Why Baptism for Jesus?
Scriptures: Matthew 3:1-17
I once taught a class called “The Theology of Calvin… and Hobbes,” basically using the Calvin and Hobbes comic strip to teach theology. It worked surprisingly well. In one comic strip that appeared just after New Year’s, the young boy Calvin says to his pet tiger Hobbes, “Everybody makes the wrong kind of New Year’s Resolution. All they do is promise to stop bad habits and start good habits.” Hobbes says, “What’s wrong with that?” Calvin says, “It’s not enough to change a few little habits! Everybody I know needs a complete personality overhaul.” Then he says, “That’s why I’ll be spending the remaining days of this year telling people what I hate about them and how they should change.” Hobbes says, “Some of us would be happy to reciprocate.”
In this comic strip Calvin reminds me of John the Baptist. “In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’” To repent means literally to turn your life around, to change the whole direction you are headed. According to John the Baptist, it’s not enough to change a few little habits. We need a complete personality overhaul, even religious people like Pharisees and Sadducees. According to John we all need to repent, even people who go to church, maybe especially people who go to church.
John the Baptist is like step 1 in the twelve step recovery process of Alcoholics Anonymous. Step 1 says, “We admitted we were powerless over our sin—that our lives had become unmanageable.” Most of think we just need a few little adjustments: lose a little weight, exercise a little more, get a little more sleep, don’t spend money impulsively, have a little more patience with other people. That’s the stuff of New Year’s resolutions—a few little tweaks to our personality.
Jesus did not need to die on the cross for stuff like that. If all we needed was a little more sleep, a little more patience, a little lower cholesterol, a little more financial discipline—if that was all we needed, God would not have bothered sending Jesus. He would have sent Oprah. God sent Jesus because we have a serious problem. We are in open or not-so-open rebellion against God. Even those of us who go to church. Like the Pharisees and Sadducees we often see religion as something to meet our needs, to satisfy our desires, to provide us with peace, security, and comfort. That’s backwards. God does not exists to meet our needs; we exist to serve God’s purposes. That’s why John the Baptist says, “Repent, turn your life around. You are headed in the wrong direction.”
Like the boy Calvin in the comic strip, John the Baptist is quite ready to tell people what is wrong with them. But as he himself admits, he does not have the solution to the problem. He says, “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me. … He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.”
John acknowledges that he can show us the problem, but he can’t fix it. He is like a doctor who says you have a terminal illness, but there is nothing he can do about it. So he refers you to someone else, and in this case that someone else is Jesus.
Jesus is step 2 of the twelve step process. Step 1 says, “We admitted that we were powerless over our sin—that our lives had become unmanageable.” That is the message of John the Baptist. Step 2 says, “We came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.” For Christians that Power is Jesus. Jesus is the one who can restore us to sanity. Jesus is the one who can turn us around and bring us back into the relationship with God we were supposed to have all along.
But how does Jesus do that? Remember, we are not talking here about a self-help program—a diet to help you lose weight or a plan to better manage your finances or advice on how to improve your marriage. Those are good things, but they are not why Jesus came. Jesus came to work in us a complete overhaul of our souls, to turn us around and bring us back to the relationship with God we were meant to have. How does Jesus do that?
Now we come to the strangest part of the story. Listen again to verses 13-15:
Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so for now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.”
What is going on here? John is baptizing people because they are sinners, because they need to turn their lives around. But Jesus is the one who is supposed to save us from sin. How can Jesus save us from sin if he needs baptism, if he needs forgiveness of sin, just like we do?
The key is in Jesus’ reply. He says, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” When Jesus talks about fulfilling all righteousness, he is not talking only about his righteousness; he is talking about all righteousness, meaning the right relationship to God that all people are supposed to have.
Instead of wagging his finger at us, like John the Baptist, instead of spending his days telling people what is wrong with them, like the young boy Calvin, Jesus gets down in the river with the rest of us sinners. By being baptized, Jesus accepts the label of sinner for himself, even though he did not need to. In his baptism Jesus identified with us in our sin, so that when we are baptized we can identify with him in his righteousness.
Later in the New Testament there is a verse where the apostle Paul explains this. In II Corinthians 5:21 the apostle Paul says, “For our sake God made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
Jesus’ baptism at the beginning of the gospel reveals the significance of Jesus’ death at the end of the gospel. Jesus was baptized as a sinner in the Jordan River for the same reason he was condemned as a sinner on the cross. Jesus identified with us in our sin, in our separation from God, so that we could be joined with him in his righteousness, in his reunion with God.
Basically, Jesus was baptized with us, so that we can be baptized with him. When we are baptized in the name of Jesus, we are given the same gifts Jesus received at his baptism. When we are baptized, we too are given the Holy Spirit. When we are baptized, we too are declared to be God’s beloved children. When we are baptized, we too are given a new eternal life with God, the life for which God raised Jesus from the dead and promises to raise us up to be with him.
But you cannot understand or appreciate what that means without John the Baptist. John the Baptist prepares the way for Jesus by helping us see why we need him. John the Baptist is the doctor who informs us we are terminally ill. Until you understand that, you cannot appreciate the doctor who comes and offers us a cure.