The Baptism of Jesus

13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John. 14 But John tried to deter him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”15 Jesus replied, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” Then John consented.16 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 alighting on him. 17 And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”

Matthew 3:13-17
I, Davezelenka [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons
The Baptism of Christ

What’s the most remarkable thing that you have ever witnessed? I would have to think long and hard about this. Perhaps, for me, it was the scenes of every day life I witnessed whilst spending a month in a country in eastern Europe. Perhaps it was the power of the water crashing down the Bridal Veil falls in Niagara Falls, USA. On reflection, though, it would have to be the birth of my two children, both experiences very different and completely remarkable in their own way. 

In this reading from Matthew’s Gospel we witness something utterly remarkable, something that would shock even the least-shockable of people. The incredible events we witness occur on the banks of the River Jordan, where John the Baptist, Jesus’ cousin, is drawing quite a crowd as he preaches and baptises those gathered who repent of their sin. It is in this busy scene that we have our first encounter with the adult Jesus – the first time we see him as an adult in the New Testament. First impressions really count, and Jesus certainly makes quite an impression!

At the beginning of Matthew 3 we are introduced to John the Baptist. He is roaming the “wilderness of Judea” (3:1) calling on people to “repent for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (3:2). He evidently drew quite a crowd since Matthew recounts that “people went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan” (3:5). Matthew continues, “confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River” (3:6).  

John explains to those gathered, particularly the Pharisees and Sadducees, “I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (3:11). John called upon those gathered to repent of their sin, and then to be baptised. This was to be a sign of their repentance,  their decision to renounce their old lives and to follow God. 

It is perhaps surprising, then, that the first time we see the adult Jesus is when he appears at the Jordan “to be baptized by John” (3:13). If Jesus is free from sin, if he had no old life to renounce, if he is in fact God, then there is no need for him to be baptised. John is well aware of this, and tries to tell Jesus this, insisting that it is he who should be baptised by Jesus. He recognises that his cousin is the Son of God, the one who will baptise with the Holy Spirit and fire (3:11). 

Yet Jesus insists that John baptises him, saying, “it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s plan, prophesised throughout the Old Testament, to save people from their sin and to reconcile humanity with God. Jesus’ baptism marks the beginning of his earthly ministry. He fulfills all righteousness, in that he enables all people to be justified before God, to be righteous before him. 

The words uttered by Jesus here are in fact the very first words we hear from him in the New Testament. It is fitting that straight away we see his dedication to his ministry, his fulfillment of righteousness, his opening of heaven for sinners. 

What follows Jesus’ baptism is completely remarkable. As Jesus rose out of the water, the barrier between sinful earth and perfect heaven opened up. Jesus opened the way to God for humanity. He did something that no sacrifice, no sin offering, no priestly action had ever been able to achieve – the gulf that opened up between humans and God when Adam and Eve disobeyed God was bridged, once and for all, by Jesus Christ. 

As heaven opened, the Holy Spirit came down from heaven and equipped Jesus for the ministry on which he is about to embark. The Holy Spirit “alights” on him, affirming that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God. This is a clear visual sign which all present can see for themselves, leaving them in no doubt that Jesus has a special role to carry out here on earth. As heaven opened, a voice came from heaven, declaring, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” This must have shocked and stunned all those gathered to watch John the Baptist by the Jordan. Just imagine how it must have felt to be standing on the banks of the River Jordan and to hear God’s voice booming from heaven! This is a clear audible sign which all those present can hear for themselves, leaving them in no doubt that Jesus is nothing less than the beloved Son of God.

After witnessing this incredible scene, those gathered must surely have known that there was something utterly remarkable about Jesus. They must have witnessed many baptisms already that day, but at no point had heaven been opened up before their very eyes. But as Jesus rose up out of the water this exactly what happened. God the Father and God the Holy Spirit affirmed and equipped Jesus for the ministry on which he was now embarking.

It’s only natural as we read through the Gospels to find ourselves pondering – who is this man Jesus? Was he a good teacher? Was he just an eccentric carpenter? Or was he the Son of God, the Messiah, for whom the world had waited for generation after generation? If we are to believe the words of Matthew in his Gospel, we should be in no doubt about the identify of Jesus. Affirmed by both the Holy Spirit and God the Father, there is no doubt at all that Jesus is the Son of God. And if this is true, this is utterly remarkable. It is not the baptism of Jesus that is remarkable; it is the fact that the Son of God came to earth from heaven, that he lived amongst us, that he experienced everything that human life involves, that he identified with us in our sinfulness whilst remaining free of sin himself. Ultimately, of course, he died and rose again so that we might not just hear God from heaven, but be with him when we die. Now that truly is remarkable.

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A wise man who built his house on the rock

‘Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.’

Matthew 7:24-27

Some friends of mine recently built a new chalet on the beach close to where I go on holiday. The building replaced an old chalet that sadly burnt down. The construction caused a few headaches, not least because the building was to be constructed literally on the beach, raised up on stilts to prevent the tide flooding it twice a day. They had hoped to use the tried and tested construction method of sinking a few feet of concrete into the beach and then bolting wooden piles onto these strong foundations, before building a base on the top of the stilts. The council, however, had other ideas. They required my friends to sink piles thirty feet into the sand before starting work on the chalet. This clearly had cost implications on the build as well as extending the time taken quite considerably. Still, at least they can sleep confidently in their smart new chalet, firm in the knowledge that nothing short of a cataclysmic event will bring their holiday home down!

Jesus points out several times in the gospel that true faith needs to be firmly rooted in the word of God. A faith that is not built on firm foundations will soon come crashing down as soon as trouble or hardship is encountered. A faith that is rooted in scripture will endure through life’s difficulties and disasters. When a person bases their faith on the teaching in the Bible they will understand that being a Christian does not mean that we won’t face difficulties, that God will not test someone beyond their capabilities, that problems are the means by which faith gets deeper and we become more like Christ, that God never abandons his children but sends his Holy Spirit to protect and guide believers, and that ultimately, if we share in Christ’s sacrifice we will be rewarded with a place in God’s heavenly kingdom. And that’s just the start of it!

In today’s passage, Jesus states that it is not enough even to hear and believe the word of God. He tells his listeners that it is those who hear his words AND put them into practice who will find their faith able to endure the hardships of this life without falling with a great crash. Coming at the end of an extended section of teaching, known as the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is evidently imploring all those who have listened to him to pay careful attention to all that he has said and to apply it to their own lives. For us today, who read this teaching, perhaps this is an opportune moment to flick back through the preceding two chapters of Matthew’s Gospel, and to pray that we will strive to apply all that we learn from this important text in our own lives.

Has your life been transformed by the Sermon on the Mount? Do you strive not just to read and understand Jesus’ teaching but to build your life upon it? It is a wise person who puts Jesus’ teaching into practice, but a foolish person who reads it, yet fails to act on it. Are you wise or foolish?

Not everyone who says ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’”

Matthew 7:21-23

"Stefan Lochner 006" by Stefan Lochner (circa 1400/1410–1451) - Postcard. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

“Stefan Lochner 006” by Stefan Lochner (circa 1400/1410–1451) – Postcard. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Every Monday when I go back to school I hear my pupils discussing the weekend’s footballing action. “We scored some impressive goals!” they might say, or “we got a great result this weekend!” Being the pedant that I am, I always feel like saying, “you don’t mean we, you mean they!” But football fans get so caught up in the excitement of cheering on their favourite teams that their identification is so strong that it is almost as if they have played their part in getting the ball into the net.

Many people across the world identify themselves as Christians. Here in the UK, although the phenomenon is diminishing, a substantial number of people, when asked their religion, would reply ‘C of E’. Especially amongst the older generation there is the view that if you live in England, then, if you do not hold to any other religion, you are automatically ‘Church of England’. Whilst the Church of England is, of course, there for everyone, and as the established church, plays an important role in the life of our country, identifying with the ‘C of E’ is not sufficient to gain salvation. Jesus makes it clear that it is not enough merely to identify with him; he says that ‘only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven’ will enter the kingdom of heaven.

Jesus goes even further, though. There are those who earnestly believe that they are serving him, yet will not enter the kingdom of heaven. He says that some will say to him on judgement day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Yet he will turn to them and say to them, ‘I never knew you. Away from me you evil doers!’

Some people don’t just identify with the Christian faith but believe they are fulfilling the obligations that Christ laid down for them. They would call themselves Christians, they might help with the tea and coffee after church, they might play in the church band, they might even run a church. Yet if, despite all of this, these people do not have a genuine and personal relationship with Christ then all their efforts, as noble as they might be, will not secure their place in heaven.

How can we be sure of entering the kingdom of heaven? Jesus tells us here. We must do the will of Jesus’ father who is in heaven. How can we be sure of what that is? By studying his word and listening to his voice, identifying from scripture the kind of people that Jesus wants us to be. And by praying, asking God to use the Holy Spirit to fashion us into people who will place his will first, and make serving him the number one priority in our lives. Ultimately, there is nothing that we can do to earn our salvation; ultimately salvation comes as a gift to those who place their trust in Jesus, acknowledge their own weaknesses, and gratefully accept that Christ died and rose again to win our freedom.

The question today is: do you identify with Christ, or do you actively seek to do the will of Jesus’ father who is in heaven?

Enter through the narrow gate

“Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.”

Matthew 7:13-14

My friend Clive used to have impressive knowledge of the UK’s road network. If you gave him any two points on the British Isles he would be able tell you at least a couple of different routes to travel from one to another. Whilst this was undoubtedly a useful skill, he has unfortunately been surpassed by sat-navs, and mobile phones with smart apps.

Today’s verses are interesting, since Jesus explains how there are just two routes through life: a broad road, that culminates in a wide gate, and a narrow road that ultimately leads through a small gate.

Clearly, when confronted with these two options, the easiest road to follow would be the broad road. The broad road could be seen to be a bustling superhighway, with plenty of lanes to choose from. The person who opts to travel down this road will have the opportunity to choose their own route, within the scope of the broad highway. The ultimate destination of this road is easy to arrive at too, since on reaching the destination, the highway leads through a wide gate.

The second road is rather different. This route could be seen as a single track that offers little opportunity for choice; if you follow this road, there is only one option available to pursue, and that is straight on. The only alternative would be to veer off the track and lurch into the undergrowth which surrounds it. The small gate at the end of this road would probably prove tricky to manoeuvre through; if you’re following this road the driver would need to ensure that the vehicle is perfectly aligned, or else risk crashing into the gate posts and veering off wildly.

Of course, Jesus is here talking about the routes that we opt to take through life. As far as he is concerned there are only two possibilities; we pursue the simple, wide road, or the trickier narrow road. Whilst the broad route is more straightforward, ultimately it leads to destruction. The narrow route leads to life.

The two options open to us are to follow Jesus, and allow him to act as our shepherd and guide along the narrow road. Ultimately if we pursue this route we will find eternal life in God’s new creation. This is the route that he urges us to take when he tells us to “enter through the narrow gate.”

The other option is to follow our own route, to turn the sat-nav off, and pigheadedly assume that we know where we are going and how to get there. This broad route gives us the freedom to make our own path along the broad road, but ultimately leads to destruction, death and despair.

The narrow route is undeniably a harder route to pursue, and Jesus himself said that few will find this route. But the rewards for finding, and successfully following, this route are great, and ultimately, the only sensible course to pursue. The Christian life is not always easy, and along the way the person who chooses this route will inevitably experience bumps, holes and sections that seem impossible to navigate. Yet Jesus is always with us as we pursue a Christian life, supporting us, loving us, and guiding us with the Holy Spirit.

Which route have you chosen? Do you trust in your own knowledge and understanding of life and the universe and therefore follow the broad road? Or do you accept that you need guidance, that you need a shepherd to lead you through life, and therefore stick firmly to the narrow road? Are you on the road to life, or the road to destruction?

Do to others what you would have them do to you

“So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.”

Matthew 7:12

"Bernard d'Agesci La Justice" by Bernard d'Agesci, painter (Jeffdelonge pict) - Own work. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

“Bernard d’Agesci La Justice” by Bernard d’Agesci, painter (Jeffdelonge pict) – Own work. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

I’m a History teacher, but since I am also a Christian, I have also found myself teaching some RE. Whilst teaching RE, it is always very interesting to hear what twelve and thirteen year old children think Christianity is about. Some children nail it straight away, stating that Christianity is a personal belief that a just but loving God sent his only son, Jesus Christ, to die for our sins, and that all those who believe in him have eternal life. Others take a completely opposite viewpoint, arguing that it is a made up story and that Jesus Christ never even existed. Most, though, will take a middle road, saying something along the lines of how Jesus was a good man who taught that if we are all nice to each other then we go to heaven. I suspect that these viewpoints are similar to those held by most people.

Many people who take a middle-of-the-road viewpoint of the Christian faith would point to today’s verse as solid reasoning for their understanding of Christianity. After all, here we see Jesus delivering the classic ‘do as you would be done by’ commandment.

Those who say that this is the central message of the Christian faith have a point. After all, Jesus said that one of the greatest commandments is to love our neighbour as ourself. If we want to live according to Jesus’ teaching then we need to ensure that we are loving to all those whom we encounter, friends and enemies alike, and treat them in a way that we would like them to treat us. If everyone lived according to this teaching, we would live in a peaceful world. Each person would treat everyone else, and their property, with respect, fully expecting that they, in return would be treated the same way. There would be no murder, no theft, no fighting, and no wars.

So why, then, do we live in a world in which all of these things exist? Why do we live in a world afflicted by the horrors of ISIS, global terrorism, violence and death? Why do we live in a country which still requires law courts to deal with those who fight, or wound, or kill, or steal from their neighbours?

This is the key point. Whilst Jesus commands us to do to others what we would have them do to us, we fail on a daily, indeed, hourly, basis to live according to this seemingly simple commandment. We cannot help ourselves. That’s why we still need laws and courts, to outline how we are expected to live and to bring justice when we fall short of the standards expected of society.

This is why Christianity is not simply about doing to others as we would have them do to us.

Jesus continues in today’s verse by telling us that this simple commandment sums up the Law and the Prophets – that is, all the teaching that we find in the Old Testament.

The ultimate culmination of the teaching of the Old Testament is, of course, Jesus Christ. It is to him that the whole of scripture points. He was sent into the world as the one and only dearly beloved son of God, free from all blame and all guilt. He is the only person who on his own has managed to live according to God’s teaching. And he is the one who took our punishment for failing to follow this oft-quoted commandment.

Jesus, in this verse, gives us a truly wonderful commandment, a rule which is recognised by most of the world as a fundamental guide for living. Yet it is also a rule that we break on a daily basis. A faith based solely on this rule, without recognition that we cannot possibly live up to the standards it requires, would be a hollow and empty faith. For without Christ, we are truly lost.

The next time someone suggests to you that Christianity is simply about doing to others as you would have them do to you, ask them if they manage to follow this rule, every day, without fail. And ask them what happens when they break this fundamental commandment. Remind them that it is only through Christ that we can find forgiveness, and only by placing our trust in him that we can find eternal peace with God.