Confidence for Judgment Day!

The Baptism of Our Lord–9 January 2022

Matthew 3:13-17

13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him.  14 John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”  15 But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented.  16 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;  17 and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” (ESV)

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John the Baptist was good at preaching the coming judgement of God. When he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance.…Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire (Matthew 3:7-8, 10). 

What John proclaimed as God’s prophet is true. God’s wrath is coming. Therefore, we must bear fruit in keeping with repentance, for those who do not bear good fruit are thrown into the eternal fire. And in similar words, John described the mission of the Messiah, the Christ, the Lord’s Anointed:  

He who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry.…His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire (Matthew 3:11-12).

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Our Lord Jesus is the one appointed by God to be judge of the living and the dead; thus, we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ (Acts 10:42; 2 Corinthians 5:10). Christ the Judge will certainly make a distinction between those who repent and those who do not. To the wheat, to the sheep on His right, to His precious saints, He will say: Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world (Matthew 25:34). To the chaff, to the goats on His left, to unbelievers, He will say: Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels (Matthew 25:41). 

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John the Baptist is God’s prophet, whose word is completely reliable. John had been proclaiming the Messiah Jesus coming in power, bringing with Him end-time salvation and judgment—a Jesus so superior to and mightier than John himself that the Baptizer is not worthy to perform the most menial service for this Jesus. How shocked John must have been by the manner of our Lord’s coming to him. Jesus comes, not displaying His power or His incomparably higher status, but in lowliness, to be baptized by John. John had preached the might and power of Christ. Now, John is so overwhelmed by the lowly Christ asking to be baptized. To John, this makes no sense whatsoever. We can quite understand John’s incredulous words: I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?

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John had spoken of the mighty One, who will judge between the wheat and the chaff. But that day at the Jordan, Jesus did not come as a mighty judge. Rather, He came in all lowliness to be baptized by John. He came to live up to His Name. Our Saviour’s personal name, “Jesus”, means “The Lord is our salvation”. As the angel said to Joseph about the child conceived in Mary by the Holy Spirt: She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins (Matthew 1:21). We could read the opening of today’s Gospel as follows: [“the Lord is our salvation”] came…to be baptized by [John]. We could even say:[“Immanuel—God with us”] came…to be baptized by [John]. That day, Jesus came as Saviour. 

Now, John was right to speak of judgment and the need for repentance. And like the sinners coming to him to be baptized, we too need to be admonished to repent of our sins as we await the Day of Judgement. But what a blessing that God has revealed Himself to be not just our Judge but also our Saviour. Imagine how sad it would be if God restricted us to addressing Him only as Judge. Imagine praying: “Our Judge who art in heaven”. Imagine closing our prayers with “In the Name of Judge Jesus”. Oh, what great wealth is ours—far beyond all this world’s treasures—that we have the joy and privilege of praying “Our Father who art in heaven” and in the Name of Jesus Christ our Lord and Saviour! Thanks be to God the Father for sending His Son to be our Saviour. And that is why Jesus was baptized by John that day at the Jordan.    

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Jesus came to John to be baptized. And John tried to prevent Him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” Behold with great wonder our Lord’s response: Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.

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 answer to these questions must be “No!” Thus, Jesus needs to persuade John to baptize Him. You see, John is so fixated on the coming Messiah being Judge that he does not yet understand how Jesus will manifest the reign of heaven “now,” in the present time, as the humble sin-bearer. And so, Jesus, in essence, says: “Let it be so now, John, allow this baptism to take place, even though you don’t yet understand”. And John does do the part assigned to him. Notice how Jesus said thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness. Of course, Jesus alone will fulfill all righteousness for all sinners. But Jesus cannot baptize Himself; He needs John to play his part in the great salvation saga. John the Baptizer baptizes the world’s Saviour!  

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The baptism of Jesus is fitting, proper, right, for it is the beginning of the fulfillment of the divine, eternal plan of salvation. God is beginning to act. God’s righteousness will be fulfilled when John baptizes Jesus, and then all people may in faith seek God’s reign and His righteousness in Jesus. Yes, because Jesus was baptized, it is now possible for sinners to seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness (Matthew 6:33). To seek first God’s righteousness is to seek for our salvation outside of us and completely in Jesus. We seek God’s righteousness only in the saving deeds of Jesus—His perfect keeping of the Law, His baptism, His death and resurrection. And we look forward to the Last Day, which will bring to fulfillment God’s promise to act in history on behalf of His people to save them.

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For Jesus to submit to John’s baptism is fitting because it shows perfectly how this Jesus will save His people from their sins (Matthew 1:21). Our Lord’s Baptism shows how the reign of heaven will come now, in an unexpected way. Jesus will perform all righteousness, that is, He will enact God’s saving deeds by (literally) standing with sinners, taking the place of sinners, receiving from John the baptism that sinners receive. Ultimately, all of Jesus’ ministry will come to its head as the Scriptures are fulfilled in the arrest that leads to His trial, condemnation, and crucifixion. There, the sinless one will become the Sin-bearer. The sinless one will offer up His own life as the ransom payment in the place of all people. That is why it is fitting for Jesus to come and stand in the Jordan and be baptized, to stand (literally) in the place of all people. Later, on the Last Day, the risen, victorious Jesus will perform the judgment, the separation of wheat from chaff, of which John spoke; but not at this time. Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan is a sign that points forward. Yes, our Lord’s baptism points forward to the hidden, unexpected, and shockingly weak and vulnerable in-breaking reign of God on Good Friday, to the paradoxical enthronement of the King of the Jews on the cross.

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The baptism of Jesus and the death of Jesus are God’s righteousness, God’s saving deeds. In the water of the Jordan and on the cross, Jesus stands with us as the Sin-bearer, who takes upon Himself all of our sin, guilt, and shame. The baptized and nailed-to-the-cross Jesus saves us from our sins so that we need not fear the coming Judgment Day. And His saving deeds continue in our lives today. In His great mercy, God has saved us…by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out on us richly…, so that being justified by His grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life (Titus 3:5–7). 

What great joy is ours, that by the baptismal washing of regeneration and renewal we can call God “our Father” and His Son “our Saviour”. To top off our joy is the amazing good news that we are now also heirs of eternal life. As we await the Last Day, by God’s grace, we repent daily—confessing our sins and trusting God to forgive us for Jesus’ sake and to fill us with the Holy Spirit, that we may bear good fruit. Our turning from sin and our bearing good fruit is not the cause of our salvation. Only Jesus saves. But as we are connected to Jesus in baptism, the Holy Spirit will certainly have His way with us, working in us strong faith in God and fervent love for others, and all the while fixing our gaze upon Jesus, our Saviour.

One last thing to say about Jesus’ baptism in relation to the coming day of Judgment. It saddens me whenever I hear a Christian say: “I hope God forgives me” or “I hope I’m going to heaven”. True faith says: “I know that God forgives me for the sake of Christ” and “Because Jesus bore all my sins, I know I’m going to heaven”. Do you see? In the saving acts of His baptism and death, Jesus fulfilled all righteousness—there is nothing lacking to our Lord’s redemption of sinners. Thus, we should never think of our salvation as an uncertain hope, nor should we live in fear of Judgment Day. The baptized, crucified, and risen Jesus gives us confidence. Listen to St. John describing our new life as those baptized in Christ: we…testify that the Father has sent His Son to be the Saviour of the world. Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God. So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. By this is love perfected with us, so that we may have confidence for the day of judgment (1 John 4:13-17a).

Confidence for the day of judgment—oh, my dear brothers and sisters in Christ, can you imagine a greater gift than this? I think not! Confidence for the day of judgment—confidence not in yourself but in Jesus alone. This Jesus is greater than your sins, your burdens, and all this world’s evils. Oh, it is true: we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ (2 Corinthians 5:10). But the Judge before whom we must appear is also our Saviour. In His baptism and death, He stood with us, bearing our sin and thus saving us in His righteousness. And now, our baptism joins us to His baptism, death, and resurrection. God now abides in us and we in God; thus, we know that as the Father would never reject His Son, so He will never reject us. Yes, we live now in the complete confidence of hearing on the Day of Judgment our Saviour Jesus saying to us: Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world (Matthew 25:34). Thanks be to God!

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Now may the peace of God, which passes all understanding,

keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus to life everlasting.  Amen.