Matthew 3:13-17 (New International Version, ©2010)
The Baptism of Jesus
13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John. 14 But John tried to deter him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”
15 Jesus replied, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” Then John consented.
16 As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17 And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”
There was a young boy whose parents always made sure to sit in the front row of their Baptist church to make sure that their children didn’t miss anything that happened. And this Sunday was different from the average Sunday. It was baptism Sunday. So the little boy watched in amazement as people came up on the stage, one after another, and the pastor dunked them completely under water.
Later that evening, the little boy gathered the three family cats in the bathroom of his family’s home and filled the bathtub to the top. First he grabbed the kitten and said to it, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” He then dunked the cat completely under water. He then moved on to the next oldest cat and did the exact same thing without any problem. Then he came to the oldest cat, the momma. And momma wasn’t any too interested in getting into that tub. The boy tried to put her in, but she escaped. He grabbed her again, and she scratched him before he could get her near the tub. Finally, out of frustration, he grabbed a drinking glass off the sink, and filled it with water. He then took the glass of water and dumped it over the head of the cat and said, “Fine, go and be a Mennonite.”
We in the Mennonite church are not overly concerned with how someone is baptized. We pour or sprinkle when the weather is bad, we immerse when there is good weather and a place to do it. Tap water, well water, or spring water, forward or backwards, it is pretty much all the same to me. Because the way I see it, baptism isn’t about the method, it is about the meaning.
Our scripture for this morning is an event that all four gospels describe. That alone should tell us that this is important. John the Baptist has evidently been in public ministry for a little while and he is beginning to get a bit of a following. John was a prophet who didn’t beat around the bush. He told the people that they were failing to follow God and he was calling them to repentance. He was calling them to stop their ways that did not correspond with God’s will and align their will with God’s. And as a sign of this realignment, John dunks or pours, we don’t know which, water over their head. But this act was not just something that John invented. It is a practice that finds its roots in the Hebrew Scriptures.
In the Hebrew Bible there are many examples of ritualistic cleansings and as we read the New Testament we find examples of the 1st century Jews continuing these practices. Sometimes the ritualistic cleansings were of objects like drinking glasses, which Jesus notes that the Pharisees do in his day. Other times the cleansings involved washing a part of the body, like the hands. Then on a few occasions, the ritualistic cleansings call for the washing of the entire body. I won’t get into all of the reasons that a Jew would need to wash their entire body, but a few examples include after a person has touched a dead person or animal, after a woman’s time of menstruation was complete, and when a Gentile person decided that they wanted to become a Jew. The ritualistic cleansing was a piece of the process of becoming a part of the people of God.
The Hebrew Bible gives a procedure through which a Gentile must go to become a Jew. There is a period of study and testing of your doctrinal beliefs and practices. Then you went through a ritualistic cleansing, known as the mikveh. Mikveh is the term used for all of the ritualistic cleansing used for purification. It is only after a convert to Judaism goes through the mikveh that they are no longer considered to be an outsider and they are able to enter into the temple and into full fellowship with God and the other Jews.
When John began his ministry, his message was simple. Repent, for the kingdom of God has come near. As he went from town to town, he described for the Jews the ways in which they were failing to live by God’s plan. By submitting themselves to mikveh, or baptism as it is called in the New Testament, they were making a public commitment to realign their will with God’s, a lot like a convert to Judaism would be making a commitment for the first time. Some might even say that these Jews that were coming to John for baptism, though they grew up in Jewish families, were making a commitment to follow God for the first time in their lives. It was almost like they were Gentiles entering into a new religion because now they were going to take their religion seriously. They were seeking full fellowship with God.
So this brings us to a bit of a challenging question. Why would Jesus submit himself to baptism? It is clear from our text for this morning that John didn’t think that Jesus needed to be baptized. John told Jesus that Jesus should be baptizing him, not the other way around as Jesus was proposing.
If we back up a few verses to verse 11a, we find that John had to say this about the baptisms that he was performing, “I baptize you with water for repentance.” Water for repentance. When we think of repentance, we often think about confessing our sins and asking for forgiveness. And I think that this is an important part of repentance, but not all of it. I think that to understand baptism, we need to understand repentance from the Jewish perspective.
In the Old Testament, when the prophets call the Israelites to repentance, the word that is often used is shoov. Shoov literally means “to turn”. The easy way to remember this is that if I come up behind you and give you a shoov, you will turn around to see who just pushed you. So when the prophets call the Israelites to repent, or shoov, they are calling them to turn.
So again we ask the question, Why did Jesus need to be baptized if he was without sin? I believe that baptism is not just about what you are repenting from, it is about what you are turning to. And Jesus was about to begin a new movement among the Jews. He was turning to the kingdom of God. And baptism was the visible sign to everyone that he was a part of a different kind of kingdom.
I grew up in a rural area of Ohio and went to a rural high school. If you did not go to a rural high school you might not be familiar with a program known as the FFA, which stands for Future Farmers of America. If you took an agriculture class at my high school you were automatically enrolled in the FFA.
I didn’t take any ag classes until I was a junior in high school, but these classes would have been available to me beginning my freshmen year. So when I took that class my junior year I entered into my first year of FFA. Now there are different terms that are used for each year that you are in FFA. Being a first year student I was a greenhand.
Being a greenhand meant that I was subjected to a certain amount of first-year hazing. It felt a little awkward to have sophomores giving me a hard time, but in FFA there was a different pecking order. This hazing was in no way dangerous or illegal. For instance, one thing that I remember was our initiation where all greenhands had to come in early to school one day, take their right hand, and dip the entire hand into a green dye. We then had to walk around the rest of the day with a hand stained green. And depending on how often you washed your hands, sometimes this die would last a few days.
So why did the Norwayne High School chapter of the FFA dye our hands green? Was it a way to embarrass us? Maybe a little. But I think that the main purpose of this act was to identify us to the rest of the school as the newest members of the FFA. Everyone went through this practice when they first became members of the FFA, so all of the upperclassmen knew what was going on. And all of the freshmen who were not in the FFA soon learned as well why about half of the people in their classes had green right hands. That green-dyed hand was a very visible sign that we had joined the FFA.
That is how I understand baptism. It is an outward act that is done openly and publically to identify yourself as a part of an organization known as the kingdom of God. And just like the upper classmen that would see the dyed hands of the new FFA members, anyone that has seen this act before will identify baptism with Christianity. Even if they are not Christians themselves, someone that has seen a baptism before and sees someone getting dunked or sprinkled with water while a bunch of people stand around and watch and pray and sing Shall We Gather at the River will know that this is being done because someone has just joined the church.
Those that have never seen a baptism before will question why it is being done, because, let’s be honest, it isn’t something that you see too often. Like the first year students in my high school that questioned why certain people were walking around with green hands, someone that has never seen a baptism will wonder why people are bathing publically in their clothes. This is why baptisms are done in a place where other people are present rather than in a private service with a pastor in your home. Baptism is a public expression of your new birth into the church, into the kingdom of God. Baptism isn’t just about what you are repenting from, it is what you are turning to.
I think that there is a lot of confusion about baptism. And I don’t pretend to have all of the answers about baptism, but I do want to look at a few issues or questions to better understand baptism. The first is “Do I need to be baptized to go to heaven?”
I remember when I was a young fellow studying the story of Jesus’ crucifixion in the book of Luke. In Luke’s gospel we find the story of the thief on the cross who asked Jesus for forgiveness and Jesus promises him that tonight he will be with Jesus in paradise.
I remember this lesson well because the person teaching it was very intentional in answering the question that nobody was asking at that young age. He told us that the thief on the cross must have been baptized before he was put on the cross because otherwise he would not go to heaven.
Now there are passages in the Bible that can be understood as saying that baptism is required for the forgiveness of sins (1 Peter 3:21), but I think that the evidence contrary to this is a fair bit stronger. No, I think that the Bible is clear that salvation is by grace through faith. As Paul says in Galatians 2:21, “If righteousness could be gained through the law, then Christ died for nothing!” Baptism does not save you from you sins. Baptism is a sign that you have accepted God’s free gift of grace.
I started today by saying that the method of baptism is really not the important part, but what is important is the meaning. What is sad about this is that so many people fight over the appropriate way to baptize. Some people look at the place where Jesus was baptized, in the Jordan River, and they say that he must have been immersed and therefore we must be as well. Others note that in the book of Acts that some passages can be interpreted as saying that some people were baptized in their homes and that they were likely baptized by pouring water over their heads. Do you know what Jesus says about baptism? He says to do it. He says to baptize in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. If the method was that important, if people were not going to go to heaven because they were sprinkled rather than dunked, don’t you think that Jesus would have said something about the method? Jesus does not lay out the specifics of how people are to be baptized. He just says that they are to baptize and to be baptized.
When we get so caught up in the details of baptism, when we get so caught up in the method, we begin to think that baptism is the be-all and end-all of Christianity. We start to think, “If only they were baptized then we could know that they are going to heaven.” Or, “Well I have been baptized, so God won’t hold it against me if…” No, I don’t think that baptism is the be-all and end-all of Christianity. Baptism is a sign of what you are turning to. It is a sign that you are beginning something new. It isn’t just a one-time association with the kingdom of God. Baptism represents the beginning of a life submitted to Jesus Christ. And that life will continue to be visible to those around us from the day we are baptized throughout eternity.
I was never really involved in the FFA. I learned the creed, I did the parliamentary procedure stuff, and that was about it. But my little brother was very involved. He did the soil judging and the animal judging. He took every Ag class he could while he was in high school. He even went to the FFA state conventions.
When you get so serious about FFA that you go to the state convention, you are required to wear the official FFA uniform. Black shoes, black pants for men, black skirt for women, and white shirts with a tie or scarf. Then there was the most distinctive part of the FFA uniform. That’s right, I am talking about the dark blue corduroy jacket with gold embroidering. That is the sign of a dedicated FFA member. If you have the jacket, you are committed. If you are going to be a lifetime member, you buy and wear the jacket.
Baptism is only the beginning. It is a sign to all of the world that you are joining in on a movement that began two thousand years ago, a movement that was planned from the very beginning of creation. Baptism says to the world I am joining with God in his plan for the reconciliation of all things. I will love when others hate. I will create when others destroy. I will give when others are selfish. I will be humble when others are proud. And I will serve when others want to be served. Baptism is a symbol to the rest of the world that you are turning from the ways of the world and turning to the kingdom of God.
It is important to be baptized. Please, don’t hear me saying anything to the contrary. But baptism does not save us. Baptism is a public profession of faith that says I am not of this world. I am a follower of Jesus Christ and a member of his kingdom. Baptism is like that green dyed hand that we all received our first year of FFA. It was a visible sign that we were joining into something new, something beautiful. And we need to continue to live in that kingdom. We need to wear that blue corduroy jacket. We should and need to stand out from the world as we seek to bring Jesus to the world so that they may come to know his love and grace and become a part of his kingdom as well.