Sinners were coming to the Jordan River to be baptized by John. Why did Jesus, the sinless Son of God, ask to be baptized with that same water? Today, Sinclair Ferguson considers the gospel message that this moment conveys.
On Things Unseen this week, we’ve been thinking about baptism, and I was saying yesterday that it’s a sign that points us away from ourselves to the Lord Jesus Christ. And I was suggesting that we’ll miss its real power and usefulness in our lives if we think that its chief message is to point us to what we ourselves have done. Everything Jesus did was for us. He had no need to do it for Himself. So, when He was baptized Himself, it was for us.
Think back to His baptism for a moment. John the Baptist was baptizing vast numbers of people at the Jordan, summoning them to repent of their sins. When he saw Jesus coming, he cried out, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” God’s lambs, of course, the sacrificial lambs, needed to be without spot or blemish or any such thing. So, it’s not surprising that when Jesus came to John to be baptized, John resisted Him. John was the sinner needing to be baptized, not Jesus.
So, why did Jesus insist on being baptized? That was the question that John himself struggled to answer, and he wasn’t the last to do so. But if we picture the scene, perhaps its significance will become clear to us. We see the great crowds that have come to the river Jordan to be baptized, confessing their sins. And in your mind’s eye for a moment, watch what happens. Do you see what John is doing? He is symbolically washing their sins off of them and into the river Jordan. But now look, Jesus is standing in front of him. You see what John is doing? He is baptizing Jesus with the very water into which those sins have been symbolically washed.
And there’s a profound gospel message in this picture, isn’t there? And it’s profoundly theological too. It’s a picture of the gospel—sinners washing away their sins into the water, but then Jesus Himself being baptized with that sin-polluted water. It’s as though the sins that have washed off these sinners have now washed over the person of the Lord Jesus. A staggering reverse of position is taking place here, what the Reformers used to call the “wonderful exchange.” Jesus is being baptized into our sin so that we might be baptized into His righteousness. Sin filled water pours over Him; cleansing grace flows over us.
So, Jesus saw His baptism at the hands of John as the initial stage that would actually lead to His full and final baptism on the cross. Remember how He said later, “I have a baptism still to be baptized with, and how great is my distress until it’s accomplished”? That’s Luke 12:50. His baptism with water was a sign, a pointer, a confirmation, a seal of the baptism with blood that would be administered to Him on the cross.
At the heart of baptism then lies the fact that it symbolizes our union with Jesus Christ, in which He was made to be sin for us, although He personally knew no sin, in order that we might become in Him the righteousness of God. He would be cursed in order that the blessing promised to Abraham might come to us. He would be wounded for our transgressions and bruised for our iniquities. With His stripes, we would be made whole. He has been baptized into our sin that we might be baptized into His righteousness.
And so our baptism carries this message for us: “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). And therefore, trust Him and repent because in the reality to which the baptism of Jesus points, you will discover what it is to be justified and adopted. And in a sense, the message of our baptism is also this, that God says to us in Christ, “You are My beloved son in whom I am well pleased, and I adopt you into my family.” That’s the message contained in baptism, and it calls us to believe the message.
So, baptism is an ordinance of the gospel. It operates like the gospel. It proclaims by means of a visible sign that we see the very same message that the gospel proclaims to us in words that we hear. And like the gospel it symbolizes, it is a permanent call to us to trust in the Lord Jesus Christ and to repent of our sins.
And this is, again, one of the reasons why it helps us to understand that baptism isn’t first of all a sign of what we do. It’s a sign that calls us to do something—to come to Christ, to live for Christ. And when we see that our baptism reflects Christ’s baptism—first in the river Jordan and then on the cross of Calvary—then every time we’re at a baptism, our own or others, the gospel is being preached to us in order that every day of our lives we might live as baptized Christians. That’s why it’s given to us right at the beginning of the Christian life and stays with us right to the end.