On Sunday, (5.23.10) we considered the strange issue of Jesus’ baptism.
Then Jesus arrived from Galilee at the Jordan coming to John, to be baptized by him. But John tried to prevent Him, saying, “I have need to be baptized by You, and do You come to me?” But Jesus answering said to him, “Permit it at this time; for in this way it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he permitted Him. (3:13–15)
This interaction is puzzling: John the Baptist is baptizing Jewish people who wanted to confess their sin (Matthew. 3:2,6) and prepare for the coming of the Messiah (Matt. 3:6). Yet, when Jesus arrives, He wants to identify with this same baptism. This leads to an obvious question, Why would Jesus do this? At face-value this is just strange. Is Jesus not the Messiah? Is Jesus just another Jewish man looking to be holy under the Covenant of God?
Let’s consider what we know
We know from the parallel passage in Luke that this was not come for a private ceremony: “Now it came about when all the people were baptized, that Jesus also was baptized” (Luke 3:21). Jesus was not to have a private, secret anointing as David first did (1 Sam. 16:13; cf. 2 Sam. 2:4).
We know from Mark 1:9 that Jesus not only came from Galilee, but specifically from Nazareth, when He came to see John. It is clear from all the gospel accounts (cf. Mark 1:9; Luke 3:21; John 1:29) that Jesus came alone. No family members or friends accompanied Him, and He had as yet called no disciples.
We know from John’s greeting to Jesus that he recognized Him immediately, but we have no idea how well they knew each other at this time.
Note: Jesus and John were cousins, and before their births Mary (the Mother of Jesus) stayed with Elizabeth (the mother of John the baptist) for three months in the hill country of Judah, where the two women shared with each other their gifts from God (Luke 1:39–56). Elizabeth knew before Jesus’ birth that Mary’s child would be the Messiah. We know this because Elizabeth addressed Mary as “the mother of my Lord” (Luke 1:43).
We know Jesus came to John specifically to be baptized by him.
We know that the idea of Jesus’ being baptized by him was unthinkable to John. The Apostle John says that John the Baptist “saw Jesus coming to him, and said, ‘Behold, the Lamb of God!’ ” (John 1:29). John knew that this was God’s own anointed Messiah, come to fulfill God’s will. John the Baptist’s first reaction shows this as he requests that Jesus would baptism him: “I need to be baptized by you” (Matthew 3:14).
We know that John the Baptist was fully aware of Jesus sinlessness that he tried to prevent Him from being baptized. The Greek verb is in the imperfect tense (diekōluen) which suggests a continued effort by John – “he kept trying to prevent Him.”
From what we have considered thus far, Jesus is motivated to come to John “the Baptizer” a reason that is different from everyone else. John doesn’t see Jesus as needing to express a need for repentance or mourn over his sin. This still leaves us with the puzzling question. What then is reason for Jesus wanting to be baptized?
What was the reason for Jesus being baptized then?
It seems the key idea is found in the phrase, “To fulfill all righteousness.” This sets the baptism that Jesus undergoes as being distinct from all the others being baptized. While everyone else was there to repent and confess sin and evidence this through the baptism ritual, Jesus was there to “fulfill all righteousness.”
It serves us well to remember that John “the Baptizer” is a transitional figure in the Bible. John is a forerunner (Matt. 3:3), standing between the era of promise expressed in the Old Covenant and the era of fulfillment (see Luke 1-2; 3:1-6, 15-20; 7:18-35; Acts 10:37; 13:34-35) that John initiates in the baptism of Jesus. John helps us understand this when he cries out that Jesus is “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29).
Let’s be clear, Jesus did not deny that He was spiritually superior to John or that He was sinless. As a matter of fact Jesus assured the prophet that “it is fitting” and went on to explain to John that His baptism was important for both of their ministries, “for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Therefore, in the mind of Jesus he needed to be baptized in order for God’s plan to be perfectly fulfilled. I conclude it was necessary for Jesus to be baptized specifically by John in order to “fulfill all righteousness” for two reasons:
First, John the Baptist was the one who would prepare the way for the Lord. This was the righteous role John had been given by the Father. So, Jesus was to come to him in order for John the Baptist to do what he was called to do – point the people of God to their Messiah. John the Baptist communicates this explicitly when he tells his disciples:
22 After this Jesus and his disciples went into the Judean countryside, and he remained there with them and was baptizing. 23 John also was baptizing at Aenon near Salim, because water was plentiful there, and people were coming and being baptized 24 (for John had not yet been put in prison). 25 Now a discussion arose between some of John’s disciples and a Jew over purification. 26 And they came to John and said to him, “Rabbi, he who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you bore witness—look, he is baptizing, and all are going to him.” 27 John answered, “A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven. 28 You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, ‘I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him.’ 29 The one who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. Therefore this joy of mine is now complete. 30 He must increase, but I must decrease.” 31 He who comes from above is above all. He who is of the earth belongs to the earth and speaks in an earthly way. He who comes from heaven is above all. 32 He bears witness to what he has seen and heard, yet no one receives his testimony. 33 Whoever receives his testimony sets his seal to this, that God is true. 34 For he whom God has sent utters the words of God, for he gives the Spirit without measure. 35 The Father loves the Son and has given all things into his hand. 36 Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him. John 3:22-36.
Second, being baptized was necessary for Jesus to undergo since it was the Father’s will for Jesus to perfectly and completely represent you and me before a Holy God. In other words, every category of a humans need for righteousness Jesus needed to fulfill if we were to have hope that a perfect God would accept us. Think of it like a grocery list or a “honey-do” project list. You make a list of what needs to be done and you go about completing that list. Similarly, Jesus was intent on pleasing the Father and the Father wanted Jesus to be baptized in order to provide for us a righteous standing. This standing was fully consummated in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. However, it was the life of Jesus that qualified the sacrifice of Jesus to have its effect of securing our standing before our Holy God. Without Jesus doing exactly what the Father desired, we could not have a secure hope that all the demands of righteousness are fulfilled for us in Christ.
We see this dynamic being expressed even before Jesus was born. Literally hundreds of years before Christ’s coming, Isaiah had declared that the Messiah would be ” numbered with the transgressors; yet He Himself bore the sin of many, and interceded for the transgressors” (Isa. 53:12). Jesus’ baptism represented the willing identification of the sinless Son of God with the sinful people He came to save.That was the first act of His ministry, the first step in the redemptive plan that He came to fulfill. In this act the Savior of the world took His place among the sinners of the world. The sinless “Friend of sinners” was sent by the Father who “made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Cor. 5:21; cf. Isa. 53:11). There was no other way to “fulfill all righteousness.”
What does baptism mean for us now?
The ordinance of baptism provides for us a lasting picture of God’s plan being achieved in Jesus Christ. It is now a celebration among His people, the Church. Baptism serves as a regular reminder that God is calling a people to Himself and we, as the Church of Jesus Christ, share in this celebration together.
Baptism is now shorthand for the picture of what Jesus has done for the individual in the act of salvation. The new believer now desires to express their new-found hope through being obedient to Christ through the celebration of baptism. Paul communicated this dynamic of baptism being an expression of a new life and a new hope in the symbolic qualities expressed through baptism in Romans 6:1-10:
6:1 What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? 2 By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? 3 Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4 We 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. 6 We 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. 7 For one who has died has been set free from sin. 8 Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. 9 We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. 10 For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. Rom. 6:1-10.
God has given to us, in the ordinance of baptism, not only an expression of the Gospel in the life of a new believer, but a church-wide celebration of the hope we each have in Jesus as our Lord and Savior.