I have always found Jesus’ baptism intriguing yet a bit mysterious. Why did the perfect, sinless Son of God insist on being baptized by John the Baptist, who offered a “baptism of repentance”? (Matt. 3:11) I think the answer is actually in the Old Testament!
First it is helpful to look at what John’s baptism was and was not. Although I have heard some people trace the history of their church denomination back to John’s wilderness baptizing, I think the biblical record indicates that John’s baptism, although it was a clear precursor to the baptism instituted by Christ, was not the same thing as Christian baptism. In John’s day, some Jewish groups baptized new converts to Judaism. John’s baptism, however, was a baptism of repentance— something that was necessary even for people already in the established religious community (Luke 3:7-9). He called people to repent in anticipation of the arrival of the Messiah, Jesus, in whom they should trust (Acts 19:4). He even literally pointed to Jesus when He said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29)
Although Christian baptism does represent the washing away of sin associated with repentance, it also represents the pouring out of the Holy Spirit (Acts 10:44ff) and union with Christ (Gal. 3:27), which I have already written about in more detail here. Additionally, there were disciples in Acts 19 who had been baptized by John but had not received Christian baptism and thus were apparently were re-baptized. (There is some dispute over the reading of this passage but if you look back to chapter 18, it confirms this interpretation since the author, writing well after the Great Commission, uses similar language to say that Apollos “knew only the baptism of John” (v25). This underscores that Luke did not consider John’s baptism to be equivalent to the baptism which was instituted by Jesus at the Great Commission, Matt. 28:18-20.)
Additionally, Jesus commanded that His baptism be given to identify His disciples (that is, those becoming part of the visible Body) and also that it should be done in the name of the Trinity. So although John’s baptism pointed to the Messiah in order to prepare people to become Christ’s disciples, we don’t have any indication that it was done in the name of the Trinity or that it was intended to have the full meaning that Christian baptism would. John’s baptism was more like the “coming soon!” sign and then Christian baptism was the “now open!” sign for the Church of Christ. Certainly the significance of the latter sacrament from Christ Himself is greater and better than the significance of the earlier washing given before Christ had definitively established His Church.
So, then, if John’s baptism was primarily a sign of repentance (and intended to remind people of their need for the Redeemer), why was Jesus baptized? John actually had the same question and wanted to refuse baptism to Jesus, saying that he was the one who should be baptized by Jesus. It seems the key was Jesus’ statement that His baptism was “fitting to fulfill all righteousness” (Matt. 3:14-15).
Jesus is saying He was obeying and, therefore, fulfilling some sort of law or requirement from God. His statement has been interpreted a few different ways.
- A common view today is that since Jesus has condescended to relate to sinful mankind in every way, He even humbled Himself to the point of taking the posture of a sinner needing to repent, as was represented in John’s baptism. While it is certainly true that Jesus can relate to us in every respect because of His earthly ministry, since He was not a sinner I never found that explanation entirely convincing. Did He ever confess sins to God? No. He had no sins to confess. Truly He can sympathize with our every weakness, yet He is without sin (Heb. 4:15). Christ was, among many things, the example of how we should live yet, if it was unnecessary for Him to verbally confess sins which He never committed, it is unclear why He would need to “visually” confess sin as was intended to be represented in John’s baptism. Likewise, it seems unlikely this was intended as an example for future generations to be baptized since He did not institute Christian baptism until a few years later, at which point He gave clear instructions.
- R.C. Sproul, a Bible teacher I greatly respect, felt that Jesus was “fulfilling all righteousness” by obeying the call to be baptized by John. Sproul says, “John’s baptism was a command God gave to His people, and so it had to be obeyed. If our Savior had neglected this rule, His obedience to His Father would have been lacking, and He could not have saved us.” I do not find this a very persuasive explanation, however, because there would have been plenty of people living in that day who didn’t know who John was and therefore weren’t baptized by him. The baptism of John was not something required in the revelation of the Old Testament so it’s hard to imagine that John’s baptism was a divine injunction expected of all of God’s people at that time.
- A third view, which I find much more compelling, is that because this was at the beginning of Jesus’ earthly ministry, He was actually being baptized in accordance with the ceremonial guidelines for ordaining a priest, showing that He is the last and great High Priest. In summary, James Chaney writes that no priest had ever come from this tribe before (Heb. 7:13-14) and Jesus was being specially initiated just as the brand new order of Levitical priests had been back in Moses’ day. All previous priests had been “types” pointing to the one, true Priest who was to come. Jesus indicated that He was fulfilling/obeying some Old Testament requirement to be ceremonially washed at the point when He began His earthly ministry. The only OT regulation which fits the bill is in Numbers 8:6-7 where the new priests are consecrated with a special washing. This would explain why He could say He was obeying a divine law and it removes the question of why He’d be seeking a baptism of repentance. He wasn’t. In reality, Jesus repurposed the ceremonial washing administered by John for Himself in a very unique way. In His baptism, Jesus was divinely and publicly consecrated as our Great High Priest.
Even regardless of which of these interpretations seems most likely to you, there are a few other things that we can clearly see:
- Jesus’ baptism provided a very public venue for the commissioning of His public ministry. This was an important opportunity for many people to see that the Messiah whom John had proclaimed was now here.
- It actually lends credibility to this as a true historical event because there would be no reason for an author writing a fake account to have Jesus seek John’s apparent “repentance baptism” which could raise questions and confusion.
- The Holy Spirit descended on Jesus in visible form and the Father said, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased” (Matt. 3:17). This shows the profound love and approval the Heavenly Father has for His Son and also the amazing unity of mind and purpose within the Trinity regarding Jesus’ work on earth.
- This is one of many opportunities Jesus used to live in righteous obedience to God.
Jesus lived the perfect life we could not live. He conferred to us forgiveness of sins through His atoning death on the cross. His flawless obedience also meant He could clothe us in His perfect righteousness so that we can stand faultless before the judgment throne.
Thanks be to God for our perfect High Priest whose once and for all sacrifice removes our sins as far as the East is from the West!