Baptism is a simple thing, yet mysterious for us.
It’s the application of two things: Water and God’s Word.
That’s what John was doing in the Jordan,
to bestow God’s forgiveness of sins upon penitent sinners.
John knew he was doing God’s work, vitally important for others.
They needed baptism insofar as they needed God,
and they needed God in their lives and hereafter.
Baptism was not John’s gift to them, but God’s gift,
and John was vividly aware of its blessing,
even as He was aware of His role as the Baptizer.
As a prophet, he represented God to those people.
So when Jesus came to be baptized, and John recognized Him,
he knew that Jesus did not need God’s forgiveness.
What’s more, Jesus represented God to John, as God’s Son.
It would be backwards for John to baptize Jesus,
because John was a sinner, and Jesus is divinely perfect.
But John was God’s chosen instrument for this powerful mystery.
And it did even more than bestow forgiveness.
It was God’s outward choosing of the Baptized,
and as we also see today, a giving of His Spirit.
Through Baptism, Jesus was anointed the Messiah or Christ,
chosen by God and given His Spirit.
In Baptism, Jesus received the work of our redemption.
In Baptism, we receive the life of the redeemed.
Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan to be baptized by him. And John tried to prevent Him, saying, “I need to be baptized by You, and are You coming to me?”
But Jesus answered and said to him, “Permit it to be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he allowed Him.
When He had been baptized, Jesus came up immediately from the water; and behold, the heavens were opened to Him, and He saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting upon Him. And suddenly a voice came from heaven, saying, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.”
Our Old Testament lesson begins this way:
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.
This foreshadows what the Father spoke in our text,
“This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.”
And also the descent of the Holy Spirit upon our Lord.
In his prophetic writing, Isaiah was seeing ahead to this day,
and giving us more that God said about it.
Isaiah describes Him as meek and gentle:
He will not cry aloud or lift up his voice,
or make it heard in the street;
a bruised reed he will not break,
and a faintly burning wick he will not quench;
he will faithfully bring forth justice.
This is the kind of Savior anointed in this Gospel lesson.
Not a mighty man of brash deeds,
expecting as much from others as from Himself.
He’s mighty and just,
but also careful with those weaker than Himself.
This anointing, His Baptism, is the same as ours,
only in His case, it accomplished something different.
When John was confused about who should baptize whom,
Jesus said, “Permit it to be so now,
for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.”
Jesus is the righteous One, like the holy Tabernacle of God,
at the time of Moses, Aaron, and Aaron’s sons:
Nadab, Abihu, Eleazar, and Ithamar.
Aaron and his sons were priests in the Tabernacle,
chosen by God for a special service to Him and His people.
But in Leviticus 10(:1–2), it says:
Then Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, each took his censer and put fire in it, put incense on it, and offered profane fire before the LORD, which He had not commanded them. So fire went out from the LORD and devoured them, and they died before the LORD.
God was showing the difference between holy and profane.
His holiness cannot be lessened by anything profane;
Instead, what is profane becomes committed to Him,
when it encounters His holiness.
That’s the picture presented by a holocaust:
a whole burnt offering.
In a similar circumstance there was an actual rebellion.
Moses challenged them to bring incense before the Lord.
Korah and his faction brought censers with incense,
and like Nadab and Abihu, they were all destroyed.
But God said afterward (Num. 16:38):
“The censers of these men who sinned against their own souls, let them be made into hammered plates as a covering for the altar. Because they presented them before the LORD, therefore they are holy; and they shall be a sign to the children of Israel.”
This aspect of God’s holiness teaches us about Baptism.
When Jesus, who was the Holy One of God, was baptized,
Baptism itself was sanctified for all time as God’s special work.
So that now, when Baptism has come to you and me,
it brings with it this infectious holiness of God,
making us His own holy children and heirs with Christ.
Where Nadab, Abihu, Korah and the rest had to die,
Baptism indeed drowns our sinful flesh,
even as it bestows a new life with God.
The difference is that God made Baptism to be a gentle means,
so that our earthly lives are not put to an end immediately,
yet we are still given the righteous, new life in Jesus.
As far as Jesus’ baptism goes, He was physically anointed and chosen.
That’s what the title “Messiah” or “Christ” means,
coming from the OT Hebrew and NT Greek languages, respectively.
Jesus is anointed by God for the purpose of being our Redeemer.
And the means of His anointing is also the means of our blessing.
In Baptism, both we and Jesus are chosen by God and given His Spirit:
Jesus to go forth in the work of our redemption.
We to go forth in the life of the redeemed.
Jesus told John that this was how to fulfill all righteousness.
What does this mean?
Righteousness is the quality in a human being expected by God.
His commandments define a righteous life,
not only in action, but also in thoughts and words.
By keeping God’s commandments, you would also have righteousness,
only instead you have sinfulness.
Where God says, “Thou shalt not,” the fact is, “thou didst anyway.”
Where God says, “Thou shalt,” the fact is, “thou hast not.”
This is true about your conduct toward others,
and it’s also true about your conduct and worship toward God.
Now, it’s true that you can do some things that appear right,
when you take them in isolation from the rest of your life.
You can seem to honor your parents and other authority.
You may be able to avoid directly taking the life of another.
You can avoid outward, gross adultery.
And you can resist stealing in obvious ways.
But is that the righteousness that God demands? Of course not.
If you obey the laws but grumble against authority,
that’s not true righteousness.
If you neglect to keep your neighbor safe,
or if your eyes and thoughts wander in unchaste ways,
or if you accept the advantage of unfair prices or wages:
you don’t have God’s true righteousness.
The reason we do these things comes from our flawed worship of God,
that our hearts are divided at best, between God and idols.
So when Jesus says, to fulfill all righteousness,
He means something far better than the righteousness of man.
Where God in His Law demands righteousness from us,
Jesus uses Baptism to bestow righteousness upon us.
When you are baptized into Christ,
you receive credit for His righteous thoughts, words, and deeds.
And that’s a permanent gift.
Instead of earning this righteousness by your efforts and works,
you receive it though faith alone: simple trust in God’s promise.
The righteousness we receive from Jesus is what defines our lives.
Christians don’t appear any more righteous than their neighbors,
because in fact we aren’t, by all the measures the world uses.
We still have trouble accepting authority, defending neighbors,
disciplining ourselves in chastity, and the like.
When the world hears a Christian talk about being acceptable to God,
it sounds like hypocrisy, because our lives are still imperfect.
Yet a Christian knows that what counts is the life of Jesus,
Who was perfectly righteous in your place.
When Jesus came up from the Jordan after being baptized,
even God the Father gave His seal of approval on His Son.
And suddenly a voice came from heaven, saying,
“This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.”
The unbelieving world doesn’t understand the power of Baptism.
When the Father says this about Jesus emerging from the water,
He effectively says the same thing about all the baptized.
Remember, Baptism is now the conduit of Jesus’ righteousness,
so that it has filled Baptism, which now fills the baptized.
So the Father’s pleasure in His Son
must also hold for everyone who has received Jesus’ righteousness.
There’s a way the Church has described this effect in our lives:
we are at the same time saints (according to Jesus’ righteousness)
and sinners (according to our own continuing sinfulness).
But in Baptism, the sinful flesh is being put to death,
which advances a little more every time we confess our sins.
Meanwhile, the New Man is also strengthened by Baptism
to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.
This work continues in the life of every Christian,
because it’s the work of the Holy Spirit, whom we have received.
Just as the Spirit descended visibly to Jesus at His baptism,
so He also arrives every time Baptism joins a sinner to Jesus.
That’s why Peter instructed the repenting Jews in Acts 2(:38),
Repent, and let every one of you be baptized
in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins;
and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.
Now your life is defined not by your sin, but by Jesus’ forgiveness.
By faith in Him, your life is pleasing to God,
and you are empowered to glorify God and resist temptation.
But this gift of forgiveness continues daily,
so that when you repent, God in Christ will surely forgive.
Therefore, you all, who are chosen by God and given His Spirit,
may you always remain in the grace of your holy baptism.
Soli Deo Gloria