There is a great scene in the movie O Brother Where Art Thou where Delmar, a runaway convict, gets baptized. If you don’t know the movie it is overtly a comedy about three escaped prisoners but in reality it is a modern take on Homer’s The Odyssey. The scene opens with scores of people dressed in white, singing as they were coming down to the river. Two long lines formed as the lone preacher baptized them in the muddy waters. Delmar became so convicted that he ran down ahead of everyone in line and threw himself into the preacher’s arms to be baptized. Coming out of the water he said, “Well boys that does it, I’ve been redeemed….the preacher said all my sins is washed away including that Piggly Wiggly I knocked over down at Yazoo.”
Delmar was right. Baptism does wash away our sins. But that truth begs the question. Why Jesus was baptized and why do we celebrate this event?
Two very important preliminary points. First Jesus was not baptized to wash away His sins because He was without sin. The countless spotless lambs that had been sacrificed for centuries after that first Passover all foreshadowed Jesus as the spotless Lamb of God who would take away the sins of the world. There was no sin in Him so there must be another reason for His baptism.
Second, it was NOT at His baptism that Jesus became the Son of God. That is a heresy called “adoptionism.” I bring that up because evidently this ancient heresy is raising its head again. I have recently scene clips of sermons preached by Joel Olsteen’s wife and a prosperity gospel preacher named Paula White who both made this erroneous claim. When the Father said, “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased” it did not mean that Jesus at that moment became His Son. All you have to do is go back to the prologue of St. John’s Gospel to show that point. “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God….and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us and we have seen His glory, glory as the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” At Jesus’ baptism the Father was not making Jesus His Son rather He was proclaiming Him as His Son. There is not only a vast difference between those two ideas, it is a critical distinction to make. The implication of adoptionism is that Jesus was a regular guy until He was baptized and received the Holy Spirit and that is when He became the Christ. So if you and I get baptized and receive the same Holy Spirit then we too can become little christs. You can see why the Church Fathers called it a heresy.
So why was Jesus baptized? He tells us. He was baptized “to fulfill all righteousness” or as the New Living Translation put is, Jesus said, ”It should be done, for we must carry out all that God requires.” Some mistakenly believe that Jesus came to do away with the law but as He says two chapters later, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have not come to abolish these things but to fulfill them.”
What does it mean for Jesus to fulfill all righteousness? Back in the Jesus Movement days Jesus was sometimes painted as an anti establishment hippie but nothing could be further from the truth. He was a righteous Son who obeyed His Father. St Paul tells us in Galatians 4 “God sent forth His Son, born of woman, born under the law to redeem those who were under the law so that we might receive adoption as sons.” What He fought against were the man-made regulations that only served to be a greater burden for the people. But when it came to the law, He kept it. In fact He kept it perfectly and that it is why He was the perfect sacrifice for the sins of the world.
Another reason the Jesus submitted to baptism was because it affirmed the ministry of John the Baptist and it connected their ministries to each other. Why was that important? It was important because John was the last of the Old Testament prophets. He was a new Isaiah preparing the way for the Messiah. He was making a highway to the Lord by laying down the road of repentance. Jesus’ acceptance of John’s ministry shows that the old was making way for the new and that He was the one for whom the way was being prepared. John was saying “repent for the kingdom of God is near” and Jesus was saying, “the King is here.” John knew that he was paving the way for Jesus because when John’s disciples complained about Jesus’ popularity John said, “I must decrease and He must increase.” John made the way for Jesus just as the Old Covenant made way for the New.
The Apostles sermons, that we can find in Acts, argued this continuity between the Old Testament and the New. They were careful to point out that this belief in Jesus was not some new fangled religion but rather the fulfillment of all that was foretold by the prophets. Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s covenant that goes all the way back to Abraham.
I believe the Jesus’ embrace of John and the Apostles’ respect for the prophets model for us today how we should view the relationship between the Old Testament and the New Testament. We should see the redemption story as one long seamless story that begins in Genesis and ends in the Revelation. You have heard me say before that we were taught in seminary “The New is in the Old concealed, the Old is in the New revealed.” If you know the Old Testament well then you will have all kinds of “aha” moments as you read the New Testament. For example if you know the story of the Passover in the Old Testament then the institution of the Lord’s Supper in the New Testament becomes even more meaningful. And if you know the New Testament well then you will see all kinds of types and shadows as you read the Old. As when Jacob has a dream and sees a ladder connecting heaven to earth and you realize that this is a foreshadowing of Jesus who will connect God to man and man to God. Jesus tells us as much in John’s Gospel. Embracing both Old and New and seeing the interplay of the two Covenants increases your confidence that this is truly the inspired Word of God.
I bring this up because it seems that it is growing in popularity today for Christians to ignore and in some cases outright reject the Old Testament. I have had some conversations where it is suggested by others that the two Testaments reveal two different gods. The god of the Old Testament they see as angry and vengeful while the god of the New Testament they see as love and forgiveness. But this is such a superficial summary of the two Testaments. Is the God revealed in Psalm 23 an angry and vengeful God? And no one speaks more of hell and everlasting damnation than Jesus. Even a cursory knowledge of the two Testaments will show that they do not reveal two separate gods. They reveal the unfolding plan of One God in Trinity of Persons redeeming a people for His own possession. So just as Jesus embraced John, we New Testament people should embrace the Old Testament and see it as one story that leads to its ultimate conclusion in Christ.
A further reason that Jesus was baptized was to fully identify with sinful man. Think of the gods and goddess that the Romans and Greeks worshipped. They were aloof on Mt. Olympus. They sometimes pitied mankind, often were angry with mankind and regularly had to be appeased. Some even found sport in human suffering and mortality.
Jesus could not be more different. In Christ God becomes one of us. He is born in the humblest of conditions and becomes a model for us in all things. He leaves His heavenly throne and humbles Himself before He calls us to leave all and follow Him. He submits to baptism before He ordains that we are to be baptized. He washed the disciples’ feel before He calls on us to serve one another. He suffers before He calls on us to take up our cross and die daily. He proves His love for the world before He calls on us to love one another. Everyone of us who is a leader or a parent can rightfully be accused at one time or another of being the incarnation of the saying, “Do what I say not what I do.” But this can never be said of Jesus. He became one of us, except for sin, and identifies with us in every way, even in the waters of baptism. Here too He connects the two Covenants. He was circumcised which is how you enter the Old Covenant and He was baptized which is how you enter the New Covenant. He experienced it all. He is one with us.
What impact does all of this have on us and our daily journey? Let me suggest several things.
First because Christ fulfilled all righteousness we don’t have to. Don’t get ahead of me and think that I am saying that we are free from righteousness and therefore can do whatever we want to do. What I am saying is that Christ had to fulfill all righteousness because we never could. He kept all of the law because we could not. He took on our sin and instead through grace gives us His righteousness. St. Paul put it this way in 2 Corinthians. “We implore you, be reconciled to God. For our sake He made him (Jesus) to be sin who knew no sin, so that we might become the righteousness of God.” (20,21).
A practical application of knowing that Christ fulfilled all righteousness so that we don’t have to is that it frees us from legalism. As a teenager who wanted desperately to walk as a disciple I fell into legalism. This in turn filled me with guilt because I wasn’t good at keeping the laws. I believed that Jesus had forgiven me of my past sins and I may not have ever put it into these words but my daily walk was as if Jesus had simply replaced one set of laws for a new set of laws. My daily walk was not about grace, it was about trying to keep God pleased with me. My obedience was not as a result of love, it was really an attempt to earn God’s favor. Again I never would have put it into these words but my legalism was saying “If you are a really good boy then God will love you.” What I should have been saying to myself is “Through grace I have been accepted in the Beloved and I am living in a kingdom that cannot be shaken.” Jesus has fulfilled all righteousness and cloaks us in His righteousness. We don’t have to keep trying to earn God’s love.
Second, Jesus’ connection with John and uniting the New and Old Covenants gives us an ancient story with deep roots that makes us less vulnerable to cults and false religions and being led away by false prophets. Our ancient story tells us who we are and ultimately why we are here and where we are going and that knowledge is a real gift in this life.
I read a story last week of a writers experience with Scientology. It teaches that 75 million years ago a being called Xenu brought billions of people to earth on spacecrafts resembling DC8s. He placed them around volcanoes and blew them up with hydrogen bombs. This released billions of fallen souls called thetans and these are what attaches to us today and cause our suffering. But for a price Scientology will help you neutralize the effects of your thetans.
Now I have to admit, that story is a little more exciting than that of Father Abraham but if you ask me which one is more believable, I would have to say Father Abraham by a nose (or several thousand). Actually it boggle the mind that anyone could fall for this nonsense but if you don’t know the real story then you are vulnerable to anything.
Third, Jesus being fully identified with sinful man makes Him the One and only One to whom we should flee for refuge and strength. Hebrew 4 says, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weakness, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then draw near with confidence to the throne of grace that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” We don’t have to pay money to have our thetans removed. All we have to do is call on the Name of the one who is fully man and fully God.
So that is why Jesus was baptized and why the Church has us celebrate it. 5th century Bishop, Maxiumus of Turin said that Jesus’ baptism sanctified the waters for our baptism. That is not only a beautiful image it is the truth. If you have been cleansed in those waters then you can be at peace that like Delmar, all yours sins is washed away, even if you knocked over the Piggly Wiggly in Yazoo. Amen.