The Necessity of Baptism

“The Baptism of Jesus” by James Tissot

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Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, 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 thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus was baptized, immediately He went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to Him, and He saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on Him and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:13–17).

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!

God’s plan for your salvation, first decreed in Genesis 3, has reached a milestone with the incarnation of His Son. Conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary, He takes on human flesh. At eight days of age, He is made a son of Abraham under the Law and is given the name Jesus as the angel had instructed Joseph, for “He shall save His people from their sins.” Now, He is grown up, holy and sinless, preparing for the next step—His public ministry.

Jesus comes from Galilee to the Jordan. This is the very place where the people have been confessing that from which He has come to save them: “their sins” (Matthew 1:21; 3:6). As they confess their sins, the people are being baptized by John in response to John’s message: “Repent!” (Matthew 3:2). Now Jesus has come to the same place, to the same person, and, as Matthew explicitly declares, for the same purpose: “to be baptized” by John, who tries to prevent Jesus, saying: “I need to be baptized by You, and do You come to me?”

John just got done telling the crowds that his baptism is with water for repentance, but that he knows the Messiah’s baptism will be something far greater. It will be the fulfillment of Ezekiel 36, where God says: “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put My Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in My statutes and be careful to obey My rules” (Ezekiel 36:25–27).

This is the baptism to which John is referring when he states that Jesus will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire (Matthew 3:11). This is also the baptism John says he needs from Jesus. It is a baptism Jesus will be ready to give only after He has gone through His own baptism of fire in His death and resurrection (Luke 12:50; Mark 10:38).

John knows the necessity of baptism. John knows his own need. He feels it deep down in his bones. His faith longs for the baptism Jesus will bring because John is a sinner and knows his shortcomings. John clearly tells Jesus he needs the righteousness that he knows will come through baptism. Why? John knows that no law can give life and there is no righteousness by the law (Galatians 3:21). He has lived the law and still knows his failings, and thus he knows there is true righteousness and life to be given in the baptism of the Messiah. He knows the great blessings God has promised to bring with baptism, and it awakens longing and desire within him. Nothing can be more precious.

John also knows well the dramatic contrast between what his own preaching has revealed about Jesus and the intention of Jesus to be baptized by John. We do well to ponder the contrast![i]

John has proclaimed that Jesus would baptize all Israel with the Holy Spirit and fire on the Last Day (Matthew 3:11). But now Jesus has come—not as One who baptizes with the Spirit and fire, but as the passive recipient of John’s own baptism. John’s baptism is “for repentance” (Matthew 3:11), that is, for conversion from unbelief to faith, and for entrance into the people of God. So naturally, Jesus’ request to be baptized by John raises many questions: Does Jesus need to repent? Does Jesus need to be converted from unbelief to faith? Is Jesus among the lost sheep who were no longer members of the true Israel and who needed readmission into the people of God? John knows that the obvious answer to all these questions must be an unequivocal “No!”[ii]

John has been baptizing sinners with a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. He’s been washing tax collectors, prostitutes, soldiers, and other notorious sins who’ve led scandalous lives and need redemption. Then suddenly, here comes Jesus, the holy Son of God—no sin, no shame, no scandal—and He comes to be baptized. What’s going on?

Imagine a completely healthy, cancer-free adult going to a hospital and demanding some serious radiation treatment. The doctors are going to refuse because he doesn’t need it. It would do him no good, only harm. John looks to bar Jesus from his baptism for the same reason: Jesus doesn’t need it because He’s sinless and needs neither repentance nor forgiveness. It won’t do Him any good: if anything, it will harm His reputation. There are some people you want to be seen with in life, and other people whose presence will hurt your standing. If Jesus steps in the river to be baptized with all those dirty, lowdown, loser sinners who are doing the same. He’s the eternal Judge of these people on the Last Day, and He’s stepping in to get splashed with all their iniquity and dirt.

To which Jesus says, exactly. Actually, He says: “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” He doesn’t tell John to let it go, but commands John to permit it. He has come to be baptized just like all those unholy, shameful people around Him. This isn’t just a gesture. Jesus says He is baptized to fulfill all righteousness.

And how, pray tell, does Jesus getting baptized with all those sinners fulfill all righteousness?

This is how: He’s taking their place. He’s not just saying that He’s a friend of sinners or on their side. By His baptism, He’s becoming the Sinner. We’d better be clear: He remains the holy, sinless Son of God. But remember how He comes to save us from our sin. He becomes flesh to go to the cross in our place. On the cross, God will judge Him, condemn Him for our sins. During the crucifixion, the Father will literally give His Son hell in our place.

And so, we see the necessity of Jesus’ baptism. According to His holy Law, God declares, “I must judge and condemn the sinner.” By His baptism, Jesus declares, “Here I am! I’m the Sinner! Judge Me!” There, at the Jordan, the One declares Himself ready to take the punishment for the many. For all. For you.

That is His—and His Father’s—plan for your salvation. To fulfill that plan, that Word of God, that righteousness, Jesus steps into the water to be baptized. If He isn’t baptized and doesn’t go to the cross, all righteousness is not fulfilled.

Jesus will die for the sins of the world and be raised for our justification. Then it will be possible for Him to baptize us into His death so that being buried into His death, we might walk in the newness of life, just as He was raised to the glory of the Father (Romans 6:4). By submitting to John’s baptism, Jesus takes the sins of the world upon His shoulders so that He can carry them to the cross and bury them in His tomb. In essence, He repents of our sins so He can then pay their debt with His death on the cross. Only then could He bring about the baptism John wants to partake in so badly.

So, is baptism a necessity? John, the last of the Old Testament prophets, thinks so. He would have given his hind-teeth to have what Christ offers to us and to our children in baptism. Fortunately, we can rejoice in our own need and the gift we receive through baptism given by the same one by who John desired to be baptized. In baptism, Jesus gives you the kingdom so that you are given the righteousness of Christ.

The risen Lord Jesus Christ proclaims the necessity of baptism when shortly before His ascension He sends out His disciples: “Go into all the world and proclaim the Gospel to the whole creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned” (Mark 16:16).

St. Peter preaches the necessity of baptism, too. When the assembled crowd at Pentecost are “cut to the heart” by Peter’s sermon, they ask, “Brothers, what shall we do?” Peter replies, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to Himself” (Acts 2:38-39).

In our Epistle, St. Paul writes of the necessity of baptism: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? We were buried therefore with Him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with Him in a death like His, we shall certainly be united with Him in a resurrection like His” (Romans 6:3-5).

In Luther’s Small Catechism, he writes: “Baptism is no human plaything, but it is instituted by God Himself. Furthermore, Baptism is most solemnly and strictly commanded so that we must be baptized or we cannot be saved. I note this lest anyone regard Baptism as a silly matter, like putting on a new red coat. For it is of the greatest importance that we value Baptism as excellent, glorious, and exalted. We contend and fight for Baptism chiefly because the world is now so full of sects arguing that Baptism is an outward thing and that outward things are of no benefit. But let Baptism be a thoroughly outward thing. Here stand God’s Word and command, which institute, establish, and confirm Baptism. What God institutes and commands cannot be an empty thing. It must be a most precious thing, even though it looked like it had less value than a straw.”[iii]

Baptism is a necessity for your everyday life as a Christian. The devil seizes on those things that trouble your conscience and says, “Look at those sins—there’s no way you can be a holy child of God, you sinner.” But you remember the baptism of Jesus—and that by His baptism He says, “No! I’m the Sinner. I’m the One who is to suffer God’s judgment, not you.” And you know this to be true for you because He’s said through the mouth of a preacher, “I baptized you.”

The world comes along and roughs you up with scorn or affliction and then relentlessly mocks you: “Ha. What sort of benefit is there to being a child of God? Your faith is in vain.” But you see Jesus in the Jordan, having come into this world for your salvation. You see Him take up the burden not just of your sin, but also your infirmities and afflictions. He goes to the cross and dies—and then He rises again. So, you know that the world is a liar like the devil, too: even as Christ suffered afflictions in this world, so will you. But your faith is not in vain. He joined you to His death and His resurrection in your baptism. He will not forsake you in this world. Even better, He will raise you up to everlasting life in heaven.

And of course, death continues to stalk you like the bully it is. It’s an enormous foe who wins repeatedly, dragging everyone into the tomb and giving no ground. Well, almost everyone. It couldn’t hold onto Christ, and Christ only submitted to death and grave in order to break its grip and rise again. In Christ, you see that death can be beaten. But it gets better than that! The One who conquered death did it for you! He died your death for you and rose again. He’s joined you to His death and resurrection—where? In baptism!

Do you see what great gifts God has given you in baptism? He’s made you His holy child because Jesus became the Sinner in your place. He promises that He will not forsake you in death, because Jesus has joined you to His death and risen again. He promises to deliver you from every affliction in His time, because He’s joined you to His resurrection and given you newness of life. And all along the way, heaven remains open. Christ keeps giving forgiveness. The Holy Spirit keeps giving faith. And the Father continues to assure you for Jesus’ sake, “You are My beloved child. I am well pleased with you.”

Your baptism is not just an event in the past. It is a present comfort. It is okay to say, “I was baptized,” but it is far more comforting to say, “I am baptized.” Because you are baptized, you are certain of God’s favor and protection, all for the sake of Jesus. You know that Christ became the Sinner so that you might be the holy child. You know that He has delivered you from even death, because He’s joined you to His death and resurrection. You know that God is well pleased with you for Jesus’ sake, because you are forgiven for all your sins.

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

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

[i] Jeffrey A. Gibbs, Matthew 1:1-11:1: Concordia Commentary. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 177-78.

[ii] Jeffrey A. Gibbs, Matthew 1:1-11:1: Concordia Commentary. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 178.

[iii] Paul Timothy McCain, ed., Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2005), 423–424.

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