The baptism of Jesus - Matthew 3:13-17
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The Christian writer Kent Hughes tells the story of how one day he was travelling from Bangkok in Thailand to Manila in the Philippines. And when he arrived in Manila, the plane he was on was forced to wait on the tarmac for a further hour. The reason? They were told that the President of Sri Lanka was coming to visit President and Mrs Marcos of the Philippines. And he was far more important that some tourists from Thailand. Sure enough on the runway, assembled in strict order, were hundreds of waiting officials. A platoon of navy clad honour guards with shining golden pith helmets. Next to them was another platoon dressed in green and mustard coloured uniforms with white gloves and hats. After them came the ceremonial band, and after that a group of soldiers in perfect white naval uniforms. Added to the scene were traditional dancers, and along with a baby elephant resplendent in a scarlet jacket. And when the President finally arrived, he was greeted by the Marcosí, saluted with a 21 gun salute, and ushered into a fleet of gleaming black limousines. Why? Because thatís the sort of welcome you expect when a president comes to town.
I wonder what you expect when royalty or a president comes to town. Were you there when the Queen came to Beverly recently, or when George Bush came to London? If you were, youíll remember the great pomp and ceremony, the great mass of people waiting to greet them, the security, the buzz that stays around the place for the next few days.
And that is why Matthew 3, which is our passage for this morning, is actually so bizarre. We find something astonishing which at first just does not make sense. If youíve been with us these past weeks, youíll know that weíve been looking at the opening chapters of Matthewís gospel. And the point of these chapters has been to prepare us for the coming of the promised King. And weíve seen that this promised King is no ordinary monarch. Rather heís Godís promised King. Heís the long promised rescuer, come to save Godís people from their sins. And even more extraordinary is that this King, weíre told, is none other than God himself. This is the King of kings, the Lord of lords, and heís coming, says Matthew. And last time we saw in the first part of chapter 3 that John the Baptist was the messenger sent by God to prepare Godís people for the arrival of the king. And now the time has come. The preparations are over. The day has come. The king is about to make his entry onto the world stage. Surely when he comes thereíll be a great mass of people waiting to proclaim his kingdom. Surely when he arrives there will be rows and rows of dignitaries, a whole line of gleaming brand new camels to whisk him away to some posh location, a whole gaggle of dancing girls and singers to celebrate his arrival.
But hereís the thing. When you read Matthew 3 vv 13-17 you find none of that. Not even a hint. All you get is a man coming from the north of the country, a part not associated with kingship or royalty, coming on his own to submit himself to a religious ritual which is deeply humiliating and self abasing. Can you believe it? Surely this canít be the king? There must be some mistake? But thereís not. Because Matthew will show us that this is what happens when the King of kings, when King Jesus comes to town. At least, that is what happened when he first came. And this little story about Jesus, as he comes onto the stage of human history as an adult, teaches us vital things about his kingship that we must grasp if we are properly to understand Jesus and his mission. In fact, we discover packed into these five verses, three wonderful facts about Jesus Christ. Because he is a king who transforms our expectations, and turns our world upside down. So what do we find out about King Jesus?
1) The King who stands with us
2) The King who stands over us
3) The King who stands for us
1) The King who stands with us
So first, then, heís the king who stands with us. And we discover that from the opening verses of our story beginning in verse 13: "Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John. But John tried to deter him, saying, ĎI need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?í" Now the big shock of this passage is that this is the first public appearance of Jesus as he begins his adult ministry. Matthew has made it clear in the opening chapters of his gospel that Jesus is the promised King, the Saviour who is God himself. But, if I may put it like this, his ministry doesnít start with a huge fanfare arrival and a great bang. It seems to start with a whimper. And itís shocking because Jesus comes to be baptised. In fact even John is surprised. He too wants to know why Jesus is coming for baptism!
Now in order to feel the full force of this shock, we need to understand a little about baptism. In Jesusí day, baptism was a religious ritual that non Jews went through when they wanted to become Jews. They would have to wash themselves with water and confess their sins publicly. So it was a ritual for moral and religious outcasts. And John had taken up this ritual and used it to prepare people for the coming of the king. So John appeared in the desert baptising people. And the reason was the same. They confessed their sins and showed that they were willing spiritually to prepare for this coming of the promised King. And so the washing of water outwardly symbolised an inner washing of the heart. As the people confessed their sins, so they were forgiven, and baptism was the outward symbol of that inner cleansing. So baptism was a humbling experience. You had publicly to confess your sin, to show you were not good enough for God, and that you needed his forgiveness and mercy. It was a big visual aid of helplessness and a cry for mercy.
So can you see now why John was so surprised to see Jesus coming for baptism. Because the one thing Jesus did not need was forgiveness and to confess his sins. Why? Because he was sinless! He didnít need forgiveness because he hadnít sinned! And John knew that. He was Jesusí cousin. Heíd have known the extraordinary story of Jesusí birth and his childhood. Heíd have seen that there was no sin in his cousin, extraordinary though it was. You donít need to undergo baptism if spiritually speaking you have nothing to be cleansed of! And so John tries to deter him. "I need to be baptised by you," says John. Iím the one that needs the forgiveness, not you. If anyoneís going to be doing any baptising, it should be you, Jesus. It would be like Wayne Rooney coming to me and asking me for tips on how to play football. Now Iím sure I could teach him a thing or two about plenty of other things- how to speak clearly, for one, or how to play nicely with his friends. But I canít teach him anything about football, midfield dynamo though I may be! No, he needs to teach me. And thatís Johnís feeling here about Jesus. "I need to be baptized by you, says John, and do you come to me?"
So why does Jesus undergo baptism? Why submit himself to a ritual for religious and moral outcasts. Well the answer comes in verse 15: "Jesus replied, ĎLet it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfil all righteousness.í Then John consented." Now this word Ďrighteousnessí in Matthewís gospel means something like "Godís way of living", or "doing Godís will." So at its simplest Jesus is saying that in being baptised he is doing what pleases God. He is fulfilling the plan of God. And for Jesus to do Godís will was to come as the rescuer for people like you and me who so desperately need the forgiveness of God. You see as Jesus willingly submits to this religious ritual he is saying to those he has come to rescue, "I am identifying myself with you. I am one of you. I am walking where you walked and stepping into your shoes." Itís not that Jesus needs forgiveness or baptism. Rather he is showing us in a most graphic way that he stands with us.
You see one of the most wonderful truths that we see in the life of Jesus is that this is God walking in our world, living our life, feeling our hurts. This is a God who knows what it is like to be human because heís done it. This is a God who knows the frustrations and pain of a world which is not perfect, because heís lived in it. And this is a God who knows the pain of suffering because heís suffered too. And it may be that one of the reasons why you find the Christian faith difficult to accept is because you cannot believe in a God who would allow suffering to happen. Surely if God was all powerful heíd get rid of pain and sadness in our world. And surely if heís all good he wants to. So why doesnít he? You may even as a Christian find the whole question of suffering difficult and painful to deal with.
Well let me tell you about one conversation I have had this week. All this week a few of us have been on the university campus explaining to students the good news about Jesus Christ. And one lunchtime I got chatting to a young man whose problem with the Christian faith was this question of suffering. And as I pressed him, it turned out that one of his friends at university had died suddenly after a tragic accident. And that was one of the reasons he found it hard to believe in God. Why would God allow my 19 year old friend to die like that? So I said to him: "Look, I canít answer all your Ďwhyí questions. But I can say this, that the God of the Bible knows what it is like to suffer. He knows what itís like to live our life and feel pain and loss and tragedy and betrayal. He knows, because heís done it. Heís done it in the person of Jesus Christ. And what is more heís done what is necessary to clean up this world and rid it of death and pain forever by dying on a cross for us," as weíll see later. Now it doesnít answer all our questions. But no longer can we say to God Ďyou donít careí, no longer can we say Ďhe doesnít know what itís likeí, because he does. And no other religion has a response to suffering like the Christian faith. No other religion can say: "God became one of us." Because the God of the Bible is a God who has got his hands dirty. And when we do go through tough times, what a comfort it is to know that God knows in reality what it is like to feel pain. He really does understand what we are feeling because he has experienced it himself. And he is able to bring us through even the darkest days, because heís been there himself. For in Jesus we have a King who stands with us.
2) The King who stands over us
But thereís a second thing that we learn from this passage about King Jesus and that is that he is the King who stands over us. Now we discovered in verse 15 that the reason Jesus is baptised is because he fulfils all righteousness. And that word fulfil is significant for Matthew. Heís already used it several times in his book. And by it he means that Jesus is the fulfilment of the prophecies or promises in the OT. So when Jesus says he is fulfilling all righteousness, heís saying more than simply doing Godís will. Heís saying that he is bringing to pass all the promises of the OT. Heís fulfilling the OT prophecies that God gave about the coming rescuer King. And in Jesusí baptism we see two prophecies fulfilled. And we find them in the words that God says about Jesus in verse 17: "And a voice from heaven said, "This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.í"
Now OT quotations in the NT are a bit like how we use hyperlinks today. Imagine that I have a got a new website which I think is great. Itís called www.nathaniscoolandtrendy.com Itís an ironic website, I hasten to add! And I email you to tell you about my new website. And in the email I tell you to check out www.nathaniscoolandtrendy.com. So what do you do? You click on the web address in the email and you are taken to my website www.nathaniscoolandtrendy.com. And that link in the email is known as a hyperlink. All you get is one line, the web address, but if you click on it, it takes you to a whole new and exciting world that is my website! And OT quotations in the NT work like hyperlinks. The writer expects you to click on them and to go back to the whole passage in the OT. And here when God speaks about Jesus, he quotes from two OT passages. This is what God wants to say about Jesus. And the first of those passages is from Psalm 2, and itís this first quotation which teaches us that Jesus is the king who stands over us. So I wonder if you would turn with me to Psalm 2 for a few moments which is on pageÖ..
Now this Psalm was a key psalm in the people of Israelís thinking. It was almost like the National Anthem for the people, so important was it. And it spoke of and looked forward to the Messiah, the Anointed One, Godís promised Rescuer-King. And in this Psalm, God addresses this promised King as his Son. And in this context, the phrase "the Son of God" is a title which refers to Godís King. So the kings of Israel were known as the "sons of God" in a limited sense. But here the Messiah, the promised rescuer, is The Son of God par excellence. He is the ultimate Son of God. He is the ultimate King. So have a look at what the Messiah says in verse 7 of Psalm 2. "I will proclaim the decree of the LORD: He said to me, ĎYou are my Son; today I have become your Father.í" This anointed King is the Son of God. And God is his Father. And in Matthew 3, God applies this language to Jesus! Itís not that God becomes Jesusí father at his baptism, or at the baptism Jesus becomes the King. Rather at the baptism, God declares who Jesus is. Jesus really is this long promised King that Psalm 2 spoke about all those hundreds of years before. But notice what the psalm goes on to say about this King who is Godís Son. Verse 8: "Ask of me, and I will make the nations your inheritance, the ends of the earth your possession. You will rule them with an iron sceptre; you will dash them to pieces like pottery." Therefore, you kings, be wise; be warned, you rulers of the earth. Serve the LORD with fear and rejoice with trembling. Kiss the Son, lest he be angry and you be destroyed in your way, for his wrath can flare up in a moment. Blessed are all who take refuge in him." This psalm teaches us that this King, who we now know is Jesus, cannot be trifled with. He is the one whom all the nations of the world will have to reckon with. He is the one who will rule the entire world, the whole universe. This King is the one before whom kings will bow and whose power is awesome. This is a King you must not treat lightly. Because one day we will all have to stand before him. Earlier on in the psalm in verses 1-2 we find the nations of the world shaking their puny fists at God and this King. And the King just laughs. He laughs at the pathetic rebellion of human beings trying to take over the Kingís rule. You just cannot do it. And, says the psalmist, either you bow before this King now and start serving him as he deserves, or you will have to face his wrath.
So when God declares at the baptism "this is my Son", he is not patting Jesus on the back and saying, "Well done Son. Keep up the good work." No, this voice is for our benefit. Heís leaving us in no doubt as to who this Jesus is. He may look weak and pathetic at this stage. Yes, he has humbled himself in order to save us as we will see in a moment. But donít be deceived. This Jesus is also the majestic holy King who holds the nations in his hands and before whom we will all have to give an account. He can crush the nations so easily if he wants to.
You see one of things we must realise as human beings is that we are on a collision course with God. We are rebels at heart. And we shake our fists at God and proudly say to him, "I donít want your rule over my life. Iíll do it my way thank you very much." But this Psalm teaches us that such defiance in the face of the living God will not be tolerated for ever. Through his King Jesus he will judge the world. And unless we admit our pride and bow in humility before this King Jesus, then we are headed for disaster.
In the summer of 1986, two ships collided in the Black Sea off the coast of Russia. Hundreds of passengers died as they were hurled into the icy waters below. News of the disaster was further darkened when an investigation revealed the cause of the accident. It wasn't a technology problem like radar malfunction, or even thick fog. The cause was human stubbornness. Each captain was aware of the other ship's presence nearby. Both could have steered clear, but according to news reports, neither captain wanted to give way to the other. Each was too proud to yield first. By the time they came to their senses, it was too late. And Godís quotation of this psalm at Jesusí baptism reminds us of who Jesus is. He is the king who stands over us. The king who rules the world. And every human being is on a collision course with King Jesus. And we have two options. Either we kiss the Son in the psalmistís language, which means to his loving rule. We find our refuge in him. And if we do that, then says the psalmist, there is great blessing. It is a great relief if you are trusting in Christ because you are safe, and you have confidence that all wrongs will be righted. Or the other option is to face him on our own two feet on judgement day. And if we do that, we wonít be able to stand. Because to face King Jesus without submitting to him is a terrifying prospect. That is what the voice of God is saying to us about this King Jesus. This is my Son. This Jesus is the King who stands over us.
3) The King who stands for us
But thereís one final thing we learn from this remarkable passage about Jesusí baptism, and that is that Jesus is the king who stands for us. And we learn this from the second of our OT quotations in verse 17: "And a voice from heaven said, ĎThis is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.í" And the second half of this quotation comes from Isaiah 42. So letís click again on our hyperlink and go back to Isaiah 42 this time which is on pageÖÖ.. And this time we find not a King of majesty as with Psalm 2, but a king of meekness. So what does Isaiah say? "Here is my servant whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit on him and he will bring justice to the nations. He will not shout out or cry out, or raise his voice in the streets. A bruised reed he will not break, and a smouldering wick he will not snuff out." Now this is more of an allusion than a quotation. The servant is the chosen one in whom God delights. But at the baptism God says of Jesus that he is his Son whom he loves and with him he is well pleased. Itís an allusion to this passage. And Matthew makes it clear later on in chapter 12 of his gospel that this is a prophecy about Jesus, when he specifically quotes Isaiah 42 about Jesus. And at his baptism we get a little hint that Jesus is that servant who has come in meekness. And the confirmation is that the Spirit is given to the Servant so he can bring about his mission. So what do we read happened to Jesus at his baptism? Verse 16 of Matthew 3: "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 lighting on him." Jesus receives the Spirit. Jesus is the Spirit filled servant who has come to bring about Godís plan for the world. So what will this servant Jesus do? Well he wonít crush a bruised reed or put out a smouldering wick. This is a servant who will deal gently with people. And we discover that the climax of the servantís work is to die for his people. So we read these verses in Isaiah 53: "Surely he took up our infirmities, and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities, and the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we have been healed."
You see the extraordinary thing about this King Jesus is that he is both the King before whom the proud-hearted will be crushed, as Psalm 2 tells us. And he is the King by whom the broken-hearted will be restored. That is, those who admit their need and come to Jesus for forgiveness and a fresh start, will be forgiven. He will not crush a bruised reed or snuff out a flickering wick. And how can this King receive us when he rightly should reject us for our rebellion against him? Because this King is the King who shows his credentials by dying on a cross. That is where he takes our burdens. That is where he deals with our sin. And that is the only place where you and I will find true mercy and forgiveness. Itís only to be found in the King who stands in our place, bearing the punishment and guilt we deserve for our proud hearted rebellion against God. "For he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities, and the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we have been healed." All our debts can be cleared by the king who stands for us in our place.
This week I came across a story about Czar Nicholas I of Russia. The Czar was greatly interested in a certain young man because Nicholas had been friends with the young manís father. And when the young man came of age, Czar Nicholas gave him a fine position in the army, and gave him in a place of responsibility at one of the great fortresses of Russia. The manís responsibilities were to do with the monies and finances of the particular army unit where he was assigned. Well the young man did quite well at first, but he became quite a gambler. And he ended up gambling the whole of his fortune away. And worse still he began to use the armyís funds of which he was in charge, to fund his gambling habit. One day, the young man heard there was going to be an audit of the armyís books the following day, so he went to the safe and took out the ledger, and counted up all he owed. The figure was astronomical. There was no way he could find that money in just a few hours. The young man was devastated, and as he pondered the vast sum, he scribbled on the ledger these words, "So great a debt, who can pay?" And he decided that at midnight that night, he would put a gun to his head and take his own life. Well that particular night was a warm and muggy one, and the young man fell asleep with the ledger and his calculations open on the desk. Now Czar Nicholas had a habit of dressing up as a normal solider and visiting troops in distant outposts. Well that particular night, he happened to travel to the very same fortress where the young man was stationed. And as he inspected it, he saw a light in one of the rooms. So he knocked on the door but there was no reply. Eventually he opened the door, only to find the young man whom he recognised. When he saw the calculations and the ledger, his first impulse was to wake the young men and drag him off to jail. But he was overcome with a surge of mercy and generosity. And instead he simply wrote one word on the ledger. About an hour later, the young man woke up, and reached for his gun realising it was nearing 12. But then he noticed some writing on the ledger. His eyes fell upon the note he himself had scribbled: "So great a debt, who can pay?" But after that was just one word in a familiar hand. It simply read: "Nicholas". And sure enough, the Czar graciously paid off the enormous debt of the poor young man he loved so much.
Our debt to God is incalculable. And we will never ever be able to pay it off. And we can either stand before God with our debt still standing, which is a fate far worse than death itself. Or we can allow someone else to stand in our place and take the penalty we deserve, to pay the debt with his own life. And the only one who has the credentials to do that is King Jesus the King who stands for us. So give him your debt today, before our clock strikes midnight and itís too late.
What do you make of this king Jesus? Have you realised that he is the king who stands with us. Be assured today that King Jesus walks with you even in the most darkest of days because heís trod our path before us. Have you realised that King Jesus is the King who stands over us. We will give an account to him, either as our refuge or our judge, because heís the king of majesty who rules the world. And have you realised that King Jesus is the king who stands for us. Heís done what is necessary to pay for our enormous debt of sin by dying in meekness in our place. Surely the only response before such a king as this is worship, adoration and praise.
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