The Baptism of Christ
TEXT: Luke 3:1-22
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins … (Luke 3:1-3)
Chapter three of Luke’s gospel begins with the proclamation of John the Baptist, who offered people “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”
It was this baptism—this baptism of repentance—to which Jesus submitted. A baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Think about that for a moment. This is Jesus we’re talking about—the One whom John himself called “the Lamb of God” (John 1:29, 36). The One who is without sin. Why would Jesus, of all people, need to submit to “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins”?
If you find that puzzling, you’re in good company. Because John the Baptist did not understand it, either. In Matthew’s gospel, we find some more details about this event. In chapter three, beginning at verse 13, we read:
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 now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then [John] consented. (Matt. 3:13-15)
The Lamb of God—the Son of God, God incarnate—wants to “fulfill all righteousness” through a baptism designed for sinners? How can that be?
Let’s back up a bit. Remember the story of the Magi—the “wise men”—from chapter two of Matthew? In that passage, we encounter a literary device. It’s called “foreshadowing”—and it hints at plot developments that are going to appear later in the story. When these Magi—who were gentiles—came to honour the Jewish Messiah, that event foreshadowed the revelation of Christ as the Saviour of all humankind.
Foreshadowing. It’s present in chapter three of Luke, as well. When Jesus submits to this “baptism of repentance,” it foreshadows something which will occur later in the story—something which is reported in all four gospels, the significance of which is explicitly stated by the apostle Paul.
In his Second Letter to the Corinthians, Paul says that—through Christ—God reconciled us to himself. And then he goes on, saying: “For our sake [God] made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21).
For our sake, Christ became sin! Do you get that? It’s all about the cross. It’s all about atonement—“at-one-ment,” reconciliation. In Christ, God became the ultimate example of “walking a mile in someone else’s shoes.”
We call Jesus “Emmanuel,” which means “God with us”—but, when he took on human flesh as a helpless baby born into poverty, God did much more than simply come among us. God became one of us. He became, really and truly and fully, a human being—and subject to all which that entails: joy and sorrow, pleasure and pain.
When God became one of us, he didn’t just sign on for the fun stuff; he embraced all that it means to be human—including death. Including even—in some mysterious way—human sinfulness. He himself was without sin, and yet—in the end—he bore our sin. In fact, he bore our sin away. He became sin for us—and when he died, our sin died with him. In some miraculous, mysterious transaction, our sinfulness was exchanged for his righteousness. In Christ, God did for us what we could not do for ourselves. And this is why Jesus needed to submit to a baptism “for the forgiveness of sins.” It was a sign foreshadowing what was to come.
God sent John the Baptist to call sinners to repentance. Jesus recognized John’s authority, and identified himself with those who—in faith—responded to John’s call. Jesus identified himself with us. He wanted to be in total solidarity with us—with you, and with me. There was no other way for God and humanity to be reconciled.
That sounds pretty radical, doesn’t it? Well, to some of those who first heard this story, it sounded even more radical than most of us probably realize.
Some of you may be familiar with the term Gnosticism. Gnosticism was a school of religious thought which was prevalent in the ancient world—and which even gained tremendous influence within the Christian movement, in its early centuries. Those who embraced it were known as Gnostics, and their system of belief included—among many other things—the absolute conviction that divinity and humanity could never be reconciled.
The Gnostics taught that a huge gulf existed between the material realm and the spiritual realm—between the world of matter and the world of spirit. They said God was too pure and holy to have anything to do with matter, which was utterly debased and profane. For the Gnostics, salvation consisted of liberating the human soul from its prison—that is, from the material body—so that it could leave this wicked world and return to God. And all of this demanded the acquisition of certain “secret knowledge” that only the most spiritual—only the purest—could possibly attain.
Gnosticism even taught that God was too holy to have created this world directly. Spirit couldn’t dirty its hands by touching matter, you see. So the Gnostics taught that God arranged for a much less holy being—called a “demiurge”—to make the earth and all the material things in it … including filthy and profane you and me! It’s almost like the demiurge was a kind of subcontractor, who was willing to do the unpleasant and defiling work of creation.
As you might imagine, the Gnostics did not think very highly of human beings—or at least, they did not hold the human body in very high regard. And so the Gnostic version of Christianity utterly rejected the idea that Christ was a real human being. They believed that Jesus was divine—but they could not believe that he had a real human body.
The body was a material thing—and a holy God could not have anything to do with matter. So they taught that Jesus only seemed to be human. He looked like a man, he walked like a man, and he sounded like a man … but it was all just a disguise. Likewise, he only appeared to suffer upon the cross, and he only appeared to die … he couldn’t actually suffer or die, because suffering and death have to do with the world of matter, not the world of spirit.
As weird as all of this may sound to us, the Gnostic scheme of things made sense to a lot of people in the ancient world—even within the early Church. And, in fact, it is resurgent today, disguised as “new age” spirituality.
But this viewpoint is completely at odds with the understanding of those who had known and followed the man called Jesus of Nazareth. “New age” spirituality or “old age” Gnosticism—it’s all the same. It tries to remove the truth and the power from the story of Jesus, who was immersed in the waters that would sweep us away. And much of what we refer to as the New Testament was written to counter the teaching of the Gnostics.
Bearing that in mind, consider again the story given to us by Luke. Here is God’s own divine, perfect Son. He is coming—as an authentically human person—to be baptized by John in the Jordan River. In doing so, he is identifying himself with human imperfection, and with our human need for repentance and forgiveness. And Christ’s identification with us is so complete as to embrace even our mortality and our sinfulness. To the Gnostic, this was unthinkable!
Yet, that’s exactly the picture of Jesus which the gospel writers paint. He is, indeed, the God of heaven come to earth. He is also the man of earth who ascended into heaven. This is the motif of incarnation, which repeats itself over and over again in the canonical gospels.
Was there a gulf of some kind between God and humanity? Well, yes, there was. The Gnostics were partly right about that. In the Old Testament, we hear quite a bit about the holiness of God and the sinfulness of human beings.
But the God of the Bible is different from the God of the Gnostics in a very important way: the God of the Bible wanted to bridge the gulf. The God of the Bible—the God whom we worship as our heavenly Father—desired, above all else, reconciliation with us. He longed for it so much that he found a way to accomplish it.
He became one of us. You can’t get much more reconciled than that!
In the man Jesus, God becomes absolutely identified with us. That is the message underlying this baptism account—just as it is the message underlying the story of Jesus’ birth, life and death. That’s why we say we celebrate the Baptism of Christ: it is good news for us.
And here comes another very important point. On “Baptism of Christ Sunday” Christians are urged to remember the significance of their own baptisms.
Just as—when Jesus was baptized—he identified himself completely with us, so also are we—in our own baptisms—completely identified with him.
In other words, through our baptisms, we are united with him. That includes being united with him in his death upon the cross, where his work of reconciliation reached its climax. But it also includes being united with him in his resurrection, which is our promise of eternal life.
That’s not to say there is anything magical about the water of baptism. We are united with Christ when we accept him as our Saviour and Lord—and baptism is but a sign and symbol of that unity. But it is an important symbol, and a dramatic sign. Writing to the Christians in the city of Rome, the apostle Paul stated it this way:
Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. (Rom. 6:3-5)
So, in what—at first—looks like a pretty straightforward account of Jesus’ baptism, there’s a lot going on behind the scenes. And much of it would have been more obvious to its first readers than perhaps it is to us. But what it is, above all, is good news for us. We are united with Christ. We are reconciled to God. What better news could there be?
That doesn’t mean life is going to be a bed of roses. It certainly wasn’t, for Jesus.
It doesn’t mean we will never suffer, or be disappointed, or experience misfortune. But it does mean that—whatever life brings us, good or bad—Jesus faces it along with us.
It isn’t knowledge or high intellect that makes us fit for dwelling in the presence of God. Insight does not make us holy or pure or beautiful. No. What saves us is the active and powerful love of God for each one of us. What saves us is God coming among us as one of us. It is the sacrifice of Jesus that delivers us from sin and death.
It is a dynamic love that redeems us—the kind of love a parent has for a child; the love that says, “I will stand in front of my daughter and shield her from harm.” The love that says, “I will forgive my son, and give him another chance.” The love that says, “I will take my children’s place, and suffer the injury meant for them.”
This is the gospel we preach. Thanks be to God for it.