Matthew 3:13-17 Did Jesus need to be baptized? January 12, 2020 by Zachary VonDeylen
On this first Sunday after Epiphany we come together to celebrate the baptism of our Lord and Savior, Jesus. But before we dive into Matthew’s account of Jesus’ baptism I would like to dive into another account, one from the Old Testament, the account of David. You might remember David’s origin story, he was just a young man, maybe about 18, when the prophet Samuel showed up at his Father Jesse’s house. Samuel was looking to anoint the next king of Israel, who God had told him would be one of Jesse’s sons. David lived the simple life of a shepherd but when Samuel came and anointed him as next king after Saul, everything changed right? He found himself as a servant of Saul in his court, he became the hero of Israel by slaying the giant Philistine, Goliath. And then he became a fugitive, fleeing from King Saul at every turn. He finally became King after trial and tribulation. Then as King, David had no shortage of problems in his reign with not one, but two of his sons trying to take the kingship away from him. You might be able to make the case that his life would have been more peaceful, more comfortable if Samuel had never come to anoint him that day. Sure he wouldn’t have been King but he also wouldn’t have had spears thrown at him by King Saul, he wouldn’t have had to live in caves hiding and fearing for his life, he wouldn’t have had so much family trouble either. But nevertheless, this was God’s plan. So David was anointed. He did become King. He dealt with all the troubles that it brought with it.
You could also be able to make a similar case for Jesus and his baptism as with David and his anointing. Jesus could’ve lived a more comfortable and peaceful life if he never traveled to see John the Baptist at the Jordan River to begin his ministry. He could’ve stayed in Nazareth and been a carpenter. He could’ve avoided the hatred of so many of the religious establishment of Jerusalem. He could’ve avoided the plotting and the trap questions. He could have avoided the false accusations and the dishonest trial. He could have avoided the beatings, the floggings, the abuse, the suffering, and death. He could have avoided it all and yet he didn’t. When the time was right, the time set by his Father in heaven, Jesus set out to meet John the Baptist so that he might be baptized and begin his ministry. So now the question that we ask, (and so did John the Baptist!) is this, why did Jesus need to be baptized?
John the Baptist was becoming one of the biggest celebrities (you could call it) in Israel. What was going on at the Jordan must have been such a curious thing to the Jews living in Israel. A man who came seemingly out of nowhere, who wore camel skins and a leather belt (reminiscent of the prophet Elijah!), was preaching fiery messages at the Jordan River. Not only that, he was performing this interesting new ceremony called baptism. It so much piqued the interest of hundreds and even thousands of people living all over Judea that they all came flocking to John to hear him speak and to be baptized by him in the Jordan River.
So when Jesus came to see John, it must’ve seemed like any other day. A man, Jesus, says to his family and his community that he is going to see the prophet, John the Baptist, at the Jordan River and then be baptized. Completely normal! But this event was anything but normal. I wonder what the conversation was like when Jesus told his mother that he was going to be baptized. I mean, Mary knew that he was the Messiah, therefore, that he was perfect. If John the Baptist’s message, a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, had reached Mary’s ears, I’m sure she would have been a little bit confused. “But Jesus, my son, you are the Messiah, as your mother I can vouch that you have literally been the perfect son and man. Why do you need to go receive John’s baptism?”
Nevertheless, Jesus left for the Jordan to see John the Baptist who quickly thinks that exact thing! “I need to be baptized by you,” John said, “and do you come to me?!” You see John was a prophet. He had been given special revelation by God to proclaim his will to the people and prepare the way for the promised Messiah, the Savior. John knew that Jesus was the Messiah. He had been given a special message to prepare the way for him, “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is near!”
God had given special revelation to John to begin a ministry of baptism for repentance and the forgiveness of sins. God had revealed all this to John and prepared him for his ministry, but apparently God left John in the dark about one thing. God never revealed to John that he would be baptizing the Savior! (Otherwise he wouldn’t have objected, right?) John knew who Jesus was, why he had come, what he was going to do, and that he was sinless. He also knew the sin inside his own heart. So he rightly says, “I need to be baptized by you!” He had a point too! John, not Jesus, needed to be baptized for the forgiveness of his sins, so why’d Jesus come to him?
The inverse of John’s objection is also true. Not only did John need to be baptized, but Jesus didn’t! Baptism is for the forgiveness of sins, Jesus wasn’t sinful. Jesus didn’t need it. Yet he sought it out and said to John that it was “proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.”
What does Jesus mean when he says “to fulfill all righteousness?” What is all righteousness? It is simply, Jesus’ entire work of saving us: his life and everything he did during it, his death, and resurrection. It is his whole ministry which resulted in winning righteousness for the entire world. Baptism wasn’t the only thing that Jesus needed to do to fulfill all righteousness, but it was an important step. Without being baptized all righteousness would not have been fulfilled. It’s like any instruction manual you’ve ever looked at. If you are trying to build that IKEA dresser and skip a step, well something is going to be wrong. You won’t have built the whole thing and who knows when that dresser will come crashing down on itself in the middle of the night while you sleep. Jesus’ baptism was a necessary part of God’s plan in fulfilling all righteousness. It had to be done.
But why? Jesus didn’t need to be forgiven. Jesus didn’t need to be baptized. What part of fulfilling righteousness did his baptism play? He was baptized because we needed him to be. It was God the Father’s will that Jesus would be baptized. His plan of salvation started when Jesus was born in Bethlehem; and Jesus’ official ministry began at his baptism. But this baptism that John gave to Jesus was more than just a formal anointing to an office like Samuel gave to David. In being baptized, Jesus, the sinless one, the Son of God, chose to put himself alongside all the sinful ones for whom John’s baptism was ordained. He didn’t need to be baptized, but he made himself like one of us. He was baptized just like you and I were.
This is part of his humiliation. When we talk about our Savior Jesus, we talk about two stages of his life: his humiliation and his exultation. (Open up bulletin to page 4, look at Apostle’s Creed) As part of his humiliation he was baptized. How low did the perfect Son of God make himself when he put himself beside you and me by bringing himself to the waters of baptism! How humble for the sinless Savior of the world to make himself subject to something that was instituted for sinful people like us! But as our perfect substitute, that’s what our Savior had to do. Jesus made himself subject to everything that sinful people were subject to. Jesus made himself like us in every way, except he was without sin, so that we might be saved completely. Yes, we needed Jesus to come down to this world and to live the perfect live in our place, we needed him to be our substitute in every way – we needed him to be baptized.
Because he is our perfect substitute we are connected to him through this baptism! When we think about baptism, we often think about it in terms of joining the family of believers. When a little baby, or a grown adult, is baptized at our church, we welcome them into our family of believers; we welcome them into the church. They become our brother or our sister in faith. Christ made himself our brother not only by taking on our flesh, but also by joining us in baptism! And because he is our brother, as co-heirs with him, we now get to reap the blessings of his perfect life through this baptism! Paul writes in Romans, “We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.” Through this connection with Christ in baptism, Paul says that when Christ died on the cross our sinful nature was crucified with it. He tells us that when Christ was raised from the dead, our new man was raised with him. The blessing of baptism is eternal life through our brother who was baptized just like us.
After Jesus was baptized, something amazing happened. Just imagine that you were at the Jordan that day! You came to the Jordan to hear John the Baptist speak, you watch him perform a typical baptism and when the baptized guy walks out of the river some pretty crazy stuff happens! The Holy Spirit in the form of a dove flies down from heaven and lands on the guy. Okay maybe that just looked like an ordinary dove, odd behavior but not too spectacular to the human eye I suppose. But then a voice thunders from heaven and says “This is my Son, whom I love, with him I am well pleased.” Whoa! That’s not something you see every day right?! What an amazing event in history. The Son of God was in the flesh walking on the earth among us, and each person of the Trinity is present and visible at the baptism of our Lord.
But here’s the really amazing thing, that happens all the time even today. When we watch a baptism today each person of the Trinity is present there too! When you were baptized, the Holy Spirit came down from heaven into your heart and created faith. When you were baptized the Father spoke in heaven saying, “This is my son/my daughter, whom I love, with whom I am well pleased!” When you were baptized, Jesus was standing right there by your side in those same waters of baptism, taking you by the hand and saying, “welcome to my family.”
Jesus didn’t need to be baptized, we needed him to be. In our baptism and through his we are connected to Christ in a miraculous way. In his baptism, he made all his blessings and gifts a reality for us. Forgiveness, peace, hope, joy, eternal life, all these he has made yours through his baptism. Why was Jesus baptized? He was baptized for you. Amen.