The First Sunday After Epiphany January 12, 2014
127, 131, 134, 343
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.”
In the name of our Savior Jesus Christ, who fulfilled all righteousness for us, dear fellow-redeemed:
“A Tale of Two Cities” is one of Charles Dickens’ most famous novels. You may have read it if you’re a fan of Dickens. Even if you’re not, you may have been required to read it when you were in high school or college. As the title implies, it’s a story that is set in two cities—the two great capitals of Europe, Paris and London—at the time of the French Revolution. At first glance one might think the two had little in common, particularly during a period when France was in tumult and England was at peace. But in His masterful prose, Dickens demonstrated that much of the abuse and corruption suffered by the citizens of France was also perpetrated upon citizens of England, only in different ways. You’d think the two cities could hardly be more different, but seen through Dickens eyes, they have much in common.
Did you know that you and Jesus have something in common? You both were baptized! There are differences, of course. Jesus had no sins to wash away. Jesus had no need to repent even once, while we have need of repentance every day. So at first glance, the two baptisms might seem as different as day and night—as different as Paris and London. But there are important similarities as well.
If you haven’t thought about your baptism for a while—in fact, if you don’t think about your baptism every day—then you’re missing out on a source of comfort that can make a tremendous difference in your life. Our theme today is: A TALE OF TWO BAPTISMS: Jesus’ and Yours! I. Both are opposed by man, II. Both are required by God, III. Both bestow the Holy Spirit, and IV. Both identify a beloved child of God.
Every four years we the President of the United States is inaugurated. Did you know that Jesus had an official inauguration, too? It happened when He was baptized by John in the Jordan river. In a sense, that was Jesus’ first day in office. The peaceful days of his youth Nazareth were now at an end. For on the day of His baptism, He was officially “inaugurated” by God the Father. He was not inaugurated to be the president of a country—nothing so modest!—but to be the Savior of all mankind!
In the Old Testament, kings and prophets were anointed with oil as a sign that they were designated by God to fill that office. On the day of His baptism, Jesus was anointed, only not with oil. He was anointed with the Holy Spirit to be our Prophet, High Priest, and King. That fact is striking enough by itself, but what’s really amazing is that your baptism does many of the same things for you that Jesus’ baptism did for Him!
In the Tale of Two baptisms the first commonality is that both are opposed by man. The resistance to Jesus’ baptism came first from a very unlikely source—John himself! The text says, “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?’” [vv.13-14]
John was a very great prophet. He was very sincere and devout. He knew who Jesus was and he recognized him as the Messiah. But John didn’t understand Jesus’ mission, so he tried to prevent Jesus—he literally interrupted Him in His work, and tried to keep Him from what He needed to do! “How can I baptize you, Lord Jesus? If anything, I’m the one who needs to be baptized by You!”
Have you ever noticed how often this happened during Jesus ministry? Devout followers of Jesus—His very disciples—would often obstruct Him and try to keep Him from carrying out His mission as the world’s Redeemer. They tried to keep him from going up to Jerusalem when it was time for him to suffer. When he told them frankly about his coming death, Peter said, “‘Far be it from You, Lord; this shall not happen to You!’ But [Jesus] turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind Me, Satan! You are an offense to Me, for you are not mindful of the things of God, but the things of men’” (Matthew 16:22-23).
Many Christian churches are still getting in Jesus’ way, misunderstanding the mission of the Church, even trying to prevent baptisms. They claim that baptism is merely “an optional human ordinance,” even though God’s Word clearly commands baptism. Our Lord Jesus said, “Go therefore and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost” (Matthew 28:19). Many say that it’s wrong to baptize babies because their human reason tells them that babies are too young to have faith. But God’s Word clearly says that little babies are part of “all nations,” even little babies are sinful and need forgiveness, and that—as little sense as it might make to us—even little babies can have faith in Jesus! That’s why Jesus said, “Let the little children to come unto me and do not forbid them, for of such is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 19:14).
And what about you? Are you ever guilty of trying to “prevent Jesus?” Does your religious faith depend upon what makes sense to you? Does God’s Word have to pass the test of your understanding and your feelings and your emotions before you will obey it? If there’s some part of God’s Word, or God’s will for your life that you don’t understand, does that mean you’re free to disregard it? May it never be! In fact, it’s one of the joys of the Christian faith that we don’t have to understand everything God reveals to us in His Word, we can just believe it. The Bible gives us all the answers we need. As the psalmist says, “Your Word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path” (Psalm 119:105). As for the mysteries, the things that are beyond our human comprehension, we leave those to the Lord just as John finally did.
In the Tale of Two Baptisms the second thing we note is that both are required by God. Jesus’ baptism was not optional and neither is yours. “Jesus answered and said to [John], ‘Permit it to be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.’” [v. 15]
Jesus had no choice in the matter. His baptism was part of God’s plan. It was part of what the theologians call Jesus’ “active obedience.” We talk a lot about his passive obedience—all of the things that were done to Him, all the suffering He endured to redeem us. But equally important was His active obedience—the fact that Jesus stepped into our shoes. He kept the Law of God perfectly in our place as our substitute. Unlike us, Jesus obviously had no sins to wash away in baptism. Still, God required His baptism, because it was part of His keeping of the Law for us. Jesus Himself said, “Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled” (Matthew 5:17-18).
Jesus’ baptism wasn’t optional for Him, and baptism isn’t optional for us either. I’m old enough to remember the energy crisis of the 1970s, when the national speed limit was lowered to 55 in the interest of conserving fuel. I remember the slogan the government came up with: “55 miles an hour—it’s not just a good idea, it’s the law!” Baptism is like that for Christians. It’s not just a good idea, it’s the law. It’s required of believers. Jesus said to Nicodemus, ”Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (John 3:5). Jesus also said, “He who believes and is baptized shall be saved” (Mark 16:16).
God is not bound by baptism. He can save even without it. He saved the thief on the cross (cf. Luke 23:43). But God has bound us to baptism. No Christian should forgo baptism for himself, and no Christian parents should withhold the tremendous blessings of holy baptism from their children.
This is indeed A Tale of Two Baptisms. There is a third and quite wonderful similarity that you’ll notice between Jesus’ baptism and yours: Both bestow the Holy Spirit. Our passage reads, “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.” [v.16]
You may recall how the believer, Simeon, was informed by the Holy Spirit that he would meet the world’s Redeemer in the Temple in Jerusalem. John the Baptist had received advanced warning from God too. John said of Jesus, “I did not know Him, but He who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘Upon whom you see the Spirit descending, and remaining on Him, this is He who baptizes with the Holy Spirit’” (John 1:33). That is the very sign John observed after Jesus’ baptism—the Holy Spirit coming down from the sky in the shape of the dove and settling upon Jesus. It was the fulfillment of Isaiah’s ancient prophecy in the Old Testament lesson: “Behold! My Servant whom I uphold, My Elect One in whom My soul delights! I have put My Spirit upon Him” (Isaiah 42:1). Why the visible sign? Why were the heavens opened and the Holy Spirit made visible to John? So that there would be no mistake! So that John might be certain that this truly was the Messiah, the fulfillment of God’s ancient promise. It was for our assurance, as well, that this miracle was recorded in God’s Word. As John said in his Gospel account, and as we sing in our liturgy: “These things are written, that you may believe, that Jesus is the Christ, the son of God” (John 20:31).
But this is A Tale of Two Baptisms for you too received the Holy Spirit at your baptism! With their false teaching, the reformed churches want to strip away the miraculous from the sacrament. They say baptism is just a symbolic act, that it merely represents the Holy Spirit coming into the heart of the believer. But that’s not what God’s Word says. In his Pentecost sermon, Peter told the people of Jerusalem, “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” (Acts 2:38). The reformed churches say nothing actually happens in baptism, nothing is really given, no sins are washed away, no salvation is bestowed. The Bible speaks differently about baptism. In a very clear statement, the Apostle Peter says simply, “Baptism now saves you” (1 Peter 3:21 NASB).
What a miracle! You’ve been baptized, and your baptism saves you! You’ve received the Holy Spirit, all of your sins have been washed away, and you have become a member of God’s kingdom of grace! Is it any wonder that at the moment of Jesus baptism Jesus and John saw the heavens opened wide? For that is what God has done for you in your baptism—He has opened Heaven to you, made you His child and an heir of everlasting life!
This is A Tale of Two Baptisms finally, because both identify a beloved child of God. We read, “And suddenly a voice came from heaven, saying, ‘This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased’” [v.17]
This is one of the main passages used to support the doctrine of the Trinity, and you can see why. All three persons of the Triune God were there. The Son of God presents Himself to be baptized. The Holy Spirit appears in the form of a dove. The voice of God the Father speaks from Heaven in approval of His beloved Son and the work that His Son is doing.
Do you know, all three Persons were present at your baptism as well! You were baptized in the name “of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost.” The Father brought you into His kingdom by applying to you the shed blood of His Son and bestowing upon you the Holy Spirit.
Now that you’ve been baptized, God expresses His approval of you as well. Can you imagine that? In Christ, God says of you, “This is my beloved son! This is my beloved daughter. In you I am well pleased!” It’s true! For now that you’ve been baptized, your heavenly Father sees you not as a wretched sinner, but justified and pure. He sees you not with the filthy garments of your sinful flesh and your own good works, but rather, He sees you covered with the pure white robe of Christ’s righteousness.
Do your sins bother you and weigh on your conscience? Martin Luther had the same problem, but he found a solution. He took a knife and carved the words “I have been baptized” into his study desk. When he was disgusted with himself because of his weakness and sinfulness, those words reminded him that He was, nevertheless, a child of God. They reminded him that the blood and righteousness of Christ applied to him, and covered all his sins. The same thing is true of you! You probably won’t go home and carve “I have been baptized” into your kitchen table. On the other hand, maybe you should! For your baptism is a wonderful blessing that you should think about and take comfort in every single day of your life! As Luther says, it is “…a gracious water of life, and a washing of regeneration in the Holy Ghost. It works forgiveness of sins, delivers from death and the Devil, and gives eternal salvation to all who believe, as the words and promise of God declare” (The Small Catechism).
Yes, today is a special day, and the account of Jesus’ baptism is a special text for so many reasons. But by now you can probably tell which part of this passage is my personal favorite. It’s verse 16: “And behold, the heavens were opened to Him.” My Christian friends, as you leave worship today, you can say the very same thing: “Today the heavens were opened to me! Today I was reminded of so many wonderful truths about Jesus’ baptism and about my own baptism too!” For this is indeed A TALE OF TWO BAPTISMS: both opposed by man, both required by God, both bestowing the Holy Spirit, and both identifying a beloved child of God. As we commemorate Jesus’ baptism, may God grant us ever to be mindful of and take comfort in our own precious baptism. In Jesus’ saving name, Amen.
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Scripture quotations marked (NASB) are taken from the New American Standard Bible®. Copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by the Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.