Matthew’s Messiah: His Designation
The words seem so simple, so straight-forward, so matter-of-fact: “Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan to be baptized by him.”
However, when you take the time to ponder those simple words, they turn out to be not so simple and matter-of-fact at all. Actually, they provoke a rather surprising question: Why was Jesus baptized in the first place? I mean, after all, baptism was, and is, for sinners. Why then would the sinless Son of God deliberately submit to a baptism for sinners? He had no guilt for sin. He had no shadowed past. He had no skeletons in his closet. He had nothing for which to be ashamed. Why then would He allow Himself to be baptized?
I think the answer is that Jesus was shattering the pattern. He was dumping over the conventional wisdom of the day. He was introducing something brand new into the world and into the human experience. You see, at that time the people of Israel were looking for a Messiah who would come on clouds of glory with bands of angels—a Messiah who would reign in earthly might and power. But right here at the outset of His ministry, Jesus was saying: “I am the Messiah, but I am not going to be the Messiah in the way that you think. I am not going to save people in the way you expect.” At His baptism, Jesus was hammering out a revolutionary, new approach to what it means to be the Messiah, and if He is going to be our Messiah, then we need to understand clearly and precisely what He was doing. So let’s drop back for a moment and take a hard look at what happened that day when “Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan to be baptized by him.”
Jesus’ baptism was, first of all, a declaration.
The baptism of Jesus declares that Jesus brings us to God. By submitting to baptism, Jesus was identifying Himself with our human condition. He was making the point that we are loved by God even in our sin. We are not simply functioning units who need repairing, physically or psychologically. We are not merely ciphers who contribute to the welfare of the state or the corporate structure, and who, therefore, can be lost in the masses. We are, rather, persons—persons who have been intricately made and profoundly loved by God. To be sure, in our God-created independence, we have rebelled against and wandered away from the loving God who hand-crafted each of us. We are sinners, but Jesus Christ absorbs our guilt and judgement as He identifies Himself with us, even in our sin. That’s the message He was delivering that day when He stepped into the muddy waters of the Jordan River.
Now here is what I want you to see: That was something brand new in the world. There are those who say that Christianity is the custodian of the past, the maintainer of the status quo. Nothing could be further from the truth. It certainly was not true in the time of Jesus. The baptism of Jesus was a total, radical break from the past. Before Jesus, God was inaccessible. Before Jesus, God was bound up with a thousand little rules and regulations which only a handful of technical scribes could decipher. Before Jesus, God was concealed in an elaborate temple, and a sacrificial system and a priestly hierarchy which the average person could never penetrate. Before Jesus, God was behind the veil in the “holy of holies”; God was God by proxy; God was accessible only second-hand. But with Jesus there dawned a new day in the human experience. No more hocus-pocus. No more barriers to belief. No more playing games with a distant deity. The baptism declares that Jesus brings us directly into the presence of God.
That’s what happens when we come into this magnificent room. There are no veils. There are no barriers to keep people away. There are no railings to prevent entrance into the “holy of holies”. There is no demand that if you want to have access to God you’ve got to obey innumerable numbers of laws or you’ve got to contribute innumerable numbers of dollars. None of that is here. And you don’t have to go through me or any of the other ministers here in order to get to God. What you have here is just a plain, ordinary man, sharing my heart, bearing my testimony, nothing between us but the possibility of meeting God in Jesus Christ right here and right now. We don’t have a secret ritual of initiation. We don’t lead people through degrees or steps or anything like that. We don’t whisper any mumbo-jumbo into anybody’s ear. We just say: “God is here and God is available to you in Jesus Christ.” That’s good news, designed to touch your deepest feelings and meet your deepest needs.
Consider please, the witness of Joni Eareckson Tada. She is paralyzed from the neck down. Following her graduation as “Most Athletic Girl” at a Baltimore high school, she broke her neck in a 1967 diving accident. How has she responded to this catastrophe? She has become one of the most radiant, powerful and effective witnesses for Christ in our time. What’s the secret? Listen to her own words: “Somebody has to bathe me and brush my hair and feed me. In a sense, success for me is just getting up in the morning, looking at that wheelchair and saying, ‘Yeah, it’s still here.’ God began His earthly existence in a stinky stable. He got angry. He was lonely. He went without a place to call His own, abandoned by His closest friends. He wept real tears. This is a God I can trust. I know my tears count with Him.”
Amen! That day when Jesus offered Himself to be baptized by John in the River Jordan, that was a new day for us and for our world. Jesus was declaring that He was identifying Himself with us, even to the point of taking our sin and suffering and sorrow as His own. By so doing, Jesus brings us to God.
But even more importantly, perhaps, Jesus’ baptism was also a designation.
You cannot read what happened during the baptism without realizing that Jesus brings God to us. Yes, He brings us to God, but He also brings God to us. In fact, God spoke during the baptism and what He said confirmed that Jesus is God come to us. By the way, do you know that there are only three times when the New Testament tells us that God spoke audibly—and interestingly enough, in all three instances God was delivering the same message. The first instance was at Jesus’ baptism when God said: “This is My Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” The second time was on the Mount of Transfiguration when God said to the disciples: “This is My Son, the Beloved. With Him I am well pleased. Listen to Him.” The third time was when Jesus was within hours of the cross. A crowd was gathered about Him. Suddenly, a voice from heaven said to Jesus: “I have glorified Your name and I will glorify it again.” Each time that God spoke so clearly that all could hear, it was to identify Jesus Christ as His only begotten Son and to designate Him as the Messiah, the Savior of the world.
Nowhere is that more obvious than at the baptism. There the voice of God said two things. The voice of God said: “This is My Son, the Beloved.” And the voice of God said: “With whom I am well pleased.” Now in case you’re not aware of it, both of those phrases are direct quotations from the Old Testament, and when we look at those Old Testament quotations, we discover something quite remarkable. The first phrase—“This is My Son, the Beloved”—is directly drawn from Psalm 2, verse 7. It reads: “I will tell of the decree of the Lord: He said to me ‘You are My Son, today I have begotten You.’” Now what are those words? Those words are in fact, the formula that was spoken whenever Israel crowned its kings. And so at His baptism, when God said: “This is My Son, the Beloved”, Jesus, and everyone else there, knew what it meant. God was saying: “You are the promised Messianic King. You are the Royal Viceroy of Heaven on the streets of the earth.” But there’s more. The second phrase: “with whom I am well pleased” is an exact quotation of Isaiah 42, verse 1. In our Bible it reads: “Here is my servant whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom My soul delights.” And what are those words? Well, those words are part of the great prophecy which predicts that the true Messiah will be One who will suffer and serve. And so at His baptism, when God said: “With whom I am well pleased”, Jesus, and everyone else there knew what it meant. God was saying: “You will be both King and servant combined, for out of Your suffering and sacrifice will come the salvation of the world.”
The message is plain. Jesus the Messiah does not wield His power from a throne. Jesus the Messiah does not save us by waving a magic wand. He saves us by going down into the muddy waters of the Jordan River, thus identifying Himself with us, and then by climbing up on a hideous, blood-stained cross, thus taking our sins away. That means that when we are wicked and evil and need forgiving, when we our sinful and selfish and need a fresh start, when we are in the pits and we say: “I’ve hit rock bottom”, then we discover that right there beside us is the “Rock of Ages”, right there beside us is the Messiah, the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords—God’s beloved Son in whom He is well pleased. Yes, Jesus brings God to us.
Once in a sermon, the great missionary, E. Stanley Jones, told of an interview he had with Mahatma Gandhi. As the conversation drew to a close, Gandhi demanded: “Tell me in one sentence what Jesus Christ means to you.” At first Stanley Jones was shocked under the impact of the question, but then after a moment’s pause he said: “All I want and need of God, that Jesus Christ, my Lord, is to me.”
Dear friends, I could never say it better: All I want and need of God, that Jesus Christ, my Lord, is to me …