“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. 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.’” (Matt 3:13-17)
In one sense, the baptism of Jesus fits what is sometimes called the “principle of embarrassment” (which actually increases the credibility of the text). Why would Jesus come to John to be baptized? Why would Jesus need baptism at all? John’s baptism was “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Luke 3:3). If Jesus didn’t need repentance and forgiveness, then why would He be coming to John for baptism? John recognized this difficulty, reacting with surprise and attempting to prevent it. Jesus told Him to permit it “at this time; for in this way it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” There is something about His baptism that is connected to the fulfillment or completion of righteousness.
There are likely several reasons why Jesus came to be baptized by John. This was, indeed, a special time of fulfillment. The Messiah has come! This action serves as the inauguration of His public ministry, identifying Him explicitly as the Son of God. This would also identify Jesus with those who were awaiting the kingdom. Recall that John’s preaching entailed the message, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt 3:2). In preaching the kingdom, he was pointing to the Messiah, the “Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” (John 1:29). It was this action, coupled with the Holy Spirit coming upon Jesus, telling John that Jesus was the expected One (John 1:29-34). By doing this, Jesus identified Himself with John’s mission and validated the work John was doing. It also serves as an example to all who would follow Jesus. This is just the beginning.
With all the possible reasons that could be given for the purpose of Jesus’ baptism, the one we wish to focus on is how His baptism foreshadowed His own work. Paul later makes the point that baptism is a death, burial, and resurrection (Rom 6:3-7, a passage we’ll come back to). Through baptism, Jesus foreshadows His purpose for coming into the world as the Son of God: to die and rise again.
That the resurrection is ultimately in view is confirmed by what the Father said: “This is My beloved Son.” This statement comes from Psalm 2:7. Psalm 2 is messianic and focuses on the kingship of the Anointed One. “He said to Me, ‘You are My Son, today I have begotten You.’” This very passage was taken by Paul to refer, not to the birth of Jesus as the Son, but to His resurrection:
“And we preach to you the good news of the promise made to the fathers, that God has fulfilled this promise to our children in that He raised up Jesus, as it is also written in the second Psalm, ‘You are MY Son; today I have begotten You.’ As for the fact that He raised Him up from the dead, no longer to return to decay, He has spoken in this way: ‘I will give you the holy and sure blessings of David.’” (Acts 13:32-34)
The second part of what the Father said (“in whom I am well-pleased”) comes from Isaiah 42:1, another messianic passage that speaks to the fact that He was endowed with the Spirit, bringing justice to the nations (cf. Matt 12:15-21). In Jesus’ baptism, He shows that His work as the Servant would culminate in His own death, burial, and resurrection.
Baptism, then, is both symbolic and a very real action. In other words, it is not just getting wet. In this case, our own baptism is itself a way of following after the footsteps of Jesus as He went to the cross and rose again from the dead. Baptism, for the believer, is also a death, burial, and resurrection:
“Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have become united with Him in the likeness of His death, certainly we shall also be in the likeness of His resurrection.” (Rom 6:3-5)
“Death” is a word used in several ways. We are dead in transgressions and sins (Eph 2:1). Yet, when we respond to God’s will in baptism, we die again, only this time we die to our sins (instead of being dead in our sins). Paul began Romans 6 by making this very point: “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase? May it never be! How shall we who died to sin still live in it” (vv 1-2). The old self is then said to be crucified with Christ so that we would no longer be slaves of sin, “for he who has died is freed from sin” (vv 6-7). Paul continues, “Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him, knowing that Christ, having been raised from the dead, is never to die again” (vv. 8-9).
This is the point Paul makes about baptism: it is our own death, burial, and resurrection, following the same pattern of Jesus both in His baptism and in His physical death and resurrection. It is an identification with everything that Christ is and stands for, primarily as He died for sin and rose again. Our being baptized says that, by the grace of God, we have died to our sins and we are raised up to walk a new life with Him.
Baptism is, likewise, making a commitment to the new life resulting from death, burial, and resurrection. If we really have died to sin, how shall we keep living in it?
“Even so consider yourselves to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus. Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its lusts, and do not go on presenting the members of your body to sin as instruments of unrighteousness; but present yourselves to God as those alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God.” (Rom 6:11-13)
Elsewhere, Paul makes a similar point: “Therefore if you have been raised up with Christ, keep seeking the things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on earth. For you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is our life, is revealed, then you also will be revealed with Him in glory.” (Col 3:1-4)
By being baptized into Christ, we are making a vow to serve Him. We are dead to sin and alive in Him. We have buried the old man who was dead in sin and we have been raised up to be new creatures in Christ. “Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come” (2 Cor 5:17). Baptism is our pledge that, by God’s strength, we will no longer be controlled by sin. We are a new creation.
Once again, we should be able to see the great significance of baptism. It is, through God’s grace, our inaugural act that identifies us with us the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. It also identifies us with that same kingdom preached by both John and Jesus. Further, baptism is done with repentance and for the forgiveness of sins (Acts 2:38), and anyone who wishes to follow to Jesus will gladly do it (Acts 2:41). Many ask, “is baptism necessary?” The answer should be obvious if we substitute the word “baptism” with how Paul discusses it in Romans 6: “Is it necessary to die to sin, be buried with Christ, and be raised to walk a new life?” But even more, wouldn’t the one who desires to follow the Lord eagerly do what He says? Let us, then, be committed to the crucified and raised life.
For more on baptism, see also Baptism: Washing with Water