NextSunday Worship

January 12, 2014

“Going Public”

Dr. Paul A. Baxley Matthew 3:13-17 Year A – Epiphany: Baptism of the Lord Sunday

From the very beginning, there has been an energetic conversation about Jesus’ baptism by John in the Jordan River. Why does Jesus need to be baptized at all? Why does he present himself? Why does he step out of the large crowds that came out to hear John preach in the region along that river and seek a baptism that seems to have been an act of repentance and confession? And beyond all that, what, if anything, does Jesus’ baptism have to do with us? 

When I say this conversation has been going on since the beginning, I mean since the very moment Jesus stepped toward John in the river. John gets the first word in the conversation, as he says to Jesus: “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” (Matthew 3:14) The first evangelist tells us that John resisted, trying to prevent Jesus. So there is obviously deep conviction behind John’s question. 

And John is by no means the only person to raise questions regarding Jesus’ baptism. Not only are theological volumes and commentaries filled with extensions of the questions John raised, I can’t begin to count how many times I’ve been asked about it. I imagine other pastors and teachers would give similar testimony. 

Yet there Jesus is, going out into the river to be baptized by John. He refuses to give into John’s resistance. He insists. So we would do well to ask ourselves, what happens in Jesus’ baptism? When we witness what takes place in Matthew 3, when we allow our objections to be suspended and the narrative proceeds, what do we discover? 

Jesus tells us why he insists on being baptized. He tells John that the act “fulfills all righteousness.” What does he mean? Charles Talbert suggests that righteousness reflects “faithfulness to a covenant relationship.” (Talbert, Matthew. Baker: Grand Rapids, MI, 2010. p. 55) 

So understood, the baptism of Jesus would be understood as an act of faithfulness to his unique relationship with the Father. In his commentary on Matthew, Ben Witherington goes into greater detail, writing: 

Righteousness from heaven corresponds to fidelity on earth, and both entail doing what one ought to do in light of what one has covenanted to do and in light of what is best for all in the situation. The righteousness of God frequently refers to God’s vindication or God’s divine saving activity on behalf of his people, having mercy on them….Thus Jesus submits to doing God’s loving will for humanity, and particularly for Israel, to be their deliverer in the way God intends, following God’s salvific plan; thereby all righteousness is fulfilled. The word “all” should be stressed as well. Jesus will do everything he can and all that is required to fulfill God’s loving plan. (Witherington, Matthew: Smyth and Helwys Bible Commentary. Macon: Smyth and Helwys, 2006, p. 85-86). 

So we can clearly see that Jesus’ baptism amounts to a public declaration of his commitment to doing what God requires. It is an initial act that corresponds, in some ways, to his final surrender to the same faithfulness in Gethsemane. When Jesus steps out of the crowd and enters the Jordan River to receive John’s baptism, he offers himself to the fulfillment of all righteousness. Put another way, in his baptism, Jesus “goes public” in affirming his commitment to doing what he has been sent to do. 

But there’s more going on in the waters of John’s baptism. The Gospel tells us that when Jesus is baptized, after he comes up out of the water, after the heavens are open to him and he has the vision of the descent of Spirit of God, a voice from heaven makes a declaration clearly intended for all to hear: “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” 

What is the purpose of that dramatic divine declaration? It is not intended to tell Jesus anything he doesn’t already know. In Matthew’s account, the voice from heaven isn’t speaking to Jesus; rather it is speaking to the crowds about Jesus. The voice does not say: “You are my Son.” Rather it says: “This is my son!” Rather than revealing anything to Jesus, the voice from heaven reveals who Jesus is to the world. When the voice from heaven speaks, the eternal God “goes public,” telling all who will hear that Jesus is the eternal, beloved Son of God. 

There is so much going on in the baptism of Jesus at the hands of John, more than can be proclaimed in any one sermon. But today we can clearly and definitively say that in his baptism, Jesus goes public with his commitment to faithful fulfillment of God’s intention for his life. At the same time, we can see that God goes public in revealing the unique relationship that has always existed between the Father and the Son. Whatever else we can say about Jesus’ baptism, we have to recognize that it is a public act, a public expression of faithfulness and a public revelation of identity. In his baptism, Jesus goes public. 

Just as there are many questions about the purpose for Jesus’ baptism, there are also many who wonder whether or not Jesus’ baptism by John has anything to do with our baptism as Christians. It would be easy to point to the dramatic differences between Christian experiences of baptism and what Jesus experiences. After all, Jesus is eternal Son of God, we are human. Jesus is without sin. We are anything but. John can raise a legitimate question about whether or not Jesus needs a baptism of repentance. No one asked that question about my baptism, and I doubt anyone did at yours! 

But theologians and pastors alike have persisted in making connections between Jesus’ baptism by John and the baptism we receive as Christians. Karl Barth, in the final volume of his Church Dogmatics states unequivocally that the baptism received by Jesus at the hands of John is the basis for all Christian baptism; he describes it as an “exemplary and imperative baptismal event.” (Barth, Church Dogmatics. IV. 4. p. 53) In other words, the baptism of Jesus is the example for all Christians. If we are to be followers of Jesus, we follow him in the experience of baptism. In a real and powerful way, the baptism of Jesus opens the waters of baptism to all of us. 

It is not just Karl Barth, and theologians like him, who profess a necessary exemplary connection between Jesus’ baptism and ours. Pastors through the centuries have made the connection, not just in sermons, but even more in baptismal practice. I still remember, being a junior high and high school student watching my pastor, Dr. Paul Craven as he performed baptisms. Right after he entered the waters of baptism to begin the rite, he would always recite the story of Jesus’ baptism by John. Why did he do that? Because he knew that Jesus’ experience of baptism was foundational for every baptism performed in Christian history. I know he is not alone. 

To say that Jesus’ baptism is an example, or a basis, for Christian baptism does not mean that our baptisms are like his in every way. But there are surely ways in which, by God’s grace, our baptisms reflect important elements of his. 

For example, when we enter the waters of baptism, we are also going public with our commitment to follow Christ as Lord and give our lives to his mission. As Baptists particularly, we believe that to enter the waters of baptism, one must step out of a crowd, leave behind the anonymity and conformity of a former way of life, and make our way into the waters of baptism. In so doing, we make a very visible, unmistakably and necessarily public declaration that Jesus is Lord of our lives, that his will, rather than our agendas, will govern our lives. Once we stand in the waters, our faith in Christ is no longer private, or secret, or even personal. It is exceedingly public.

The public nature of our faith is a witness to our families, to our communities, and even to the larger world that we have given ourselves to Christ. The public nature of our faith also brings us into a community with others who have made the same daring and public act. When we go public as followers of Jesus, we also open ourselves up to others who can support us in this commitment, hold us accountable when we stray from it, and offer us ways back into the life we began when we stood in the waters of his grace.  

From time to time I am asked why we Baptists persist in requiring a public profession of faith, and why we ask someone to experience baptism in such a public and dramatic way. Why not allow people to join the church in a more private way? Perhaps by submitting an online form? Why not offer baptism in private? After all, doing that might make the service go faster and expedite all of our journeys to wherever many of us are in such a hurry to be when 12:00 noon strikes. 

Why not?

Because the very basis for our practice of baptism is Jesus’ public experience of baptism. 

Because our faith in Jesus is not a private, personal matter, but instead is intended propel us into service to God, to the world God loves, in the mission God gives. 

Because following Jesus requires us to make difficult decisions and take public stands, and if we are not willing to step out from comfortable anonymity and walk toward the water, we are not likely to make any of the other sacrificial decisions our faith will require. 

Even though there are extraordinary cultural pressures, both within and beyond the church, that are challenging us to make baptism less public and less difficult, we dare not do so. 

There is at least one other way in which our baptismal experiences resonate with the baptism Jesus experiences. While certainly not in the same way, it is the case that when we are baptized, when we go public in our faith in Jesus, the God of Jesus Christ goes public with the news that we are His children. 

We are not children of God by birth. 

We are not children of God by right. 

We are children of God by grace. 

The Fourth Gospel puts it this way: “But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave the power to become children of God, who were born not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.” (John 1:12-13 NRSV) 

When we are baptized, as we come up out of the water, it is as though God says: “This is my child, my beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” In those waters, by the power of his Spirit, we are, as St. Paul told the Corinthians, “new creation.” (II Corinthians 5:17) We stand before God and God’s people forgiven, renewed, made whole, made new, made so by grace, the children of God. 

Today I invite you to remember the day of your baptism. 

Do you remember where you were? What the Sanctuary looked like? Who else was baptized with you, if anyone? Who performed the baptism? 

Do you remember how the water felt? More importantly, do you remember what you felt in those waters? Now can you see even more clearly than then what was going on? 

Can you, like me, see that in that moment you went public with your commitment to Christ and his mission? 

Can you see that, even more importantly, God went public with his love for you? 

Finally, I offer another invitation. As all of us watch Jesus step out from the crowds and present himself to John for baptism, and as many of us remember the day we followed him in that act, are there any in this room who feel called to step out, to go public even as God goes public with his love for you? 

May we remember, respond and live in faith. 


About the writer:

Dr. Paul A. Baxley has served as Senior Minister of First Baptist Church since June 2010. He is a native of Winston-Salem, North Carolina.  Previously, he served as Senior Minister of The First Baptist Church in Henderson, North Carolina (2004-2010), as Director of Congregational Relationships for Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond (2002-2004), as Campus Minister at Wingate University in Wingate, North Carolina (1999-2002) and as Associate Minister of The First Baptist Church in Henderson (1992-1999). He holds degrees from Wake Forest University (B.A. Religion), Duke Divinity School (M.T.S.) and Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond (D. Min.) 

Currently, Paul serves as moderator of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Georgia’s Coordinating Council. He also serves on the Governing Board of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and the Board of Visitors at McAfee School of Theology. He has previously served as chair of the Board of Directors for the Center for Congregational Health and the Baptist House of Studies at Duke Divinity School. He serves as a member of the Board of Visitors at McAfee School of Theology. While serving in Henderson, North Carolina, he was the chair of the local Ministers Community Partnership, which included area clergy from different denominational and racial backgrounds.  In 2012, Paul was one of the presenters at the annual Mercer Preaching Consultation and delivered the Lawrence Hoover Lectures at Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond. 

Paul is married to Jennifer Hoerning Baxley, a Physical Therapist who works for St. Mary’s Hospital in Athens. They have four children (a 12 year old daughter Olivia, a 6 year old daughter Maria, and twin three year-olds Matthew and Caroline). 

Scripture and Music


Isaiah 42:1-9

Psalms 29

Acts 10:34-43

Matthew 3:13-17           


We’ve A Story to Tell to the Nations

Sweet, Sweet Spirit

Fairest Lord Jesus

On Jordan s Banks the Baptist s Cry

Christ, When for Us You Were Baptized

When Jesus Came to Jordan

On Jordan s Stormy Banks I Stand

Spirit of God Descend Upon My Heart

Baptized in Water 


If Ye Love Me, Keep My Commandments (Tallis)

This Is God s Beloved Son (Horman)

All That Hath Live and Breadth (Clausen)

Anima Christi (Powell) 


The Lord Is My Light (Allitsen)

Fairest Lord Jesus (Sanborn)

Been Through the Water (Kyle Matthews)

Posted in Dr. Paul A. Baxley, Sermons on December 24, 2013. Tags: , , ,