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"...if anyone makes the assistance of grace depend on the humility or obedience of man and does not agree that it is a gift of grace itself that we are obedient and humble, he contradicts the Apostle who says, "What have you that you did not receive?" (1 Cor. 4:7), and, "But by the grace of God I am what I am" (1 Cor. 15:10). (Council of Orange: Canon 6)

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  • « David Wells on "Churchless Christianity" | Main | The Love of Christ Is Rich and Free »

    Images of the Savior (4 – His Baptism)

    Matthew 3:16,17 And Jesus, when he was baptized, went up straightway out of the water: and, lo, the heavens were opened unto him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and lighting upon him: And lo a voice from heaven, saying, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.


    Our need as the children and heirs of Adam is desperate. If we would find again the sweet fellowship that we enjoyed with our Creator in the garden, we must not only be free from all guilt; but more than that, we must possess a positive righteousness. How desperate a case this is, when even our best righteousnesses “are as filthy rags” (Isaiah 64:6), and not only contribute nothing to our being acceptable with God, but actually distance us further from him! But ah, how sweet is the comforting truth that our Savior made it his task to fulfill all righteousness for us, and thus to be uniquely fitted with everything we need to come into renewed fellowship with God. This is the lesson we must learn from the account of our Savior’s baptism.

    The baptism of Christ is the dawn of his public ministry, his decisive entrance into the work that, for the rest of his life, would thrust him into the scrutinous observation of all Judea. The first thirty years of his life were spent in obscurity; the remainder would turn every eye to behold his mighty deeds, and fill every ear with his powerful teachings. For the first thirty years, he was meek and lowly; but surely now, as he finally steps into his public life, he would signal his entrance by some high and glorious event which would manifestly declare that this humble carpenter’s son is in fact the Son of the Most High God – but no, instead he makes his public debut by being numbered with sinners, by coming under the baptism of repentance, by submitting to the ministry of one who was truly unworthy even to lift the latchet of his sandals. It is a difficult and staggering truth that our holy Savior embarked upon his public ministry by being baptized as a sinner; and in order that we might not stumble at it, as John himself initially did, we must attune our ears to the whisperings of the Spirit of Christ, as he uses the scriptures to instruct us of the rich meaning of this occasion. To this end, let us consider Matthew’s account of our Savior’s baptism.

    We should not be surprised that even John, who knew so much of what Christ had come to accomplish, being chosen from the womb as his herald and forerunner, was initially reluctant to take part in this first sign of our Savior’s public ministry. Was not this humiliation far greater than anything he had seen so far? Christ had humbled himself by stooping to become one of us, the Creator taking on the nature of his own creation. He had humbled himself further by entering the lowliest ranks of mankind, poor, despised, unknown, unremarkable. He had humbled himself by becoming the helpless object of a king’s mad fury, and had borne his bloody rage with meekness. But in all these degradations, being numbered with the lowly and oppressed, he had at least been noticeably separate from man’s great wickedness. He had not yet been numbered with man the sinner. Perhaps John should have remembered Isaiah’s prophecy so many years before, that, “He was numbered with the sinners” (Isaiah 53:12). But the reality of this truth is so staggering, that, when the time of its fulfillment finally arrived, wondering unbelief obscured the understanding even of John, the chosen herald of Christ.

    Such deep condescension and humiliation was beyond John’s understanding. “I have need to be baptized by you,” he exclaimed; how then is it that “you come to me?” How could it be that the spotless Lamb of God should undergo the baptism of repentance as though he had anything of which to repent? Moreover, how could it be that the sinless Savior of the world should submit to be baptized by John, himself a sinful man who was unworthy of even the lowliest tasks of service to our Lord? John understood the subservient nature of his own ministry – had he not declared to his disciples from the beginning that “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30)? John knew that he stood in need of the true baptism that only Christ could offer – the baptism of the Spirit. He recognized that the baptism he was offering was only a sign of passing safely through the waters of judgment into spiritual life, and that the reality conveyed by that sign, viz, true death to our sinful nature and true life in godliness, could only be given by Christ. How then could he give the sign of baptism to the One who would give its reality to him? And yet, despite John’s aversion to baptizing our Savior, our Savior was willing to be baptized by him

    Let us consider well our Savior’s response. He did not rebuke John or deny the truthfulness of what he had said. It was true that he had no need in himself of John’s baptism. And further, it was true that John stood desperately in need of his baptism with the Spirit. But Christ knew more than John was able to see, and hence he responded, “Suffer it to be so now,” as if to say, “In light of my present position and my present ministry, it is indeed appropriate that I undergo this baptism.” Christ knew that his path to ultimate victory and glory in the work of redemption led him through the valley of deep humiliation. This was his time of humility. This was the time when he would begin to do what he had come to do – to take upon himself our sins, and to follow the Father’s prescriptions for those sins in our stead. Thus Christ was willing to stand in our place, and to do perfectly and flawlessly that which is incumbent upon us. He submitted to God’s command for sinners to repent and be baptized, because he knew that even our sincerest acts of righteousness are shot through with wicked and impure motives. We cannot even repent satisfactorily, and so Christ took this duty upon himself, and discharged it perfectly, so as to win the delight of our Father. This he did for us, and it should succor our weak faith much to meditate thereupon. When even our repentance seems weak and imperfect, let us remember that Christ took this obligation upon himself. Our faith should not stand in the intensity of our repentance, but in the perfection of Christ’s work.

    Let us note as well Christ’s further response to John, “Thus it becomes us to fulfill all righteousness.” How comfortable is this truth! If we would have the fatherly delight and acceptance of God, it is not enough that we be cleared of all guilt from our evil deeds; we must also follow perfectly all his righteous commands. The man who does his neighbor no wrong, and yet does not love him, is no more fitted to be God’s child than the man who performs positive acts of hatred against his brother. So Christ came, not only to suffer God’s wrath against our sins, but also to fulfill perfectly every command God had uttered. The exchange made upon the cross was twofold: Christ took our sins upon himself, and he also gave his obedience to us. In order to accomplish a sufficient obedience, he was obligated to fulfill, in spirit as well as in letter, every command of God to which we were obligated. If God would accept us without compromising his perfect justice, he must see every command perfectly obeyed. And since we are incapable of obeying even the least of these commands with perfect hearts, Christ undertook to obey all of them for us. In order to accomplish this great work, he numbered himself among sinners, and submitted to all those things which we as sinners ought to have done. Thus, as we look upon Jesus at his baptism, we meet in the sight the most comforting image yet of the Savior of the world.

    Our next glimpse of Christ at his baptism is immediately upon his coming out of the water, when the heavens are opened unto him, the Spirit descends upon him as a dove, and the Father speaks to him from heaven. We may derive tremendous comfort from this further glimpse, first, because it indicates to us that the Father has indeed accepted the perfect obedience of the Son, and has been well pleased with what he has done. We must understand that this audible voice came from heaven, not because of Christ, who already knew that his obedience was acceptable to the Father, but so that we who have fled to Christ for refuge might have a strong foundation for consolation. Christ may well have said here, as he did on another occasion, “This voice came not because of me, but for your sakes” (John 12:30). In this expression of God’s delight, we hear both an echo of the Father’s former words of Christ, “My servant, whom I uphold; mine elect, in whom my soul delights” (Isaiah 42:1); and as well a testimony of the later assurance that “he has made us accepted in the beloved one,” that is, in Christ (Ephesians 1:6). In Christ is the Father’s delight; therefore, all who are in him dwell in the delight of the Father.

    We may also derive comfort from the descent of the Spirit upon Christ. If Christ was indeed to baptize us with the Holy Spirit, as John testified of him (Matthew 3:11; Mark 1:8; Luke 3:16), then it was fitting indeed that the Spirit should so visibly come upon him, that we might assure our hearts that the Spirit is indeed Christ’s to give to us. Moreover, it is deeply comforting that even Christ himself did not pursue his ministry by his own power, as he might well have done, but he was empowered and guided by the Holy Spirit; as Isaiah declares of him, “The Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him” (Isaiah 11:1), and as the evangelists testify that all Christ did, he did by the power of the Holy Spirit (e.g. Luke 4:1,14,18-21). If Christ performed his ministry by the power of the Holy Spirit, and if he sent that same Holy Spirit to fit us for the carrying out of our ministry, how strong a hope do we have that no exigency can arise which could ever hinder us from accomplishing our mission of spreading the kingdom of Christ to the end of the world; and that no calamity could ever keep us from pressing on through every difficulty, in order finally to enter that kingdom ourselves.

    How fitting for our instruction that the Spirit took the form of a dove, just as that dove which brought the good news to Noah that the waters of God’s wrath were abated from the face of the earth so long ago. The dove is of all birds the most innocent, pure, peaceable, and mild. So Christ was empowered by the Spirit to perform the gentle ministry of bringing reconciliation to a lost world. “I have put my Spirit upon him,” God testifies; and therefore, “He shall not cry, nor lift up, nor cause his voice to be heard in the street. A bruised reed shall he not break, and the smoking flax shall he not quench: he shall bring forth judgment unto truth” (Isaiah 42:1-3). How mild, how gentle, how peaceful and comforting a truth this is for us weary and desperate sinners! We are all bruised reeds, ready to fail utterly at the slightest breath of opposition, and Christ, the gentle physician of our souls, tenderly binds up our wounds and heals our deep diseases and distresses. This is a marvelous truth. But it is more marvelous yet that he heals our diseases by taking them upon himself. Christ our Savior, who alone deserves no evil, took all of our infirmities upon himself so that we who truly deserve them might be delivered! “Surely he has borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows” (Isaiah 53:4). Let us gaze long at this blessed image of our Savior, and drink deeply of the comforts that it provides for our desperate souls.

    Posted by Nathan on August 15, 2006 10:52 PM

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