Baptized into His Death

A baptism is a time for rejoicing. A child may not understand what is going on, but his parents realize that this is not just about him or them, it is first of all God marking his people as belonging to him. There are rich blessings in that. But there is a judgment and suffering side to baptism as well. The suffering of Jesus described in Matthew 27:27–44 is, in a real sense, the baptism of Jesus. And further, your baptism means that you are united to him in his suffering and death as well as in his resurrection.

Christ’s suffering is his baptism by fire. Christ suffered the mocking for you. Although our text does not use the word baptism, Matthew’s Gospel, together with the rest of Scripture, treats Jesus’ suffering and death as his baptism by fire, his undergoing judgment in the place of his people. Remember the request of James and John to sit at the right and left sides of Jesus in his kingdom? Jesus, looking forward to his suffering, asked them. “Are you able to drink the cup I am going to drink?” (Matthew 20:22). Mark 10:38 gives Jesus’ response in slightly fuller form: “Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?” Jesus thought of the suffering and mocking described in out text as his baptism. At the beginning of the public ministry of Jesus, John the Baptist promised that Jesus would baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. Matthew then records the baptism of Jesus, emphasizing the pouring out of the Holy Spirit on Jesus, and then the work of Jesus as the second Adam, enduring the temptation of Satan. “[F]or the Messiah’s Spirit-and-fire baptism to be a saving baptism, for that baptism to be experienced by the messianic community as salvation, as blessing, the Messiah himself must first be baptized with the Spirit in order that he may remove the condemnation and bear away the wrath that their sins deserve. With pointed reference to the Spirit, a basic significance of the Jordan event is this:If the Messiah’s people, those for whom he is the Messiah, are to receive the Spirit as gift, as blessing, then the Messiah himself must first receive the Spirit in order to undergo cursing, to bear the curse that their sins deserve.” (Richard B. Gaffin, Jr., In the Fullness of Time: An Introduction to the Biblical Theology of Acts and Paul, p. 113) Baptism is rich in blessing, but like the Old Testament sign, it has a judgment side to it. And that is what Jesus is undergoing here. The soldiers fill the time between the sentencing and the execution of Jesus by mocking him. The accusation that Jesus was a king gives rise to their cruel sport. Matthew, along with the other Gospels, emphasizes this aspect of Christ’s suffering. (Luke doesn’t mention it, though he describes a similar mocking before Herod.) The mocking degrades and humiliates the Savior. He is stripped, then hooded with a scarlet garment, perhaps a discarded officer’s cape, imitating a royal robe. A king needs a crown, so twisted thorns serve the purpose, as well as adding to the pain of the prisoner. The stick placed in his right hand caricatures a royal scepter. The kneeling and the cry “Hail” imitate the approach to the emperor. The spitting and striking him on the head with his “scepter” show their utter contempt for the prisoner. But he is undergoing this for you, as Calvin points out: “Christ, in order to present us pure and unspotted in the presence of the Father, resolved to be spat upon, and to be dishonored by every kind of reproaches…. Here too, is brightly displayed the inconceivable mercy of God towards us, in bringing his only-begotten Son so low on our account.” (John Calvin, Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists)

Your Lord endured the curse of the cross for you. Crucifixion was a horrible means of execution, reserved by the Romans for slaves and foreigners. Christians have often focused on the excruciating details. Although Matthew does not hesitate to describe Christ’s suffering in detail (he mentions the scourging, the mocking, the crown of thorns), he does not give details of the crucifixion. Matthew simply says, “Having crucified him…” (verse 35), almost in passing, as he describes the casting of lots for Jesus’ garments. It is as though the event is so terrible that it needs no elaboration. Simply mentioning it is enough. Deuteronomy 21:22,23 calls cursed the criminal whose body was hung on a tree. The idea of the curse for sin goes back, almost to the dawn of history, to the fall of Adam and Eve. There God pronounced his curse upon Adam’s work and Eve’s child-bearing because of their sin. At the same time he held out the hope of one of Eve’s descendants, the seed of the woman who would crush the serpent’s head. In order for Jesus to bear the sin of his people and the curse which that involves, he had endure the shame of hanging on the tree before his death. Thus he was not simply executed by stoning (as Stephen was later), but, though condemned by the Sanhedrin, had to be subjected to the excruciating punishment which the pagan world government, the Roman empire used. As Matthew describes the death of the Savior he is presenting the sacrifice of the sin-bearer. He was born, and was named Jesus, because he was the One who would save his people from their sins, Matthew 1:21. He bore the curse of your sin.

Your baptism calls you to trust your Lord who endured his suffering for you. The suffering Savior is still King. The mocking isolates the Savior. A caricature takes a characteristic and distorts it. One reason that this mocking is so painful is that Jesus is indeed King. Matthew, throughout his Gospel, has presented Jesus Christ as the King of his people. The genealogy traces the royal lineage of the Son of Mary. The Magi seek the King of the Jews.

The teaching of Jesus focuses on the Kingdom, which he came to establish. His miracles reveal his sovereign, kingly power. They are visual manifestations of the gospel of the kingdom. Now all of that is being mocked, and by implication, denied, by the sport of the soldiers. The very form of address as “king of the Jews” and the sign over his head on the cross deny the universal sweep of the kingdom Christ came to establish. They reduces his influence to one insignificant corner of the universe. Jesus, being mocked is isolated from his people. Here there is no voice of John the Baptist, proclaiming the coming of the Mighty One, who baptizes with the Holy Spirit and with fire. Here are no disciples to listen to his teaching, and then go as his ambassadors throughout the cities of Israel with the good news of the kingdom. Here are no crowds to listen to his teaching and to partake of the food that he royally provides his followers. Moses and Elijah cannot be found to discuss his departure. Jesus is isolated from his Father’s presence. There is no voice from heaven sweeping away the cruel mocking with, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” Instead, the Father gives him up to this mockery.

Live as those baptized into the death and resurrection of Christ. The Westminster Larger Catechism Q. 167 asks, How is our baptism to be improved by us? The answer includes, “by growing up to assurance of pardon of sin, and of all other blessing sealed to us in that sacrament; by drawing strength from the death and reusrrection of Christ, into whom we are baptized….” Romans 6 reminds you that you have been baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. “Baptism signifies union with Christ in his death, burial, and resurrection. It is because believers are united to Christ in the efficacy of his death, in the power of his resurrection, and in the fellowship of his grace that hey are one body. They are united to Christ and therefore to one another. O f this union baptism is the sign and seal. The relationship which baptism signifies is therefor that of union, and union with Christ is its basic and central import.” (John Murray, Christian Baptism, p. 6) This humiliation is essential for your salvation. Though Matthew does not specifically quote Isaiah or the Psalms here, he does portray the Messiah as the suffering, mocked, derided Savior, promised of old. This is one large step down the path that leads to his death in the place of sinners. Christ, in his body, is bearing the penalty of your sins and mine. Your Lord is also teaching you how to suffer for his sake. Peter, when encouraging Christians who face unjust suffering, points specifically to the way that Christ endured the insults hurled at him, 1 Peter 2:21–23. Because you are not greater than your Lord, expect to suffer difficult times. Expect the rejection of the world. Instead of compromising, instead of caving in through discouragement, respond as did your Savior. Matthew records no retort or protest by Jesus. This is not just an argument from silence, for Peter (1 Peter 2:23) speaks of Christ entrusting himself to him who judges justly. The silence is an eloquent call to you to trust, not your own works, which could not begin to pay the price for your sins, but the Savior who endured this mocking for you.

Through his silent suffering, both in the Praetorium, and on the cross, the Savior, by descending into death, begins the ascent to his throne. And from that throne he will return, with a majesty that not the most hardened legionnaire will dare to mock.

Matthew presents you with this painful scene of Christ drinking the cup of God’s wrath against your sins, of Jesus being baptized with the fire of judgment. He does this so that your trust in this Savior will grow, so that you will acknowledge that the one caricatured here is not just a king, but truly your King as well.

About jwm

I serve as pastor of Trinity Presbyterian Church, Newberg, Oregon.
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