Matthew 3:13-17 (The Baptism of Jesus)

St. John, Galveston 1/8/2023

Rev. Alan Taylor


+ In Nomine Jesu +


Grace and peace to you, from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.


We have before us this morning Matthew’s account of the baptism of Jesus. It’s a short passage, but I should think that it prompts a couple of questions, one of which is asked by John himself, namely, why did Jesus come to him to be baptized in the first place? The question is central to the passage before us today, as is Jesus’ answer. “Let it be so now (He said), for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” 


The second question, which is a little less pressing, has to do with the timing of the reading of this event in the Divine Service, mainly as it relates to Christmas and the beginning of Epiphany. In other words, since we just celebrated the birth of Jesus, why, in one week’s time, have we leapt forward 30 years to Jesus’ baptism?  


The message this morning will primarily deal with the first question, the one that John asked Jesus, regarding the necessity of His baptism, but I would like to address the second question briefly. The account of the baptism of Jesus is always the Gospel reading for the 1st Sunday in Epiphany because it most clearly depicts what the Season of Epiphany is all about. Epiphany is about the appearance of, or the manifestation of God in the world. It is the beginning, if you will, of Jesus earthly ministry. Here, at the Jordan River, we are visited by the fullness of God. As Matthew tells us, “The Spirit of God descended on Jesus and the Father said, this is My beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.” In that one verse, John and all of the rest of us encounter the Triune God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. And so, as we move into the Season of Epiphany, it is fitting, that we begin with the Baptism of Jesus and with the manifestation of the fullness of God at that event. 


As to the second question, that is, why Jesus was baptized, I would like to make a couple of connections to the Old Testament. In doing so, I hope to show you why Jesus’ baptism was so crucial to His life and ministry.   


The first connection has to do with the Jordan river itself. Matthew tells us that Jesus “came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him. As it relates to the people of Israel, the Jordan was not, by any means, a common river. It wasn’t like the Damascus, which is another river in the same vicinity. Nor, in a contemporary sense, is it like Brazos, or the San Jacinto, or the Guadalupe, or any other such river. It’s a place of tremendous significance to the people of Israel, and ultimately, to you and me.


Israel, you recall, had been delivered from slavery in Egypt by crossing through the Red Sea. In their journey to the land that God had promised them, they also crossed through the Jordan River. It was a monumental event for Israel. But they entered the promised land, not by their own righteousness, but because God chose to give it to them. In Deuteronomy 9, it says “Hear, O Israel: you are to cross over the Jordan today, to go in to dispossess nations greater and mightier than you.” “Know, therefore, that the Lord your God is not giving you this good land to possess because of your righteousness, for you are a stubborn people. Remember and do not forget how you provoked the Lord your God to wrath in the wilderness. From the day you came out of the land of Egypt until you came to this place, you have been rebellious against the Lord.”


The prophet could have been talking to anyone of us, couldn’t he!? How then shall we enter the promised land? Here, in Matthew 3, Jesus stands before John, and before the world, and even before you and me, as the new Israel, the One who will ultimately pass into the promised land, having successfully fulfilled every single aspect of the will of His Father. The Father’s words at Jesus’ baptism are not mere fatherly sentiment. When He said, “this is My beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,” He meant it in a legal sense, in the sense that Jesus had and would fulfill every aspect of the Divine Law as the New Israel. And He fulfilled all of it for YOU and for ME! 


Ask yourself, “is God pleased with me?” Like the statement of the Father, the answer is not a mere sentiment. Rather, it is rooted in fact, in the Divine Law!  In that you have been baptized into Christ, into His death and resurrection, the answer to that question is YES! Jesus is the New Israel, the One in whom the Father is well pleased. As such, He is pleased with YOU and with ME because He is yours and you are His! 


The second Old Testament passage to consider is from Leviticus 16. The passage is about God’s command for Israel to offer various animals for sacrifice on the Day of Atonement. One goat was to be offered as what was called the “Scapegoat.” A sacrifice would be offered over the scapegoat, signifying the sins of the people as they were placed on him. The scapegoat would then be set loose in the wilderness to carry the sins of the people. The imagery was beautiful and comforting. The goat wandered off, signifying the people’s sins being carried away into the wilderness.  


If you read further ahead in Matthew’s Gospel, you’ll find that Jesus’ baptism took place right before He was sent off into the wilderness to face temptation at the hands of the devil. Folks, the timing of these two events, Jesus’ baptism, and His temptation in the wilderness, are not coincidental. Even as Jesus is the New Israel who passes through the Jordan in Righteousness, so He is also the scapegoat who takes the sins of the world upon Himself in order to Atone for them. 


Herein is the clear answer to why Jesus was to be baptized by John. Whereas, in our baptisms, our sins were taken away, in Jesus’ baptism the sins of the world were laid upon Him, even as Israel’s sin were laid upon the scapegoat on the Day of Atonement. St. Paul summarizes what Luther called the great exchange, the transference of sins, in his letter to the Christians in Corinth. He said, “God made Him who knew no sin to be sin, that you might be the righteousness of God in Him.” And so, as John baptized Jesus, the sins of the world were laid upon Him. 


And, as you know, the scapegoat came out of the wilderness, having stood in righteousness and holiness before the assaults and cunning attacks of the devil. His purity was undefiled. Remember, He is the New Israel, the One in whom the Father is well pleased. But He is also the scapegoat. He bore your sins and mine. 


In time, He returned to Jerusalem, the city that killed the prophets and stoned those who were sent to her. He wept over what she never became, even as He would weep over what you and I never became. We would enter the promised land, as did Israel, not according to our own righteousness, but according to the righteousness and holiness of Jesus Himself, the New Israel, according to the faithfulness of the scapegoat, the One who bore our sins on the cross. Indeed, “God made Him who knew no sin, to be sin, that you might be the very righteousness of God in Him.” And when that water was poured over you and you were marked with the sign of the cross on your forehead and on your heart, the words of the Father were spoken over you. “You are My beloved Son. You are My beloved daughter, in whom I am well pleased.” 


In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


The peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting. Amen.


+ Soli Deo Gloria +