Luke 3:19-21 “When John rebuked Herod the tetrarch because of Herodias, his brother’s wife, and all the other evil things he had done, Herod added this to them all: He locked John up in prison. When all the people were being baptised, Jesus was baptised too.”
Luke is coming to the end of the ministry of John the Baptist, and these verses are the transition from John to Jesus. Luke is skilful in his bluntness as he marks out the transition. He says, almost in passing, “by the way John the Baptist ended his days locked up in prison,” and he gives the reason in order to clear John from all criminality, and that’s his last mention of John here. You notice that Luke describes this incarceration before he relates Jesus being baptized by John and it is interesting to see that Luke doesn’t even mention John’s name as the one baptizing Jesus. He is anxious to point out that John’s preparatory ministry was soon over, a good job done, and to draw a line under it. Luke introduces the incarceration of John here in order to emphasise the definitive break between the ministries of Jesus and John. Jesus now can roam free with no rival alternative preacher in the land. He can begin a ministry which lasted several years, preaching and healing everywhere, while John was locked away in a dungeon never to leave it alive. In other words, Jesus didn’t simply build on and develop the ministry of John as one of his disciples. The Lord Christ was brand new. We know of schools of composers and artists and violin makers consisting of apprentices who developed the techniques and styles of their masters. That was not the relationship of Jesus with John. Jesus was never John’s disciple, rather John was Jesus’ servant. John had a preparatory ministry as the herald of Jesus and that ministry was arrested by King Herod’s hatred, and so it was terminated. Henceforth there is only one preacher in the land.
There had been people who were saying, “John might possibly be the Christ” (v.15). No. John was part of the Old Testament preparation for Christ. When our Lord appears there is a tremendous turning point in the history of redemption. The last days have been inaugurated. Jesus later describes it like this in chapter sixteen and verse sixteen of this gospel, “The Law and the Prophets were proclaimed until John. Since that time, the good news of the kingdom of God is being preached.” Since that time Christians have been living in a radically new kingdom. John’s ministry was the transition for that time. He was a mighty prophet; “among those born of women none is greater than John” (Lk. 7:26), but now something revolutionary must happen. The Messiah must appear, and he will call people into his kingdom in which the least person has greater privileges than John. Luke is impressing on Theophilus the chasm that existed between John’s work and Jesus’ work. Jesus was not simply another prophet like John, carrying on where John ended. John’s work was over within a year; John ended his days in prison. What a powerful preacher, and yet what a brief ministry. Could you believe that God would allow one of his most blessed servants to be murdered in a stinking prison? Could you believe that God would allow his only begotten Son to be nailed to a cross? That information is also set out on Theophilus’ great learning curve. “You mean, if I follow the Lord Jesus I may lose my life”? Reckon on it.
So, just before God removed the Baptist from the scene by permitting Herod to arrest him, John was preaching to great crowds and baptizing many of them who had publicly repented of their sins. Then came Jesus’ baptism and that was the climax of John’s ministry. Where do I get that idea? >From the fact that Luke tells us, “When all the people were being baptised, Jesus was baptised too” (v.21). The great meetings were coming to an end; their impact necessarily was diminishing. A host of favoured people had been baptised, but then there was one more event before this preparatory ministry could end, John must baptise this special one whose name had been given him by God. The Lord Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of the living God must be baptized, and from that time onwards, the entire focus of the gospel shifts to him; John is mentioned here and there a few times more by Luke but henceforth Jesus must increase and John decreases. John tells his disciples, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away not simply Israel’s sin but the sin of the world.” He points his men to go and follow Jesus. So as the climax of John’s ministry he baptizes Jesus (though I am not claiming that Jesus was the very last person to be baptized by John).
There are significant ways in which Jesus’ baptism was very different from the others being baptized by John. They were all sinners, every single one of them without exception, while he was holy, harmless, undefiled and separate from sin. He loved God constantly and with all his heart. He loved people as he loved himself. He never ceased to honour his father and his mother. His conduct at home within his family circle was beyond reproach. The Lord Jesus had no sins to confess. There was not a single day at whose end he had to say, “I’m sorry Father for my vile imaginations today.” Every day he was tempted to sin, but he never received those temptations into his life. Throughout his life the Lord Jesus had no experience of a defiled conscience, of guilt and shame, of godly sorrow for his failings, or of repentance. This world has seen a man as consistently holy as God is holy. He never needed to be justified and adopted into the family of God. Throughout his life on earth he could look into God’s face and say, ‘Father!’ So he had no sins that needed to be confessed and forgiven. Yet the sinless Lord Jesus, the Son of God, was baptized by the sinner John in a sinners’ baptism. Why was this?
1] JESUS WAS BAPTISED TO INAUGURATE PUBLICLY HIS MINISTRY.
The official commencement of the Lord Jesus’ public ministry was this baptism, and the official ending was the ascension. It is interesting to observe the counsels the church received from Peter to help them choose a replacement for the dead betrayer, Judas. Peter says, “It is necessary to choose one of the men who have been with us the whole time the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from John’s baptism to the time when Jesus was taken up from us” (Acts 1:21 & 22). The Lord Jesus didn’t drift into his ministry. There was a start, a public induction performed by John, confirmed by God speaking from heaven and the coming of the Holy Spirit. This signified the arrival of Christ on the world stage. No part of the life of Christ and his apostles was done furtively in a dark corner somewhere. Christianity was not one of the mystery religions. The door of our meetings are always open to you all. If you want to attend our business meetings you can ask and will be welcomed. If you want to see our accounts books and know how we spend the money collected on Sundays then you can have a copy. If you want to see what my salary is then it is printed to the pound in the annual report.
Baptism was the most suitable beginning to Jesus’ life. The key question is this: what is going to characterize Jesus’ ministry? John the Baptist tells people: “Look, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (Jn. 1:29). That’s what he’d come to accomplish. So the inauguration of that ministry must be in keeping with all that’s to follow. This King did not ride out to the Jordan in a chariot pulled by six white horses, preceded by heralds crying, “Bow the knee!” and accompanied by a cohort of soldiers brushing people aside making way for him. That was not going to be the style of his ministry and so it couldn’t be the style of his investiture. He did not come in pomp to lord it over men. He came in meekness, poor in spirit, to save us. He is coming not to be served but to serve and to give his life a ransom for many. So it is perfectly fitting that the inauguration of his ministry is this; you will find him standing in a line of penitent, weeping fellow countrymen who are waiting to be plunged into the river Jordan by a holy prophet dressed in camel’s hair.
When it was the turn of the Lord Jesus to walk out into the Jordan river where John was standing we are told by Matthew that John was overwhelmed to see Jesus standing in the water alongside him requesting baptism. John was a few months older than Jesus: their mothers were kinfolk. They had grown up in the same extended family; they were both thirty years of age. Had his mother never told John that just a few months before he was born, when the pregnant Mary entered the room, he, the unborn baby John, had jumped violently – and she knew that it was with ecstasy – in her womb, and she knew why, crying to Mary, “You are bearing my Lord”? Certainly John knows much of who this man was, that Jesus of Nazareth would have had an awesome reputation certainly in his family circle as a blameless lover of God.
There may well have been an opportunity for the people before they were baptised to have said a few words to John as to who they were, and their grief for their sins, and that they truly repented of them before the Baptist plunged them into the river. John had heard everything that is distasteful. When he saw Jesus we are told, “John tried to deter him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’” (Matt. 3:14). John is holding the Light of the World in his arms, and he is going to immerse that light beneath the waters of the Jordan? Imagine having authority over the sun in the sky and plunging that globe of fire down and down into a great cosmic sea and momentary sizzling extinction. What a fearful action! But that is how John sees his baptizing the true Light from God. What a responsibility, and yet also what a privilege, and how unworthy felt John. But, though “John never shirked a duty,” Spurgeon says, “he would decline an honour. He wouldn’t even seem to be of any consequence as compared with his Lord” (C.H.Spurgeon, The Gospel of the Kingdom, Passmore and Alabaster, London, 1893, p.13). John knew that Jesus didn’t need to be baptized as a symbol of being cleansed from his sin. But, be baptised the Lord must, because he came for this purpose, to deliver his fellow countrymen from their sins and bring them salvation. Jesus’ Jordan baptism inaugurated him into a ministry whose climax would be a baptism in a fountain filled with his own blood. He had come to stand where sinners stand, receive what they deserve and give them life and adoption into the family of God.
The Jews were expecting a Messianic King in the tradition of David, their greatest general and inspirational hero. They imagined that he’d be the one who’d rally the nation and throw out the Romans and restore the glory of Israel that he prophets had written about. Throughout his ministry Jesus is confronted with that mistaken view of his Messiahship, so that there are times when he tells people not to disclose that he is the Messiah because to the ignorant it will raise false expectations. Jesus even silences demons when they say that they know he is the Christ. “The crown which Jesus was called to wear was a crown of thorns, his throne would be the cross of Calvary, and his kingdom would be the society of believers who were prepared to forsake everything and follow him in expectation of their heavenly reward. This wasn’t at all what the Jews had in mind, but however deep their misunderstanding may have been, the ministry of Jesus was set on its course right from the start” (Gerald Bray, Steps of Understanding: Key Events in Jesus’ Life, Christian Focus, Ross-shire, 1998, pp. 41 & 42). Jesus was baptised and so he identified himself publicly with what he tells us is the central problem of humanity, this colossal problem of man’s individual sins, and man’s need for personal cleansing by repentance. That is how Jesus started and that is how he was to go on. Not by military conquest and nationalism but by serving sinners and the greatest of all services was laying down his life. His death wasn’t the unfortunate result of a failed rebellion. He came in order to die as the sin-bearer, and his baptism launched him on that very course. So his baptism was the fitting inauguration of his ministry.
2. JESUS WAS BAPTISED TO FULFIL ALL RIGHTEOUSNESS.
When John protested, “I need to be baptized by you,” Jesus answered, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfil all righteousness” (Matt. 3:15). The Son of God was being baptised to fulfil a life of active obedience. He had not come simply to meet the opposition of sinners and the temptations of the devil and the betrayal of Judas and the forsaking by friends. He came positively and faithfully to fulfil all righteousness. That means that Jesus comes to be placed under the law, to be scrutinised by the righteousness of God, to be tried by the great standard of Sinai, and of Leviticus. The Lord Jesus will deliberately fulfil every jot and tittle, every precept and principle of God’s law. He will fulfil the moral law found in the ten commandments. He will have no other gods but the Lord. He will not make an idol of anything. He will not take God’s name in vain. He will remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy. He will honour both Joseph and Mary as his loving parents. He will not murder, nor commit sexual sin, nor steal, nor give false testimony against a neighbour, nor will he covet anything that is his neighbour’s. He will honour the moral law. Jesus will also honour the ceremonial law. On the eighth day Jesus was circumcised, and at twelve he was presented in the Temple in Jerusalem. He would not eat pork; he would pay the temple tax; he would go to the synagogue each Sabbath. He submits his whole manhood to the whole Old Testament ritual as it was imposed upon all his Jewish contemporaries. Jesus will also submit to the civil law and to every ordinance of man, for example, when Caesar demands tribute then Jesus will pay tribute. That is why he has come.
Now he is in the river Jordan with John and that is because the baptism of John is, in the estimation of Jesus, a divine ordinance. John lived at a time when there was a lot of religious interest and activity. Greek philosophy had spread throughout Israel and there were many collaborators who adapted their Old Testament faith to fit into Greek thinking. This is what the Sadducees had done joining together elements of Judaism and Hellenism. But Jesus didn’t act as if he thought all this were part of the marvellous quest of man after God so that he went running after this or that, or smiled benignly at it all. He would not become a Sadducee. He did not join the Zealot party, the Jewish version of the I.R.A., because that was not a divine requirement. He did not join the Essenes, a kind of monastic community, living in a commune near the Dead Sea. He completely ignored all those because they were movements orchestrated by man, but John the Baptist had been sent from God and being baptized was a divine requirement, something imposed on everyone whose God was the Lord. Jesus stood before his critics and he asked them, “The baptism of John, was it from heaven, or from men?” Was it all John’s idea, and a human invention, or had God told him to preach this message and initiate this ordinance? “This is all from God,” said Jesus, and so he submitted to John and was baptised. He had to fulfil every single requirement of the divine righteousness.
We too are to follow the Lord in being baptised. Can we be baptised with the baptism that he was baptised with? No, certainly not. His was the bottomless pit baptism. His was the unquenchable fires baptism. He was plunged into all of that as a sinless man, deserving none of it, but as the substitute for his people. Whereas we are sinners and deserve all of that. He was baptised with the wrath of a sin-hating God, whereas we are baptised in water. But we must be baptized in water because it is an ordinance which the Lord has given. We are to be baptised because it is from heaven and not from man. The Saviour said on the hill of Ascension, “Make disciples and baptise them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” When we are baptised we are following the example of the Christ who went before us keeping God’s ordinances, because God required this of him. John’s rite was one of divine authority and institution. So to establish the meaning of his own unique ministry he must work at weaving a robe of righteousness that will be imputed to every one of his people. He came to the law of God to be tested by it, and when he finally passed through the ordeal of the baptisms of Gethsemane and of Golgotha and cries, “It is finished!” then we are the righteousness of God in him. I was talking to a woman and I asked her, “When you appear before God what reason should he let you into his heaven?” She said to me immediately, “Because I have the righteousness of Jesus Christ.”
“When I shall launch in worlds unseen,
O may I then be found in Him!
Dressed in His righteousness alone
Faultless to stand before the throne.
On Christ, the solid Rock I stand,
All other ground is sinking sand.” (Edward Mote, 1797-1874)
So Jesus was baptised to inaugurate his ministry as Saviour, and to fulfil all righteousness.
3] JESUS WAS BAPTISED TO VALIDATE THE MINISTRY OF JOHN.
There are people who say they admire our Christianity but they are not persuaded to follow the Saviour. They are followers of Mr. Cool; they say they are put off by crowds gathering to hear a preacher, and people confessing that they are sinners and being baptized. That religion is not for them; it is emotional; it is too personal; it is not cool. Yet the Lord Jesus went to hear John the Baptist’s emotional preaching, and chose to be baptized by him. He put himself in the hands of John and was plunged into the Jordan by him, and so was setting his seal on the ministry of John. He is attesting to it as to its absolute integrity and total credibility as all of God. When John said to the Pharisees, “You brood of vipers! Who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” Jesus was saying Amen to that. When John warned the people that the axe was already at the root of the tree then Jesus was saying Amen to that. The prophet Daniel had seen a river of fire flowing from the throne of God. It was a barrier set there by God himself burning with the fires of the King’s justice and rectitude. It lies before all who would enter the Kingdom. Men must enter it to get to God, but they can’t by themselves. A fiery flood lies before them. It carries away all the things that offend God. No Canute can command those waves to recede. No dictator can force his way through. No Pharaoh can drive his chariot through those tides and billows. There is a terrible fury to that tributary of the lake of fire, and only the Messiah can open the way for the rest of us to cross. He must enter that flood first and destroy its power to destroy us. That is what Jesus’ baptism is saying.
Noah in the century before the flood preached just like John, that those who repented and fled to the refuge would survive the baptism of judgment. They would become heirs of the world to come. Those who despised the warning and wouldn’t flee to the refuge would pass under the flood of judgment. Again, at the Red Sea in the exodus there would be a baptism which would vindicate God’s chosen people Israel and condemn Pharaoh’s army to destruction. All baptised into Moses, that is all who believed his testimony and followed him as his delivered people, would pass through the waters alive, but not the rest. So the Lord Jesus comes to endorse the ministry of John attesting to its absolute integrity and total credibility.
Jesus is affirming that John was standing in that whole Old Testament prophetic tradition which denounced the religious life of the church of God urging the remnant to escape from the coming judgment. John stood in that line of men called by God to bring the sternest criticisms and speak with intense moral stringency and uncompromising theological statement to the backsliding people of God. It proved to be a ministry that provoked intense hostility. John the Baptist was scorned by scribes and Pharisees and at last executed by Herod. Our Lord, standing in the moment of his baptism with John in the river, is aware of the significance of John’s ministry and the people’s resentment, but Jesus deliberately endorses it. In his actions he submits to John insisting that he must baptize him. In his words he submits to John saying amongst those born of woman none was greater than John the Baptist.
But we must go further, not only is he validating John personally but Jesus is endorsing the whole Old Testament prophetic testimony of which God says, “They are my servants the prophets,” and of whom John is the culmination, and in Jesus’ words the greatest and most outstanding figure. John’s was the very same divine message Isaiah had brought when he prophesied to this nation, “Your hands are full of blood; wash you; make you clean; put away the evil of your doings from before mine eyes.” John’s was the same message the prophet Jeremiah had brought when he said to this same nation, “O Jerusalem wash your heart from wickedness that you may be saved.” John’s was the same message Zechariah had brought to this same people when he had prophesied, “In that day there will be a fountain opened up to the house of David and to the inhabitants of Jerusalem for sin and uncleanness.” John’s was the same message as the prophet Joel had brought to this nation when he had said to them, “The Lord will pour out his Spirit on all people.”
All the prophets had declared the sin of the people in God’s sight. All had spoken of his wrath revealed against them from heaven. All had summoned them to repentance. All had pointed the people to the acts of God as their only hope. Our Lord was endorsing all that Old Testament prophecy. Our Lord was saying, “There is nothing in it that I condemn. There is nothing in its letter or spirit which is ever to be deemed by my followers a contradiction of what I am, or think or do.” The Lord Jesus, and thus all his followers, support the whole of the Old Testament prophecy. His apostle Peter speaks on behalf of us all when he says, “Prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Pet. 1:21). Elijah prophesied in the valley of the Jordan and now Elijah in the form of John, that is, John consumed and filled by the same Spirit and power that was in Elijah, also preaches in that same place with the same message about the sins of the same nation.
But we must go further, not only is he endorsing the Old Testament prophets, Jesus is validating the whole Old Testament dispensation. Not a jot, and not a tittle of it will pass away from those Scriptures, Genesis to Malachi, until all of it is fulfilled. Those Scriptures cannot be broken. Soon Jesus will meet Satan and will answer him with Scripture: “It is written,” and if it is written then God said it. Many people are concerned to drive a wedge between the whole position of the Old Testament and the stance of God the Son. “Not the Old Testament,” they say, “not its moral stringency, and its righteousness, and its awesomeness, and the fearfulness of Jehovah God found there. It is Jesus we want,” they say. “Give us the living Christ not a dead book.” “They have no right to do that,” Jesus says. He speaks no word of disavowal of the Old Testament, and no word of criticism of those Scriptures. Jesus is saying from Jordan’s river, “That kind of disdain can never plead my support. What Scripture says, I say. I believe and obey the Old Testament.”
So when Jesus put himself in John’s hands, under the authority of John’s words, and was baptised by him he was endorsing the whole ministry of John the Baptist and all that he stood for as the last and greatest of the Old Testament prophets.
4. CHRIST WAS BAPTISED TO IDENTIFY WITH HIS PEOPLE.
There is a great line of repentant sinners standing soberly and sorrowing on the bank of the Jordan waiting to go down into the waters to John to be baptized. Thousands have stood there before Jesus, and now there are the last few. Survey them there in your mind with me, standing in that guilty line. There’s a thief, a drunkard, an adulterer, a liar, a bully, a wife-beater, an idol-worshiper, a torturer, Jesus, a murderer, a forger, a troublemaker, a braggart, a terrorist, a blasphemer, an abuser of children, a spendthrift . . . and hundreds more, every one a sinner, and there is Jesus made in the likeness of sinful flesh standing in line between the torturer and the murderer, indistinguishable outwardly, no halo over his head, but inwardly he is wholly without sin. As the prophet said, the Messiah would be numbered with the transgressors. He stands with sinners in solidarity; he stands for sinners in substitution. He will hang on a tree as the Lamb of God and bear the sins of the world. At the last he will do more than stand with them in their sin, he will be made sin for them. That is why he stands here in the baptism of sinners because one day he will climb Golgotha in love and stand in the closest possible contact with sinners, taking responsibility for their sin and answering for it before the throne of God.
The Lord Jesus has taken the sinner’s nature, and his low condition, and his religion too – he has been circumcised on the eighth day. Throughout his childhood he sat in the synagogue, surrounded by sinners, and he went up to Jerusalem to the Temple and the feasts three times a year, and he was surrounded by sinners. He made his own a sinner’s religion of confession and imploring the mercy of God. He sang the psalms of sinners. Now he takes a sinner’s baptism, and he is pre-enacting the actual baptism into the wrath and curse of God which would soon take place on Golgotha when all the waves of judgment which our sins merit would fall on him, not us.
In his baptism Jesus proclaims his unspeakable closeness with sinners. He abhors not standing in their midst, surrounded by them, talking with them, identifying with them, because for this reason he has come into the world, to save them from their sin. He is saying to us, “Don’t be afraid of me. There is no reason to be afraid. When I come to you in the Word, then receive me and all I have to offer you. Confess you need of me. Repent of your sins and be baptized every one of you for the remission of sins. You too shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit and the inward witness of the Father’s love.”
“Jesus says, let each believer be baptised in My name;
Thus Himself in Jordan’s river was immersed beneath the stream.
Plainly here His footsteps tracing, follow Him without delay,
Gladly His command embracing, Lo! Your captain leads the way.”
When the Moravian missionaries were working in Greenland they evangelised one family and one of the older daughters was converted and baptized. Her father was not, and he had considerable possessions. The daughter went to work near the Moravian meeting place. One day when the father was at the capelin fishery (capelin are small fish abundant in the waters of Newfoundland and Greenland) he bumped into his daughter quite unexpectedly and his resentment that she had left home and become an evangelical Christian burst out. She listened quietly and then modestly told him again her reasons for following Christ, and the joy she now knew. She said, “You could be as happy as I am if you knew the Lord. But if you refuse . . . I can’t stay with you and perish.” Her words really touched him, and he found himself in tears, and much to her surprise he said to her, “I will come with you.” When he met the Moravian preacher he said to him, “I want all my children to follow Christ and be baptized as she has. As for myself, I dare not think of baptism, as I am very bad, and old too, and incapable of learning much more. But yet I will live and die with you, for it is very reviving to me to hear of our Saviour.” Men and women, the condition for baptism is that you feel as that Greenlander felt, “I am very bad,” and that is no prohibition to prevent anyone being baptized, just as long as you repent for being so bad and with new purpose of heart struggle against it by the strength that the Saviour, Jesus, provides. Age is no barrier, however young, or however old, you may be, that does not matter. What matters is that you recognise your sins and place all your hope for their forgiveness in the Lord Christ, in the hearing of whose name your life is revived.
2nd December 2007 GEOFF THOMAS