The Baptism of Christ, Jacopo Robusti Tintoretto (1518-1594)
Matthew 3:13-17 — Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John. But John tried to deter him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” Jesus replied, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” Then John consented. 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. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”
In Martin Luther’s Small Catechism explanation of the Apostle’s Creed it says: “I believe that Jesus Christ, true God, begotten of the Father from eternity, and also true man, born of the Virgin Mary, is my Lord.” True God and true man, it says, and both parts of that miracle are in this story of the baptism of Jesus. It is the man Jesus, from the little town of Nazareth, who steps down into the muddy water of the Jordan River to be baptized by John; baptized, just like any other man. The man Jesus feels the cool water, hears the words of John, and comes up soaking wet; just like all the hundreds, even thousands, of other people that were baptized by John. ‘Jesus Christ, true man,’ just like the catechism says.
But then right after the baptism something very different happened. Heaven was opened, says verse 16, and the Holy Spirit descended like a dove, and a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love, with him I am well pleased.” From the start of his ministry, it was clear that Jesus was indeed something different. He would be a man like no other man that ever lived. The people were already looking up to John, who seemed to them to be a prophet like the great men of God of the old days. But John kept telling them they hadn’t seen anything yet (John 1:26-27).
John was a great messenger of God, just like Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel were great messengers of God. But Jesus did not only have a message from God. Jesus was God. And he made such an impression on people in the three years of his ministry, that for the last two thousand years anytime, anyone thinks about Jesus, they think about God, and when they think about God, they think about Jesus. This is true even for those who don’t believe that Jesus is God. This Gospel of Jesus Christ has so filled the world that the name of Jesus and the thought of God are forever linked. ‘Jesus Christ, true God,’ just like the catechism says.
There have been other great men and women. Martin Luther, Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, Mother Teresa, and C. S. Lewis are a few of my favorites. When I think of them, I call to mind some of the great things that they said or did. But I don’t ever think of any of them as divine. But when I think about Jesus, the very first thing I think about is God. Paul wrote in II Corinthians 5:19: “God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, and thereby not counting our sins against us.” Reconciling, ‘making right,’ the whole world, unto himself. That is quite a statement. ‘Making right’ the whole world would seem to be an impossible task. But those who lived with Jesus, believed that Jesus would accomplish that. They believed that God was in this Jesus, and that in him and through him, God could and would make the whole world ‘reconciled to himself.’ All who looked to Jesus could be forgiven, and as Paul said, our sins would not be counted against us. That is a lot to believe, but those who knew Jesus believed it. They were so inspired by his presence that they went into all the world to proclaim it, and they were able to make the case that this incredible message was true. Their message was convincing, those who heard them quite often believed them, and within a generation, the Gospel was well on its way around the world.
Beginning that day in the Jordan River, Jesus redefined both ‘humanity’ and ‘divinity.’ Never again could anyone say that humanity was without hope, rotten, and of no account; not after God Himself was here present in this Jewish young man from Nazareth. Never again could anyone say that God was only a distant force, impersonal and uncaring, who only threatened and condemned; not after God was here in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself.
“This is my Son,” said the voice from heaven, “and I am well pleased with Him.” The distant God, way up in heaven, approved of Jesus and the way Jesus made God known on the earth. If you want to know what God is like, look at Jesus, and what Jesus says and does.
And if you want to know what it means to be a human, again, look at Jesus. Even those who did not believe in Jesus as divine, often see in his life the noblest life ever lived. If you want to know about the possibilities of human life, again, look to Jesus. On our own, our prospects are rather dim. We may do all right for a while, but only a short while; usually seven or eight decades at the most. If you are a teenager, that can look like plenty of time. But if you are nearing the end of those eighty or ninety years, you are wondering how it could have all gone by so fast. But no matter how fast or slow the time seems to be passing for you, there is not much you can do about it when that gift of time comes to an end.
But there is in Jesus the offer that we can live again. Death does not have to get the last word. Again, that comes from Jesus, and nowhere else. Jesus showed us the possibilities of human life, now and forever.
There are those that say Jesus was only a great moral teacher. And, there are those that believe God is far above and beyond us, an unmovable force, an unknowable being. But those beliefs are not Christianity, even though they might acknowledge the existence of God, and even though they may have some nice things to say about Jesus.
The Bible says that God is not just far away, but was right here with us in the person of Jesus Christ, and is with us yet in the presence of the Holy Spirit. “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31).
Almighty God, you gave your Son both as a sacrifice for sin and a model of the godly life. Enable us to receive him always with thanksgiving, and to conform our lives to his; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
—Lutheran Book of Worship, #243