Summary: Make sense of the purpose of Jesus' baptism and it's ongoing comfort.
When U.S. astronaut Neil Armstrong became the first person to place a boot onto the moon’s surface, he intoned: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” Armstrong meant of course that the distance from the bottom rung of the lunar lander to the moon’s surface was not far—nothing but a small step. But for Armstrong to be in such a position to be able to step onto the moon meant a giant leap in mankind’s technological ability. That mission to the moon had involved 400,000 engineers, technicians, and scientists from 20,000 companies and the military at a cost of $150 billion dollars in today’s money.
Did you know that we too have benefitted from that 1969 mission to the moon? Technology invented for the lunar mission has found its way into our lives—things like better shock absorbers for shoes, cordless drills, miniature heart monitors and a dozen other inventions. Armstrong’s moon-landing pronouncement, therefore, was not overstated.
About two thousand years before Armstrong stepped onto the moon, another man took a small step which resulted in an even greater leap for mankind. When Jesus waded into the Jordan River to be baptized both he and we were forever changed. Let’s find out how Jesus’ baptism was one small step for the Man-God, and one giant leap for mankind.
Jesus was 30 years old when he came to the Jordan River to be baptized by his cousin John. But when he made his request, John objected: “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” (Matthew 3:14) Jesus’ desire for baptism was as strange as if I would ask you to bleach a white t-shirt I had just bought. “But it’s already snow white!” you would protest. And so was Jesus. Not a speck of sin clung to him. Why did he need baptism? John’s objection highlights the truth that baptism is not just a mere ceremony; it does something. It washes away sin in accordance with God’s promise. So why would Jesus, the sinless Son of God, request baptism? Jesus acknowledged John’s objection but stated: “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness” (Matthew 3:15).
What did Jesus mean that his baptism would “fulfill all righteousness”? It can’t mean that Jesus wanted to be baptized because this was another item on his to-do list from the heavenly Father. If so, John would have praised Jesus for desiring baptism. Like Jesus we don’t seek baptism simply because this is what God has told us to do. He has of course, but not to test our faithfulness, instead to assure us of his faithfulness. Baptism is not what we do for God; it’s what God does for us. Why then would we want to reject or even put off receiving the blessings of baptism? People will do that, however, when they don’t know what the blessings of baptism are. So let’s get back to our text so I can show you how Jesus’ one small step into the Jordan River was indeed a giant leap for mankind.
When Jesus told John that he needed to be baptized to fulfill all righteousness, what he meant can be easily understood if we picture the scene where John was baptizing. Since all of Judea was coming out to be baptized by John there must have been hundreds of people waiting in line for their turn. Among those sinners now stood Jesus, the sinless Son of God who had no need for baptism. And so we ask again: what’s he doing there? He didn’t belong! But then again Jesus didn’t belong in most of the places we find him during his earthly ministry. He didn’t belong in a manger as a helpless babe. And he certainly didn’t belong on a cross, dying like a common thief. What was he doing in those places? He was saving us from sin by taking our place. That’s also why Jesus stepped into the Jordan River. He was signalling his intent to take our place under God’s judgment. (Paul Janke)
Now if I had been directing Jesus’ ministry, I would have told him to walk on not into the waters of the Jordan River. After all John already had everyone whipped into a frenzy to expect the Messiah. What a grand entrance that would have been had Jesus chosen that time and place to walk on water. But it was actually harder for Jesus to walk into the water of the Jordan River than it would have been for him to walk on it. Why? Because hundreds of sinners had been in that water before Jesus. How “clean” do you suppose the water was? Oh, I’m not talking about the sweat and grime that would have washed off and was now eddying around John in glistening pools. I’m talking about the sin that washed off with the application of baptism—sin which Jesus, as the Son of God, would have easily detected with his omniscient eyes, and sin which would have turned his stomach as the holy one of God. It looked like a small step into the Jordan River for Jesus to take, but in reality it was a plunge into hell because eventually all those sins would stick to him instead of to us. That’s why that one small step into the Jordan River was a giant leap for mankind: it brought us to God.