Sunday, September 16, 2018

Two Baptisms

Matthew’s 3rd chapter records Christ’s baptism by John; that moment inaugurates Christ’s public ministry.

The background is simple enough: John was performing a baptism of repentance and many queued up to take their turn under the water. The baptism John offered was meant to signify that the recipient had confessed and turned from his or her former sinful choices, and was now committed to God-honoring conduct.

A baptism of repentance demonstrated in a very public way, to a large crowd of onlookers, that you were a penitent sinner.

A Ministry of Identification

John’s baptism was popular enough to attract the Pharisees who, never missing a chance for public approval, joined the lineup of candidates. Their insincerity led John to rebuke and reject them in the strongest possible terms. But despite that rejection, it would appear that dozens — perhaps hundreds — of others were being baptized that day. There was a long, long line of sinners waiting to repent.

Into that line, at a moment in time, stepped one Jesus of Nazareth. There was nothing particularly notable about him as he stepped forward, so an onlooker could be forgiven if he imagined that this Jesus was just one of a great many unremarkably-sinful and now repentant sinners; that Jesus, like so many before him, had come to John for a baptism of repentance.

The first point to underline is simply this: Christ began his public ministry by identifying fully with sinners in an entirely unremarkable way.

A Protest on the Record

So this Jesus of Nazareth steps into the Jordan with John in precisely the same way dozens or perhaps hundreds had before him. He is ready to be baptized. But John hesitates. He, perhaps alone, recognizes the incongruity of the sinless Son of God undergoing a baptism of repentance. “I don’t need to baptize you, you need to baptize me,” he rightly notes. There is no sin of which Jesus should repent, and John knows it immediately.

Despite John’s protest, and at Christ’s command, the baptism proceeds. Again, only those who were immediately close enough to John to hear him speak could possibly have understood that something very different than all the preceding baptisms had just occurred. The casual onlooker or the late arriver had no way to distinguish Christ’s baptism from any other.

But we pause as a second point to say that before the baptism was accomplished, there was a recorded protest that did not change the outcome in any way. In this case, the protest came from no less a luminary than John the Baptist himself.

The Father’s Considered Opinion

Then thirdly, Matthew 3 takes us to the scene immediately as Christ had come out of the water. Up until that moment, the baptism of Christ had been, observably at least, the same as so many others before; a baptism of repentance. And it would be understandable, perhaps even forgivable, if you had watched those events and imagined that this Jesus was simply one of many sinners.

But Matthew records that something very different happened then, something that would be impossible to miss. Verses 16 and 17 record that heaven opened, the Holy Spirit descended as a dove on Jesus and that a voice spoke: “This is my beloved son, in whom I am well-pleased.” Those words “well-pleased” tell us that Jehovah’s considered opinion of Jesus was that his baptism “of repentance” was utterly different than any that had preceded it — the Son pleased the Father entirely and it was right and fitting that Christ did so.

So we have three points worth considering in the first of Christ’s baptisms: an identification with sinners, a quiet protest lodged by a sinner, and thirdly, the demonstrable and undeniable approval of heaven that differentiated the Lord Jesus Christ clearly from any other.

Fast Forward Three Years or So …

That event — the baptism that began Christ’s ministry — would be bracketed by another that came at the end of his public ministry. The Lord himself referred to his crucifixion as a baptism in Matthew 12:50 and I will not be the first to point out that baptism pictures death. It is appropriate then that the death of Christ features the same three elements that were so prominent in his first baptism:
  • Firstly, in his death at Calvary on a cross, Christ takes his place among numberless other sinners who were bearing the consequence of sin. The vast majority of onlookers would have seen him nailed to a cross and considered his death sentence to be fitting and appropriate. But scripture reminds us again and again that, unlike those around him on similar crosses, Christ takes his place willingly and with a purpose. “No one,” he could say of his life, “has taken it from me. I lay it down of my own initiative.”
  • Secondly, we find an honorable protest. That protest comes from the lips of one criminal among all who stood by, who could say, “This man has done nothing wrong.” But like John’s protest years earlier, this protest too, would ultimately fail to prevent an injustice; Christ died the death of a sinner despite being sinless. His death could easily have been seen to be just the same as so many others who died justly; the only indication of any difference at all was the quiet words of a dying criminal.
  • Most significantly, three days later we see God the Father demonstrating that Christ’s death was utterly unlike those numberless others who died under the same brutal Roman system of occupation. The open tomb speaks clearly to the Father’s love of the Son and his judgment that it was “impossible” that death should retain any hold on Jesus longer than the prophesied three days.
Into Heaven Itself

A scant few weeks later, the Father further verifies his deep satisfaction with the Son. For then, it is not a tomb that is opened but rather heaven itself; into a place previously inaccessible to humankind, Christ ascends — at the Father’s pleasure — into heaven itself.

There, the Father gives to the Son a name above every other name and a place above every other place.

The public life of the Son of God is bracketed eloquently by two baptisms — both speak clearly of Christ’s willing identification with sinners and of the Father’s clear verification of the Son’s unique nature.

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