The baptism of Christ (Matt. 3:13-17; cf. Mk. 1:9-11; Lk. 3:21-22) raises several questions. R.C. Foster, in his monumental work, Studies in The Life of Christ, highlights some of them: “The New Testament offers exactly ten verses as the historical record of the baptism of Jesus. Luke tells the story in two verses, Mark in three, and Matthew in five verses. John does not describe it, but alludes to it by presenting the impressions of John the Baptist concerning it. How can we reconcile the personality of Jesus with this act of humiliation? How do we harmonize the virgin birth with the baptism? How could Jesus be begotten of the Holy Spirit and yet need here the descent of the Spirit? Why should He, who was and is God, submit to John’s baptism? How can we relate this humble action with His claims of absolute pre-eminence? How reconcile the great mission of Jesus as Savior with this acceptance of baptism at the hands of another religious figure as if He Himself needed salvation? How do we reconcile the claims of Jesus and the New Testament writers that He lived a sinless life with His deliberate acceptance of this baptism of John which was ‘of repentance unto the remission of sins’?”
All things indicate that Jesus came to John because God told him to come. The baptism of John was prior to the baptism that would be under the new covenant of Christ. John’s baptism was from heaven (Matt. 21:23-27). It was according to God’s Word (Lk. 3:1-4), designed to manifest Jesus to Israel (John 1:29-34). It was part of preparing Christ’s way (Lk. 3:1-6).
Purpose. The baptism of Jesus was not for remission of sins. Jesus had no sin to take away (2 Cor. 5:21). As H. Leo Boles reasons: “We know that Jesus did not come to be baptized from a feeling of personal sinfulness, neither because of his personal connection with an impure people, nor for the purpose of showing that there was no incompatibility between his life and the life of others, nor merely to elicit the divine declaration that he was the Son of God, nor to confirm the faith of others in him, neither was it to sanction the baptism of John as having been authorized of God. It was the will of God for him to be baptized, and he came to do the will of God (Heb.10:7).”
The purpose of Jesus’ baptism was “to fulfill all righteousness.” “Righteousness” means doing what is right, obeying the Father’s will. Jesus was baptized in submission to His Father’s will. All of God’s commands are righteousness: “My tongue shall speak of Your word, For all Your commandments are righteousness” (Ps. 119:172, NKJV). In studying the phrase “fulfill all righteousness,” we understand Jesus simply complied because it was the right thing to do.
In addition to fulfilling all righteousness, the text reveals that the heavens were opened and the Holy Spirit descended upon Him (Matt. 3:16). A voice came from heaven, which was when God first called Jesus His Son and said, “In whom I am well pleased” (Matt. 3:17). Luke mentions that Jesus was praying (Lk. 3:21-22). God the Father, Christ the Son and the Holy Spirit were manifested. These are unique happenings that introduced Christ into His earthly ministry.
There are many aspects of the baptism of Jesus that show its uniqueness and its importance. The distance Jesus traveled to be baptized of John is significant. It was possibly 60-80 miles, depending on the exact location. The beginning of His earthly ministry is marked by His baptism at the hands of John (Lk. 3:23). It marked His first public identification with those whose sins He would bear (Is. 53:11; 1 Pet. 3:18). It publicly affirmed His being the Lamb of God by testimony straight from heaven (Matt. 3:17; Ps. 2:7; Is. 42:1). The miraculous power of the Godhead was evident in the baptism of Christ.
Lessons. The baptism of Christ foreshadowed the importance of Christian baptism. He was baptized in order to identify with us. He gave us an example of how to obey God: “Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered. And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him” (Heb. 5:8-9). He gave us the example to walk in His steps: “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth” (1 Pet. 2:21-22). He was baptized to teach and remind us about His death, burial, and resurrection. His being baptized of John the Immerser also helped to sanction John’s baptism and ministry.
Jesus’ baptism gives us applications to our understanding of baptism and its essentiality in becoming a Christian. “Christ‘s baptism is the foundation of Christian baptism” (Ferguson). We gain insight into the mode of baptism in the immersion of Christ. We observe that Jesus went to the water (Matt. 3:13), went down “into” the water and came up out of the water (Mk. 3:16). Our receiving of the Spirit, and becoming a son or daughter in Christ is connected to our baptism: “Explicit in the text is the association of Jesus’ baptism with sonship and the gift of the Holy Spirit. At the baptism of Jesus, the Spirit came upon him and God acknowledged him as his Son (Matt. 3:16-17; Mark 1:10-11; Luke 3:21-23). Then he was empowered to begin his ministry. Only when the Spirit came in Acts 2 did the disciples begin preaching the gospel. For Christians, at baptism they are acknowledged as children of God (Gal. 3:26-27) and receive the Spirit (Gal. 4:5-7) and then begin a life of service” (Ferguson). Temptations will follow those who are immersed (Matt. 4:1-11; 1 Cor. 10:13) as we begin to work and serve the Master. “Even as Jesus identified himself with humanity at his baptism, so at baptism his followers identify themselves with him, his ministry, and his cross” (Ferguson).
The baptism of our Savior provides an antecedent for the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus. “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures” (I Cor. 15:3-4; cf. Rom. 6:1-4). We are baptized into His death, buried with Him in water, and raised to be a Christian, added to the church by the Lord (Acts 2:47).
The baptism of Christ provides an example of how Jesus always fulfilled the Father’s will. The implication is powerful that Jesus led the way through His example (being baptized) to show us the way which corresponds to New Testament teaching (Acts 2:38; 22:16; 1 Pet. 3:21), that those lost in sin (all – Rom. 3:23) must be immersed in water for the remission of sins in order to contact the precious blood of Jesus.
Steve is on the board of directors for the Carolina Messenger. He serves as one of the ministers at the Gold Hill congregation in Fort Mill, SC.
H. Leo Boles, Matthew (Nashville: Gospel Advocate, 1952), 89.
Everett Ferguson, The Church of Christ (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 180.