Text: Matthew 3:1-6,11-17
I’ve talked any number of times about ‘repentance’ – it is that changing of mind and heart, that turning from THIS way to THAT way to follow God through Jesus Christ. Often we will focus on it particularly in the weeks leading up to Easter in preparation to hear of Christ’s great work on the cross and resurrection on Easter morning.
I’d like to spend the next several weeks talking about what comes BEFORE repentance. Scripture tells us that salvation and even faith are a gift of God. So what precedes repentance? What helps us to repent? While the topic of repentance may seem somber, it need not be. It is serious, but it is not something to grind us down, but to open us up to God’s work in our lives. So I hope this series will do just that – open us up to God’s work around us.
For the next several weeks I have chosen a number of passages that talk about repentance and what comes before it. This morning I want to look with you at the story of Jesus’ baptism, recorded in Matthew 3. I chose it because it begins with John the Baptist, who is challenging people to repent and be baptized. And then Jesus enters the scene and is, himself, baptized. I think you will see that Jesus changes everything, including our own understanding and experience of repentance.
John’s Repentance (vv.1-6)
John was the cousin of Jesus – about six months older and a true prophet of the Lord. As an adult, and called by God, John went into the wilderness to preach and baptize people for repentance – that they might be prepared for the coming of God’s Messiah and Kingdom.
He baptized with water, a ritual with rich imagery tied to repentance. In the ancient scriptures God had used water to enact JUDGMENT on the unrighteous. Think of the flood or the waters of the Red Sea closing in on Pharaoh’s army. And yet in the midst of those judgments God had provided a way out, deliverance through that judgment with the Ark and with God’s own parting of the Red Sea and the leadership of Moses. Secondly, water is naturally understood to CLEANSE and give LIFE. Just as we bathe with water to wash away dirt, the water of baptism symbolizes the cleansing or forgiveness of sin. We also must drink water to live; if we don’t we will die. Thirdly, in Hebrew scripture (and later in the New Testament), water symbolized the HOLY SPIRIT. In the great Temple ritual of the Feast of Tabernacles, the priest would pour water from a pitcher to symbolize the pouring out of God’s Spirit in the days when His Kingdom would draw near.
All this is the briefest of background to why John used water in his baptism. Along with this richest of spiritual symbols, John would tell his listeners that God’s Kingdom and Presence was about to break into the world, so the time to repent was at hand. “Get right before God, because He is coming soon!” And to signify what God would do, John would baptize people with water – all at once symbolizing:
God’s judgment on our sin… DEATH
God’s power to make us clean… LIFE
And God’s promise to pour out His Holy Spirit… HOPE
And so John preached and told people the Kingdom was near and they should repent and turn back to God. And many were coming to him to confess their sins and be baptized with water. But John also said that something greater was coming…
John said, “I baptize you with water for repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I… He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” (v.11) Said another way; John’s baptism is symbolic, representing something greater; but that greater thing – the real thing – will soon come. I have used the analogy of an engagement ring before to talk about baptism. When I proposed to Heather at Young Life’s Windy Gap Camp many years ago, I gave her a ring as a symbol of the promise to be married. It represented my love and commitment and our intention to marry. Yet it is not the marriage itself; it pointed to that greater reality. So, now that we are married, we still appreciate the ring and what it symbolizes, but we are the marriage, not the ring itself. In the same way, John was using a symbol – water baptism – to point to the reality of God’s judgement, God’s provision of life, and the hope of God’s eternal faithfulness. And John recognized that his baptism was a place-holder and pointer for something far greater: the real thing.
Jesus’ Baptism (vv.13-17)
John 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 meaning and symbolism of water baptism in the Scriptures: judgment, cleansing, life, and Spirit.
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.
Baptism is also a sign of identity; after Jesus’ baptism, God identifies Jesus: “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased.” And the promised Holy Spirit (again symbolized in the water) appears as a dove, further identifying and validating Jesus as God’s Son and the Messiah.
In a nutshell, our baptism identifies us as God’s people – the covenant people, the people of God’s promise. Baptism apart from Jesus would be terrifying – 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.
It’s like the engagement ring: the ring is not marriage… it looks forward to and points to a marriage. For us, baptism doesn’t save; turning to Jesus saves. In baptism we identify ourselves with him. We turn, not to our own righteousness, but to his righteousness. We re-orient ourselves, not because of our faithfulness, but because of his faithfulness. With Jesus, our repentance is RE-FRAMED.
This is Good News for us and why repentance need not be a scary word. Repentance isn’t “turn or burn”; it doesn’t mean to grind you down precisely because it does not mean you are responsible for your own salvation. (To be fair to John the Baptist, this was not his message either!) What John proclaimed in faith, Jesus embodied and made real: God’s promises are good, God’s mercy and provision is real, and Jesus is all of this: mercy, life, and hope.
So I do joyfully declare, “Repent!” – inviting you to trust in Jesus to go before us and lead us where only he can. Amen.
Some Music Used
- He Saved Us to Show His Glory (Tommy Walker)
- Yet Not I but Christ through Me (City Alight)
- Spirit of God Who Dwells Within My Heart
- OFFERTORY: Long Before You Were Made (Austell/Dawson) – audio player below