Text: Mark 1:4-11
Today we are discussing the baptism of Jesus. We’ll set the scene, explaining what lead up to this event as well as the baptism itself. After that, we’ll explain what Christ’s baptism means—what it meant for Him, what it meant for those around Him at the time, and what it means for us today. And lastly we will discuss our own baptisms and what we learn about them from Christ’s baptism.
“John came baptizing in the wilderness and preaching a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins. Then all the land of Judea, and those from Jerusalem, went out to him and were all baptized by him in the Jordan River, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair and with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. And he preached, saying, ‘There comes One after me who is mightier than I, whose sandal strap I am not worthy to stoop down and loose. I indeed baptized you with water, but He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.’” (Mark 1:4-8)
We preached about John’s ministry during Advent. We should notice that, in Mark’s gospel, the ministry of John and the baptism of Jesus are placed together. As John’s ministry ended, Jesus’ began. Notice also how Mark mentions that “all the land of Judea” went out to be baptized by John. This description is important. John had a huge public ministry, and, specifically, he publicly preached and prophesied about the coming of the messiah. This means that when Jesus came to him, it was in that big public context. All of Judea saw it, and all of Judea could see what happened at the baptism.
“It came to pass in those days that Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee, and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And immediately, coming up from the water, He saw the heavens parting and the Spirit descending upon Him like a dove. Then a voice came from heaven, ‘You are My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.’” (Mark 1:10-11)
It’s amazing how much material is condensed into these few verses. Mark simply and quickly lays it all out, but there is a lot going on here. We see that Jesus was Himself baptized. This in itself is kind of a surprise. Matthew’s gospel account explains that John didn’t want to baptize Jesus, because of what it might imply for Jesus to be baptized for repentance. Matthew also explains that this was to “fulfill all righteousness.” Jesus did it to fulfill all of the prophecies, to reveal Himself, and but to give us an example that Christian discipleship begins with baptism.
Secondly, we see in this scene the Trinity in one of its clearest displays in all of the Scriptures. There is Jesus, the man standing in the river. Then the Holy Spirit comes down from heaven and descends upon Jesus. The Spirit looks like a dove, but it is indeed the third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit. And then we do not see but rather hear the Father, speaking from heaven. The three are one God, and yet we can see them clearly distinct from one another.
What is the point of this showing? Viewed from one perspective, this event is for Jesus’ own sake. The Father directs His speech to Him, after all. “You are My beloved Son.” This is Jesus’ public initiation into His messianic office. The descent of the Spirit is His anointing, wherein He was “christened.” This is a fulfillment of Isaiah 61 which says:
The Spirit of the Lord God is upon Me,
Because the Lord has anointed Me
To preach good tidings to the poor;
He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted,
To proclaim liberty to the captives,
And the opening of the prison to those who are bound;
To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord,
And the day of vengeance of our God;
To comfort all who mourn,
To console those who mourn in Zion,
To give them beauty for ashes,
The oil of joy for mourning,
The garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness;
That they may be called trees of righteousness,
The planting of the Lord, that He may be glorified.
(This is, by the way, one good reason why we baptize by sprinkling. Even though Jesus did go down to the river, and he very likely was immersed in the river, the real anointing comes in the descent of the Spirit from above. We wouldn’t insist that any one mode was essential and all others invalid, but we do here see a foundation for a baptism coming from above and descending upon the person being baptized.)
But more than being simply for Jesus, this manifestation of the Trinity and the announcement of Jesus’ identity is for the sake of those people watching. It is proof that Jesus is God’s son. This was proof for John. We are given his response in the Gospel of John, “I did not know Him, but He who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘Upon whom you see the Spirit descending, and remaining on Him, this is He who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I have seen and testified that this is the Son of God” (John 1:33-34). After this baptism, he had no more questions about who Jesus was or what He was doing.
Remember all those people there with John. They saw and heard this as well. It was a public miracle. Jesus was not making claims about Himself that were dependent upon secrets. Everywhere in the gospels His identity and office are obvious. Even when He tells people to keep quiet about it, they cannot. At Jesus’ baptism, God Himself speaks to name Jesus as His Son, the one in whom He is well-pleased.
And this revelation is for us. It shows us today who Jesus is. Jesus is God’s Son. In addition to that, He is the one in Whom God is well-pleased. So if we would be sons of God, if we would be pleasing to God, then we must follow Christ and become one with Him. Eph. 1:4-6 states:
He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before Him in love, having predestined us to adoption as sons by Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the good pleasure of His will, to the praise of the glory of His grace, by which He made us accepted in the Beloved.
This begins in our baptisms, and the same sorts of words are said about us, but they are realized and fully applied to us by our faith, when and as we believe them. And so we must believe these words. So believe them.
Now we have said what Jesus’ baptism says about Him, and what that means for us and our relationship to Him. But I’d like to add to this an additional layer, what Jesus’ baptism says about our baptisms. The first thing we need to establish is that it does indeed say something about our baptisms. Jesus’ baptism was unique. A visible and audible miracle occurred at that time, designed specifically to reveal Jesus’ identity in history. And yet, this miracle occurred at a baptism. We ought to ask a few more questions about the fact that Christians baptize. Why do we do that, and what does baptism itself mean?
Baptism, certainly in the ministry of John, marked the transition from the Old Covenant to the New. John saw his baptisms as preparation of the coming-kingdom. But then Jesus instructs His disciples to baptize, assuming that they are already acquainted with the practice, and in doing so, he draws an inescapable continuity to the previously-existing baptisms. Our act of baptizing is different in some ways from John’s action, but it is still the same general thing, a ritual action in connection with the ministry of the messiah. Our baptisms show repentance and discipleship, and our baptisms show the kingdom of Christ.
Our baptisms are also Trinitarian, “baptizing in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:19) and they are into Christ (see Rom. 6:3-11;). “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (Gal. 3:27). Thus baptism is one of those many expressions of our union with Christ. If we are united with Christ, then we are united to the events in Christ’s life and the blessings He received.
And so, while we want to make the appropriate distinctions between ourselves and Jesus, we still want to say that the same kind of thing happens at our baptism that happened at His. When we are baptized, the Father speaks a word of acceptance about us. He says, “This is my beloved son, in whom I am well-pleased.” Baptism is the sacramental moment of our acceptance by God.
Now let me explain. God doesn’t say this about us because of us or anything we bring to the table. He does not even say it because of our baptism considered in itself. There’s nothing about the water or even the ritual considered from the temporal perspective which makes baptism a moment of divine acceptance. The reason baptism is a moment of acceptance with God is because of what God said about Jesus. It is because of what Jesus did and the fact that He did it for us. The gospel is that same word which God said about Jesus, and baptism repeats that word and directs it specifically to each of us. When we are baptized, God says, “I am your Father. You are my Son.” When we are baptized, Jesus say, “For you.” When we are baptized, we hear the word of the gospel.
This is, by the way, the position of the major Reformed statements of faith. For instance, the Westminster Larger Catechism says, “Christ hath ordained the washing with water in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, to be a sign and seal of ingrafting into himself, of remission of sins by his blood, and regeneration by his Spirit; of adoption, and resurrection unto everlasting life” (WLC 165). There’s also the Heidelberg Catechism, of which we have been working through in our Sunday School time, and it says this, “that by this divine pledge and sign [God] assure[s] us, that we are spiritually cleansed from our sins as really, as we are externally washed with water” (HC Q73). If baptism is a sign, a seal, a pledge, and a promise instituted by God, then we ought to believe it.
Baptism is also our initiation into the Christian life. It marks the beginning of our discipleship and our life of repentance. It’s very important that we first have the gospel message in baptism and then the response of a life of fidelity. If the faithfulness came first, then the implication would be that Christian discipleship comes after preparation and good works. But the truth is that Christian discipleship occurs as a response to the message that God accepts you in spite of all your sins and solely because of the grace found in Jesus. We pledge our lives to living morally as a response to the message that we are loved by God. And so it is right and fitting for baptism to happen at the beginning of our Christian lives.
And so to conclude, the baptism of Christ shows us who Christ is and what His calling is for. It shows us the Trinity, unity and distinction, and it shows us that Jesus is both the son of God and the accepted and beloved one. And it also shows us what our own baptisms mean, as that same word which was spoken of Christ is now spoken of us. Lastly, our baptisms begin our initiation into the messianic people, living as prophets, priests, and kings for the world. And so let us remember our baptisms today, let us remember what they mean for us, and let us remember what they call us to do. As we remember our baptisms, we also resolve to improve upon them and carry them with us for the rest of our lives, speaking and living the gospel of Christ. Let us pray.