May 14, 2014 Broadcast


A Message by R.C. Sproul

After four hundred years of silence, the voice of prophecy resumed in Israel with the arrival of John the Baptist. He came, calling all Israel to repent and be baptized. Jesus’ baptism by John marks the official beginning of His public ministry. In this lecture, Dr. R.C. Sproul looks closely at the baptism of Jesus, explaining how significant it was in his life and how relevant it is for our salvation.

From the series: What Did Jesus Do?: Understanding the Work of Christ

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Further Study On This Topic

  1. devotional

    The Meaning of Baptism

  2. article

    Baptizing Them

  3. devotional

    The Baptism of Christ

The Meaning of Baptism

Paul tells us in Romans 4:11 that circumcision, and therefore baptism (Col. 2:8–15), is a sign. Now signs, it is well known, point beyond themselves to signify something else, but they are not in themselves that which they signify. For example, a sign on a highway reading “Washington D.C., 23 miles” points to a city 23 miles away, but the sign is not the city of Washington. Likewise, baptism signifies something beyond itself but in itself is not the thing that is signified.

Today’s passage alludes to some of the realities to which baptism points. First is our ingrafting into Christ and His body. In John 15:1–17, Jesus describes Himself as the vine in whom we the branches must abide. We must be ingrafted into this vine by faith — we must enter into a living, vital, and salvific relationship with Him. This idea is prevalent in the New Testament where to believe in the Lord is to believe “into” (from the Greek word eis) Christ. Moreover, when we trust in Jesus we are not alone. The Christian community enters into union with the Savior by believing in His name. If I am in Christ and my friend is in Christ, we experience union with each other in some sense. We all become part of the “one body,” as today’s passage indicates. Paul also describes this union with other Christians in Romans 11:11–24, where believing Gentiles become one with faithful Israelites.

Baptism also signifies regeneration and the remission of sins (John 3:5; Acts 2:38). Apart from the direct work of the Holy Spirit, we are dead in sin and cannot trust in Jesus. He alone can renew our hearts and create a disposition inclined toward God and His Messiah (Eph. 2:1–10). The sacrament of baptism signifies that the Lord has done this for His people — He has regenerated our hearts. Water symbolizes the new life the Spirit brings, and its washing effect points to the cleansing from sin that results from faith in Christ.

Finally, having the sign does not necessarily mean we have the reality. We can trust in the rite of baptism without having faith, and if so, neither ingrafting, regeneration, nor remission has happened. But for those of faith, the Holy Spirit works through baptism to remind them of His work and, consequently, to strengthen faith.

Baptizing Them

J.V. Fesko

I think that when people look at baptism, they have a thin understanding as to why Jesus commanded that we baptize His disciples. Most people likely associate the water with cleansing, which is an accurate connection given the prophet Ezekiel's message that God would sprinkle water upon His people (Ezek. 36:25). Cleansing from sin, however, is but one element in the meaning and significance of baptism.

Rather than being focused upon the individual, God uses water in connection with the broader context of redemptive history. All throughout Scripture, water and Spirit appear in contexts that unfold new creation imagery. The Holy Spirit hovered over the creation (Gen. 1:2). Noah sent a dove (the New Testament image for the Spirit) over the receding floodwaters (Gen. 8:8–12; Matt. 3:16). When Israel was baptized in the Red Sea, God placed His Spirit, which He likened to a hovering bird, into Israel's midst (Ex. 14:21–22; Deut. 32:10–12; Isa. 63:11–14; 1 Cor. 10:1–4). When Jesus was baptized, the Spirit descended upon Him in the form of a dove (Matt. 3:16). God employed water along with the work of the Spirit to bring about new creations, whether the first creation, the re-created earth after the flood, Israel's creation as a nation, or the cornerstone of the new creation through Jesus, the last Adam (1 Cor. 15:45).

God was sending a message that He would make the new heavens and earth ultimately a work of the triune God through the work of His Son by water and the work of the Holy Spirit. This promise appears, for example, in the prophet Joel: "And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh" (2:28). This is the promise that John had in mind when he told the wilderness crowds: "I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit" (Mark 1:8). And this is the promise that Christ fulfilled at Pentecost.

There are two notable elements that link the events of Pentecost with Christ's command to baptize in His Great Commission (Matt. 28:18–20). First, this fulfilled Old Testament prophecy, as we have noted. Peter told the crowds that the events they were witnessing was a fulfillment of Joel's prophecy that God would pour out His Spirit upon all flesh (Acts 2:18–21). This is also John's promised baptism of the Holy Spirit. Peter's Pentecost sermon confirms this: "Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing" (Acts 2:33–34). Christ baptized the church in the Holy Spirit—He began the outpouring of the Spirit upon all flesh.

Second, in line with His command to baptize the nations, notice that people from many nations—Jews and Gentiles—were gathered at Pentecost (Acts 2:9–11). Jesus was baptizing all flesh—He was baptizing the nations with the Spirit—and by doing so was bringing them into the new creation. Hence, when the church baptizes Christ's disciples, it tells the world and God's people through the preaching of the gospel, both in word and water, that Christ is presently pouring out the Spirit, cleansing people of their sins, uniting them to himself, and bringing them into the new heavens and earth.

Christ's command to baptize, therefore, ultimately rests upon His own actions—His outpouring of the Spirit upon the nations to unite a people unto Himself—to cleanse His bride from every spot and wrinkle so that He may present her as holy and without blemish (Eph. 5:25–27). This is what Paul called the washing of new creation, or regeneration (Titus 3:5; see Matt. 19:28).

So baptism preaches a message through water, though this message can only be heard and effectual when it is united to the preaching of the Word. Water alone has no power to save or cleanse. Rather, in conjunction with the preaching of the Word, God through the Spirit saves and sanctifies. In technical theological language, baptism is a means of grace.

This is why we must baptize Christ's disciples—it is God's chosen means by which He saves and sanctifies His people. We baptize because, in the words of the Westminster Shorter Catechism, it is "a sacrament, wherein the washing with water in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, doth signify and seal our ingrafting into Christ, and partaking of the benefits of the covenant of grace, and our engagement to be the Lord's" (Q&A 94). We baptize, therefore, in the triune name of God because God has sent His Son, who has poured out His Spirit, and He is making the new heavens and earth, is cleansing us from our sin, and has united us to Jesus, the last Adam, who is ushering in the new creation, the new heavens and earth.

This is a thick understanding of baptism and one to which we should all cling, whether we personally receive baptism or observe it administered to others.

The Baptism of Christ

God the Son became incarnate for the sake of our salvation (Phil. 2:5–11), displaying marvelously His love and grace. Yet we should not miss the necessity of the incarnation. By this we do not mean that it was necessary for the Lord to save us. His choice to redeem sinners was entirely free, and He was under no compulsion to save anyone. Having made the free decision to save us, God was bound by His own character and revelation to use specific means to save us. Among other things, this means that since man sinned, only man can pay the price for sin. Many Scriptures point us in this direction. First Corinthians 15:21, for example, tells us that "for as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead." The fact that Jesus is God incarnate means that His work has an infinite significance and can be applied to all of His people. Nevertheless, the work itself can be effectual for human beings only if is performed by a human being.

Today's passage also reveals the necessity of the incarnation, showing that Jesus' work as a man procures salvation for us. Matthew 3:13–17 records our Lord's baptism by John in the Jordan River, and as we read the account we can relate to John's confusion. In verse 14, John essentially asks Jesus why He needs to be baptized. Actually, John wanted to deny baptism to Him, and we have to admit that John was not entirely off-base. After all, John preached "a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins" (Mark 1:4), and John recognized that Jesus had no sins for which He needed to repent (Matt. 3:14). When it came to Jesus and John, if anyone needed a baptism for the remission of sins, it was John.

Jesus did not dispute John's point, for as the sinless God-man, there was nothing for which He needed to repent. Nevertheless, our Savior said His baptism was necessary "to fulfill all righteousness" (v. 15). This statement overflows with christological significance. First, it shows that by His baptism, Jesus fully identified with His people as their representative. He did the same things that we do, albeit without sin, so He can stand in our place. Second, by this act of obedience in being baptized, Jesus shows us that our salvation would not be possible through His death alone. We have broken God's commandments, and to make up for that, there must be full obedience to His statutes. John's baptism was a command God gave to His people, and so it had to be obeyed. If our Savior had neglected this rule, His obedience to His Father would have been lacking, and He could not have saved us.

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