This Sunday, January 12th, the church celebrates the baptism of Christ. This event is recorded in all four Gospels, which clearly points to its importance. Matthew’s account is given as the reading for this Sunday:
Then Jesus went from Galilee to the Jordan River to be baptized by John. But John tried to talk him out of it. “I am the one who needs to be baptized by you,” he said, “so why are you coming to me?” But Jesus said, “It should be done, for we must carry out all that God requires.” So John agreed to baptize him.
After his baptism, as Jesus came up out of the water, the heavens were opened and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and settling on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my dearly loved Son, who brings me great joy.”
— Matthew 3.13-17 (NLT)
This passage is anything but unfamiliar to us, but what exactly does it mean? What is the point? Why was Jesus–the sinless Lamb of God–baptized? Whether one understands baptism as God’s work of grace (e.g., Lutherans, Orthodox, Catholics, Anglicans, etc.) or our own work of obedience (e.g. Baptists and other Evangelicals) makes no difference. That Jesus was baptized can be just plain confusing, especially if we get wrapped around the axle about Jesus’ baptism to ‘fulfill all righteousness’ or ‘carry out all that God requires.’
There are two facets to Jesus’ baptism for us to consider. First, he was baptized as an example for all of those who would follow him. Baptism is our visible entry to Christ’s Church. As Christ was baptized, so we also are to be baptized. As Luther pointed out:
Christ is baptized, not in order to be made righteous—for He is the Son of God and endowed with eternal righteousness so that we may be made righteous through Him—but as an example, so to speak, for us, in order that He may precede us and we may follow His example and also be baptized.
— LW 3:87
This is perhaps the more obvious reason Jesus was baptized, but it is not nearly the more important.
Jesus was also baptized not only to serve as our example, but to become one of us sinners. Clearly, Jesus did not become a sinner in actuality. He never sinned. But he became a sinner by association–in nearly every part of his life–beginning with his taking on humanity and ending with his death and resurrection. By descending into the waters of baptism, Jesus points out that he is like us, he is with us, he is us. Again, Luther:
He was entering into our stead, indeed, our person, that is, becoming a sinner for us, taking upon himself the sins which he had not committed, and wiping them out and drowning them in his holy baptism. And that he did this in accord with the will of God, the heavenly Father, who cast all our sins upon him that he might bear them and not only cleanse us from them through his baptism and make satisfaction for them on the Cross, but also clothe as in his holiness and adorn us with his innocence.
— LW 51:315
By becoming one of us, Jesus made possible what Luther called the ‘joyous exchange’–exchanging his righteousness for our ungodliness and vice versa. In his baptism, Christ takes on the sin of the world and drowns it in the waters–an act completed for us on the cross. And in return, instead of death and condemnation, which we deserve, we are clothed with the perfect righteousness of Christ.
This he did; he took the sin of the whole world upon himself; he became a curse for us, and thus redeemed from the curse all those who believe in him.
Let us joyously celebrate Christ’s baptism as we remember our own and take heart in the knowledge that in it, we are united with Christ and shall live forever. Amen.
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