Sermon: Why was Jesus Baptized?

Text: Matthew 3:13-17
The Baptism of Our Lord
Listen to the Sermon here.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Does the Baptism of Jesus surprise you? It certainly surprised John the Baptist. “I baptize you with water for repentance,” said John (Mt 3:11). Sinners of all sorts from every walk of life came to John to be baptized. That’s why John was shocked when Jesus came and stood humbly before John, asking for baptism. Jesus deliberately chose to accept a baptism of repentance. But it might never have happened if John had been running the show. He knew that Jesus was no ordinary man. John knows that Jesus is not a sinner in need of repentance. Jesus is the sinless Son of God. He is the greater one, great David’s greater Son. Instead, John recognizes that Jesus was far beneath Jesus. John confesses his sinfulness and places himself right alongside the multitudes he baptized. John is willing to take his own medicine. It would be fitting for John to be baptized by him. The Sinless One should baptize the sinner. The question before us this morning is this: Why did John baptize Jesus? Why does he accept a sinner’s baptism? How does that apply to you?

Saint Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, helps us to understand what’s going on here. He wrote, “The Saviour willed to be baptized not that He might Himself be cleansed but to cleanse the water for us. From the time that he was dipped in the water, He has washed away all our sins in water.”  How does that work?

 Imagine a massive flock of sheep gathered on the Jordan bank, pressing toward the water. One by one, they go down to John, standing in the river. These sheep are filthy, disgusting, and covered in filth and black sludge. They have burrs and thorns caught in their wool, and they are ragged nasty-looking sheep. That’s you. That’s me.

And as these sheep step into the water, John pours water over them and says, “I baptize you for the forgiveness of all of your sins.” All the muck and filth washes off of these sheep, these lambs, and they walk out of the other side of the river pure, white, gleaming. Sheep after sheep comes into the water, and all of the dirt and blood is washed off. Sheep after sheep are washed clean, while the water is covered, like a swamp or an oil spill.

Imagine next, one white, gleaming, stunning lamb in the middle of all these dirty, disgusting sheep. This lamb is without spot or blemish, perfect in every way. And now this perfect white woolly lamb comes to the edge of the water, and John sees Him and tries to prevent Him coming into the filth, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do You come to me?”

But this perfect lamb answers, saying, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfil all righteousness.” So this perfect lamb steps into the water. As He does, all the filth, muck, stain, thorn, dirt, and blood swirling around on the water is absorbed onto Him. His wool is saturated with your uncleanness and my unrighteousness – all of it. Then the lamb walks out of the river bearing all the filth of each and every sheep. And now the water is clear and pure.

In the river is John, and He points directly at this lamb and says, “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” This is Jesus, who knew no sin, the One whom God made to be the sin offering for us. “Surely He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows” (Is 53:4). He was washed so that we might be washed from our sins.

Brothers and sisters, in this image, we have the baptism and the death of Jesus and our baptism all wrapped together. That’s how they should be. The baptism of Jesus is the first step on the road that ends at the cross, and at Jesus’ cross, He earns the forgiveness of all sins, and that’s the gift that baptism gives us.

This baptism signals the start of something big for Jesus. This is Jesus’ “ordination,” the beginning of His public ministry. His ministry begins with the Father identifying Him as the beloved Son and the Spirit descending upon Him. Here we see the Trinity at work: Father, Son, and Spirit. In receiving John’s baptism, Jesus was identified to John as the promised Messiah. And then, John could point Him out to the world, as the one promised in the Scriptures. Christ’s mission is to defeat sin, death, and the devil. His ministry brings mankind eternal life and forgiveness of sins. Jesus is here to fulfil the Law with His perfect obedience and to become the Sin-offering for us.

John objected, “This makes no sense, Lord! Don’t you know that baptism is for sinners?” But that’s exactly why Jesus came. He came to put himself in the place of sinners. This baptism was different. He was already pure. Jesus’ baptism was necessary because he is the Saviour from sin. As the sacrifice for sins, he needed washing, as all sacrifices were washed. Sacrificial lambs had to be perfect and without any blemish. Jesus is the sinless, spotless Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. He is the stand-in, the substitute, the One who offers His life in place of ours, blood for blood.

The baptism that Jesus stepped into was a baptism for sinners. Prostitutes, scoundrels, and all manner of “sinners” came to John wanting to be cleansed from their past and sins. Jesus had no sin to repent from, no past that needed cleansing. He was sinless and holy. Jesus assumed our debt and paid back to God what we owe. When he was baptized, Jesus took your place. He took the place of sinners. Not just some sinners, all sinners. He has assumed your sin and paid for it by his death. He became the sin offering for you so your sins would be nailed to His cross and buried in His grave.

Jesus, the Sinless One, the very Son of God, chooses to put himself alongside of all the sinners. He connects himself with every baptism.  It is his life, his death, and his resurrection that makes your baptism saving. Remember the words that the heavenly Father spoke of Jesus at His baptism? The voice of the Father spoke from the opened heavens to the Son: “This is my beloved Son; with whom I am well pleased.” In the same way, the Father says to you in your Baptism that you are His beloved child. In your baptism God has declared that he is pleased with you for His Son’s sake. Everything Jesus did for you is brought to you in the gift of your baptism. That is where a great exchange is completed. Jesus gives you what is His. His death is your death. The life you didn’t live is yours. In exchange, He pays for your sins. He dies for your failures. The font is where we are reborn as children of the heavenly Father, where we adopted as God’s children, where we are made heirs of the eternal kingdom, and where we are rescued from the devil and death and sin.

Why was Jesus baptized? He was baptized to show that he was the spotless Lamb of God. He was baptized to cleanse the waters of baptism for you. The whole Christian gospel can be summarised in this one point: when the living God looks at you, at every baptized and believing Christian, he tells us what he said to Jesus on that day. “You are my dear child, with you, I am well-pleased.” You have fulfilled all righteousness in Christ because he has fulfilled all righteousness for you. Baptism makes his death yours, his life yours, his holiness yours. Your sins in thought, word, and deed, which all deserve God’s condemnation, have been washed away. You are an adopted member of God’s family. He sees us not as we are in ourselves but as we are in Jesus Christ.

May the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

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