Come and See His BaptismPastor Lutzer | February 1, 2004
The meaning of Jesus’ baptism and ours.
Selected highlights from this sermon
Jesus went to the Jordan River where John had been baptizing repentant people, and asked John to baptize Him. Jesus wanted to display His identity and mission to the watching world, and commence His public ministry. Being plunged into the water indicated that Jesus came to live, die, and rise again.
When we too are baptized, we identify ourselves with this incredible work done on our behalf by our Lord.
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I think it is a scandal beyond irony that the two ordinances that Jesus Christ gave to the Church, namely baptism and the Lord’s Supper, which were intended to unite the Church, would be the ordinances that would so strongly divide the Church.
Today we are speaking about baptism, specifically Jesus Christ’s baptism. This is a series of messages entitled Come and See Jesus, and we’re going to be looking at various incidents in the life of Jesus Christ, particularly from the book of Matthew, so you can be reading the book and anticipating them. We’re just picking and choosing some of the most important events in the life of our Lord. And the purpose of today’s message really is the purpose for the entire series, namely that we will appreciate Jesus Christ more, but specifically today, so that we might better understand and appreciate baptism.
Matthew 3 is the text and I encourage you to turn there, and we’re going to pick it up at verse 13 in a moment.
John the Baptist was baptizing in the Jordan River, and in doing that he was calling people to repentance. We read in chapter 3, verse 1, “In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’” And then he goes on to quote Isaiah. “I am the voice crying in the wilderness. Make way the path of the Lord.” What John was saying is this. “Jesus is coming. The Messiah is coming. Let’s repent of our sins and let us therefore indicate our repentance through our baptism and let’s get ready because Messiah is on His way.”
John the Baptist did not read Dale Carnegie’s book, How to Win Friends and Influence People. When the Pharisees and the Sadducees came to him he said, “You brood of snakes, you generation of vipers.” Wow! And I don’t think he baptized them because he said, “You have not brought fruit in keeping with repentance.”
Alright, then we get to verse 13 and Jesus makes the journey of maybe 50 or 60 miles, depending on where John was there at the Jordan River. But Jesus comes from Galilee to the southern part of the Jordan so far as we know, and it is there that John is baptizing and Jesus comes and says, “John, baptize me.”
Have you ever been troubled at the baptism of Jesus? Have you ever read this and thought, “My goodness, in context it doesn’t seem right that Jesus should be baptized.” If you’ve ever thought that, I want you to know today that you are in very good company because that was John’s problem too. He didn’t understand it either. He tried to prevent Jesus and said no. You’ll notice it says, “Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John to be baptized by him. John would have prevented Him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by You, and do You come to me?’ Jesus answered him and said, ‘Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.’”
So John was having a problem too. He’s saying, “You know you can baptize me but how can I baptize You?” Interestingly, John did not baptize the Sadducees and the Pharisees that came to him, not so much because they were so wicked, but because they wouldn’t repent. And now he doesn’t want to baptize Jesus but for the opposite reason. He knows that Jesus is the Messiah. Even though the two of them grew up independently, he has a good idea that Jesus is the Messiah. And so he knows that he is in the presence of divinity and humanity. He knows that he is in the presence of a sinless Messiah, so he can’t bear the thought of baptizing him.
So if Jesus did not have to be baptized unto repentance, why then was Jesus baptized? There are two reasons that I hope will enlighten us today. First of all, Jesus was baptized to manifest who He was. You know, there’s an interesting passage of Scripture in Matthew 21 where Jesus showed that He believed that John’s authority came from heaven. They were pestering Jesus. “They said, ‘By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?’ Jesus answered them, ‘I also will ask you one question, and if you tell me the answer, then I also will tell you by what authority I do these things. The baptism of John, from where did it come? From heaven or from man?’ And they discussed it among themselves, saying, ‘If we say, “From heaven,” He will say to us, “Why then did you not believe him?” But if we say, “From man,” we are afraid of the crowd, for they all hold that John was a prophet.’ So (they lied and) they answered Jesus, ‘We do not know.’ And He said to them, ‘Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.’” They knew right well that John the Baptist was from God, but they wanted to hang onto their sins rather than confess them and forsake them.
So Jesus is saying that the baptism of John was not something that John thought up. His authority came to him from heaven, and Jesus is saying, “My authority comes from heaven just like John’s authority comes from heaven.” But we know from John 1 that one of the real reasons why Jesus was baptized was to reveal who He was, namely the Messiah.
I want you to notice that in John 1, John the Baptist is now giving his take on what happened. He’s looking back in retrospect to this event - the baptism of Jesus, and he sees Jesus coming to him (in verse 29) and he says, “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” And then he goes on in verse 31 and says, “I myself did not know Him, but for this purpose I came baptizing with water, that He might be revealed to Israel.” And John bore witness. “I saw the Spirit descend from heaven like a dove, and it remained on Him. I myself did not know Him, but He who sent me to baptize with water (That’s God.) said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is He who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I’ve seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God.”
The baptism of Jesus was a public event. It wasn’t just Jesus and John. John was there but there’s no doubt that there was a crowd that was also there, and as they saw Jesus baptized…” And if we were to read the rest of the text as we shall do in a moment, we would see that the heavens are opened and the Spirit of God descends like a dove upon Jesus. That was the sign that this is the Messiah.
John, in effect, was saying now to the people, “I am the one who prepared you for the coming of the Messiah,” and now the Messiah is baptized, and the heavens open. The heavens didn’t open for anyone else. The dove comes. The voice says, “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased. This is the Messiah of whom I was speaking.” The first reason Jesus was baptized was to reveal publicly now who He was.
But there’s a second reason why Jesus was baptized, and that to reveal His mission, and this gets to the heart of the text. Notice it there. We’re back in Matthew 3:13. John is saying, “I need to be baptized by You and You come to me.” Verse 15, “But Jesus answered him, ‘Let it be so now for thus it is fitting for Us to fulfill all righteousness.’”
Pause there for a moment. Why that little word us in the middle of verse 15? Why didn’t Jesus simply say, “It is fitting for Me to fulfill all of righteousness?” He says “for us.” Does He mean Him and John? Is John the Baptist going to have a part in the fulfilling of the righteousness of God? Of course not! To whom is Jesus referring by using the plural us? I believe that He is referring to the Trinity because the Trinity is present here. We continue to read, “He (John) consented (verse 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. And behold a voice from heaven said, ‘This is My beloved Son with whom I am well pleased.’” The Trinity! The Son is going down into the water. The heavens open when He comes up out of the water. The Holy Spirit is there, descending like a dove upon Him. And you have the voice of the Father giving His declaration that His Son is beloved and greatly, greatly loved. And so the Trinity is involved here and it is the Trinity that is going to fulfill all righteousness. And so Jesus here is baptized.
“Well,” you say, “Pastor Lutzer, that’s all fine but what does baptism really mean?” Now we get to the nitty gritty, as we sometimes say. What does it mean? Well, the Greek word baptizo, which is the word that is used here, literally means to dip or immerse, and sometimes to plunge. One writer used it of a ship that had gone down to the bottom of the lake. It was indeed baptized and it stayed baptized I am sure.
When Jesus was giving what we call today the Lord’s Supper, He said, “One of you will betray me.” He said, “He it is I will give the morsel after I have dipped it – after I have baptized it.” And in the sixteenth chapter of Luke’s Gospel you remember you have the rich man and you have Lazarus who is on the other side. And the rich man says to Abraham (In those days they were able to talk to one another though they were in separate compartments.), “Send Lazarus that he may baptize his finger in water and touch my tongue because I am tormented in this flame.” Baptism means to immerse.
And so Jesus here was immersed, but the question still is, how else is baptism used in the New Testament? Another meaning is used metaphorically of going under. You go under in calamity and you can be baptized. Sometimes we use this when we say, “He was really baptized with fire,” or “He’s getting baptized into his new job.” What we mean is, “He’s in the middle of the swirls and the pushes and the pulls, and the difficulties and the trials that came with his vocation.”
Now I want you to notice in Mark 10, Jesus speaks of His coming baptism, and He’s using the phrase here now metaphorically. You’ll notice Mark 10:35 says, “And James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came up to Him and said to Him, ‘Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of You.’” I am always amused by this passage for a number of reasons. By the way, they came with their mother, and there is some indication here that they were the cousins of Jesus if Salome and Mary were sisters. And so they maybe thought, “You know, there’s nothing like being a relative, even if it is a shirttail relative, to get a perk. And then they come just like school kids do. “If I ask you for a favor, will you do it?” “Well, tell me what the favor is first, thank you.” “Jesus, will you do whatever we ask You?” They really didn’t understand the cross and this really shows you the human nature of these otherwise very good disciples.
So they are coming to Jesus and you’ll notice that Jesus asks in verse 36, “What do you want Me to do for you?” And they said to Him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in Your glory.” Now Jesus had promised them thrones in His Kingdom, but they are saying, “It’s not enough for us to just get a throne. We want to be to Your right and to Your left.” One says, “I want to be the prime minister,” and over here this other guy wants to be the secretary of the treasury right next to where Jesus is.
And Jesus said, “You do not know what you are asking (because you don’t understand the cross). Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” And here again it shows that they didn’t know what they were talking about because they said to Him, “We are able.”
You see, Jesus knew that His suffering was going to be totally unique. His suffering was going to be for the sins of the whole world. Nobody could participate with Him in that kind of baptism. But there is a sense in which – yes - they could be baptized. Jesus does go on to say, “The cup that I drink you will drink, and with the baptism with which I am baptized you will be baptized.” In a secondary sense, they could do that. James, later on, was slain with the sword, and John endured a great deal of persecution before he died. But “to sit on My right hand and My left is not Mine to grant, but is for those for whom it has been prepared.” And of course, the other disciples heard about it and they were angry that they were getting to Jesus before they had a chance to get to Jesus to ask for the same thing.
But notice Jesus says, “I’m going to go through a baptism.” And in order for us to understand the baptism of Matthew 3, we have to understand the baptism that took place later. He’s talking about the cross. He’s speaking about a baptism that He will be going through personally where He is going to be under the water of God’s wrath, bearing our sin. In the Old Testament being under water meant being overrun by calamity. For example, it says in Psalm 69:2, “I sink in the deep mire where there is no foothold. I have come into deep waters and the flood sweeps over me.”
So Jesus is saying, as He is being baptized by water in Matthew 3, which is our text today, that this baptism is a preview of the baptism that He is going to endure in the future when He is going to be crucified on a cross, when He is going to be buried, and when He is going to be resurrected to new life. That’s what the baptism really refers to. And that’s why the Bible never refers and connects baptism to birth. Baptism is always connected to death. Therefore when we give baptism instructions here at The Moody Church, we point out Romans 6: “Being buried with Him into baptism unto death, that like as Jesus Christ was raised from the dead, so also you should walk in newness of life.” That is the meaning of baptism. It is to identify with Jesus in His death, in His burial, and in His resurrection.
Very interestingly, in Matthew 3, the heavens do not open when Jesus is under the water. When Jesus was there, dying on the cross, the heavens were closed. It’s after the resurrection that the heavens open, and of course, He was able to ascend into heaven some time later. But there is no voice from heaven while Jesus is dying and overwhelmed by calamity. The baptism of his tremendous unbelievable suffering!
And so Jesus comes up out of the water. And when He comes up out of the water it is then that the heavens open. And just like the veil of the temple, which was rent in two, the heavens are ripped open. You know, I can imagine that saints in the Old Testament sometimes prayed, “Oh that Thou would rend the heavens and come down.” Well, God rends the heavens here. He opens them and it shows the proximity, the nearness of Jesus Christ to heaven, and heaven to Jesus Christ. And the rest of His life is going to be lived out in the presence, so to speak, of an open heaven, just like our lives are lived out in the presence of an open heaven.
And when Stephen was being stoned, you remember, he already began to see the heavens open, and Jesus on the right hand of God, reminding him again of the proximity that there is to heaven.
This week I spoke to some people, all of whom had something in common. They were all grieving. They were grieving the death of a child. That was their commonality. And how wonderful it is, for those who know the Savior, to know that heaven is very, very near. And so Jesus goes down into the water, signifying His death. And then He comes up out of the water.
When we baptize you here at The Moody Church, notice carefully that we always bring you up out of the water. And there’s a reason for that. If we left you in the water, it would be an awesome picture of death and burial, but it isn’t the complete picture. You are supposed to recognize that with Jesus you are rising to newness of life, and that’s why we always bring you up after you’ve gone down into the water. And I like to say that we’ve not lost anyone yet in the baptistery.
So Jesus here now receives the Spirit. The Spirit comes like a dove. You remember in the Old Testament, this world was baptized in the flood of judgment. And yet the Ark rested on a mountain. And Noah sent out a raven, and the raven didn’t return because there were plenty of carcasses, and the raven was a kind of bird that loved carcasses, so it was able to live. But the dove returned. He sent it out again. This time it came back with an olive branch, signifying peace, and Noah knew that the earth was beginning to dry up. And then later on he sent out the dove and the dove never returned.
Well, we don’t know what happened to that dove, but we do know that as the blessed Holy Spirit of God came upon Jesus, the dove, being symbolic of purity and of sensitivity (just like the Spirit is sensitive to sin, and that’s why we grieve Him when we sin), the Spirit of God comes upon Jesus and anoints Him now for the rest of His ministry. And then you have the voice of the Father saying, “This is My beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.” God was giving His approval to the silent years of Jesus.
Jesus, you remember, was brought up in a home and we hear nothing about Him after the age of 12 until His public ministry now. All kinds of theories have arisen as to what Jesus was doing. I was reading some apocryphal scriptures perhaps two weeks ago in which it says that Jesus was using His power almost like a little Dennis the Menace to do foolish things, like He would make little clay pigeons and put them in his hand and then blow and the pigeons would come to life and they’d fly away. Shirley MacLaine says that during this period of time, Jesus went to India to learn from the gurus there. You know, could I just simply say this? If you are not interested in facts, talk is cheap. We know nothing about Jesus Christ’s silent years. I have a friend who was going to write a dissertation on the silent years of Jesus and his professor said, “Great idea! Then you don’t have to write anything.” (laughter) All that we know is that the Father now says, “Behold My beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.”
There are several lessons that grow out of what we’ve said today, as Jesus here was predicting His mission. What He was saying is, “The baptism that I experienced in the Jordan River is symbolic of the baptism that I am going to have when I face the cross, when I die, and when I am raised again.” And so Jesus is prefiguring His mission.
Lesson number one: The entire Trinity is involved in our salvation. The Father sends the Son. “For God so loved the world He gave His only begotten Son.” The Son dies on the cross. The Son goes through that baptism, and ends up being glorified as a result of it. And then the blessed Holy Spirit of God shows us our need and gives us the ability to believe, and draws us into the blessings that come to those who trust Christ. But the Trinity works together. You don’t have one person doing this independently of the other person. Despite the mystery, the beauty is that the Trinity is involved in everything. It’s involved in the creation, and most assuredly in the new creation, giving you a new heart and a new mind. And the Trinity is here. Let us fulfill righteousness.
There’s a second lesson, and the second lesson is that our own baptism identifies us with the death, the burial and the resurrection of Jesus. That’s why Romans 6, as we quoted before, is so significant. We are buried with Him in baptism unto death, but like as Christ was raised from the dead, so also you should walk in newness of life.
Let me make a couple of comments. First of all, clearly your baptism does not save you. Jesus did not bring salvation by being baptized in the Jordan River. He brought salvation when He was being baptized on the cross, was in the tomb, and then came out of the tomb and was raised. That’s how our salvation was purchased.
Listen up, those of you who were baptized maybe as infants, and you have this little certificate that you can’t quite find (but you could if you needed it) that said, “With this water we make you a child of God.” Listen, nobody has the ability to use water to make anybody a child of God. (applause) You have to understand that. You could be baptized so often that every fish in Lake Michigan would know your name. (laughter) Maybe I should change that. You could be baptized so often that both fish in Lake Michigan would know your name (laughter) and still be eternally lost. It is not the water that somebody put upon you. It’s not the water that you went under that is going to save you. It is the water that Jesus went under. It is the baptism that He endured on the cross that saves us. The Bible says, “The blood of Jesus Christ, God’s Son, cleanses us from all sin.” How many sins, therefore, are left for water to take away? You answer that question.
But there are some of you, God bless you, who are saved, but you’ve never been baptized. Just imagine that. Now in the New Testament you didn’t have that. I challenge you to read the book of Acts and find a believer who was saved who wasn’t baptized. It always says, “And they believed and they were baptized.” Why? In the early church they understood that when you follow Jesus you want to be identified in His death, His burial and His resurrection. And that’s why the early church always used immersion, sometimes pouring because of other circumstances. And we can do that too for someone who for whatever reason (physical reasons) cannot go under the water. But why do you deny the privilege that Jesus gives us to be baptized, and therefore say, “I want to be identified with His death, His burial and His resurrection?”
There is a third and final lesson. Jesus died (and now I’m talking about His baptism on the cross) that the Father might be as pleased with us as He was with Christ. I want to say that again because it is so important, and some of you are taking notes for which you will be especially honored in the Day of Judgment. (laughter) No pressure! I’m just tossing out all these interesting things.
Jesus died that the Father might be as pleased with us as He was with Jesus, His beloved Son. Now you can read Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, and nowhere are we called beloved, and the reason is because Jesus had not yet been baptized at the cross for us. But afterwards, when you read the Epistles, it says in Ephesians 1 that God has graced us in the beloved One. Paul the Apostle talks about believers. Here’s a quote now. He says, “You are beloved to the Father.” Why? Miserable, wretched sinners beloved to the Father! It’s because we are accepted in Christ. What Jesus did in His baptism on the cross is so applied to us that God says, “I accept you and I accept Him.” That is the Gospel. And therefore, because of Jesus, we can have that kind of acceptance.
In the Old Testament, sacrifices had to be approved. Oftentimes the process was done by priests. It had to be an adequate sacrifice even though the sins of the Old Testament were not taken away by the sacrifices, at least not permanently, but there had to be an approval process. And what the Father does here, and what the Father does at the transfiguration, and what the Father does just before the cross is to say, in effect, “I approve of the sacrifice.” And certainly the resurrection is the Father approving of Jesus as the sacrifice for those who believe in Him.
Could I ask you a question? I don’t want to ask whether or not you are saved because you may answer that question too quickly. I have a different one for you. Is there evidence that God has done a miraculous work in your life that can somehow relate death to sin, burial and newness of life? That, in the Bible, is the new birth, without which you will not see the Kingdom of God. It’s the baptism of the cross that saves those who believe.
Our Father, we thank You today for the willingness of Jesus to be baptized, to prefigure a baptism that will take place three years later. And He said in the Gospel of Luke, “I am to be baptized with this baptism, and oh, how My heart is strained,” because He knew what that calamity would be like. We thank You. Thank You that today we are accepted in the beloved One.
That Thou canst think so well of us
and be the God Thou art,
Is darkness to our intellect,
but sunshine to our heart.
Help us to walk in that today. And for those who have never trusted Christ as Savior, may they reach out even at this moment and say, “Yes, I believe.” Oh grant that, God, we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.