Luke 3:21: “Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying…”
Picture the scene: There was a big crowd at the river, and people were getting dunked in the water by John, who was so good at it that everybody called him the Baptizer, the Baptist (note: not his denomination, but his job). What kind of baptism was John preaching? Look up to Luke 3:3. It was “a baptism of repentance, for the forgiveness of sins.”
It couldn’t be any clearer if John had set up a big banner that said, SINNERS, LINE UP HERE TO REPENT. And John’s preaching was so effective, causing people to recognize their sinfulness and their need for forgiveness, that they thronged to the river to get in that line of sinners under that banner that marked them as sinners. Right there in public, in front of God and everybody.
“And Jesus was also baptized.” He joined that crowd, got into that line, he stood under that banner that said “SINNERS LINE UP HERE.” He, too, was baptized.
Now you’ve got to figure that John the Baptist saw Jesus joining with the crowd of sinners seeking forgiveness, and must have tried to sidle up beside him and say, “Psst! Cousin! You’re in the wrong line.” Is-thay un-way is for inners-say.” And in fact, over in Matthew’s Gospel we do get a couple of extra verses reported right here. Matthew 3:14 reports a little conversation: “But John tried to deter him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’ Jesus replied, ‘Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.’ Then John consented.”
In Luke we don’t get that dialogue; we just see Jesus doing the thing: he simply steps into the water and fulfills all righteousness. Jesus joins the crowd of sinners; the Son of God got in the water with us.
This is an almighty act of solidarity with sinners. Everything up to now in Luke’s gospel has been Jesus’ private life, but when he goes to the big rally of the most important religious event going on in recent memory in Israel, and takes his visible position among the sinners, he is beginning his public ministry. And the first step he takes in that public ministry is a step of solidarity, of identifying himself with the problems of his people. Everybody’s got a million problems, but Jesus saw right to the heart of the main problem: we’re sinners. John’s powerful preaching brought out the crowds, brought them to confess their sins and their need for forgiveness; Jesus saw that and recognized that the time had come to put into action the work he had come to do: to meet us where we are, in our sins, in our need for forgiveness, in the water.
It’s a very dramatic opening move for the work of the Messiah; you might say he made a big splash.
Jesus got in the water with us: he came down to join us in our sorry situation: sorry sinners, sorry for their sins, and the Son of God. What we’re seeing here is the one who in himself is perfectly holy, absolutely well-pleasing to the Father, stepping into a relationship that sinners, who are not holy and are not well-pleasing to God, exist in. He came to “mingle with the multitude of sinners,” one commentator says. That commentator goes on, “He Who thus proclaims Himself a sinner and voluntarily presents Himself to receive the baptism of penance, is the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, before Whom the Angels veil their faces, singing, ‘Holy, holy, holy’” (Dom Columba Marmion, Christ in His Mysteries, 175-6).
Now this is a great and mighty reason reason the Son of God took on human nature and dwelt among us: to make our problems his problems and to solve them for us in himself. This is the main, most pointed reason for the incarnation of the Son of God. This is why he was born of Mary: so he would be fully human and truly one of us. He dove into the human gene pool so he could wade into the water of the Jordan with sinners.
This event at the Jordan, receiving John’s baptism, is a big deal: It’s tempting to say this step of solidarity is the biggest thing Jesus did for our salvation, and we might say that… if we didn’t already know how the story ends. The story ends with Jesus doing something much much bigger than this, on the cross. In Luke 22:37, right before his arrest in the Mount of Olives, Jesus tells his disciples, “this Scripture must be fulfilled in me: ‘And he was numbered with the transgressors.’” Did you catch that? Jesus is quoting Isaiah 53:12. We could flip over to Isaiah 53 and see the whole prophecy that OUR sins were laid on HIM, that he was bruised for OUR transgressions, that the weight of OUR iniquities was laid on him.
You could look at a man being crucified and say, “I guess that guy did something pretty bad.” But you’d be wrong: When you see Christ on the cross, you see that he is holy and innocent, but has entered into absolute solidarity with sinners, and is, in the words of Isaiah 53 as Jesus himself declares them being fulfilled in him, “he was numbered with the transgressors.” Do you see how, right here at the very beginning of his public ministry, he is being numbered with the transgressors? It’s the same exact move: Jesus joining us where we are, in our sin. But here at the baptism of Jesus the Isaiah prophesy is not being fulfilled fulfilled; Jesus is just beginning his path; his baptism is actually one of the minor mysteries of his life, in the shadow of the major mystery, the cross.
Jesus joined us in the water. Do you know you can only get as clean as the water you’re using to clean yourself with? If you’ve ever had to clean something up using dirty water, you know there’s a limit to how good it can get. You may clean the thing up, but the level of clean you’re able to get to is absolutely set by the level of clean the water is at. When sinners underwent John’s baptism, they confessed, repented, and came out cleaner. When Jesus stepped into those dirty waters of confession, he was already cleaner than the water. There was no benefit to him in terms of spiritual hygiene. That’s why some of the church fathers say: When he was baptized, he purified the water of baptism. The baptism of John wasn’t Christian baptism yet: it was for repentance, but it wasn’t in the name of Jesus, or in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit yet. Jesus was there: in fact, quite conspicuously, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit were there. The Trinity loves baptism. But this baptism Jesus submits to is like ours in certain ways, and extremely unlike ours in other ways. Do you know that Jesus saves us by being like us and also being unlike us?
Jesus stepped down into the water. He did it for us.
But he also did it for God the Father. Do you know that Jesus Christ the Son loves God his Father? Through the whole gospel of Luke, we see a special emphasis on Jesus close relationship with his heavenly father: Here’s a quick survey:
Luke 6:12: all night he continued in prayer to God
Luke 9:18, 29; he was praying alone; the disciples were with him; he went up on the mountain to pray.
Luke 11:1; Now Jesus was praying in a certain place, and when he finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.”
Luke 22:41, And he withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, and knelt down and prayed, saying, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.”
Jesus joined us in the water because he and the Father were working out the plan of our salvation, and Jesus loved to do what pleased the Father. In the eternal life of the triune God, the Son had always rejoiced in the presence of the Father and basked in the perfect fellowship of his love, a love made perfect and shown perfectly in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit. And here in the incarnation, the Son took on human nature, took up our sin problem, and did what pleased the Father.