Jesus’ first words in Matthew’s Gospel are puzzling: What does Jesus mean when he says that it’s proper for John to baptize him in order to “fulfill all righteousness”? In this sermon, I explore that question and show how these words and actions of Jesus point to the Cross.
Sermon Text: Matthew 3:13-17
[To listen on the go, right-click here to download an MP3.]
On Saturdays in the fall, when I go to Georgia Tech football games in midtown Atlanta, there are sometimes people on the corner of North Avenue and Techwood Drive. They have P.A. systems and microphones. They have an urgent message that they want passersby to hear! And their message, in so many words, is “Repent… or else.” I confess these people make me feel uncomfortable. When I see them, I want to cross to the other side of the street. I want to get away from them as quickly as possible. I want them to go away. They’re spoiling my fun, after all. I don’t want to think about my sins, or God’s holiness, or God’s wrath, or my need to repent and turn to Jesus in order to avoid hell. After all, I’m just trying to enjoy a college football game! This is the deep South, after all. Let’s not mix one religion with another! Sunday is for one kind of church, but Saturday is for another kind!
Look, we may quibble with the in-your-face method of evangelism that these people use. But give them credit: At least they understand what’s at stake. They understand that unless or until people do repent and turn to Jesus, and believe in him, and entrust their lives to him, they will face an eternity separated from God in hell.
Do we understand what’s at stake?
Over the course of his life, John Wesley, the founder of our Methodist movement, rode 250,000 miles on horseback and preached 40,000 sermons because he understood what was at stake—because of his firm conviction that people risked being eternally lost unless they repented and believed in Jesus.
The ministry of the apostle Paul was fueled by this same conviction: In Acts 20, Paul is preaching a farewell sermon to some people that he knows and loves—the elders at the church in Ephesus, a church he started and where he ministered for three years. And he says something very interesting: He says, “Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all, for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God.”
Innocent of the blood of all. What does he mean by that? He means that as a pastor, as a preacher, as a missionary, as a leader in the church, Paul can leave that place knowing that he’s done everything he could do, that he’s told as many people as he could tell, that he’s taken every opportunity to share with his community the full gospel of Jesus Christ. So that if they die—and face God’s judgment, God’s wrath, and hell because of their sins—their blood won’t be on Paul’s hands. Because he’s done all that he can do save them.
God knows that in my twelve years of pastoral ministry I would not be able to say the same thing… But I promise I’ve repented. As long as I’m pastor here, as long as we’re inviting the community to events on our church property and they’re showing up, we are going to share the gospel with them. Just last December, we had the preschool Christmas program. God forgive me, but I used to view events like “preschool Christmas programs” as something at which a pastor just had to show up; to make an appearance; to shake people’s hands; to be friendly; to say a few words of welcome; to invite them to worship with us. Not anymore! Now I think, “Wait. I’ve got a captive audience of more than a hundred people, most of who don’t go to church, most of whom don’t have a saving relationship with God through Christ. And I’m just supposed to smile and shake their hand? Make an appearance? Are you kidding? What an opportunity to share the gospel! “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.”
We often say, “What do we need to do to reach people—what techniques does our church need to follow? What six-point plans do we need to implement? What successful programs do we need to emulate?
And listen, I get it: we’re all anxious about growing the church. But that’s the wrong question. The questions isn’t “what do we need to do?” The question is, “What is the Holy Spirit going to do—through us—as we open our hearts to him, as we trust in him, as we put the built-in power of the gospel to work, in our church, in our community, in our world?”
In this new year, I want us to approach every new challenge we face as a church, every new opportunity we’re given, every new plan we make or program we implement—I want us to approach everything assuming that we will not be successful—indeed, we will fail—unless the Lord makes us successful. So we trust in him instead of ourselves. “Unless the LORD builds the house, the builders labor in vain.” We will not labor in vain at Hampton United Methodist in 2017.
Roz doesn’t know this yet, but one task I’m assigning her as our church’s Lay Leader this year is to remind us—to remind me—at every church council meeting, at every committee meeting, at every gathering of God’s people here at HUMC that we cannot be successful doing the work of the kingdom without the Lord.
Listen, whenever I preach a message like this, I’m used to an “Amen corner” over there [point to where Bill and Hettie used to sit], and I’m painfully aware, as are all of you, that that corner is strangely silent this morning—that our church has lost, among many, many other good things, its most gifted evangelist when Hettie Chandler died last Monday morning. I said this in my funeral sermon yesterday, but it bears repeating: Hettie was a blessing to me as a pastor because even when we disagreed with one another, it was O.K. Because I knew that Hettie was far more committed to Jesus Christ and his church than she was to her own agenda. But having said that, more often than not in my experience, Hettie’s agenda was also the Lord’s agenda. She was ahead of me… She was ahead of me when it came to witnessing to this community—she was ahead of all of us. She saw better than any of us how great the need was to reach men and women and boys and girls of this community with the gospel of Jesus Christ. She took to heart our Lord’s word when he said, “Don’t you have a saying, ‘It’s still four months until harvest’? I tell you, open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest.”
Through her own words, through her own example, it was as if Hettie were saying to me, “Brent, open your eyes and look at the fields in Hampton, Georgia. They are ripe for harvest!” And if she were here today, she would say it to all of us. Let’s honor her memory, and be faithful to our Lord, by building on the foundation that she laid, picking up where she left off.
Our mission is urgent, as John the Baptist makes clear. Life and death is at stake. Heaven and hell is at stake. And God is calling us to make a difference for eternity in the lives of people. Will we answer that call?
I titled last week’s sermon “The Gospel According to John the Baptist.” And I know that sounded ironic: John’s message, like those people on the sidewalk before the football games, is “Repent… or else.” Or else face God’s judgment. Or else face God’s wrath. Or else face an eternity separated from God in hell. The stakes couldn’t be higher, and John’s warning couldn’t be more sobering.
That’s an important part of the gospel. If we lose that part, well… we may as well shutter our doors and windows. God didn’t send his Son into the world to tell us that we were perfect just the way we are; don’t change a thing. The first thing he came to tell us was that we needed to repent… or else.
But… if that were the whole message of the gospel, we’d still be in trouble. See… We don’t have the power to repent and change our lives! Not on our own.
I went to the Holy Land back in 2011. During the first leg of the trip, we stayed in Tiberias, which is on the Sea of Galilee. There was a sign in the front lobby that said that the hotel featured something called “Sabbath elevators.” I had no idea what Sabbath elevators were. But I found out at sundown on Friday. I was on the sixth floor of the hotel, and I wanted to go down to the lobby. I pushed the call button on the elevator and after a long wait, the elevator doors finally opened. No one was in the elevator. I pressed the button marked “1.” The doors closed, and then the elevator stopped at the fifth floor—even though I hadn’t pushed that button. And there was no one there waiting for it. Then the elevator stopped at the fourth floor. No one was there. Then the third floor. No one was there. “What’s going on?” I thought.
Then I figured out what “Sabbath elevators” are. If you are an orthodox Jew, and it’s the Sabbath, even pushing an elevator button is considered illegal “work.” Sabbath elevators enable people to ride the elevator without having to do “work.” You might have to wait a long time, but if you’re patient you’ll eventually get where you need to go.
Think about that for a moment. How can you have peace in your life if you sin against God by pushing a button at the wrong time? That seems so harsh, so unforgiving! And yet, even if we don’t believe that pushing an elevator button breaks God’s law, the truth is, it’s no less impossible for the rest of us to keep God’s law than it is for these well-meaning orthodox Jews: The Bible tells us that we’re all in the same boat. Jesus tells us later in Matthew’s gospel that “until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.” His half-brother James tells us that “whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it.”
So you see, we’re all in trouble. But God’s law does more than just tell us we’re in trouble: Paul says in Romans, “The law was brought in so that the trespass might increase.” In other words, God gave us the law “so that all people could see how sinful they were.” And once we understand that, the law does one more thing: It’s what we see John doing in verse 11: “I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry.” John—like the law itself—is pointing us to our Savior, Jesus Christ.
See, we need more than the law or else we’re in trouble: we need mercy and grace and forgiveness. And that’s exactly what we see in today’s scripture. In John the Baptist’s message, which is also the message of most of the Old Testament, we have the first half of gospel, but in today’s scripture, we have the rest of the gospel.
A few weeks ago, Sports Illustrated had Michael Phelps on its cover—again. The magazine was highlighting the year’s biggest sports stories, one of which was the four additional gold medals that Phelps won in Rio at the Olympics. Phelps is by far the winningest Olympian in history: he’s won 28 medals, 23 of which are gold. Phenomenal. So he’s on the cover, wearing all 23 of his gold medals at one time—together they weigh over 18 lbs.
Now suppose the photographer showed up to take a picture of Michael Phelps wearing all these medals for the Sports Illustrated cover. And suppose Phelps said to him, “You know what? I want to give all my medals to you. In fact I won them for you. They belong to you now. They’re yours to keep. I want you to put them on, and I’ll take a picture of you. And you’re going to be on the cover of the magazine.”
If you can get a sense of how ridiculous that would be—and how reluctant the photographer would be to receive this extravagantly generous gift—then you can also get a sense of how John feels in today’s scripture.
Look at what happens when Jesus comes to John to be baptized by him. Verse 14: “John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’” John understood that baptism was a sign of repentance, a sign of God’s judgment against sin, and a sign of the washing away of sin. Jesus didn’t need that kind of baptism because he was without sin. John needed that kind of cleansing from sin, not Jesus. So John says to Jesus, in so many words, “You should be standing where I am, and I should be standing where you are! What are you doing in my place, Jesus? And what am I doing in yours? I need my sins washed away!”
Like the photographer asking, What am I doing wearing all these medals. And what are you doing taking my picture?
And what does Jesus say? Jesus says, “It is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.”
Remember: we couldn’t keep God’s law ourselves—we couldn’t fulfill all righteousness on our own. We needed someone to do it for us. And the only One who could is God’s Son Jesus.
So when Jesus tells John, “It’s proper that we do this to fulfill all righteousness,” he’s really saying, “I am here as your substitute, John. My main mission is to live a life of perfect obedience to the Father in your place, to fulfill all righteousness on your behalf—to obey the law in a way that you and the rest of sinful humanity never could. I’m taking your place, John; that’s why I’m submitting to your baptism. I’m substituting for you now as a sign of what I’ll do for you later: when I substitute for you on the cross. I’ll suffer the penalty for your sins; I’ll die the death you deserve; I’ll suffer the hell that you deserve. Because I love you that much.” “I’ve come to die in your place, John, so that you can stand in mine. I’ve come to take the curse you deserve so you can have the blessing.” I’ve come to take your sin upon myself so that you can have my righteousness as a gift.”
It’s as if Jesus were saying, “You see all these gold medals I’m wearing? They belong to you now. I won them for you, and they’re yours.”
And what is the result of this substitution? Something really amazing. What the Father says of his Son Jesus he can now say of everyone who believes in the name of Jesus: “This is my beloved Son with whom I am well pleased.” He can now say, “[Name], you are my beloved son [daughter] with whom I am well pleased.”
1. Jerry Walls, Hell: The Logic of Damnation (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1992), 25.
2. Acts 20:26-27 ESV
3. Romans 1:16
4. Psalm 127:1 NIV
5. Matthew 5:18
6. James 2:10
7. Romans 5:20 NIV
8. From Romans 5:20 in the New Living Translation.
9. This quotation, along with the idea in this paragraph, comes from Tim Keller’s sermon “The Baptism and Temptation of Jesus.” gospelinlife.com. Accessed 14 January 2017