the work of Christ.
The baptism of Jesus in the Jordan points us forward to all the work Jesus did for us –
His perfect life, His suffering, His death, His resurrection, His ascension, and the work He still does among us as our risen and ascended Lord. It points us forward to our own baptism as a means for the Holy Spirit to deliver Christ’s salvation to us. In Jesus’ name, amen. Now the peace of God which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds through faith in Christ Jesus, amen.