Why was Jesus Baptized?

The Jordan River, where Jesus was baptized by John – photo by Wikipedia user Chmee2

This is the latest in a series of essays on the topic of baptism. Links to the previous articles can be found at the bottom of this page.

In the previous article, I spoke about the baptism of John and how it prepared the way for the ministry of Jesus Christ. This form of baptism was all about confessing one’s sins and being made right with God. The question then becomes, why in the world did Jesus need to be baptized? If He had no sins to confess, then what was the point?

This is not just a question that has popped up after the fact. When Jesus showed up at the Jordan River in order to be baptized, John proclaimed, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is He on behalf of whom I said, ‘After me comes a Man who has a higher rank than I, for He existed before me.’” (John 1:29b-30) This is a revealing statement, for in it John identifies Jesus not only as the one who will save the entire world from sin, but also as one who “existed before me”. John knew full well that he was born before Jesus, his cousin. Therefore, what he was really saying was that Jesus had come down from on high.

In light of this statement, we should not be surprised at how John responded to Jesus’s request to be baptized. “But John tried to prevent Him, saying, ‘I have need to be baptized by You, and do You come to me?” (Matthew 3:14) John believed that Jesus was greater than him. More to the point, he believed that Jesus had no sins to confess: on the contrary, He was the one who would take away sins. Therefore, John seems to say, “There’s no need for you to be baptized. If anything, you ought to be baptizing me!”

The Active Obedience of Christ

We receive two clues regarding Jesus’s motivation. The first is the explicit answer that he gave to John’s question. “Permit it at this time; for in this way it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” (Matthew 3:15b) There may be two different things going on here. Jesus uses the word “us” rather than “I”, so maybe there’s a sense in which He is saying, “Do this, John, because God says so.” However, the deeper meaning has nothing to do with John’s actions or any efforts Jesus had to make to secure His own salvation (for He had no sin). It is about the active obedience of Christ.

For the uninitiated, theologians often talk about Christ’s deeds in terms of passive and active obedience. Both were necessary in order to fulfill the righteous demands of God. He passively obeyed by suffering all the covenant curses that were meant for us. (That would include those belonging to the Mosaic Covenant, the Abrahamic Covenant, and the Covenant of Works, i.e. the commands given to Adam.) He actively obeyed by fulfilling all the requirements of those covenants and others, not only in terms of external actions but also His internal heart condition.

Why are both kinds of obedience important? Because when we are united with Christ, there is a double transfer that takes place. We often talk about how God removes our sins and places them upon Christ, who paid the penalty on the cross. Some of us speak less often about the other aspect of this transfer: that the righteousness of Christ is credited to us.

Remember what Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount? “For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:20) Salvation is not only about what you don’t do – it is about what you do do. This is why you can find many Bible verses talking about how righteousness is necessary in order to earn God’s favor, not only in terms of avoiding sin, but in terms of actively performing the works of righteousness. None of us are capable of doing that on our own. When Jesus said it was necessary to exceed the righteousness of the religious leaders, He was describing a feat that no human being born in sin could manage. Only Jesus Himself could be perfectly righteous, so His righteousness needed to be credited to us.

Consider how the Apostle Paul talked about faith. Protestants might speak of faith as the one requirement placed upon us under the New Covenant, but even here we are impotent! Any faith we have is not a work of righteousness on our part, but the Spirit of God working through us. “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9) I was made to memorize those verses as a child, but the focus was always on the fact that grace was a free gift. Little attention was given to the fact that faith too is a gift: it is not a good work. Therefore, no one can boast. So what does Paul say when he talks about the faith of Abraham, his great example of justification by faith?

For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.’ Now to the one who works, his wage is not credited as a favor, but as what is due. But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness…

Romans 4:2-5

“Abraham’s Journey from Ur to Canaan” József Molnár, circa 1850

This phrase – “credited as righteousness” – is very important. The righteousness was not actually Abraham’s, nor is our righteousness our own. It is the righteousness of Jesus Christ credited to our account, even as His sacrifice allows the penalty of sin to be removed from our account. “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” (2 Corinthians 5:21) Note again the double transfer: Christ takes on our sin and we take on His righteousness. “For as through the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the One the many will be made righteous.” (Romans 5:19)

Therefore, Christ was baptized as part of His active obedience. That is what He meant when He said baptism was necessary to “fulfill all righteousness”. It was not for Himself, but for us. Could there also be some respect in which it was setting an example of obedience for believers? Possibly, but I do not believe that is the primary meaning of His statement. In any case, I have already argued that John’s baptism was not the same as New Covenant baptism. My suspicion is that Jesus’s baptism was more about fulfilling the righteous requirements of the Mosaic Law than the New Covenant, of which He is the mediator. Perhaps someone else will correct me on that, but the baptism of John seems to me to be clearly linked with the Mosaic and/or Abrahamic Covenants, as outlined in the last essay.

The Identification of the Son of God

There is a second reason why I believe Jesus had to be baptized, and it is based on something that John said after the fact.

John testified saying, ‘I have seen the Spirit descending as a dove out of heaven, and He remained upon Him. I did not recognize Him, but He who sent me to baptize in water said to me, “He upon whom you see the Spirit descending and remaining upon Him, this is the One who baptizes in the Holy Spirit.” I myself have seen, and have testified that this is the Son of God.’

John 1:32-34

Even before John was born, it was prophesied that he would pave the way for the coming of the Lord. (Luke 1:17) John was keenly aware of this, and he testified to the people that he was not the Christ, (John 1:20) but rather he was the one who came before the Christ. “As for me, I baptize you with water for repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, and I am not fit to remove His sandals; He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” (Matthew 3:11) As it so happened, this one of whom John spoke was his own relative, Jesus.

Did John know that Jesus was the Christ before He came to be baptized? On the basis of his later statements, I am inclined to say no. This was not something that was revealed to John from birth, hence the phrase “I did not recognize Him”. (John 1:31a) However, God had revealed to John that he would baptize a man on whom the Spirit would descend, and this was the One who would baptize with the Holy Spirit. (1:33) Perhaps John realized who Jesus really was when he saw Him coming and cried out, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (1:29b) The sequence of events is a bit hard to pin down: in the Apostle John’s narrative, John the Baptist moves directly from this statement into one that was clearly made after Jesus’s baptism.

“St. John the Baptist in the Desert” by Titian, circa 1542

So was the first statement before or after the baptism? I cannot say for sure. What I can say without a doubt is that John was convinced of Jesus’s identity by what happened just after the baptism. “After being baptized, Jesus came up immediately from the water; and behold, the heavens were opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending as a dove and lighting on Him, and behold a voice out of the heavens said, ‘This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased.’” (Matthew 3:16-17) Here we see a revelation of the Trinity: the Spirit descending upon Christ as a dove and the Father announcing His love for the Son to the world. This message was not really for Jesus, but for the people who were listening. It was the confirmation of what had been prophesied to John, and thus he concluded, “I myself have seen, and have testified that this is the Son of God.” (John 1:34)

Interestingly, despite this supernatural revelation of Jesus’s true identity, John experienced a moment of doubt later in his ministry. Having made so many statements affirming that Jesus was the Son of God, he had a crisis of confidence when he was thrown in prison, knowing that his earthly life would soon be at an end. It seems that he wanted to make sure his work had not been in vain, so he sent two of his disciples to Jesus to ask, “Are You the Expected One, or do we look for someone else?” (Luke 7:20b) Jesus did not rebuke these disciples, but instructed them to tell John “the blind receive sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, the poor have the gospel preached to them”. (7:22b) Now, these were things that the Old Testament prophets had associated with the Messiah, and Jesus was assuring John that He was the fulfillment of those prophecies.

John knew that his ministry was not the end of the road. It was looking forward to something even better. He was not the Christ, but he pointed to the Christ. His baptism did not forgive sins in and of itself, but the repentance and faith of those who were baptized would find its object in the saving work of Jesus Christ. Therefore, it was only natural that John would want to know the identity of the person who would baptize with the Holy Spirit, the subject of my next essay. For now, let us simply say that Christ’s baptism served two primary purposes: to further His active obedience and to announce His identity to the world.

All Scripture references are from the New American Standard Bible, copyright The Lockman Foundation.

Previous articles in this series:

#1 – Introduction

#2 – The Baptism of John