The baptism of Jesus Christ is one of the truly epochal events within the Gospel records. It is chronicled by the synoptic writers in a total of only ten verses (five in Matthew, three in Mark, and two in Luke), and yet it is pivotal in that it signals the commencement of the Lord’s preaching ministry.
Why was Jesus immersed at the hands of John the Baptizer? This is not a question to which many can give a clear and convincing answer.
The Issue Negatively Viewed
One thing is certain. Jesus was not baptized by John in the vein of the prophet’s ordinary sphere of operation. John immersed folks who penitently confessed their sins (Mt. 3:6, 8), and the purpose of his baptism was “for the remission of sins” (Mk. 1:4).
The preposition “for” (Greek,
eis) means “to obtain” (Thayer, 94). The phrase may be rendered: “so that sins might be forgiven” (Arndt, 228).
Since Jesus had no sin (Heb. 4:15; 1 Pet. 2:22), it is obvious that his immersion by John was of a unique sort. He did not approach John seeking pardon.
Many years ago this writer was in a debate with a denominationalist, during which we discussed the design of baptism. My opponent argued in this fashion.
“We are immersed for the same reason Jesus was. He was not baptized ‘in order to become’ a son of God, but rather, ‘because of’ being a son already. Hence, we are not immersed to become children of God, but because we are such already.”
His argument was invalid for several reasons.
First, it contradicted the plain testimony of Paul, who declared that we become children of God at the point of our baptism into Christ (Gal. 3:26-27).
Second, the argument was inconsistent with the gentleman’s own doctrinal position. Think about this. If it is the case that we are baptized for precisely the same reason Christ was, then it also follows that he was immersed for the same reason that we are. Things equal to each other are equal to the same thing.
Since my opponent claimed that he had been baptized “on account of the forgiveness of his sins,” that would logically imply that Jesus was immersed “on account of the forgiveness of his sins.”
This, of course, was a conclusion which my friend would not accept. It was, however, the logical result of his argument.
Thus, except for the fact that Jesus’ baptism reflected a willingness to obey the Father, as does ours, there is little relationship between the Lord’s immersion and that required of all accountable people today (Mk. 16:16).
In the balance of this article I would like to set forth three reasons for the baptism of Jesus by John.
- It was to identify the Lord as the Son of God at the beginning of his ministry.
- It was a commencement token of the total dedication of Christ in carrying out Heaven’s plan.
- It was a visual precursor to the Savior’s ultimate death, burial, and resurrection. Each of these points needs some development.
“This is the Son of God.”
John the Baptizer was a remarkable character. Isaiah prophetically described him as a “voice ... crying in the wilderness,” preparing the way of the Lord (Is. 40:1-3).
The Old Testament closes with the promise of the coming “Elijah” (Mal. 4:5-6), an allusion to John, whose mission, in the spirit and power of Elijah, was to make ready for the Lord a people prepared (Lk. 1:17).
John announced Jesus as “the Lamb of God, that takes away the sin of the world” (Jn. 1:29). The expression “Lamb of God” reveals that Jesus was the antitype (fulfillment) of the Old Testament sacrificial system. It argues for the atoning nature of the Lord’s death and, potentially, the universal accessibility of that blessing.
John declared that it was his mission to prepare the way for Christ, who was to come “after” him, i.e., John’s work would precede the Lord’s (Jn. 1:30).
But John declared: “he is before me.” Christ, due to his divine nature, was to take precedence over “the baptist,” because, as John says, “he was before me.”
The imperfect tense verb,
en (was), asserts the
abiding existence of Jesus before John was born (cf. Jn. 1:1).
But the baptizer continued:
“I knew him not; but that he should be manifest to Israel, for this cause came I baptizing in water” (Jn. 1:31).
The verb “knew” is very significant. It derives from
oida, which suggests a clear, more-or-less complete knowledge. The pluperfect tense form casts the situation into the past.
John is confessing that, prior to the phenomenal events at the Jordan, he did not know, “in an absolute way” (Wuest, 211) that Jesus was the Messiah.
John knew that the Nazarene was an exceptional person, for he resisted immersing the Lord, insisting: “I have need to be baptized by you” (Mt. 3:14).
He did not have, however, a clear understanding of the Savior’s true identity until he saw the Spirit descend in the form of a dove, and he heard the divine voice break the silence of fifteen centuries in the acknowledgement:
“This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased” (Mt. 3:17).
After this occurred, the baptizer could testify:
“This is the Son of God” (Jn. 1:34).
Accordingly, one of the reasons for Jesus’ baptism was to confirm the Lord’s identity to the prophet, so that John could make “manifest to Israel” (Jn. 1:31) the good news that the Messiah had arrived.
An Example of Obedience
In his argument to persuade John to administer baptism, Christ said:
“thus it becomes [i.e., is proper] us to fulfill all righteousness” (Mt. 3:15).
Perhaps we cannot plumb the full depth of this abbreviated clause. One thing is certain though: it is an affirmation of the submissive disposition of the Lord Jesus to the Father’s will.
“Righteousness” is associated with the commands of God (Psa. 119:172). To fulfill righteousness, therefore, is to be obedient to Jehovah.
The life of Jesus is a commentary on what obedience is about. In Psalm 40, which is clearly messianic in its import (cf. Heb. 10:5-7), the submissive demeanor of Christ is prophetically set forth. Jesus, through David, a thousand years before his own birth, affirms:
“I delight to do thy will, O my God; Yea, thy law is in my heart” (Ps. 40:8).
It is one thing to begrudgingly go through a form of service. It is quite another to “delight” in doing the Father’s will.
Again, while some may have the elements of divine “law” in their heads, the issue is: Do we have, as did Jesus, the law in our hearts?
Christ demonstrated by his baptism, therefore, on the very first day of his public ministry, that he was committed to doing his Father’s will. In this regard, as in all others, he is our perfect model.
A Preview of Gospel Facts
In his first epistle to the Corinthians, Paul set forth the fundamental components of the gospel:
“Now I make known unto you, brethren, the gospel ... that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; and that he was buried; and that he hath been raised on the third day according to the scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:1-4).
The death of Jesus, as the key ingredient in the plan of redemption, was in the mind of God before the foundation of the world (cf. 1 Pet. 1:19). Christ himself, though, developed as a normal human being, including the expansion of mental consciousness (Lk. 2:52).
One cannot but wonder at what point, in his mental and physical maturation, the blessed Savior became aware of his ultimate destiny at Calvary.
We know that by the age of twelve Jesus was cognizant of his unique status as the Son of God (Lk. 2:49). From the time of his infancy, Mary was privy to the dark shadows that loomed in her Son’s future (Lk. 2:35).
One thing seems clear. By the time he submitted to immersion at the hands of John, he knew of his appointment with the cross — and likely long before that.
At this point it is imperative that we give some attention to the form of baptism. Those who argue that “baptism” may be administered either by the sprinkling or pouring of water, fly directly into the face of: linguistic evidence, New Testament usage, and the testimony of early Christian history.
baptizo means to “dip, immerse” (Arndt, 131). Even the translators so understood its meaning in non-theological contexts where their bias did not over-power them (cf. Lk. 16:24; Jn. 13:26).
Baptism is clearly identified with a “burial” (Rom. 6:3-4; Col. 2:12).
Sprinkling was first introduced in the 3rd century A.D. (Eusebius VI, XLIII), and the innovation did not become the official practice of the apostate Roman Church until A.D. 1311, when the Council of Ravenna first allowed a choice between immersion and sprinkling (Schaff, 201).
Clearly then, the baptism of Jesus in the waters of Jordan involved a burial beneath the water, and a resurrection therefrom.
Mark specifically states that Jesus was baptized of John “in (
eis, ‘into’ ASVfn) the Jordan,” and afterward, the Lord came up “out of” (
ek, best Greek texts) the water (Mk. 1:9-10).
Even professor Blunt, noted scholar of the Church of England, conceded that it is beyond doubt that Jesus was immersed (75).
Why is it that so many have such a difficult time in understanding the form of baptism?
It is so vital to the entire format of the divine plan of salvation. Christ’s burial in the water of Jordan, and his resurrection therefrom, was a visual preview of the burial (which implies a death, of course) and resurrection of the Lord, which would occur three and one-half years later.
We agree with Carson who suggested that the Lord’s role as Jehovah’s suffering servant “here ... makes its first veiled appearance in Jesus’ actions” (108).
It is commonly suggested by commentators that Christ was baptized in order to “solidify” himself with sinners, since he, by his death, would bear away the penalty for sin. That may be the case, but the Bible does not specifically argue that point.
We may not understand all the reasons why Christ submitted to baptism. We have a limited view of that wonderful event.
We should, however, note this: If the sinless Son of God did not refuse this divine ordinance, how much less should men today neglect the command, which is declared to be “for the remission of sins” (Acts 2:38)