On this Sunday of the Christian calendar, we celebrate the baptism of our Lord. This is the day when Jesus went down to the Jordan where John the Baptist was calling sinners to ‘repent and be baptized’. Jesus asked John to baptize him also. But, why did Jesus undergo baptism? John the Baptist was calling sinners to repent; but, Jesus was not a sinner – he was without sin!
Certainly, John the Baptist thought that it was absurd that Christ should be baptized by him. The parallel passage to Luke 3:15-22 in the Gospel of Matthew indicates that John at first refused, and questioned Jesus. “I need to be baptized by you, so why do you come to me?” It’s a reasonable question – isn’t it! Why does Jesus who is holy and separated from sinners, come to be baptized by a sinner, as a sinner, and among sinners?
But, Jesus answers this question, and his answer is recorded in Matt 3:15: Jesus replied, "It is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness." This reply evidently convinced John; so our question becomes, what does Jesus mean by his baptism fulfilling all righteousness?
To answer this, we need to understand the concept of ‘righteousness’. According to the Vine's Expository Dictionary, ‘righteousness’ means: the character or quality of being right or just. God is a righteous God and that means that he cannot condone sin in any way – it must be condemned and punished - justice must be done. God did this through the death of Christ on the cross so that all who believe in the Lord Jesus Christ are brought into a right relationship with God.
So, to ‘fulfill all righteousness’ it was necessary for Jesus to die on the cross to obtain forgiveness of sin for you and me, and the Gospel indicates that this, in turn, required him to be baptized. The baptism of Jesus prepared him for his ministry on this earth and it did this in three ways. Firstly, Jesus was being prepared for his ministry …
1. By being set apart for God
For the death on the cross to be effective, the one taking the punishment on our behalf must be without sin. Further, for the forgiveness to be effective, the one providing this forgiveness must be God himself.
The baptism indicated that Jesus was approved by God and sanctified, or set apart, to Him. We might consider it to be the public commissioning and consecration of Jesus. That this was so, was confirmed by the descent of the Holy Spirit and the words of God the Father, ‘you are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased’ (v.22). And so, we have God affirming Jesus as the beloved Son of God, the right one for the work that was to take place upon the cross.
Secondly, Jesus was being prepared for his ministry ….
2. By identifying with sinners
When Jesus went forward to be baptized with the crowd who had heeded John the Baptist’s call to ‘repent’ of their sinful ways and be baptized
, Jesus was identifying with sinful humanity. In order for Jesus to become our substitute on the cross, it was necessary for him to identify with us in our humanity and in our transgressions, or sins.
The Prophet Isaiah had prophesied that the Messiah would be ‘numbered with the transgressors. In Isaiah 53:12 he prophesied that Jesus would ‘pour out his life unto death, and be numbered with the transgressors. For he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors. Jesus later quoted this prophesy (Luke 22:37). And Hebrews 2:17, says that in order to be able to pay the penalty for our sin, Jesus ‘had to be made like us in every way’.
But this does not mean that Jesus was made sinful. Jesus Christ had no sin, as we are told in 1 Pet 2:22. But it was necessary that he be identified with sinful humanity so that he could take upon himself all of our sin while he hung on the cross.
So Jesus’ baptism was to prepare him for his ministry by setting him apart for God, while at the same time, identifying him with sinful humanity. Now the task that Jesus had ahead of him is one that required a special equipping. When God calls us to undertake a special task, he equips us. And it is this equipping that is the third reason for Jesus’ baptism. Jesus was being prepared for his ministry:
3. By receiving the Holy Spirit
Throughout history, the Holy Spirit came upon God’s chosen leaders of the Israelite nation to empower them to carry out their role. We have examples in Othniel (who was raised up to deliver the Israelites - Judges 3), Gideon, Jepthah, Sampson and King David.
The Old Testament prophet Isaiah prophesied that the same empowering would come upon Jesus. He wrote, ‘The Spirit of the LORD will rest on him-- the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of power, the Spirit of knowledge’ (11:2). Like King David, the Messiah would be empowered by the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit would give him wisdom to understand the things of God and power to carry them out.
And so, at his baptism, ‘as he was praying, heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus’ (v.21b-22a) to empower him for the ministry that lay ahead of him.
Now folks, in the same way that Jesus was prepared and equipped for the purpose that God had for him, so God prepares and equips you and me to live the Christian life.
Firstly, just as Jesus was set apart for God, we also are set apart for God when we are baptized – the theologians express this idea with the word, ‘sanctified’.
Secondly, in his baptism, Jesus identified with you and me – and, it’s a ‘two way process’; because he identified with us, Christians identify with Jesus.
And thirdly, just as Jesus received the power of God for his ministry through the Holy Spirit, so you and I, who are the church, receive power through the Holy Spirit to live the Christian life.
It is this last point that is the particular focus of our attention during this time of Epiphany – this appearance or manifestation of God in the form of the Holy Spirit that came upon Jesus at his baptism; and that is available to empower you and me for the Christian life.
But here is the issue! Very often, instead of drawing upon the power of the Holy Spirit to enable us to carry out our ministries or to meet the challenges of the Christian life, we try to do it all in our own strength. I have certainly been guilty of this!
But, God has given his church, that’s you and me, the Holy Spirit to empower us.
Trying to live the Christian life in our own strength is a bit like hooking a chain up to a Boeing 747 jet airliner and, just using your own strength, trying to pull the aircraft along the ground. Once, I used to work on Boeing 747 jet aircraft for QANTAS Airways. I expect that many of you will have seen the 747, and maybe you have even flown in one. It is a magnificent aircraft – it was the largest passenger jet in the world and when they first came out, they were nick-named the ‘Jumbo-jet because they are so large.
Now, I don’t expect that any of you would try to pull one along the ground. But actually, someone has! The man who has done this is a fellow called David Huxley who is a strong man who pulls jet liners to create world records for feats of strength.
On 15th October 1997, Huxley created a world record at Mascot Airport in Sydney by pulling along a Boeing 747 Jumbo-jet. Can you believe that! Its true - he strapped himself into a harness with a 15 m. cable attached to a 747 aircraft that weighed 170 metric tonnes. He was able to get the 747 to roll down the runway for 100 m. over a time of 1 min. 21 sec. That’s a pretty remarkable feat of power.
But I suggest that the Boeing 747 being pulled along by Huxley is like the church when we try to do things in our own strength. We might achieve something, equivalent to Huxley’s 100 m.; but, there is a more powerful source of propulsion available to the Boeing 747 then the muscles of David Huxley. This power is in the form of four JT9 Jet engines burning kerosene fuel called Avtur. So the alternative is to start up the engines and propel the Jumbo-jet along for thousands of miles at speeds far greater than Huxley could ever achieve. The engine of the church – the power that God gave to Jesus for his ministry, and that he has given to each one of us, - is the Holy Spirit.
So, my friends, let us not try to pull along the jumbo jets of life on our own, in our own strength. Rather, let us start up the engines by drawing upon the Holy Spirit that Jesus daily offers us; because, with the help of the Holy Spirit, we can meet the challenges of the Christian life far more powerfully than trying to do it in our own strength.
And to do this, we first need to be sanctified, or set apart for God in our baptism, as Jesus was baptized. Secondly, we need to identify with Jesus as our Saviour and Lord as he identified with us in his baptism. And thirdly we need to open up our hearts in faith to God, trusting him to direct and empower our lives, through receiving the Holy Spirit as we come to him in the sacraments and in prayer.