“As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and lighting on him.” — Matthew 3:16 (NIV)
Last week it was 2009. This week it’s Twenty-Ten. Just think. Last week when we wrote a check, we might have had to think about the day, but not the month or the year. I suppose for most of us it will be another month before writing 2-0-1-0 becomes second nature.
When the calendar changes, our whole society is programmed to think of other changes, too. Many years ago, I resolved never to make New Years Resolutions again, and I have been successful. Most people seem to be less resolute about that than I, and so most of the population is looking forward to all the changes they expect to make over the coming year.
Of course, life does not wait for a particular day on the calendar to bring momentous changes. Think of December 7, 1941; June 6, 1944; September 11, 2001; or for that matter, your wedding date, the birth of your children, starting a job that caused you to move to another town.
Everyone experiences all kinds of turning points. Hardly any of them actually occur on the first of January. In fact, on New Years Day we cannot anticipate more than a very few of the turning points the year ahead will bring.
As the third chapter of Matthew opens, John the Baptist was having a fairly normal day denouncing sin, preaching repentance, and baptizing those who came to him. Then Jesus showed up. We know from John 1:31 that John did not yet know that Jesus was the Messiah whose way he had prepared, but somehow he recognized that Jesus was different from anyone else. He felt uncomfortable baptizing him. At Jesus’ urging he did, having no idea that it would literally change everything.
First, it changed Jesus. Jesus had always been both Son of God and Son of Man, but just as priests did not begin their ministry without a ceremony when they turned 30, and just as kings of old had not begun to reign without being anointed, Jesus did not become empowered as the Christ until his baptism.
Second, it changed John. By preaching and baptizing, he prepared the way for someone greater than he. Only when the heavens opened up and Holy Spirit descended on Jesus like a dove did John know who it was. From that moment on, his ministry decreased as Jesus’ increased.
Third, it changed baptism. John had preached a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins (Mark 1:4). It had no power to help anyone live free from sin afterward. Christian baptism initiates believers into a new way of life that is otherwise impossible.
Because fourth, Jesus’ baptism started a ministry that led to the cross, where he died for the sins of the whole world and ushered in an era of grace. Before, godliness had been defined by keeping the law. No one could keep it all, and only the most prideful ever thought they could. In Christ, anyone can become righteous by faith, and then through the grace of sanctification live more righteously than he or she could have ever imagined.
John preached that the Messiah would come with a judgment of fire, and so he will, but his ministry began not with the sign of fire, but of a dove. For the first time, God’s kindness was revealed before. not after, the display of his severity.