Jesus and John were cousins. They were related, but different.
Up until his thirtieth year, Jesus was living a low key life as a carpenter in the town of Nazareth. Meanwhile, John was out in the desert, living in the roughest possible conditions, wearing clothes made of camel hair, and eating food that consisted of locusts and honey. You couldn’t really say John was a hermit. He may have withdrawn from the normal routines of his society, but he wasn’t exactly living in isolation. He was a preacher – a preacher who looked for all the world like the prophet Elijah reborn.
The message he preached was not a gentle one. You wouldn’t go to hear John if you wanted helpful advice on how to cope with the problems in your life. You wouldn’t go to hear John if you liked sermons that consisted of three points and a story. Going to hear John was not for the faint of heart. When John preached, he thundered out a call to repentance. “You’d better change your ways,” he said, “because the kingdom of God is about to arrive, and you’d better be ready when it comes.”
Even though John gave the impression of being the wild man of the wilderness, nobody thought he was crazy. People paid close attention to what he was saying. In their thousands they came out to hear him preach, and they were so affected by his words that they promptly confessed their sins and jumped into the Jordan River to be baptized by him.
Even the respectable Pharisees and Sadducees came to the place where John was baptizing. Even the Pharisees and the Sadducees did not want to be left out. You couldn’t be considered genuinely holy unless you’d been baptized by John. So the Pharisees and the Sadducees took their place in the queue and waited for their turn to be immersed in the water.
John could tell what they were doing, however, and he wasn’t impressed. He knew that they were just trying to convince people of their piety, and he wasn’t about to let them get away with it. He said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?” And he said, “If you really want to prepare yourself for the coming kingdom, then you should produce fruit in keeping with repentance.” In other words, he was telling them that just showing up to be baptized wasn’t enough. They also had to demonstrate with their lives that they had truly repented. And he warned them that a tree that didn’t produce good fruit would be cut down and thrown into the fire.
John was telling the Pharisees and the Sadducees that they couldn’t count on God to treat them favourably just because they were children of Abraham. John was adamant that what they did was more important than who they were related to. They didn’t get a free pass just because of who their parents were. They were accountable for their actions. They had to produce good fruit.
John and Jesus were cousins. They were related, but they were different. That difference became apparent when Jesus himself turned up one day at the Jordan River, seeking to be baptized. John knew who he was, and when he saw him he became deeply aware of his own sinfulness. He said to Jesus, “I need to be baptized by you, and yet you come to me?” He recognized in Jesus the sinless Lamb of God, and he couldn’t understand why Jesus would need to be baptized. Jesus didn’t need to repent. Jesus didn’t need to confess his sins. And yet Jesus was insisting that John baptize him. He said, “It is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.”
Jesus had a different view of baptism than John did. For John, baptism was what you did when you became so sick of your sins that you realized you needed to be washed clean. That’s what many people needed. They needed to demonstrate that they had truly repented, and they had put their sinful lives behind them. But Jesus was bringing a different perspective on baptism. For Jesus, baptism wasn’t just about washing away the past. It was about stepping forward into the future – God’s future.
According to Matthew, when Jesus was coming up out of the water after his baptism, he saw heaven opened, and the Holy Spirit descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”
Jesus understood that in his baptism he was accepting something from God. In the moment he was baptized, Jesus was not repenting or confessing his sins. He was accepting the love God was giving him. “This is my beloved Son,” God said – before Jesus had preached a single word in public – before Jesus had healed a single person of illness – before Jesus had suffered a single wound on the cross. Jesus was already God’s beloved Son. This was not a title he had to earn. This was not an identity he had to work for. This was not a love he had to justify. He was God’s beloved Son simply because God loved him. The baptism merely revealed what was already there.
In Spectrum this morning we started a series on the Ten Commandments. And one of the first issues we had to deal with is how law and grace work together in the Bible. They’re like cousins. They’re related, but they’re different.
Law was something that John the Baptist was very familiar with. He wasn’t a legalist like the Pharisees – he didn’t look for loopholes in the law, ways to game the system. He was concerned instead with the essence of the law, and the need to be obedient to the commands of God. That’s what he meant when he talked about producing good fruit. He was talking about living in the way God wants us to live.
Grace is something that comes out in Jesus’ baptism. Grace is all about being beloved by God, before you’ve done anything – before you’ve even had the opportunity to produce good fruit. We are beloved simply because God chooses to love us. We are beloved simply because God is gracious, and by his very nature he is moved to extend his love to us.
So which is right – law or grace? They are after all quite different. But it is the clear witness of Holy Scripture that they are also related.
In Spectrum we talked about how the Ten Commandments are very much God’s law. But even the Ten Commandments are preceded by grace. We tend to forget that when we talk about the commandments. We tend to assume that the law comes first, in the commands of a stern God, who only later turns to grace when it becomes clear we are absolutely incapable of living up to the demands of the law. But that’s not really the way the Biblical story goes. God gives the Ten Commandments only after he has freed the Israelites from slavery. He didn’t free the Israelites from slavery because they had produced good fruit – or because they had repented of their sins – or because they had done anything to earn his favour. God freed the Israelites from slavery as an act of grace – simply because he loved them – simply because he wanted them to be his people.
In other words, God gives the law after he has shown his grace. The law is not intended to burden God’s people. It’s intended to be the way God’s people demonstrate they belong to him. It’s intended to be the way God’s people demonstrate their love for God.
Law and grace are different, but they are definitely related. That is why we cannot separate Jesus and John the Baptist, who also are different but clearly related.
Much of Jesus’ ministry would involve giving witness to God’s grace. The parables he told overflowed with God’s grace. Perhaps no better example of this is the parable of the prodigal son. And Jesus didn’t just talk about God’s grace – he lived it out, demonstrating his love for all manner of outcasts and sinners. Ultimately, of course, there was no greater demonstration of God’s grace than Jesus’ death on the cross, when he showed how much God really does love us, sinful though we are.
But at no point did Jesus say there was no need for us to concern ourselves with how we live our lives. He was just as adamant as John about the need to produce good fruit. He said he had not come to abolish the law, but to fulfil it. The main thing Jesus emphasized was that grace comes before law. Because God has shown us that we are indeed beloved, it is now up to us to live appropriately in response. It is now up to us to live in the ways that God wants us to live – not so that we can in any way justify God’s love for us, but simply so that we can show that we love God in return.
When the Apostle Paul wrote to the Colossians, he addressed them as “God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved.” That is who we are: God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved. That is our identity, and that is who we are called to be.
There are all kinds of ways in which the world around us tries to define our identity. It tells us that our identity is defined by how wealthy we are, how popular we are, how beautiful we are, how well-educated we are, how thin we are, how young we are, how strong we are, how successful we are. But God gives us an identity that has nothing to do with any of these things. God gives us an identity that comes from being beloved – beloved by him.
One of my professors in seminary used to say that we shouldn’t see baptism as merely something we do – we should also see it as something God does to us. I sometimes worry that when some people request baptism, they are doing so because they think this is a way for them to impress God – a way to demonstrate that they are worthy of God’s love. I would be much happier if they saw baptism as a way to experience God’s love – a way to receive the blessing of being accepted by God, regardless of our imperfections, regardless of our failures. In baptism, each of us has the opportunity to hear the voice of God saying, “This is my beloved child.”
Baptism is a hugely important moment in anyone’s life. But it’s not the end of the journey; it’s merely the beginning. Once you are baptized, once you hear God calling you beloved, you are called to live accordingly. You are called to display your love in return by living the way God wants you to live - bearing fruit, and giving glory to him.
Bill Leonard is a Baptist pastor and seminary professor in North Carolina. His daughter, Stephanie, is a person with special needs. Because of these needs, concepts do not come easily to her, and Bill assumed that she would never receive baptism because she could never understand all the concepts that many Baptists often say you have to understand before you can be baptized. But one day, on the way home from church, when she was sixteen, Stephanie announced to her parents, “I think it’s time for me to be baptized.” Her parents talked it over, and then they went to the pastor of the church they were attending. The pastor could have taken issue with the degree of understanding Stephanie had of important theological doctrines. But he didn’t do that. Bill Leonard says, “He did not speak to her of what she had to KNOW, but what she wished to BE.” He said to her, “If you receive baptism, Stephanie, you are saying that you want to be a follower of Jesus. Do you want that?” Stephanie said yes, and not long afterward she was baptized.
Bill Leonard says, “We are all special needs persons, you and I. In some of us, it is just more public than in others. Not one of us can ever conceptualize enough to make us worthy of God's grace. If pressed, I must admit that I know more about sin and salvation, doctrine and dogma, than my daughter ever will. But I am not certain that such knowledge makes me any closer to grace than she was on that [day when she was baptized].”
Baptism is God’s gift to us. Perhaps it’s a gift you have yet to receive. If so, do not hold yourself back from the grace of God. On the other hand, perhaps baptism is something you received a long time ago. Perhaps you barely remember it. Perhaps you barely remember the pastor’s invitation to profess your faith in Christ. Perhaps you barely remember the water washing over your face. But if you can’t remember that, remember this: remember the grace God showed you in that moment. Remember that he was accepting you just as you were, imperfections and all. Remember that you didn’t do anything to deserve God’s love, but he gave that love to you all the same. And remember above all that in that baptism God told you that you are his beloved. And then go and live accordingly. Love God in return, and bear fruit in his name.