[January 13, 2008] Today we will consider the baptism of our Lord and what it has to do with us. Try to imagine this scene as if you were there. Imagine what John was feeling, what Jesus was feeling.
John the Baptist was moving along the Jordan River preaching repentance. He dunked in water those who repented to prepare them for the coming of God in His kingdom. Jesus paid attention to this, and when John was about twenty miles from His home, Jesus left Nazareth to go to John to be baptized by him.
Did Jesus need to repent? John had just finished saying, “He who is coming after me is stronger than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you in the Holy Spirit and fire,” when this very One came to him and requested baptism. What?! “It is I who have need of being baptized by You, and You come to me?”
Baptism is all about repentance. Why would the sinless One—the One with the winnowing fan in His hand, who will Himself separate the wheat from the chaff—why would He need to be baptized? Jesus says to John, “Permit it for now, for it is fitting for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.”
How interesting! Righteousness refers to human deeds, and Jesus speaks of fulfilling ALL righteousness. The word “fulfill” (or fill up) is used only of Jesus (see 5:17). Other people may “do” righteousness, but the Messiah “fulfills” it. What does this mean? Why would the sinless One be baptized?
John preached “a baptism of repentance for forgiveness of sins” (Luke 3:3). How does God forgive sins? Some people think we pay for sins by suffering. If we suffer enough for what we have done, then God would forgive us. Somehow our pain washes away our guilt. Since Jesus suffered infinitely, then God can use that “capital” to forgive everyone. This is a common way to think—it is inherent in the way we think about punishment—but it is both stupid and offensive to God. Only one thing will cause God to forgive us: repentance.
Consider Ezekiel 18:21-23, 27-28, 30-32; 33:10-16, and 19. “If the wicked man turns from all his sins that he has committed and keeps all My statutes and practices justice and righteousness, he will surely live; he shall not die. None of his transgressions shall be remembered against him; because of his righteousness that he has practiced he shall live.” Repentance means to turn around. If you do not live in the way God requires, you can suffer as much as Jesus did on the cross and it will not do you any good. Get rid of this idea.
What is it that God requires? Not just an outward change. Ezekiel 18:31 says, “Cast away from you all your transgressions by which you have transgressed, and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit; for why will you die?” The word ‘repent’ (Greek: meta-noia) means to change inwardly, to change your mind, to change what you mind, what you focus on, what matters to you.
You have heard over and over, as if everyone can take it for granted, that God forgives everyone. Who says? Whoever first said this, never got it from the Bible. Jesus certainly never said such a thing. It simply is not true, not for Jews and Christians, anyway. God requires you to repent, and to repent enough. Is God cruel? No. But our life is, and the choices we have made are. At the root is the choice that all of us have made—to reject God and to set ourselves in His place. “Why will you die? For I take no pleasure in the death of him who dies. Therefore repent and live” (Ezekiel 18:32).
Repent! Have you turned around? What does God require of you?
Trembling at His Word
Isaiah speaks of “you who tremble at His word” (Isaiah 66:5). Fear and trembling are connected to God’s Word more often in Scripture than I can count. Some things are so important to you that just to handle them make you fear and tremble. Can you imagine something like that? But how much do you care about God’s Word? Or do you live by your own light?
Isaiah asks, “Who among you fears the Lord; who hears the voice of His servant; who walks in darkness and has no light? Let him trust in the name of the Lord, and rely on his God. Indeed, all of you who kindle a fire, who surround yourselves with firebrands, walk into the light of your fire and into the firebrands which you have lit. You will have this from My hand: you will lie down in torment” (Isaiah 50:11).
Do you know what this means? You are in the dark and so you light a fire. Maybe you even surround yourself with fires, and you walk by their light. What do you live by? How do you make your choices? How do you decide what you want and what you do not want? If God enters the picture at all, how do you know you are not deluding yourself if you are ignorant of His Word?
To repent means that you care so deeply about His word that it can make you tremble. You care deeply enough about it that you will expend tremendous energy to try to learn and understand it. If it is not something that you care about every day, you have not repented. You are living by your own light, the fires that you have lit, and they will end up burning you.
Jesus trembled at the Word more than anyone. When He handled the Bible, what it said mattered to Him more than anything. If you felt this way, would you not try very hard to hear it carefully and understand it?
Where the Old Testament Leaves Off
The last two chapters of the Old Testament speak of John the Baptist and Jesus. “I am about to send My messenger and he will clear the way before Me; and suddenly the Lord, whom you seek, will come … And who will endure the day of His coming? And who will stand when He appears? For He is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap. And He will sit as a refiner and a purifier of silver” (Malachi 3:1-2; see also 4:5). This, in fact, is how John the Baptist portrays Jesus—He is the One who baptizes “in the Holy Spirit and fire, whose winnowing fan is in His hand.”
What about those whom John baptized, those who sought to repent? “Then those who feared the Lord spoke to one another, each with his neighbor. And the Lord gave heed and listened, and a book of remembrance was written before Him of those who feared the Lord and considered His name. And they will be Mine, says the Lord of hosts, a personal treasure, in the day that I prepare; and I will spare them, as a man spares his son who serves him” (3:16-17). “THIS is My beloved Son, in Whom I have found My delight.” Jesus alone offered the obedience that God is looking for.
Before, however, we speak of Jesus, God asked Adam and He asks each of us, “Where are you?” (Genesis 3:9). Do you pretend to religion? Why do you come to church? Why do you listen to preachers, if you do? You hear so many voices, but do you listen to God’s Word? Does the fact that God is speaking to you in the Bible make you tremble? It should. If you want to know why you come to church, just listen to your excuses about why you do not come to church, and you will see what is really important to you. That, after all, is what matters. What is really important to you (not what you say is important)?
The Father’s Delight in Jesus
Jesus went down into the water, renouncing Himself, His independence, His rights, renouncing anything that could have been His own apart from God, and He buries it and washes it away in the flowing water. He washed away all the voices that called Him and the claims that people made on Him. And He came up, feeling the water on His body, and being present in Himself only to God. Only God mattered to Him. Then the heavens opened to Him.
The heavens opened to Him. That means the heavens are normally closed. We do not see into heaven. We are in the dark. What we see are the images that are projected all around us by the media, the television, the internet, magazines, our education, and our conversations with people. That is our light, but the heavens are closed. For Jesus, though, they opened, and the Spirit of God descended on Him. Doves are timid creatures. It is easy to scare them away. But here at last was someone whom the Spirit of God could trust and be at home with. This Spirit empowered Him for His ministry. He did not work by His own strength or His own wits. He buried all that in the waters of baptism.
Then a voice, the voice of the Father, spoke from heaven saying, “At last! This—this—is My beloved Son, the One in Whom finally— after waiting so long—I have found My delight.” Jesus is the only One who has offered to God the obedience that God is looking for.
His obedience will take Him to the cross where He will offer Himself to the uttermost to God. He will lay down His soul in death.
The Lord’s Obedience and Our Repentance
His obedience—if He were a sinner—would be the repentance that God requires of us. His obedience alone suffices for the repentance that God requires of us. And God does require it of us. Try to understand this. He took the path that we would need to take if we were to become right with God—if we were to be forgiven—and if we were to enter into union with God.
Do not think forgiveness and entering into union with God are easy things. If we follow the Ten Commandments and are basically good people—you know, do the best we can—we will go to heaven and God will be happy with us. No, God will not be happy with us. We are fooling ourselves. In our hearts we are still rotten, and God knows it. We know it too. In fact, that is why we come to church, so we can convince ourselves that it is not really true! But we are not good people, and we are in big trouble. We have no idea how big.
Yet we hold the medicine in our hands. If we realized it, we would tremble. We would “tremble at His Word.” The reason we do not tremble is because we have no idea how serious all this is. The things we think are serious! So many things, but not this. We can only spare a couple hours on Sunday, if that, and a few minutes a day. God says we will be thrown into unquenchable fire, and we do not think this word applies to us, or a serious danger is near.
When Jesus was baptized, He entered the pathway of obedience that we are required to take if we are to repent. He “fulfilled all righteousness.” He did it for us. When we believe into Him, He satisfies God on our behalf. When we are baptized into His name, His baptism becomes our baptism. The Spirit that descended on Him descends on us. The Father’s approval of Him applies to us. We become God’s Beloved in whom He delights. We must believe, though.
That word “faith”: we take it so lightly. We think it means “we agree.” Ridiculous! It is not what you think or “vote” for. It is what you value and live for, and what you would be willing to die for. The word “faith” is the same as “faithfulness.” It is total commitment. You have to give something up, or it is not faith. When we believe into Him, it requires that you see something inwardly, that you understand something and it persuades you—yes, for “faith is the substantiating of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1)—but you must also give yourself to it, utterly.
You cannot repent as you ought, but by the mercy and grace of God you can give yourself to the Lord Jesus, you can believe into Him, and make Him your only Guarantor and Savior and Master, the only One with a claim on your life. Then His obedience becomes your repentance, and God accepts on your behalf everything that Jesus was (and is), accomplished, attained and obtained. Then surely His blood was shed for you, God accepts it as your redemption, your purchase price. “Through the obedience of the One the many will be constituted righteous” (Romans 5:19).
How do you know you have believed? If by the grace of God you believe, God will grant you repentance (Acts 11:18). The faithfulness of Jesus will be reflected in your faithfulness. Your faithfulness may be a meager resemblance of Jesus’ (God will count His righteousness as yours), but it will be there. No one who believes in Jesus can remain the same.
We say salvation is a free gift. It is, but you have not received it yet if Christ has not become your Master, if the Word does not matter to you as your very life. The Word—and the Word alone—presents Christ to you. Repent and believe the Gospel, for the kingdom of God is very near you.
You who have been baptized: let us see this week if you can live as if you are not your own master, but you belong to Christ alone, and He meets with you every day in His Word. Speak to one another about it as if it mattered.