At this point we have grown accustomed to the shocking and disruptive voice of John the Baptist. He fulfills his role as the voice crying out in the wilderness. And he has been calling the wayward people of God to repent because the Kingdom of Heaven has come. That is, the active rule and reign of the God, the dominion of our Father in Heaven, has arrived and it has come in the person and work of our Lord Jesus Christ. So, when John is saying, “Repent! For the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand,” He is saying, “Repent, for Jesus is here, the time is now, the Kingdom has come to us!” His Kingdom comes, not as some explosion of might and power in the night sky but in a child born in Bethlehem, and people responded to his message. People were flocking out to John to be baptized by him. This was a symbol of their repentance, a washing of renewal. It was their declaration that they wanted a fresh start, they desired to be ready for the coming Kingdom of God.
The preaching of the Baptist brought forth a confession of sin. In a way, we go through a remarkably similar thing every week when we gather together. We come to church from our various backgrounds, experiences, and challenges, and we hear the proclamation that the rule and reign of God’s Kingdom has come. We hear the declaration that God is present for you, for it is the name of God invoked at the beginning, His name which begins the Order of Worship, His name which defines the space and the purpose for why we gather. “In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” And how do we respond to the announcement that we are gathered in the presence of God? We repent. Together we speak the confession sinners have recited for centuries. “We have sinned against You in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done and by what we have left undone. We have not loved You with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We justly deserve Your present and eternal punishment.”
Like those going out to the Jordan River we repent of our sin. We confess we are empty handed before our God and His coming Kingdom. Our works have failed us. Our ability to climb up toward the heavens have fallen short of His glory and majesty. All we can offer our God is to speak back to Him what He has first spoken to us. So, He says to you, “You have sinned,” and you say to Him, “I have sinned.” He says, “You deserve wrath and punishment,” and you say, “I deserve wrath and punishment.” This is the best you can do. This is the best you have to offer your God: A true confession of your own sin. But even here, we probably hedge our bets a bit. We will confess some things, the obvious things, but we do not want to confess it all. We do not want to admit how deep the sin runs; how pervasive it really is in our life. So, in your own repentance, in your own confession you are given a glimpse of just how dire the situation really is.
Now, if this is confession, if this is repentance, if this is what the baptism by John in the Jordan River was about, then one of the most shocking moments is when John lifts up his eyes looking for the next person to be baptized and sees our Lord Himself standing before him. Why is Jesus standing in that water? Why is the sinless, perfect Son of God standing before John ready to be baptized by him? The text says John gets it. He does not want to do this. He wants to prevent this action and says to Jesus, “I need to be baptized by You, and do You come to me?” I need to confess to You. I need to demonstrate my repentance to You. This does not make sense. This is not right. It should be the other way around.
Jesus then responds to John and says, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Let it be so now. This may not be the eternal reality of things, but here and now this needs to happen. This is why He came. This is what our Lord is supposed to do. C.S. Lewis, in his great work Mere Christianity, has a chapter titled “The Perfect Penitent.” In it he says, “Suppose God became a man… then that person could help us. He could surrender His will, and suffer and die, because He was man; and He could do it perfectly because He was God.” Here in the waters of the Jordan River what we witness is perfect repentance. It is a repentance not for His own sin, not for His own failures but for those of all humanity. For your sin, for your failure, He stands in the water to repent for you. And Jesus does it perfectly. He holds nothing back.
“Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Fulfilling all righteousness is the work of your salvation. Fulfilling all righteousness is the perfect work which justifies you by faith, not by the quality or measure of your works, and not by the depth and power of your own repentance. John must wash the perfect Son of God in the waters of sin and repentance as He atones for you, so righteousness, your righteousness might be sure. Jesus stands in the water because He stands with the sinner. He stands in your place to do what you could not do. It is like our Lord comes into those waters to soak up the sin of mankind, to embrace all that is broken, lowly, and shameful in our lives. He will then bear these sins, all of them, all the way to the cross. He will pay the price such sin deserves. He will endure the just punishment of God. He repents perfectly.
Look at what happens when Jesus does this thing, when He embraces the sins of mankind. He comes up out of the waters of repentance and we read, “Behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on Him; and behold, a voice from Heaven said, ‘This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.’” The whole of our Triune God engages in this work of bearing and sacrificing for your salvation. The Son of God gets in the water, the Spirit of God descends upon Him and remains there, anointing Him as the Christ, the long-awaited Messiah, and the Father speaks. What He says ought to fill your hearts with joy this day. For as you look upon the One who bears your sin, the Father says that in this work, in this action, He is well pleased. This is the One through whom all righteousness will be fulfilled.
John was out there baptizing as a symbol of repentance, as a call to turn and be ready, for the Kingdom of Heaven is coming. But now the Kingdom has come, and things have gone far beyond what anyone had expected, further than anyone was ready for. For God Himself gets into the water to repent for our sins. So, John’s baptism fades into the background and a greater baptism come to the fore. For you are not baptized into John’s baptism but baptized into Christ Himself, into the One who bore your sin, died, and rose from the dead. The washing of regeneration you undergo is not an act of confession but a gift of God. Your baptism is to die and rise with Christ, to put on His righteous deed, to be clothed in His holiness, dressed and ready for the eternal Wedding Feast. You are baptized into the completed work of salvation and are now heirs of all the promises of God.
Jesus stands in the water and is baptized by John because He stands with you. He stands with a sinner like you. He stands there and takes into Himself all your sin, all your failures. He leaves nothing out, nothing beyond His care and provision. So, when the accusations come, when the Old Evil Foe highlights your sin and declares you are anything but righteous, you are guilty and eternal life remains closed to you, you can respond, “Yes, you are right.” “I am not worthy. I have sinned in thoughts, words, and deeds, by what I have done and left undone. But I have already died for those sins. I have already been justified before God, for all righteousness has been fulfilled, not by a single work on my part but in the pure and holy blood of the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world;” my sins, and your sins.