With this Feast, the Baptism of Our Lord, Christmas ends, though it continues in spirit as a liturgical cycle until Candlemas (the third Sunday of Epiphany) when we recall Mary’s post-birth Purification and Our Lord’s Presentation in the Temple. On this day, the octave of Epiphany (celebrated six days ago) continues. We now focus on the epiphany of Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptizer in the Jordan River. He whose birth we just celebrated and unveiling to the gentiles (represented by the Magi) now shows us how to be born again or “born from above.” In doing so, Christ confers on us—through union with Him—all He accomplished on our behalf, even the full meaning and significance of John’s baptism. Through baptism we experience the epiphany; what the author to the Hebrews calls an “enlightening.”

The marveling at the theophany continues in pondering the meaning of His baptism, a meaning which can be made even more apparent by using the traditional liturgical settings; in the Gradual, Alleluia, Offertory, Preface, and Communion prayers of the Divine Service setting, all of which allude to the Magi and their recognition of Jesus as King and God. If you use them in your location, allow the service to augment and fortify the sermonic proclamation (leave the liturgy alone). Our Romans text connects well with the appointed Gospel. “And Jesus being baptized, forthwith came out of the water: and lo, the heavens were opened to Him: and He saw the Spirit of God descending as a dove and coming upon Him. And behold a voice from Heaven, saying: This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:16-17). This revelation of His glory was predicted in Isaiah 40:3-5. Having considered the significance of the day, this should only heighten the drama and impact of the epistle lesson from Romans 6:1-11, which is arguably the greatest of the baptism texts within the epistolary.

Romans 6 factors into a larger conversation. The Apostle continues his argument emphasizing the identity of the Christians in Rome and warns against murmuring while the Lord (slowly) unfolds the global implications of redemption (Romans 8:15). His major premise asserts how God has fulfilled His promises to Abraham through the Messiah, Jesus. This is the stuff of Genesis 12. But Paul recalls in Romans 4 that in Genesis 15 God promised Abraham He would lead His people out of bondage into the land of promise, where YHWH ruled as King. Romans 6, 7, and 8 expound on this theme of describing the way God, through Jesus, has accomplished exactly this. The Father reigns through the once-crucified, now-resurrected Son in the power of the Holy Spirit over the entire Jew-and-gentile world. This fulfills the Abrahamic Covenant.

Compounding Paul’s purposes and cultural connections was the geo-political climate in which the Roman Christians found themselves; in bondage to Rome, politically speaking. The theme of Exodus and covenant fulfillment brought tones of freedom, redemption, and citizenship but not in mere geo-political categories. Rather, the larger cosmic framework is in play: bondage to sin, death, and the Devil. Look for this dynamic in Romans 6:1-11, too.

But there is more. Paul also emphasizes in these chapters (6, 7, and 8) how what God has done in and through Jesus the Messiah fulfills the promises concerning Israel. So, there are promises to Noah (regarding the creation), to Abram (regarding the gentiles), and to Israel (regarding the Jews). These promises of God accomplishing redemption and re-creation through the coming redeemer (Genesis 3:15, etc.) would be done in the power of the Spirit. The reign of God through the Son in the Spirit is what the coming age would look like… the age in which Roman Christians now found themselves through baptism. They were translated from the old world into the world to come or, better, from the reign of Caesar into the reign of Christ by way of baptism: hence Romans 6:1-11. This text explicates the Christian life in light of the reality of Christ’s lordship and the gift of the Holy Spirit amidst a world and a Church which has not experienced the fullness of redemption and recreation itself.

Verse 1 sets up the Apostle’s decisive response. “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?” Stated differently, has anything really changed now that I have been baptized, indeed, now we have this community of the baptized, because it seems like I can just go on sinning as before? N.T. Wright summarizes Paul’s retort to this early form of antinomianism (there is no law or commandment obligations for those justified by divine grace) or gospel-reductionism (the only word from Jesus and, for that matter, the Holy Spirit to the baptized is the Gospel — there are no moral or ethical expectations in the Kingdom of Christ):

His answer is that in becoming a Christian you move from one type of humanity to the other, and you should never think of yourself in the original mode again. More particularly, in becoming a Christian you die and rise again with the Messiah... More particularly, the act of baptism, which as far as Paul was concerned was the practical and physical beginning of the Christian life, involves the Christian in dying and rising with the Messiah… When people submit to Christian baptism, they die with the Messiah and are raised with Him into a new life.[1]

The doctrine of justification loomed large in chapters 3-5, now Paul lands on regeneration. The word which justifies by bringing faith in baptism is the same powerful word that re-creates, regenerates, re-births a human being in baptism. This is a completely gracious, monergistic work of God and, therefore, baptism is Gospel. However, having been justified and regenerated, there is a new life in the place of the old: in Christ, indwelt by the Spirit. The baptized, declares Paul, “must consider [themselves] dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus” (verse 11).

There is a change of status. The baptized are no longer “in sin,” that is, under the power and dominion of sin, but “in Christ” and, therefore, under His influence; the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of truth, righteousness and love. So, there is also a change of being. The declaration: you are justified, and you are born anew in Christ (known as revivication), now align yourself not merely with the first only but also and equally to the latter. Justification and regeneration go hand in hand. You cannot have one without the other. Therefore, you cannot be in Christ and without the consequent life of the Spirit. Paul’s progression could not be more lucid:

What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? 2By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? 3Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? 4We were buried therefore with Him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.

5 For if we have been united with Him in a death like His, we shall certainly be united with Him in a resurrection like His. 6We know that our old self was crucified with Him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. 7For one who has died has been set free from sin. 8Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with Him. 9We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over Him. 10For the death He died He died to sin, once for all, but the life He lives He lives to God. 11So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus (Rom. 6:1-11).

Preach it like Paul with the plain truth of Scripture. Leave the exegetical acrobatics required to purge this passage of water and regenerative results to the side. Listen to the Holy Spirit speaking through the Apostle. This Word creates. The Spirit and the water are brought together again like in the creation account of Genesis 1 by way of the Word of Christ, who is Himself the Creator (John 1:1-3).

Yes, the Gospel is a message. Yes, it falls into the category of news. But it is the Word of the Creator-Redeemer Himself and so possesses the power to accomplish precisely what He says; perhaps never more so than when it is graphically illustrated with drowning, washing, cleansing, and breaking the “waters” of birth. Baptism is a speech-act of Jesus Christ and He possesses all authority. He speaks and it is done.

Preachers have at their fingertips now, thanks to the Apostle’s allusions to the Exodus, the entire Old Testament Scriptures to explicate the implications of Baptism, not merely as a sign or symbol, but as Christ’s New Covenant fulfillment. Matthew 28:18-20 and Romans 6:1-11 do not belong to the Old Testament category of signs pointing to the future (types and shadows) but necessarily must be understood and appreciated in light of the Second Article of the Apostle’s and Nicene Creeds — Jesus’s fulfillment of the Old and His ushering in of the new reality. Baptism is not merely a sign pointing back to something but the present-day point of contact between the individual and the Word which justifies and recreates in the day of grace.

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Additional Resources:

Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in preaching Romans 6:1-11.

Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach Romans 6:1-11.