“Fulfilling All Righteousness: Jesus’ Example of Baptism” (Matt. 3:13-17 sermon)

Adoniram Judson was born in 1788, and grew up in Massachusetts as the United States was in its infancy. He graduated as the valedictorian of his class at Brown University, and after graduation wrote 2 books, one on grammar, and one on math. Not long after, Judson was saved, and felt the call to go overseas on mission, and he sailed to India, where our Brother Ray Miller is right now, as a missionary.
But on the boat ride over, an extraordinary thing happened. Judson was translating the Bible from the original language, the Greek New Testament, into the language of the Indian peoples he wanted to minister to. But as he translated and studied the scriptures, he began to see that the meaning of the Greek New Testament word for baptism, and the clear practice of New Testament Christianity, was that baptism was by immersion — dipping under water. In one of the most courageous acts of conviction in religious history, Judson wrote back to the mission agency that was supporting him, and told them that he had to resign, because they believed in baptism by sprinkling, and that was no longer his belief. In India, Judson found Baptist missionary William Carey who baptized him and his wife. But now he and Ann were stranded, without any human means of support, in a huge, foreign land. Ann wrote back to a friend, “We feel that we are alone in the world, with no real friend but each other, no one on whom we can depend but God.” But their hearts were at peace, because they knew they were right before God — and the Lord would bless that conviction, and use Adoniram Judson in an amazing way: using him to translate the Bible into the language of Burma, and start 100 churches with 8000 believers there before his death.

I dare say that most of us today have not heard of Adoniram Judson. We don’t know his story; and we don’t have his convictions. But we would do well to rediscover both. Judson had strong beliefs regarding baptism, but he got them primarily through his study of scripture, supplemented by what he read in church history. Baptism is one of the most important elements of Christianity; it is one of its two ordinances, and it is the rite of initiation into the Christian Church. And we find the example of One greater than Adoniram Judson, in the Person of Jesus Christ, here in Matthew 3:13-17:

“Then Jesus arrived from Galilee at the Jordan coming to John, to be baptized by Him. But John tried to prevent Him, saying, ‘I have need to be baptized by You, and do you come to me?’ But Jesus answering said to him, ‘Permit it at this time; for in this way it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.’ Then he permitted Him. After being baptized, Jesus came up immediately from the water; and behold the heavens were opened, and He saw the Spirit of God descending as a dove and lighting on Him, and behold a voice out of the heavens said, ‘This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased.'”
“To be baptized by him.”

A. The Mode.

What does this mean when it says that Jesus came to be “baptized”? Many of us have heard this word “baptism” so many times, but what does it really MEAN? We often think of this as a “religious” word that describes a particular religious ritual; but the original Greek Bible word actually has a very simple meaning.

The Greek word “bapto” means “to dip.” The classic Greek writer Homer used the word of “dipping” an axe head in water. The word was used frequently of the process of dying cloth; dipping it in the solution to give it the desired color. This word was used in several Greek historical accounts of ships sinking, or of drowning.
— In the Greek translations of the Old Testament, baptizo is used to translate how Naaman the leper “dipped” himself 7 times in the Jordan River, and came out healed of his leprosy.
— In the New Testament, Moises Silva’s New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology and Exegesis (NIDNTTE for short! ;-), THE best Greek lexicon today, says the word “bapto” “always has the physical meaning ‘to dip.'”
So there is really no debate; the meaning of the word “bapto” or “baptizo” is very clear: it means, “to dip”; to be immersed; to go under the water.

So why is there confusion about this today? Because of some traditions that developed AFTER some years of Christianity. About 300 years after Christ, many in the church had begun to veer away from belief in salvation by faith alone; and they had begun trusting in the act of baptism itself to save them. So many of them would wait until they were very old to be baptized, so all the sins they committed in their lives would be washed away. Well it was hard to immerse someone on their death bed, so they sprinkled them instead. And in the same way they worried about their children: how can they be saved if they have not been baptized? So they began sprinkling their children too. So over time this became the custom of the Roman Catholic church, but it did not come from the scriptures, or from the practice of the early church.

So for some hundreds of years, the church practiced this “sprinkling” in place of Biblical baptism. So when they translated the scriptures, they did not want to translate the word “baptizo” to mean “dip” — because they weren’t doing it! The translators basically said, “If we translate that as ‘dip’ or ‘immerse’; it would cause an upheaval in the church!” So what they decided to do was instead of translating the word, they would “transliterate” it instead: which means you just take the English letters that make the sound of that Greek word, and use that. The Greek word is “baptizo”, so they just “transliterated” it and made this new word “baptize”, which we have used ever since. But the word means “dip.” It means “immerse.” It word means to go under the water. Significantly, even theologians who today advocate sprinkling for “baptism” freely admit that the original word has no other meaning than to be dipped under the water.

Adoniram Judson wrote: “Though I read extensively on the subject, I could not find that any learned (person) had ever been able to produce an instance, from any Greek writer, in which it had meant sprinkling, or anything but immersion.” (Judson, p. 108).

And of course that is what we see Jesus doing here. He came to be “baptized” — “immersed, dipped under the water” by John. There are several other factors here which support that meaning:
— First of all, that they were doing this at the Jordan River, where there was plenty of water to immerse a person. They didn’t do it by roadside, out of a pot they sprinkled people with; it was at the River where they could be immersed, because that is what baptism IS!
— In fact, the Book of John even more specifically spells this out: John 3:23 says that after Jesus began His ministry, “John also was baptizing at Aenon near Salim, because there was much water there.” Now, why would you have to have “much water” there? Because you needed enough to immerse, or dip, the person under the water.
— And then near the end of our present chapter, Matthew 3, verse 16 tells us that after He was baptized, “Jesus came up immediately from the water.” So He had been IN the water, being immersed — because that is what baptism IS: it is being immersed in water!

In his famous sermon on baptism, Adoniram Judson says that it is surely interesting to note that every branch of the Greek Church baptizes by immersion. Judson said, “The Greek people certainly understand their own language, better than any foreigners” — and they all baptize by immersion! (Judson, p. 22)

Judson didn’t want to give up his mission support by changing his views on Baptism, but he was the valedictorian at Brown University; he was a scholar. He studied this. And he wrote of his research: “Never, by any Christians, in any age, was sprinkling or pouring allowed in common cases, until the Council of Ravenna, assembled by the pope, in the year 1311.” (One thousand three hundred years after the time of Christ!) He wrote: “(Sprinkling) was not, however, admitted into England till the middle of the 16th century, and not sanctioned until the middle of the 17th, when the Westminster assembly, influenced by Dr. Lightfoot, decided that ‘the dipping of the person is water, is not necessary …”. So almost 1700 years after Christian baptism had been instituted, a group decides that you don’t have to be immersed to be baptized. Judson’s conscience couldn’t go along with changing what had been orthodox Christian practice for almost 2000 years. (That applies to a lot of things, by the way. When you start coming up with “new” interpretations and practices which contradict what the church of the Lord Jesus Christ has held for 2000 years, you can be pretty sure those new beliefs and practices are WRONG!)

And Judson was right. Those who had changed the Christian practice to sprinkling, were wrong. Baptism is clearly, both in scripture and in early church faith & practice, the dipping of a believer in water upon their confession of Jesus Christ as Lord & Savior.

And while these verses do not give us a complete treatise on every aspect of baptism, we DO see at least hints regarding several other important truths about baptism here:

B. The Symbol

As important as baptism is, and we will talk some more about that later, baptism does NOT save a person. It is a symbol, that pictures by the washing of water, the washing away of the sins of our soul.

John had said earlier in :11, “As for me, I baptize you with water for repentance … (but he said) HE will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” We talked a couple of weeks ago about how that “baptism in the Spirit” is what Jesus came to bring each person who follows Him: the very Spirit of GOD HIMSELF would come into their life and make them new. John said, this water baptism doesn’t do that; this is just a symbol; this is just a picture. Jesus when He comes, HE is going to do the “real thing.” This act of baptism, though important, is just symbolic of that.

And that is what Christian baptism is. It is a symbolic dipping of a person in water; an outward act that pictures an inward reality. But the symbol of baptism does not save the person. It is calling on Jesus to save you that does.

I Peter 4:21 is a verse that many people misunderstand. It says: “Corresponding to this, baptism now saves you.” Some people look at that and say, “See, baptism DOES save!” But that verse goes on to say: “NOT the removal of dirt from the flesh” — in other words, not the physical water of baptism — “but an appeal to a good conscience through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.” So this verse is saying that it is not the physical act of baptism that saves a person, but faith in Jesus. Baptism is only a symbol; a picture of what Jesus does for us when He saves us.

I liken baptism to a wedding ring. A wedding ring too is a symbol, of a person’s commitment to another person as long as they both shall live. Like baptism, it is an outward symbol, of an inward commitment. But the symbol itself does not make you married. Many people wear a ring on the 2nd finger of their left hand, so people will think they are married, for various reasons, but they are not in fact married at all. They have never gone through the ceremony — and most importantly, they don’t have the inward commitment of the heart that the ring represents. The ring is just the symbol — an important symbol — of the inward commitment that is really what is important.

Baptism is very much like that wedding ring. Baptism is an important outward symbol of an inward, heart, commitment to Jesus Christ, because of what He has done for you. And that is what we believe and teach about baptism as Baptists. As important as we believe that baptism is, we also believe it is not so important that it saves a person. It is a symbol of what saves you. But do not put your trust in it. If someone asks you: “Are you going to heaven?”, do not say, “Oh, yes, I have been baptized.” There will be millions of people who have been baptized, in hell. Being dipped in water never saved anyone. You must have the inner reality that the baptism represents: your heart must be cleansed by the blood of Jesus Christ, and you must the seal of God’s Holy Spirit who is present in your heart.

C. The Triune God

It is poignant here that the Bible says that as soon as Jesus was baptized, He went up from the water, and the Spirit of God descended upon Him as a dove, and then the voice of God the Father cried out from the heavens: “This is My Beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.”
These two verses are often cited because they contain reference to the Trinity: the Christian belief in One Eternal God who exists eternally as Three Distinct Persons: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. We’ll look at the Doctrine of the Trinity in some more detail next week, Lord willing as we finish our study in Matthew 3.

But the important thing to remember today is that the Trinity IS found here, at Jesus’ experience of baptism. This is important because later, in Matthew 28:18-20, when Jesus gives the command for all of His disciples to be baptized, He commands them to be baptized “in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”

So the Trinity seems to be intrinsically linked with baptism. And this is understandable, because as we shall see next week (if the Lord wills) the Trinity is no “minor doctrine”; it is at the heart of Christian belief. Each Person of the Trinity has a part in our salvation. I Peter 1:2 says You are “chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, by the sanctifying work of the Spirit, to obey Jesus Christ and be sprinkled with His blood.” Peter says God the Father chose you in His foreknowledge; God the Son shed His blood on the cross for you, and God the Holy Spirit does the actual work of making you “born again” and building His holiness into your life. Each person of the Triune God is at work in you when you are saved, and Jesus commanded us to be baptized in the Name of this Triune God: Father, Son & Holy Spirit.

That’s why as we lower a person into the water for baptism we say, “I baptize you my brother in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” It’s not just a “Baptist Tradition”; this is the scriptural command of Jesus. And that command is foreshadowed here in this passage on Jesus’ baptism at the end of Matthew 3, which involves each Person of the Triune God.

So even though Matthew 3 does not give us a full “theological treatise” on baptism, it does teach us plenty about baptism: that it is the immersion in water, of a person who is committing their heart to Jesus, in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. The question is: Have you done that? Have you followed Christ as your Lord & Savior, and have you been dipped in water in His Triune name as an outward symbol of your commitment to Him?



In that light, notice finally the commitment that Jesus exhibited towards baptism. When Jesus came to John the Baptist to be baptized, :14 says that John actually tried to STOP Him, saying: “I have need to be baptized by You, and do You come to me?” John was saying, Jesus, YOU don’t need to be baptized.
But notice how committed Jesus was to it. He didn’t say that He was a sinner, and needed to be baptized for His sins, because He didn’t. But He was committed to be baptized, first of all, because He came to represent US. Hebrews 2 says “He had to be made like His brethren in all things” to be our representative on the cross. So He did what WE have to do: He submitted Himself to baptism.

You know what? If any of us feels like we are “too proud” to be baptized: we need to take a look at the example of Jesus. He was the Son of God! He was “equal with God” Philippians 2 says, God Himself, who in a literally inconceivable act of condescension humbled Himself to go from the limitless glory of heaven to become a limited flesh & blood man — and then He humbled Himself even more by being baptized when by all standards He didn’t “need” to. And yet He also knew that in a way He did “need” to; to represent us as our Savior; to fulfill all righteousness. So he humbled Himself yet again and submitted to one of the men His hands made, to be baptized.

Sometimes we have to humble ourselves in baptism. I have shared before my wife Cheryl’s testimony, how when she was about 6 years old, she came forward with a bunch of other kids in her church during an emotional revival meeting, and made a “profession of faith” and was baptized. But when she was in high school, she experienced a broken heart, and realized there was no one in her heart to help her, so she called out to the Lord to really save her — and that is what she considers to be her real salvation experience. Well, some years later, after we were married, I was preaching in our first church in Oklahoma City, a message like this one, on baptism. Cheryl was convicted that since she was really saved in high school, after her baptism as a child, she knew she needed to be scripturally baptized, after her real profession of faith. But can you imagine how she felt? SHE WAS THE PASTOR’S WIFE! She was sitting up in the choir, right behind me. She was gonna have to get down out of the choir, in front of everyone, choir robe on and everything — and go tell me she needed to be baptized. It had to be a humbling experience. But you know what: Jesus humbled Himself for us. And He calls us to humble ourselves, and follow in His steps in baptism. It might be a humbling experience: you might say:
— Pastor, I’m 60 years old, and I’m set in my ways, and that would just be really humbling for me to do that.
— Or, pastor, I’m a teenager, and all my friends will see me; that would be really hard to do.
We’ve all got our excuses. But the truth is this: if you won’t humble yourself and follow Jesus in baptism, how much confidence can you have that you are really following Him at all? No, baptism doesn’t save you, but it does say a lot about whether you are obeying Jesus and following His example.

I know there are people who take refuge against being baptized by saying: “Well, I don’t have to be baptized to be saved. The thief on the cross wasn’t baptized. You can be saved and not be baptized.” That’s true, but listen:

— Baptism is when a person makes their public commitment to Christ. In the early church it was baptism that was considered to be their “profession of faith.”
— Baptism is the first act of obedience that Jesus Christ commands you to make, as your Lord.
When you are saved, you are saying, I have been going the wrong way with my life; I have been disobeying the Lord, and and now I am repenting of my sins; I am turning back from my rebellion against Christ, and now I am going to obey Jesus as my Lord from this day forward. The basic Christian confession, Philippians 2 tells us, is “Jesus is Lord.” This Jesus whom you say is now your LORD is the One who gave the Great Commission to all His followers, to be BAPTIZED in the name of the Father, and the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” But you, who SAY you are now supposedly “following Jesus Christ as your Lord”, are not going to do the VERY FIRST THING He commanded you to do??!! Can you see why not being baptized would call into question the genuineness of your conversion?

I guarantee you, had the thief on the cross the opportunity, he would have GLADLY hopped right down off of that cross to follow Jesus in baptism. It wasn’t that he WOULDN’T be baptized; it was that he COULDN’T. But he would have gladly followed Christ in baptism. And so should you, if He has really saved you.

No, baptism doesn’t save you. But it is the symbol of your commitment to Jesus as the Lord & Savior of your life. There is something about it that “nails down” your commitment to Him publicly. A baptism service is like your “marriage ceremony” to Jesus; and baptism itself is like the wedding ring. It’s like your “coming out party”; it’s when you “cross the line” to really take a public stand for Him.

We’ve all heard about Christians being persecuted by the Muslims for following Christ. But I also heard a testimony recently where one Christian said: The Muslims don’t really mind that much if you just “say” you believe in Jesus; that’s no big deal. But when you get baptized, that’s when they get upset. Because that’s when they consider that you have “crossed the line” to really take a stand for Him. Some of you here today need to take that stand for Jesus. You need to “come out” publicly for Him, in baptism.

At the end of Adoniram Judson’s epic sermon on baptism, which he preached just after he had landed in India and just before he was himself baptized by William Carey, he said :
“To believe in Christ is necessary to salvation; and to be baptized is the instituted method of professing our belief. It is, therefore, not only an infinitely important question to all men, whether they believe in Christ; but it is also a very important question to all Christians, whether they have been baptized.” (Judson, p. 95). Judson went on to say, “If you love Christ, you cannot consider this question unimportant.” For Jesus said, “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments.” And Jesus’ first commandment for you as His disciple, is to follow His example of baptism.

About Shawn Thomas

My blog, shawnethomas.com, features the text of my sermons, book reviews, family life experiences -- as well as a brief overview of the Lifeway "Explore the Bible" lesson for Southern Baptist Sunday School teachers.
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