Many people object to the Biblical teaching that there is power in Baptism. These people often say that Baptism is our obedience to a command of God, and does not save or give forgiveness. Often they add that Baptism requires full immersion.
For that last point, they may appeal to our text. In verse sixteen, Christ came up out of the water. Surely that means that He was fully immersed, so we have to be also, or it is not a valid Baptism. So the argument goes.
There are problems with this understanding of the text. First, the words, “came up out of the water” could mean that Christ went out of the river up onto the bank.
Also, when Saint Philip baptized the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts eight, they both came up out of the water. This would seem to say that a proper Baptism requires the baptizer and the one being baptized to both be immersed. But no one says that.
To be fair, it is possible that Christ was fully immersed. We cannot tell for certain from the text. It would be false to say that we must use exactly the same amount of water that Christ did. We are only bound by what is specifically commanded in Scripture. The Greek word “baptize” does not necessarily mean immersion. It means to apply water in some way, perhaps by dipping, sprinkling, pouring, or immersion.
If God said, “You must baptize, and when you do, the entire body must go under the water,” then we would have to obey that word. But there is no such word.
The Didache, which was written near 100 AD, allowed for a person to have water poured on his head rather than have him immersed. So the early Church understood this in the same way that we Lutherans do.
Why do we Lutherans not immerse? Because we are told by many church bodies around us that we absolutely must immerse. Therefore, we do not ordinarily immerse. We must resist commandments made by men.
But what about the claim that Baptism does not really do anything? It is not a means of grace, according to many Christian denominations in America. It is only our obedience to a command of God, they say.
If we glance at the Holy Gospel, we do not see a direct claim of the power of Baptism. There are no statements here that say, “Baptism saves,” although First Peter three says that. We do not hear John the Baptist say, “Repent and be baptized for the forgiveness of your sins,” although Saint Peter said those words on Pentecost.
But there are words in our text that indirectly indicate the power of Holy Baptism. When Christ approached John, John tried to prevent Him from being baptized. John said, “I need to be baptized by You, and are You coming to me?” Now, this is a strange reaction if Baptism is simply an act of obedience to God. Why would John think that Christ should not obey God? That kind of messiah would be bizarre. How would he save anyone by disobedience?
If we look at the verses before the Gospel, people came to John, confessing their sins as they were baptized. John’s Baptism was a Baptism of repentance. This was a Baptism for sinners. Now it makes sense that Christ would not have to confess sins, since He does not have any. He needed no repentance, since He is the holy Son of God. But what Baptism gives, other people need. John specifically says, “I need to be baptized.” He was not talking about obeying a command, which is not a need, but a duty.
In spite of His lack of need for what Baptism gives, Christ still got baptized! What does not make sense happened! Why? As He said, to fulfill all righteousness.
Fulfilling all righteousness does not mean, in this case, obeying the commands of God. It meant for Christ our Lord to fulfill the plan of salvation that would give righteousness to mankind. So He identified with sinners and submitted to a sinner’s Baptism. He acted as a person who needs repentance because He came to redeem all who need repentance.
This is the whole point. The reason we must defend the Biblical teaching on Baptism is because it gives great consolation to sinners. There is sweet comfort in your Baptism. What God did at the Font is enormously reassuring. He did the same thing for you that He did with Christ.
The heavens were opened to you, as they were opened to Christ. He did not need the heavens opened, but you do. You need to go to God for prayer as you deal with this difficult life in your weak state. The heavens should have remained shut up to you, and you would have been forever separated from God. But no, Baptism opened the heavens for you.
Then the Spirit of God descended like a dove on you. Saint Paul calls Holy Baptism the washing of regeneration and renewal by the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is always with these waters, to give faith and forgiveness.
Christ did not need the Spirit to descend on Him. He was already the all-powerful and righteous Son of God. He was always one with the Spirit. But the Spirit wanted us to know what happens in Baptism. Without the Spirit, it is only water. But because the Word of God is with the water in Baptism, it is a washing of rebirth through the Spirit. It is God’s washing, not a washing done by any man. Although a pastor was probably standing there for your Baptism, it was the Triune God who baptized you.
How comforting that is! Your Baptism does not depend on my goodness, or the goodness of whoever happened to baptize you. Your Baptism is not limited by the power of a weak, pathetic man. No, you are baptized into the Triune God, by His authority and power, as surely as the same Triune God showed Himself at the Jordan River.
Finally the voice from heaven said, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” The voice was not for Christ, who already knew this. The voice is for you. In Holy Baptism, the Father adopted you as His son in the image of Christ. If not for this adoption, then you would have no place in God’s house. Now you are honored children of the Father, forever accepted as His own.
More than that, He is well pleased with you. You may look at your life and think, “He is well pleased with that mess?” But that is not it. He is pleased with you because you were baptized into Christ. His holiness covers up your sinfulness. God sees only the perfection of His Son in you.
This is so comforting because our performance in righteousness is always flawed at best. Even as Christians, we sin daily. This is not the kind of behavior that makes the Father pleased. But you do not need to fear that the Father has rejected you because you did some sin. He sees Christ in you, so He is always pleased.
But see that you remain in repentance. If you sin and think that you can get away with anything because you are forgiven, beware, lest you throw off the faith and grace of your Baptism. The water will not cover willful sins for which you feel no repentance.
If you are humble and take the place of a sinner, under faith and sorrow and a desire to do better, God will never cast you away. Be like Christ, who took the place of a sinner, even though He did not need to. If He could do that, surely we who are full of sins should have no difficulty identifying with what we are and feel the shame our sins deserve. Then we will cling all the more to our dear Lord, by the Spirit’s grace.
In the Name of this Triune God, the only God who saves. Amen.
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