The Water-Baptism of Jesus – by Dr. Bromily
For many Christians the baptism of Jesus seems almost as much of an enigma as it did to the Baptist. It serves as a precedent for our own baptism. It also forms an introduction to Christ’s ministry. And it is linked with a special endowment of the Spirit. But beyond this it seems inappropriate to speak of his baptism as one of repentance for the remission of sins. Does not Jesus forgive sin rather than confess it?
Should he not be the baptizer rather than the baptized? Why then does his ministry begin with a baptism?
The answer is important, for it involves an understanding of the ministry itself as well as of the initiatory act. Indeed, Jesus himself is aware of this, for we remember that he speaks of the baptism that he has yet to accomplish. The baptism stands like a prophetic sign at the beginning of the ministry, showing us what kind of work it is that Jesus is to do. And conversely, the ministry itself sheds light upon the baptism. If the latter seems out of place, the reason is that we do not understand the former.
Our failure to see the significance of Jesus’ baptism means we shall probably miss the real point and meaning of his ministry.
We learn from the baptism, first, that the ministry of Jesus is not just a good-will mission of healing, teaching, and friendly intercourse. It is a ministry of self-identification with sinners. In a sense this is true already in Bethlehem, where the Word is made flesh.
But at Jordan Jesus consciously takes his place among the throngs that crowd down to the water and confess their sins. Or rather, he takes their place, so that the baptism of John finds its focus and fulfillment when Jesus is baptized, and the crowds give way to this one person who has no sin of his own but bears the sin of the world.
In short, the baptism of Jesus shows us that he has entered upon a ministry of substitutionary sin-bearing in which he is not ashamed to be one with us, and to take our place, and to do for us in that place what we cannot do for ourselves—bearing the judgment of sin yet rising to eternal life.
Secondly, we learn from this baptism that the ministry of Jesus is one not merely of life but of a life fulfilled in death and resurrection. He is not just among us and one with us in an act of instruction or even vicarious penitence. Bearing the sin of others in an act of obedience for others, he goes down into the waters in death and rises again to newness of life.
His true baptism is a death and resurrection, the movement of Good Friday and Easter Day. In this death and resurrection he comes under not only the judgment but also the saving grace of God for our sake and in our place. In this death and resurrection he dies the death of the old man of sin and brings in the new man created unto righteousness and true holiness. His ministry is to be one of self-giving for the sinners with whom he identifies himself, in order that they should not die in themselves and therefore eternally, but die in him and rise in him to the new and everlasting life of righteousness and sonship. Thus the baptism of Jesus shows us that the ministry upon which he has entered is one of substitutionary death and resurrection. The old life is judged and done away; a new life graciously and powerfully replaces it.
Thirdly, we see that the baptism of Jesus has the approval of the Father and is the obedient fulfilling of his eternal counsel. His reading of the Old Testament is not in error. He is pursuing no independent or mistaken way. He may be misunderstood by his contemporaries, regarded as mad by his mother and brethren, incomprehensible to John and to his disciples; but in the substitutionary action proclaimed in his baptism he enjoys the testimony of the Father in the voice from heaven. This is the work that God planned from eternity in and with the Son. This is the work that the Son has come into the world to do. From the earthly standpoint, it begins indeed with his birth. But at his baptism he enters upon its conscious fulfillment. And the voice from heaven tells both him and us that, even though he passes under the righteous judgment of God on sin, he does so in obedient fulfillment of the divine purpose of grace and, therefore, with the loving acceptance of the Father.
Fourthly, we are aware from this act that Jesus, on his way of obedient self-giving in our place, enjoys the empowering of the Holy Spirit. Reconciliation of man with God is the work of the whole Trinity—Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. And therefore at this high point when he takes up before our eyes his substitutionary course to carry it to fulfillment at the Cross, it is fitting that Father, Son, and Holy Ghost should all be active. Conceived of the Spirit in his human life, the Son can now go out empowered by the Spirit to teach in the Spirit, heal in the Spirit, offer himself by the Spirit, and be raised in the life-giving power of the Spirit. He is not thrown back upon purely human resources to do this great work of reconciliation, nor does he proudly rely upon human power in isolation from God. He moves forward with this special endowment, humbly drawing his strength from God and therefore having the quiet endurance that can take him through Gethsemane to Gabbatha, Golgotha, and the Garden tomb.
Fifthly, we are given a fresh understanding of the testing and temptation that immediately follow his baptism. Jesus now is subjected to attempts to divert him from the way of service upon which he has entered. Surely there are less difficult and drastic methods of fulfilling his messianic calling. Surely he can enjoy some of the benefits of his special position and powers. There are more convincing and spectacular means of winning applause and allegiance that can make the Cross unnecessary.
To be a benevolent despot crowned with worldly fame and invested with worldly prerogatives is certainly more appealing than to take the road of self-denial, fasting, exhaustive service, agony, and dying in the place of sinners. Surely this latter cannot be the right way, or the necessary way, or the only way. Surely there are other meanings to baptism, if he must be baptized, and therefore to the divine will unfolded in the Old Testament, and to divine approval and divine endowment. But no! “Get thee behind me, Satan.” The road has been entered, and there can be no turning back. The prophetic baptism of Jordan must be fulfilled in the true baptism of the Cross. Every other suggestion, whether directly from the devil or mediately through the disciples, is a temptation to deviation from the way of obedience that is the via dolorosa—yet even as such the way of grace and triumph.
Finally, we learn from the baptism of Jesus something of the meaning of our own baptism as a baptism into Christ and his saving work. It is what Christ has done. It speaks to us of what he has done once for all and all-sufficiently for us in his true baptism. But in so doing it calls for our responsive and corresponding movement. As Christ has identified himself with us, we are to accept this and therefore our identification with him. As he has died and risen again in our stead, we are to accept this and therefore to deny ourselves, to renounce the old life, and to be by faith the new men that we are in him. As he has the approval of the Father and the empowering of the Spirit, we are to accept the same, to know that we are accepted in the Beloved, to cry “Abba, Father,” and to be born and live by the Spirit and his outpouring. As he resisted temptation for us, we are likewise to resist every tempting byway in Christian life and service, and resolutely set ourselves to follow the narrow way that for us, too, will be the way of humility and obedience—the way of the Cross.