TEXT: Matthew 3:13-17
SERVICE VIDEO: youtu.be/kMhqQLYksSQ
It was early fall – in fact, it was the 21st of September, memorable because there’s an Earth, Wind, and Fire song called “September” about that date and it was the theme song that weekend. That weekend was a college retreat for multiple schools in North and South Carolina, an annual tradition. I was two years out of college, but was back for a special reason. In the fireside room at Windy Gap, I pulled out a ring made from a diamond passed down to me by my grandmother and I asked Heather to marry me. At that time is was relatively unusual for students to get engaged so early in their senior year, so the place was quite abuzz with it. People wanted to see the ring, congratulate us, and talk about our plans for the future. But everyone who saw or heard about it could pretty well imagine – pretty well ANTICIPATE – what was coming… a wedding, with vows, a white dress, family and friends gathered, and a life together.
Baptism is like that engagement ring because it is a sign and symbol of things yet to come. Just like an engagement ring anticipates the promises of the groom, fulfilled in the wedding and lived out in the marriage together, so baptism ANTICIPATES the promises of God, fulfilled with complete faithfulness in Jesus Christ (the groom) and lived out in our collective marriage to him and future with him.
Today we are nearing the end of our “Building Blocks of Worship” series and will look at baptism and all that it symbolizes and points to. Precisely because it is rooted in who God is and what God has done, we have deep hopes and promises for our present and our future.
The Baptism of Jesus (Matthew 3:13-17)
I want to try to take something that can be confusing and make it simple for you. The focal point of that explanation is the baptism of Jesus. I’m not sure why, but I rarely hear it referenced when people talk about baptism. But it is the primary baptism story in Scripture; it is when, by example and explanation, Jesus truly instituted baptism for us.
You heard the story. John the Baptist (Jesus’ cousin), is teaching and practicing a baptism of repentance. We come to realize that he is the last of the prophets preparing the way for God’s Promised One, the Messiah. He has been talking about the Messiah who would come – one greater than himself, saying, “I am not fit to remove His sandals” (v. 11).
He is surprised (and resistant) when he sees Jesus coming to be baptized. John says, in effect, “YOU should baptize ME; why do you come to me for this?” (v. 14, my paraphrase)
Jesus responds, “Permit it at this time; for in this way it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” “Fulfilling all righteousness” not only signifies that Jesus is fulfilling prophecy and identifying as the Messiah John has been preaching about, but he also takes upon himself all the symbolism and meaning of water baptism.
Symbol and Sign
In scripture, water is rich in symbolism and meaning. I want to take a moment to briefly survey four ways water serves as symbol and sign. A symbol represents another thing or action. A sign points to something or someone, in this case what God has done.
1. DEATH/JUDGMENT: Throughout scripture water symbolizes God’s judgment (often resulting in death for the unrighteous). Consider the Flood in Genesis 7, the closing of the Red Sea on the Egyptian army in Exodus 14, and the hurling of Jonah into the sea in Jonah 1. In the New Testament Peter makes an explicit connection between the judgment (and deliverance) of Noah at the Flood and the judgment and salvation in Christ symbolized by baptism (1 Peter 3:20-21).
2. WASHING/FORGIVENESS: In scripture water also symbolizes God’s mercy and forgiveness, the washing away of sins. So in the context of Jesus’ baptism in John’s Gospel, John the Baptist names Jesus as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” (John 1:29) In Acts 2, and again in Acts 22, baptism in the name of Jesus Christ is linked to repentance and the forgiveness of sin.
3. LIFE/SALVATION: Water also symbolizes life and resurrection. In the same example of the Flood, God also provided a way through the judgment-waters. So also baptism points to God providing a way through judgment for those who trust in Christ. There were similar deliverances for those who trusted God with the judgment-waters of the Red Sea and with Jonah. Passages in Romans 6:3-4 and Colossians 2:8-14 speak of us being baptized with Christ into his death, and raised up with him in resurrection.
4. SPIRIT/FAITHFULNESS: Water also symbolizes the promised Holy Spirit. On the day of Pentecost, Peter called for those listening to him to be baptized, not only for forgiveness, but also as a sign of receiving the Holy Spirit.
In scripture, water is a SYMBOL (death, washing, life, spirit) and a SIGN (of God’s judgment, forgiveness, salvation, and faithfulness).
Baptism as Identification
So back to the baptism of Jesus… John was baptizing with water for repentance; but Jesus did not need to repent. Rather, he took the water baptism for repentance (practiced by others, not just John) and the COVENANT SIGN of circumcision and transformed the old signs into a new one signifying all that he was going to do for us: undergo judgment, be the conduit of God’s mercy, bring resurrection and life, and usher in the Holy Spirit. Jesus did the same transformation with the Old Covenant memorial meal, the Passover meal. That was a ritual used to tell the story of the bondage and slavery of God’s people and God’s deliverance through a mediator and savior in Moses. At the Last Supper, Jesus likewise took that memorial meal (he and the disciples were celebrating Passover) and he transformed the old signs into a new one signifying all that he was going to do for us: his body and blood broken and shed that we might be delivered from slavery and bondage into new life.
When we are baptized, we are identified with Christ through the Covenant (even as the Israelites were identified as God’s covenant people through circumcision). As Galatians 3:27 says, you have “clothed yourselves with Christ.” Our baptism is connected with his, which is all about what HE was going to do (and did). It gets confusing because it was in the past and we are living now and much of this is still yet to come. But that’s just it; baptism doesn’t just mark a point in time. Remember what water baptism symbolizes and signifies: God’s rightful judgment of sin; God’s merciful forgiveness through sacrificial atonement; God’s gracious giving of life and a future; and God’s promised presence with us and in us forever.
When Jesus was baptized, he marked himself as the one who would go first (and last!) in experiencing all that on our behalf. So Jesus carried our sin on the cross and endured God’s rightful judgment. Jesus was the once-and-for-all atoning sacrifice – the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world. By God’s power Jesus was raised from the dead on Easter morning. And with God, Jesus left his Holy Spirit with us always, even until the end of the age.
In a nutshell, our baptism identifies us as His people – the covenant people, the people of God’s promise. Baptism apart from Jesus would be as terrifying as bearing the judgment for our own sins; we could not bear it. Our only hope is in Jesus, that he has gone before us and done what we could not and cannot do. And yet, we benefit from his faithfulness. We reap the benefits of his obedience. And so, though we have not yet died or faced God’s judgment or been resurrected from the dead, we can ANTICIPATE those things because the one who died for us has also lived for us.
Remember, Baptism tells God’s redemptive story. It doesn’t save; it’s a symbol and sign of the God who saves. And first and foremost, baptism identifies us with Jesus, whose work and faithfulness is sure. He will not forsake you; he has not failed to do all that God purposed for him to do. Another word we use for “anticipation” is HOPE. Baptism marks our Christian HOPE in God. Because of what God did through Jesus, we can HOPE in the following:
- God’s infinite and eternal purpose, plan, faithfulness, and love;
- Jesus’ standing in our place to experience God’s judgment, mercy, resurrection, and presence;
- Our own death, resurrection, and final judgment with Christ at our side.
Baptism as Anticipation
Do people (of any age) get baptized and walk away? Yes; it is not unlike a broken engagement and walking away from what is promised there. But Jesus is the perfectly faithful groom and will not himself walk away from any whom he has pledged to love through his own death.
Baptism is exciting, like an engagement ring is exciting. It signals so much that is yet to come and it is anchored in the perfect and faithful love of Jesus Christ, the groom to God’s covenant people, the Church – called the “Bride of Christ.”
Baptism is “here’s how much God loves you” and “you won’t believe what is yet to come!” Amen.
Some Music Used
- Refuge (Maddie Shuler)
- Blessed are the Ones (Audrey Assad)
- Revelation Song
- Great is Thy Faithfulness – Cathy Youngblood, piano
- Every Promise of Your Word (Gettys)
- Yes and Amen (Housefires)
- O God, Our Help in Ages Past