John’s ministry was flourishing. Great crowds of people were coming to hear him preach and be baptized. His message was meeting with success, for many asked the Big Question of repentance, “What shall we do?” (Luke 3:10-14, Acts 2:37).
Upon baptism, some had gone the next step and become disciples of John. Andrew was one, and perhaps Philip and another young man named John. These had recognized their need for a change of heart and life, and they knew they couldn’t do it on their own.
But the baptizer was not able to effect the change in his followers, for he struggled with a stubborn heart himself. So he proclaimed:
“After me comes he who is mightier than I, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
– Mark 1:7-8 (ESV)
To be baptized with the Holy Spirit – that is what we all need, said John. This coming One would have the power to do it.
Suddenly Jesus appeared, but He did not come as expected. John and his disciples hoped to be baptized by Jesus with the Holy Spirit, but instead Jesus came to be baptized by John in ordinary water:
John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.”
– Matthew 3:14-15 (ESV)
It would be over three years before the longed-for Holy Spirit would come upon them.
– – – – –
It’s puzzled me why Jesus would need to be baptized by John. Why did the holy, sinless Son of God have to participate in an act meant for repentant sinners? I’ve read through the Old Testament more times than I can remember, and I don’t recall seeing any ordnance of baptism given to the Jews in general. If it’s in there, it’s very well hidden!
On thinking about it, however, some reasons do come to mind:
First, those of us in Christ know Jesus as our High Priest. He represents us to God, and represents God to us. In order to execute the office of priest fairly, He needed to become like us in every way (sin apart):
Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people.
– Hebrews 2:17 (ESV)
Part of the Old Testament preparation for becoming a priest is ceremonial washing (Exodus 29:4). Commentator Adam Clarke wrote,
“Our Lord represented the high priest, and was to be the high priest over the house of God: now, as the high priest was initiated into his office by washing and anointing, so must Christ: and hence he was baptized, washed, and anointed by the Holy Ghost.”
Makes sense to me, but there’s another possible implication to this.
We know that when Jesus died, our salvation was accomplished in two complementary ways: He took all of our sins upon Himself, and in exchange He gave us all of His righteousness. Every righteous act Jesus did was imputed to us just as if we did it. So when Jesus was baptized ‘to fulfill all righteousness’, we’re the beneficiaries.
In light of this, if Jesus’ baptism can be seen as a washing of consecration to priesthood, do you think it has any significance towards those of us in Christ being made a kingdom of priests (Revelation 1:6)? I don’t know, but it does give me something to think about.
Second, Jesus’ baptism marked the beginning of His ministry. It was His public declaration that He was going to live in submission to His heavenly Father, and not to please Himself. Of course, Jesus already was obedient to His heavenly Father (Luke 2:49), but it was necessary to declare this publicly in a more formal way.
Mark quotes Malachi 3:1 in describing the ministry of John.
…Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way…
– Mark 1:2 (ESV)
While John came to prepare the people for their Lord’s coming, it is also true that John prepared Jesus for His ministry when he baptized Him. I don’t know if the original language supports this, but perhaps Mark’s quote can be understood in this way: “…Behold, I send My messenger before Your face, who will prepare You for Your way (ministry).”
Third, we like to think of baptism as an event that is over and done with. But the significance of baptism is really life-long. For the next three and a half years, Jesus would show us what baptism is all about. As we see Jesus selflessly serve and obey God through teaching, healing, loving, self-denial, enduring of persecution, and submitting to a shameful death, the meaning of baptism becomes more crystallized in our own minds. We begin to see what a life of repentance and following Jesus is all about. We hopefully approach baptism a little more seriously. But it is not just enough for us to know what it’s about…
Fourth, Jesus was baptized as Leader for us to follow. After salvation, baptism is the first step in our walk with Jesus. It’s also not an over-and-done-with event, but the beginning of a life-long journey. Just as Jesus laid aside His will to do God’s will, so are we. Just as Jesus served others, so are we (as in John 13). Just as Jesus gave His life for us, so are we for others (1 John 3:16).
There are probably other possible reasons why Jesus needed to be baptized, but these are what occurred to me. What do you think?