Tuesday, January 11, 2011

God With Us: Water and Spirit

Scripture Text: Matthew 3:13-17

There once was a pastor by the name of William Haslam who shepherded the congregation of Baldo church near Truro, in England. One Sunday in 1851, the pastor took to the pulpit, having been deeply convicted of sin. His intention upon entering the pulpit was to tell the congregation that he would not preach again to them until he was saved and to ask them to pray for his conversion.

Haslam’s message for the day was based on Matthew 22:42, the place where Jesus asks the Pharisees the question, “What do you think about the Christ?”

He began to preach, and as the words came forth, he saw himself as a Pharisee who did not recognize that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of God. At that moment, the Holy Spirit breathed new life into him and the effect was so obvious and marked that a local preacher who was present stood up and shouted 'the Parson is converted' and the people rejoiced 'in Cornish style'.

Others were also converted on that day, including members of Haslam’s own household. Others, interestingly, fled from the church in fear. A revival followed that blessed Sunday that lasted for three years during which time souls were saved weekly, often daily.1

I think it would be surprising if the pastor of your church came into the pulpit and announced that he wasn’t going to preach anymore because he was unconverted. But I imagine that is was actually more surprising that the conversion was observed an announced by another pastor before Haslam to even get to his resignation. What a surprise that must have been!

We should have that kind of surprise when we see that Jesus came to be baptized by John. John was offering a baptism of repentance, which was a turning to God and way from sin. But we know from the scriptures that Jesus was totally without sin throughout his life. So why on earth would he be baptized?

The first part of the sermon will attempt to answer this question about Jesus’ baptism, a question that used to dog at me throughout my youth and into early adulthood. In the second part of the sermon, I will suggest that Jesus’ baptism was for us, not for him, and will give some practical ways baptism confers particular gifts upon the new believer. In part three, I will briefly touch on the ethical implications of our baptisms.

Why Was Jesus Baptized?

The first thing we should notice about this story is that it immediately follows some fire and brimstone preaching by John and Baptist. John is the last of the Old Testament prophets, really. He’s preaching a pointed message to the people of Israel, “[2] “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” What does it mean to “repent?” It means to turn away from sin and return to God. Notice that there are two parts to his short sermon. The first is an imperative. It’s the language of command. Repent! Turn back to God! Notice that the imperative is based first on an indicative, which is a statement fact. That indicative is “for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

John is proclaiming the reality that God’s kingdom is right next door. And if you want to be preserved from God’s wrath, you must reform your ways and walk by the law of God. Right away you should feel some anxiety, because no one has ever fulfilled the law perfectly. As a result, all are subject to the righteous, justified wrath of God for sin, and all are, by default, subject to the penalty of eternal damnation for violating God’s holy and righteous law. John’s baptism serves as a baptism of repentance. Those who responded to John’s preaching come to the water for baptism, “confessing their sins.” This would have been a public confession of sins, make in front of others, and the baptism would have been a marker of proclamation by the sinner that, from that point on, he or she would endeavor to follow God’s law.

So the baptisms are underway, and a bunch of religious authorities show up. John shows them no deference at all, but instead refers to them as a “brood of vipers” who presumed they were in God’s good graces by virtue of the fact that they were sons of Abraham. To that, John tells them that their God has the power to take “from these stones to raise up children for Abraham.” That is, real children of Abraham who are obedient to God’s word in their hearts and not just by external performance for human approval.

John concludes his remarks like this:
[11] “I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. [12] His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
Judgment is coming with the coming of the kingdom, and you had better get ready. That’s John’s message from the law.

But then here comes Jesus. And John is surprised.
[3:13] Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him. [14] John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” [15] But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented.
John shows the surprise we should all feel when Jesus enters the water. In what way does what Jesus’ baptism fulfill all righteousness? I think there are reasons why Jesus’ baptism fulfilled all righteousness, and I credit Dale Bruner for helping me think this through:

First, Jesus’ baptism fulfills all righteousness because in being baptized, Jesus publicly declares his deliberate decision to live a life of righteousness in every conceivable way. He seeks entirely to do the will of his Father, and that begins with his baptism.

Second, Jesus’ baptism by water fulfills all righteousness because it transforms the water baptism for repentance into what we know it to be, a baptism of the Holy Spirit. Now, when someone is baptized by the church, there is a cleansing of sin and, by the power of the Holy Spirit, the creation of a new person who is a doer of righteousness. The old life is dead and gone, and a new life has begun.2

After saying these things, the baptism commences. Here’s how Matthew records what happened next:
[16] And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; [17] and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”
When Jesus is baptized, the heaven open, and two things come down from heaven. First, the Holy Spirit appears in the form of a dove, so that the fullness of the Triune God is revealed. With the Holy Spirit coming to rest on Jesus, Jesus is marked, set apart and identified as the long awaited Suffering Servant of Isaiah. Then, with the declaration of God’s voice, we learn that Jesus is the very Son of God. By submitting to baptism, Jesus is publicly marked and anointed in this office for all the world to see, and for us to see in reading this scripture.

What Does Jesus’ Baptism for Us Mean?

As we said earlier, Jesus did not need baptism to be cleansed of sin. He was without sin. He was not baptized to receive the Holy Spirit, because as the Son of God he exists in Triune splendor with the other two persons of the Holy Trinity. He was baptized to fulfill all righteousness. But what does that mean for us in the church? How is Jesus’ baptism connected with yours or mine? The basic answer to that question is this: Jesus’ baptism was to fulfill all righteousness for our sake. Jesus’ baptism confers to the recipient gifts that Jesus himself did not need – forgiveness of sins and new birth. Jesus’ baptism was for us. This means, as Bruner rightly notes, Jesus’ baptism really was his first act of service on behalf of his followers.

This means in the church we now receive two gifts as a result of this first act of service by Jesus.

First, in your baptism you received the gift of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit comes to the new believer in power, but in the power represented most appropriately by the dove, of gentleness and meekness and kindness and love. It is the power to walk as a people created for righteousness before God. It is a power that sanctifies the believer throughout life and creates within the believer the desire for righteousness.

Second, in your baptism you received divine favor, God’s grace. God spoke these words at Jesus’ baptism: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well-pleased.” By being baptized for us, those who are shown such favor in baptism become the adopted children of God. When you were baptized, you were adopted into God’s family as a gift of grace. Now, in p Christ, when God looks upon you he sees the image of his Son, the same son with whom he is well pleased. Bruner writes, “In our baptism we are allowed to hear the words spoken at Jesus’: ‘You are my priceless child; I am deeply pleased with you.’”3

Ethical Implications for the Believer

These gifts, God’s unmerited favor by grace in the forgiveness of sins, and the gift of the Holy Spirit, mean there will be for the believer huge ethical ramifications in this life. What do I mean? Here are just a couple of examples:

Security and Comfort

Baptized Christians should be deeply wary and concerned if their lives are lived in such a way as to place too much importance on personal security and comfort. Why? Because eternal security and comfort have already been granted to you in your baptism. There can be no greater comfort than the knowledge that you are a person with eternal life in Christ, empowered by the Holy Spirit to bring God glory through acts of sacrificial service to your neighbor. In that knowledge, Christians, more than anyone else, should be empowered by the Holy Spirit to act with fearless boldness in their churches, relationships, and occupations.

Personal Relationships

Christians should be gravely concerned if they find present in their lives personal relationships that do not reflect the character of the Divine Father who has adopted them as a beloved child. Because we were adopted by God, even through we didn’t deserve it because of sin, we should be greatly saddened by the still-overwhelming presence of divorce, or of relationships that dishonor God’s plan for human fruitfulness and flourishing, of revenge, slander, or violence. The new birth enacted by baptism creates within the believer a desire for holy living as children made in the very image of God, children who love their neighbors as themselves. Disobedience to God’s command proclaims to the world that we do not take God’s Word seriously, makes a mockery of the Cross of Christ, exposes the church to the oft-claimed charge of hypocrisy, and declares a disbelief in the power and grace given to us by our baptism into Christ.

The good news of the gospel is that our sins never have the last word. They have been covered over by God’s gracious forgiveness in Christ. If, in the examples I’ve used, you detect sin in your own life, head right back to the Cross, where Jesus paid it all for you, but also remember what Jesus did for you in your baptism. You were made into a new creature with spiritual capacities for holiness and righteousness. Amen.

1Transcribed from the account given at the website http://www.williamhaslam.org. See also Haslam's autobiography entitled From Death to Life.
2Bruner, Dale. Matthew: A Commentary. Volume 1: The Christbook. Eerdmanns: Grand Rapids, 2004.102.
3Ibid., 112.

Given at First Presbyterian Church in Jackson, Minnesota
January 9, 2011
Baptism of the Lord
Copyright © 2011 by Christopher Donald Drew

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