Why Was Jesus Baptized?
Wax on—wax off. Years ago, when I was a child, we watched this movie called, “The Karate Kid.” And in the movie there’s a teenage young man. And he is learning Karate from a neighbor who is an expert in Karate. The only problem is that it doesn’t really look like he’s learning Karate at all. For days, if not weeks, all the elderly man has him do is wax his deck and fence by hand. Finally, the teenager can’t take it anymore. And he says that he came to learn Karate, not to be a slave. Then the teacher shows him that the same movements involved in waxing the deck are the ones used in blocking in Karate. Life is like that, isn’t it? There are times we are told to carry out a task. But even as we are doing it, we wonder why we are doing it at all. That’s how our words start out this morning in Matthew’s gospel. In Matthew 3, we read: “13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John. 14 But John tried to deter him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” 15 Jesus replied, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” Then John consented.” (Matthew 3:13–15 NIV11-GKE)
Jesus came down from Galilee to the River Jordan to John to be baptized. And that, right there, is the problem. Jesus asks John to baptize him. But John, in response, tells Jesus how strange and unfitting it is for John to baptize Jesus. John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. That’s what John’s baptism delivered to the person who was being baptized: forgiveness for their sins. The huge, massive problem here that John points out is that Jesus has no sins to be forgiven. Why does Jesus need to be baptized?
Notice the answer that Jesus gives: To fulfill all righteousness. There were perfect pronouncements and promises given in the Old Testament. In fact, there were thousands of them. And it was the Messiah’s job to both know of them all and to keep them. And one of these pronouncements and promises is that Messiah would be anointed with the Holy Spirit. In these words we see how different Jesus’ baptism was to our very own. If you were told that you had to keep 1000 promises, how many would you be able to keep? How many would you even be able to remember? One of the great sadnesses we face as humans is that there have been good and proper promises we have made, but then have broken. In these words we see how different Jesus’ baptism was than our very own. For Jesus was baptized so that he could fill all righteousness. And this is good news for us. For in our baptisms then all these pronouncements and promises that Jesus kept are then given to us, so that when the Father looks at us, he doesn’t not see our broken and forgotten promises. Instead he sees his Son’s fulfillment of them.
So, why was Jesus baptized? He was baptized to fulfill all righteousness. But there’s another reason he was baptized. We read: “As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him.” (Matthew 3:16 NIV11-GKE)
Jesus was also baptized to be filled with the Holy Spirit. Part of the work the Holy Spirit does is to lead people to live out a godly life. And we see what that looks like in Jesus’ life. Right after this we see Jesus going out and with such constant zeal and determination he opposes Satan. In this way the baptism that Jesus receives and the one we receive are the same. Both of them give to us the gift of the Holy Spirit. And with the Holy Spirit we have the ability to wrestle and struggle against sin. And so, what was impossible for us to do before we were Christians, we now have the ability to carry out and get done.
But in this too we find a real temptation to sin. There is this temptation we face to pretend that in certain areas of our lives we are unable to wrestle against sin and do what is right. And even worse, when we are urged to wrestle and struggle against our sins and do what is right, we then move onto the next stage where we stubbornly lash out against those who urge us to do what is right. And in every congregation I’ve served in I’ve seen this. And so I say, “Please stop cursing, gossipping, and being hostile with people,” and the person says in response: “Pastor, I am not able to do that—and stop asking me to do that.” I say to my members, “Set aside time to pray, read your bibles, come to bible class,” and the person says, “I cannot do that—and stop asking me to do that.”
When we give into those sins, notice what we’re doing. We are pretending that one of the most amazing gifts the Holy Spirit gives to us in our baptisms didn’t exist. And so, for those times we have pretended that we weren’t able to do what was right, we repent of those sins too. And when we repent of those sins, these final words that Jesus speaks to us are so filled with comfort, strength and joy: “And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”” (Matthew 3:17 NIV11-GKE)
Everything Jesus did perfectly pleased his Father. And my friends in Christ, that is good news to us. For Jesus wins the Father’s approval for us in our place. His perfection replaces our stubbornness. His perfection replaces all the times we made promises and couldn’t keep them or didn’t even want to keep them. And where does baptism fit into all of this? Through baptism Jesus delivers this forgiveness to us. So that now, our Father does not see all the times we stubbornly clung to sin or the times we made and then broke our promises. Instead, he sees his Son’s perfection—perfection showed and offered up in our place. But do remember there is one final gift given to us in baptism. In baptism we have the ability to live out a godly life. We have the ability to oppose Satan and his seducing lies. We have the ability to see what is good and right and carry it out.
In all of this then we find an answer to the question: why was Jesus baptized? He was baptized to fulfill all righteousness because we could not. And he was baptized to be filled with the Holy Spirit, just as we are in our baptisms. Amen.