The way that St. Luke presents the Baptism of our Lord — after he has already described the imprisonment of St. John the Baptist — underscores that the time and work of preparation is complete. Now Christ Himself is among us, and the Kingdom of God is fully present in Him. The Bridegroom has arrived; He is here, so the best man hands the bride over to Him and steps aside. He who is the true Lord must increase, and the one who has gone before Him must decrease.
By the same token, St. Luke also indicates that, even though it is St. John who administers the Sacrament of Holy Baptism — the washing of the water with the Word — it is in fact the Father Son & Holy Spirit who actually bestows the gifts and benefits of this Holy Sacrament. No less the same is true for you in your Holy Baptism: Though it is the pastor who administers the water with the Word of God in Christ, it is the Holy Triune God who is actively present and at work — in, with, and through that very water and Word — to baptize you, to make you His own dear child, to anoint you with the Holy Spirit, to unite you with Christ Jesus, the beloved Son, to crucify and bury your old Adam, and to raise you to new life as a “New Man.”
St. John’s baptism with water is filled with the Holy Spirit and fire by the Word of God in Christ. It is not “just plain water,” but it is the water included in God’s command and combined with God’s Word. Thus, in St. John’s baptizing — and in the baptizing of the ministers of Christ to this day — the Holy Trinity is cleansing and forgiving, rescuing from death and the devil, and giving life and salvation to all who believe this, according to His Word and promises in Christ Jesus.
The Baptism of fire is God’s working of repentance in you, and the Baptism of His Spirit is the gift of His forgiveness of your sins in Christ Jesus. He has filled the waters of Holy Baptism with such fire and with the Holy Spirit, by submitting Himself to St. John’s Baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. He fills those waters with Himself, with His own righteousness, innocence and blessedness. And in exchange, He takes upon Himself and bears in His own body to the Cross all of your sins, all of your death and damnation. Thus, He suffers Himself to undergo the fire and brimstone of God’s righteous wrath. And He extinguishes those otherwise unquenchable flames with His own holy and precious blood, by His innocent suffering and death.
You see, the Lord Jesus Christ has come, as St. John proclaimed, to cleanse His threshing floor and to burn up the chaff with divine fire. But He has come to do so in accordance with His divine love and mercy; otherwise, we should all be swept into that never ending fire. For you, by sinful nature, are the chaff, and you deserve nothing but punishment. Yet, Christ has come — and in His own Holy Baptism, He has now begun — to bear your sins and the fire they deserve, unto the bloody “Baptism” of His Cross and Passion. He has taken your place under the judgment and wrath of God, in order that you might receive, by grace, His place under the blessing of God.
By His voluntary suffering and death, He has destroyed death. It could not hold Him, nor does it have any more dominion over Him. Having died once for all, He dies no more, nor shall He ever die again. So also for you, who are baptized into Him, crucified and buried with Him through Baptism into His death. The purifying fire of Holy Baptism destroys the old Adam in you, with all your sinful lusts and desires. But just as Christ has been raised through the glory of the Father, so are you raised with Him to newness of life. All that you were by sinful nature, subject to death and the devil, has died, and now you live a true, divine, eternal life, safe and secure in Christ Jesus. As a member of His Body, you have become pure wheat, and you are gathered into His barn — into His Church on earth, and hereafter into Paradise and life everlasting.
Take note that Jesus is found together with “all the people” when He is baptized. He identifies Himself with all people, and in particular with all the baptized. He identifies Himself with you, poor miserable sinner though you are. He stands with you, in your place, under the Law, under the judgment of Almighty God. He assumes your place even to the point of His death on the Cross, which is precisely what His Baptism already anticipates and begins to accomplish.
In His Baptism He has made Himself to be like you — a cursed sinner condemned by the Law — so that, in your Baptism, by virtue of His Cross and Resurrection, He makes you to be like Him: forgiven and alive forevermore. He first binds Himself to you, and then He binds you to Himself in Baptism. And the Holy Spirit is the Bond of unity between Christ and you, as also between Christ and His Father. So are you taken into the embrace of the Holy Triune God. And to that end, the Father gives you His own Name in Christ the Son, adopting you to be His own dearly beloved child. He covers you, surrounds you within and without, upholds and supports you, guards and protects you; and He shall never leave you nor forsake you. You are His own, and He is yours.
If anyone shall lay a hand on you to hurt or harm you, they shall be laying hold of Him, and they shall have met their match. When sin, death, and hell attack you and attempt to destroy you, their jaws are broken upon Christ, who is far more than they can chew. And when the devil tries to lay claim on you and steal you away from Christ Jesus and your Father in heaven, you can spit in his face and renounce him, and boldly declare that your life, both now and forever, is in the Maker of the heavens and the earth, and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord, and in the Holy Spirit. The Spirit Himself bears witness that you are a child of God, a joint heir with Christ, and He commands that Satan, all his works and all his ways, and every unclean spirit must depart and be gone!
The fact is that heaven has been opened to you in Christ Jesus, by His Baptism unto death and in His Resurrection and Ascension, all of which you share by your Baptism into Him. As He breaks the surface of the water, so does He break through the wall of sin and death which separated you from God; and as He rises out of the water, so does He rise from the tomb into heaven with you now in tow. As Christ thus brings you to the Father in and with Himself, so does the Father open up, not only heaven, but His kind fatherly heart of love and mercy toward you in His Son. He opens His heaven to you and pours out His Spirit upon you. He opens His heart to you in mercy and forgiveness for Jesus’ sake, and He opens His mouth to speak His Word to you in peace.
In hearing that the Holy Spirit has come down upon Jesus in His Baptism, in bodily form as a dove, you receive the testimony of God that His Spirit is likewise poured out upon you in your Holy Baptism. And so does He continue to come in bodily form. Not as a dove, to be sure, but in the earthly, tangible means of grace, that is to say, in the water with the Word of Holy Baptism, and in the bread and wine which are the very body and blood of Christ Jesus in the Holy Communion.
As Christ openly received the public anointing of the Spirit in His body of flesh and blood, so does His holy body bear for you and convey to you the same Holy Spirit in the Ministry of His Gospel. When your body is anointed with the waters of Holy Baptism, and you are thereby crucified and buried with Christ in His death, and raised with Him in His bodily Resurrection and Ascension, so does the Father pour out His Spirit generously upon your body and soul. And when the Lord Jesus places into your mortal body His own holy body and precious blood, these also bear His Holy Spirit into your flesh and blood, into your heart and soul, into your body, mind, and spirit.
Likewise, it is the Voice of God the Father that speaks to you from heaven in Christ Jesus, in the Ministry of the Gospel-Word and Sacraments. The voice of your pastor, “I baptize you in the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” is the Voice of the Holy Triune God giving you His own Name and proclaiming that you are now His child and heir, that you are beloved of Him, and that He is pleased with you for Jesus’ sake. And again, the voice of your pastor in the Holy Absolution, “I forgive you all your sins in the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” is the Word of God in Christ, returning you to the cleansing waters of your Holy Baptism, and raising you up again as a brand new man, woman, or child in Christ Jesus. So also, here and now, in this preaching of the Gospel, it is the Voice of God the Father which says that you are His own dear child; that He loves you with His whole heart; that He is pleased with you and delights in you.
It’s true. I am not lying to you. The Father does not lie to you. He is faithful to all His Words and promises. Do you protest, “but I am a poor, miserable sinner”? Yes, you are! But Jesus, the Son of God, has taken His stand with you. He has identified Himself with you. He has taken your sin upon Himself, carried it in His body to the Cross, and put it to death by dying the death that you deserve. All this He has done, beginning with His Baptism, for the forgiveness of your sins. And in exchange, in your Holy Baptism, He has given you Himself, His divine sonship, His life in place of your death, His heaven in place of your hell, His salvation in place of your eternal damnation.
Everything you were by sinful nature, He has taken away and replaced with everything He is, with everything He has, and with everything He has done for you. He has not only filled you with Himself, but also clothed you with Himself, covering you with the beautiful white robes of His own perfect righteousness, like a gorgeous bride adorned and made ready for her husband, without any spot or wrinkle or blemish or flaw of any kind. This is who and what you are in Him. This is what the Father sees when He looks upon you in His love. And though you do not yet see it or feel it in yourself, in your life and experience, you shall know it fully and truly at the last, in the resurrection of your body, and in the life everlasting of your body and soul in heaven forever.
In the Name + of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.