Synopsis: The answer to the perplexing question, “Why did Jesus come to John to be baptized?” can be answered by considering how first-century Jews viewed baptism. We can learn how to share in Christ’s baptism by pondering some snapshots from the scene of Jesus’ baptism.
Scripture: Matthew 3: 13-17
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Peace be with you from Our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
How many of you were baptized when you were a child? I was baptized the first time when I was only a couple months old. I had no idea was I was getting myself into. That’s how many Christians were baptized – as infants or young children – we had no choice and no idea what it meant.
Some adults choose to get baptized for a variety of reasons: to become members of a church and participate in communion, in response to an inspiring preacher or church service, or because someone tells them that they must be baptized if they want to be saved.
Why did Jesus choose to come to John the Baptist to be baptized? That’s a puzzling question for many – even John the Baptist. Some say he must have repented of his sins; after all, John’s baptism is commonly understood to be a baptism of repentance.
Other say, no – Jesus was the sinless Son of God. So then, why did he ask John to baptize him? The answer lies in how this event in Jesus’ life might have been interpreted by those who were there and saw it all happen: first century Jews.
The Gospel of Matthew opens with a description of John the Baptist. We read that John had a strange diet – locusts and wild honey – and that he wore strange clothing – camel’s hair with a belt around his waist. Matthew points to a prophecy in Isaiah about him: “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness.”
John spent every day of his life in the wilderness until he was revealed to Israel. He lived a rugged life in the mountainous area of Judea, between the city of Jerusalem and the Dead Sea. John’s fiery preaching about holiness and the consequences of sin inspired droves come to him to be baptized.
The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls might give us some insight into how John saw baptism. The scrolls tell us that there was a community of Jews at Qumran near where John was baptizing that had very strict entry requirements.
To become part of this community people had to go through rigorous testing to prove themselves “sons of light.” They had to abandon their worldly lives, surrender all their possessions to the community, and live according to Torah Law as interpreted by the community. After they had proven themselves to be pure in heart, they were then baptized by ritual immersion and formally admitted into the community.
According to the Qumran community’s view of baptism, a person’s heart had to be pure before he or she was baptized. The baptism was designed to cleanse or purify the body of an already cleansed or purified soul. Afterwards, you’re clean through-and-through – inside and out.
John probably wasn’t a member of this Qumran community because he didn’t require people to give up their worldly lives and possessions. But he was influenced by their view of baptism. He did require purity of heart as a prerequisite. That’s why he called the Pharisees a “brood of vipers.” They taught Torah Law and urged others to follow it, but they didn’t practice what they preached.
John’s baptism didn’t purify the heart, only the body of men and women who had already turned from sin – who were already pure of heart. John’s Baptism wasn’t a way to earn pardon for sins; it was a way of acknowledging God’s favor on those who were living righteous lives – those who would escape the ax.
So then, why did John hesitate to baptize Jesus? if John’s baptism was not a way to earn pardon for sin, it doesn’t make sense that he refused because Jesus was sinless. I think John was acknowledging that the level of purity of Jesus’ heart far exceeded his own, so Jesus should be baptizing him.
In the gospels of Luke and John, we read that John said to those coming to be baptized that someone was coming whose level of holiness was so great that he was not worthy to perform the lowliest task of a servant – to untie the straps of his sandals.
What did Jesus mean when he responded to John, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” I think he was saying to John, “Let’s stick to God’s Plan. God’s Plan is for you to be the Baptist and for me to be the Messiah.”
We read that when Jesus came out of the water, a Voice from Heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” This “Voice from Heaven” would not have been an unusual occurrence for first-century Jews. The Voice of God was often thought to be heard in the chirping of a bird or in the cooing of a dove.
At the beginning of the Bible, in Genesis 1:2, we read “a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.” Rabbi Simeon b. Zoma imagined the Spirit of God hovering over the waters, like a dove gracefully hovers over its nest. Isaiah 11:2 reads, “The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him” in reference to the Messiah. The Sprit of God would rest upon the Messiah and empower him to fulfill his mission.
We can now understand that if a dove suddenly hovered gracefully over the head of Jesus at the time of his baptism, people would have interpreted that as Messianic sign, and some related Scripture verses might have come to mind.
The voice quotes two verses from Scripture. The first is Psalms 2:7; “You are my son; today I have begotten you.” The second is Isaiah 42:1; “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.”
The use of the word “Son” relates to the word used in Psalms, and the word “beloved” to the words “my chosen” from Isaiah. I believe Moffatt’s translation combines the two ideas nicely: “You are my son, the chosen; today, I have brought you forth.”
So, to the first-century Jews who witnessed this event, God was saying through the appearance of this dove, “Here he is! Here is my anointed one, the one I have chosen, and the one I am empowering to carry out my plan of salvation.”
Jesus chose to be baptized by John because he was a human being along with everyone else at this special time when God was enacting his plan of salvation. From the time he was born, Jesus had dedicated his life to God, so he was a perfect candidate for John’s baptism.
And it was part of God’s plan that Jesus be baptized to introduce him to the people as His chosen one and to empower him to fulfill his mission.
How can we share Christ’s baptism? Obviously, Jesus had a very difficult mission. He did and said a lot of things that offended and opposed people in high places. You might remember that after Jesus entered Jerusalem and cleansed the Temple, several religious leaders asked him, “By what authority do you do these things?”
Jesus responded by asking them, “Was the baptism of John from heaven or not?” Jesus’ point was that John’s baptism was indeed from heaven, and that’s why he’s doing these things. He’s speaking the Truth and serving humanity because the Holy Spirit is empowering him to do these things, so he must do them – even if it means death on a cross.
Don’t worry; we don’t have to “go and do likewise” to share Christ’s baptism. Jesus already completed the suffering and dying part. He did all of that to set us free from the ignorance about our true nature that leads to sin and suffering. Through his suffering and death, he showed us who we really are, he united with the Christ, and he provided a path for all to follow.
We made a commitment to follow that path and consciously unite with Christ when we came to the baptismal font or river. If our parents brought us as young children, it was because they acknowledged that we belonged to God. We were too young to make a conscious commitment, so as stewards of God’s child, it was their responsibility to make that commitment for us and to provide the training we needed to keep it.
So, while our missions may be different from that of Jesus, we can still take some snapshots from the scene of his baptism and use them to inform us about how we can share Christ’s baptism.
First, John felt unworthy to baptize Jesus. Isn’t that ironic? God created John to be the Baptist. He was fashioned from the womb for that job. In the Gospel of Luke chapter 1, we read of his miraculous birth to elderly parents who were barren. God’s messenger, the archangel Gabriel, announced to John’s father, the Levitical Priest Zachariah, that he would have a son that he was to name John.
In verses 14-17, Gabriel tells Zachariah that John will be great in the Lord’s sight. He must never drink wine or strong drink, for he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before he is born. With the spirit and power of Elijah, he will turn people’s hearts back to the Lord to prepare them for the coming of the Savior.
That’s a calling!
So, if God has called us to fulfill a role, we are worthy. We shouldn’t doubt ourselves, or let the world tell us we’re not worthy. No one else can fulfill our role. We are unique. There is no one like us in the entire universe, yet we were chosen for a specific purpose, and who knows us better than God?
I was thirteen years old on a religious retreat when God called me to serve as a minister. I doubted that call because as a Missouri-Synod Lutheran, I had been taught that it was not proper for a female to be a minister. I doubted it even more when I realized that I am gay. I figured I couldn’t be both gay and Christian, and I couldn’t stop being gay, so I stopped being Christian. I stopped believing in God.
But God didn’t stop believing in me. He kept calling me. I was working at Burger King one day when I noticed a newspaper article about a church run by a gay couple: Pastor Brian, who led the worship services, and his partner, Tom, who was the music director.
Their mission was to help other gay people view God and the Scriptures as non-condemning and to provide a safe place to worship. Their mission certainly wasn’t without risk. Pastor Brian showed up for church one Sunday morning with bruises all over his face after having been “gay bashed” the night before.
I was baptized the second time by Pastor Brian, by immersion in the Lehigh River. It was my way of saying, “OK, God. I’m back, and I’m ready to do what you’ve called me to do.” If Pastor Brian and Tom had doubted God’s call to them, if they had listened to people telling them that they weren’t worthy, I doubt I’d be standing here today.
God has fashioned you in the womb for a purpose. You certainly don’t have to be an ordained minister. You might be a secretary whom people confide in for your wisdom and compassion. You might be a cashier whose smile brightens people’s day. Maybe you’re the kind of person who radiates kindness and compassion wherever you go. That’s your mission. God made you for that.
We should be confident about our calling, but not cocky. Jesus was very humble. He didn’t say, “I’m too holy to be baptized.” He didn’t set himself apart; he joined with his people Israel and with all humanity. He had a very pure heart, but he didn’t compare himself to others, and he strongly criticized the self-righteous Pharisees who did compare themselves to others. Jesus wanted his light to shine to turn people’s hearts back to God, not to draw attention to himself.
As Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”
So, as we go out our missions for God, let us remember that we’re not doing what we’re doing so that people will see what a “good person” we are and give us glory. We’re doing what we’re doing so that people will see God’s glory in human beings who have transcended the typical ego-centric “what’s in it for me” attitudes and behaviors.
What a wonderful world it will be when we’re finally free of all that.
Finally, after his baptism, Jesus was empowered by the Holy Spirit to serve. That’s how he was able to accomplish the difficult task set before him. God didn’t give him that difficult task and say, “Good luck with that.” He gave him His Holy Spirit to guide him and give him strength.
So, we can trust that the Holy Spirit descended upon us at our baptisms to empower us to complete whatever mission God has given us to fulfill, no matter how difficult. It’s up to us whether to follow the Holy Spirit’s promptings, which may at times be hard. We can be assured that the Holy Spirit will prompt us to speak the Truth and to serve others in ways that might offend or provoke people, and we could be hurt.
But when it comes to living out our baptism, as the Rev. Brett Younger writes, “The children of God tell the truth in a world that lies, give in a world that takes, love in a world that lusts, make peace in a world that fights, serve in a world that wants to be served, pray in a world that waits to be entertained, and take chances in a world that worships safety. The baptized are citizens of an eccentric community where financial success is not the goal, security is not the highest good, and sacrifice is a daily event.”
Getting baptized is like getting married. We really don’t know what we’re getting ourselves into. But we take the plunge, and we find that the meaning becomes clearer as we travel through life with our beloved, experiencing triumphs and tribulations, and somehow along the way, our love and commitment deepens, and we become truly One.
Let’s pray together: Lord, we have committed ourselves to God as servants of the Light. Help us to trust in the power of the Holy Spirit to give us the guidance and strength we need to live out our baptisms so that all may be united with You in Christ.