Grace and peace in our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
"Who are you?"
Each of the four gospels begins the story of the public ministry of Jesus Christ with an account of John the Baptist. The events in our text happened before Jesus came to John to be baptized in the Jordan River. The delegation mentioned first in our text, sent by priests and Levites of the Temple, did not ask John for his name and place of birth. It was said that John could be the Messiah. If so, the Jewish leaders wanted to know. They had the right and responsibility (Deuteronomy 18:20) to be watchmen over religious affairs in Israel.
It is possible that Juan was tempted to make more of himself than he really was. It would have been easy for him to assume the title of Messiah, because people would have supported him without hesitation; but without the slightest hesitation, John confessed that he was not the Christ.
He also rejected the honor of being called the second Elijah in the sense that he was Elijah in person, returned to the world in his former flesh and blood. Because Elijah did not die physically, but he was taken to heaven in a chariot of fire with horses of fire. John was not Elijah in that sense, but it had been prophesied (Malachi 4: 5), that a prophet with the power and spirit of Elijah would prepare the way for Christ. And Jesus expressly states in Matthew 17: 10-13, that John the Baptist was the Elijah to come. Third, he denied that he was the prophet predicted by Moses in our Old Testament lesson (Deuteronomy 18: 15-18). That prophecy was a prophecy of the Messiah, but many of the Jews expected another Moses. But, John did not come with a new law, nor as a liberator of the people from the rule of the Romans.
With some impatience, the members of the delegation now demanded a clear answer. And John now made a definite confession about himself, referring to the prophecy Isaiah 40: 3. He was the voice of one in the wilderness, crying out with force and urgency for the people to make straight the way of the Lord. The Messiah was about to enter, to come to his people, and Israel was going to prepare the way for him through sincere repentance. Only those who sincerely acknowledge their sins and repent of them can obtain salvation in Christ. That was the main part, the prominent part of John's ministry, calling Israel to repentance.
"Why, then, do you baptize, if you are not the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?"
The second delegation was from the Pharisees, a very strict sect in observing all the rules and regulations pertaining to worship. They also baptized, but only proselytes. When someone converted to Judaism they not only had to be circumcised but also baptized. Even before John, infant baptism was practiced among the Jews. However, John's baptism deviated from the baptism of the Pharisees because it was a baptism for everyone, not just for the proselytes.
And so the delegates question his right to baptize, since by his own confession he is neither Christ, nor Elijah, nor a new Moses. John pointed to Jesus, thus accomplishing his work. He sets himself and his baptism in deliberate contrast to Christ, and the baptism that Christ would employ in his due time.
John warned the people of Israel that they needed to be cleansed from their sins and be baptized with water. Those who were baptized by John confessed their sins. But still, John's baptism was preparatory in nature; he pointed toward the fulfillment of redemption in Christ. And the Messiah was already in the world, he lived in the midst of the Jewish people, although they still did not know him.
“John answered them, saying, I baptize in water, but there is one in the midst of you whom you do not know. He is the one who coming after me, he is before me; of which I am not worthy to untie the strap of his shoe. "
The difference between the baptism of John the Baptist and that of Jesus is understood, according to Luther, as the baptism of John does not give the forgiveness of sins, but forgiveness is promised, while in the baptism of Jesus, the forgiveness of sins becomes ours. John's baptism awakened in the baptized the desire to be changed and required a change of life, but it lacked the power to effect such a change.
As the Small Catechism says, baptism is not only water, but it is water administered by divine mandate and linked with the Word of God. This Word is that of our Lord Jesus Christ written in the last chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Matthew: Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. "
But not just the sound of the words "Father, Son and the Holy Spirit", without understanding the meaning. The meaning is what we confess in the Apostolic Creed, the Nicene Creed and the Athanasian Creed. In any church that agrees with these creeds, even the Roman church with all its errors, baptism is valid and there is no need for another. The baptism of Jesus had another aspect that was missing from the baptism of John: the entrance of the individual into the church, which is the body of Christ. But this church is not only the Lutheran church, it is the assembly of all believers in all places and all times.
There is only one baptism, as Saint Paul says in Ephesians 4: 5. The baptism of Jesus Christ replaced the baptism of John. We have in the baptism of Jesus the forgiveness of sins and more. Baptism with water and the Word is the baptism of the Holy Spirit. There is no baptism of the Holy Spirit after water baptism. The Spirit is always active in the proclamation of the Word. Because of the Word of Jesus Christ himself we have the right to baptize in the name of the holy Trinity. Authority does not come from the church as a visible institution, but from the promise of the Lord.
Because this Word is sure, we have the peace that passes all understanding. Amen.
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