It’s strange that the traditional forms for baptism used in the Christian Reformed Church never mention the baptism of Jesus. Typically, we think of Jesus' baptism as a testimony that he is God's beloved Son in unity with the Father and the Holy Spirit—the Holy Trinity. We may miss the importance of Jesus' baptism for the meaning of our own.
The early church saw the connection clearly. Many of the early church leaders linked Christian baptism with Jesus' baptism. Excavations of early church buildings often reveal mosaics and frescoes picturing the baptism of Jesus. John Calvin made the same link. He wrote, “Christ dedicated and sanctified [our] baptism in his own body in order that he might have it in common with us as the firmest bond of the union and fellowship which he has deigned to form with us.” In Jesus’ baptism we see our own.
The gospel of Matthew especially makes that connection clear. Matthew bookends Jesus’ ministry with baptism. In chapter 3, Jesus begins his ministry with the baptism by John (vv. 13-17). On the other end, in chapter 28, just as he is about to ascend to heaven, Jesus sends his disciples on a baptizing mission: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit . . .” (v. 19).
Matthew wants us to see the link between Jesus’ baptism by John and our own baptism in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
So what happened at Jesus’ baptism? Matthew tells us that John was out in the wilderness offering a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Then one day Jesus walked up and asked John to baptize him.
John was astonished, of course. “You want me to baptize you? I need to be baptized by you.” Jesus’ response is amazing: “No, this is the way it needs to be done, for it is right for us to fulfill all righteousness.”
What does Jesus mean by “fulfill all righteousness” (v. 15)? Righteousness is a right relationship with God, which is exactly what we do not have. We are sinners; we really need a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” But Jesus came to fulfill all righteousness, that is, he came to make sinful humanity righteous before God. To do that, Jesus stood in with sinners and for sinners. So, with all the other sinners, Jesus waited in line at the muddy Jordan to be baptized by John.
When Jesus was baptized, three things happened. First, the heavens were opened. On this one human being, Jesus of Nazareth, the heavens opened. In this man, the God of heaven has come down to join us in the muddy Jordan of human life. And that means there’s hope for us all! Heaven is no longer closed to us.
Second, the Spirit descended on Jesus as a dove. Jesus was anointed with the Holy Spirit, but because he stands in for us as our human brother, we too receive the promise of the Holy Spirit in baptism. If you read on into Acts and the epistles of the New Testament, you will find that nearly every time baptism is mentioned, it’s immediately followed by the gift of the Holy Spirit. Right at the start, Peter said at Pentecost, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38).
In our baptism, Jesus promises us the gift of the Holy Spirit. He promises that whenever we grab hold of our baptism in faith by trusting in Jesus, the Holy Spirit affirms our true identity in Christ. Then the Spirit sets out to transform us, making us holy by ripening the fruit of the Spirit in our lives. The Holy Spirit, like a dove, hovers around us, ready to reaffirm the Father's love and redirect our steps into the path of love. Baptism brings us the gift of the Holy Spirit.
Finally, the climax of Jesus’ baptism comes with the voice from heaven: “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” This mysterious voice affirms that this man, Jesus of Nazareth, is the Son of God in the eternal fellowship of the Holy Trinity.
But Jesus has now also identified himself with us as our human brother. In our baptism we are united with Jesus Christ, identified with him. His Father is our Father, the Holy Spirit now also lives in us. That's why Jesus told the church to baptize “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:19).
Our baptism means that we are now adopted into the family of God through Jesus Christ. Paul says, “In love he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ” (Eph. 1:5). And now the Father says to you and to me, “You are my beloved son or daughter, in you I am well pleased.” Baptism seals our adoption as children of God, for we are now officially “registered” in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
“You are my beloved.” Those are truly the words we all long to hear. We long to hear it from our parents, from our spouses—but most of all, we long to hear those words from our Creator and heavenly Father, as Jesus did that day at the Jordan River. Baptism brings us the gift of adoption. When we are baptized into Jesus Christ, we do not live our lives in a painful and futile attempt to prove that we somehow deserve to be loved by God. We are loved! We are accepted! God opens heaven above us, places his Spirit within us, and speaks to each of us his word of love and delight: “You are my chosen, my son, my daughter. I’m so delighted with you.”
It’s hard for us to remember that, day in day out, in our messy lives. We try to assure ourselves by taking our spiritual temperature, gauging our spiritual feelings, or measuring the holiness of our lives. But these things fluctuate day by day. As the old spiritual says, “Sometimes I'm up, sometimes I'm down.”
That’s where baptism comes in. It’s a sacrament, and sacraments are physical, bodily things that assure us of spiritual reality. Eating and drinking the bread and wine of communion is meant to assure us of our forgiveness in the sacrifice of Christ. In the same way, the water of baptism is given to assure us of our true identity in Christ.
But what about faith? Isn't it faith that brings us the blessings of salvation? Yes. God has given us these sacraments as handles for our faith. Their purpose is to provide us physical, embodied human beings something for our faith to grab hold of. We don't believe in our baptism; we believe through it.
What a gift to remember every day: “I have been baptized.” It is the seal of our adoption into the family of God, the mark of our true identity in Christ, and the answer to every temptation of the Evil One.
- Think about a baptism you remember; either your own (if you were old enough) or a baptism you witnessed. What was most memorable? What resonated with you?
- How have you understood the meaning of baptism? How does it serve as “handles for our faith”?
- Describe what you feel or experience from hearing that in baptism God calls you his beloved child in whom he delights.
- How does God’s acceptance of us empower us to follow Christ in all areas of our lives?