If we were to compile a catalog of practices that are essential to the Christian faith, what would be included? Among other essentials, baptism would certainly need to be high on the list. Baptism is one of the means by which Jesus commissions his followers to make disciples (Matt. 28:18–20). It’s also central to the preaching of the gospel at the inception of the church at Pentecost (Acts 2:38). In short, the idea that Christians should be baptized—regardless of when or how—is central to the Christian faith. This should come as no surprise.
What may come as a surprise, however, is that Jesus himself was baptized. Baptism wasn’t just something Jesus commanded his followers to do, but an experience he also underwent. As familiar as we may be with the Gospel accounts, the fact that Jesus submitted himself to baptism may still strike us as odd.
The plot thickens even more when we consider that the baptism Jesus submitted himself to was John’s baptism, which is described as (1) accompanying “repentance” (Matt. 3:2); (2) in conjunction with people “confessing their sins” (Matt. 3:6); and (3) as the means by which to “flee from the coming wrath” (Matt. 3:7).
It doesn’t take much pondering to realize that this doesn’t seem to fit with the rest of what the New Testament says about Jesus—that he was God’s virgin-born (Matt. 1:19–25), sinless (2 Cor. 5:21; Heb. 4:15), perfectly obedient Son (Heb. 5:8–9; John 17:4), fully pleasing to the Father (Matt. 3:17), who pre-existed as divine but laid aside his glory to take on flesh (Phil. 2:5–8). Nonetheless, Jesus says it is fitting and appropriate that he be baptized (Matt. 3:15).
All this leads to an important question: Why did Jesus need to be baptized?
Why Was Jesus Baptized?
Both Mark and Luke record this story but don’t raise the question (Mark 1:9–11; Luke 3:21–22). John’s Gospel doesn’t give us the events of Jesus’s baptism but emphasizes the same effect as the other Gospels—that the Spirit of God descended on Jesus, anointing him as the Son of God (John 1:32–34). Only Matthew raises the issue by including a piece of the story that the other Gospel writers don’t—John himself was hesitant to baptize Jesus. John, aware that Jesus wasn’t just another person coming to repent and confess his sins, protests: “I need to be baptized by you, but you are coming to me?” (Matt. 3:14).
As familiar as we may be with the Gospel accounts, the fact that Jesus submitted himself to baptism may still strike us as odd.
Jesus’s answer to John’s reluctance is instructive, both in answering our question and also in revealing an important aspect of Matthew’s theology. Jesus said, “Let it be so, for it is fitting in this way for us to fulfill all righteousness” (Matt. 3:15). This is a weighty answer, containing two words—“fulfill” and “righteousness”—that are central ideas in Matthew’s Gospel. Something important is going on here.
Nonetheless, Jesus’s response to John remains a bit esoteric for most readers today. So allow me to offer the following paraphrase: Jesus is fulfilling his role as the obedient Son of God by practicing the required righteousness of submitting to God’s will to repent (i.e., to live in the world wholeheartedly devoted to God).
How Does a Sinless Man Repent?
To understand this, there are a couple of elements we need to unpack.
First, “righteousness” in Matthew refers to whole-person behavior that accords with God’s will, nature, and coming kingdom. Paul uses this word in some other ways, but Matthew’s usage is more typical of the Old Testament sense of heart-deep, faithful obedience to God. In submitting to John’s baptism Jesus is showing himself to be the good and obedient Son who does God’s will perfectly.
Second, we must understand what “repentance” means. Today this word often evokes the image of someone on the street corner with a sandwich board that reads, “The end is near!” Biblical repentance is broader and tuned differently. The call to “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near” (Matt. 3:2; 4:17) is an urgent invitation to reorient our values, habits, loves, thinking, and behavior according to a different understanding, one rooted in the revelation of God’s nature and coming reign. In short, repentance means, “Become a disciple!” Jesus repents not in the sense of turning from sin (our repentance necessarily includes this where his does not), but in the sense of dedicating himself to follow God’s will fully on earth.
God has sent John as the final herald of the King’s return and now Jesus comes in line with this and fulfills it by submitting to John’s baptism.
Thus, the qualms we (and John) may have about why Jesus would undergo John’s baptism dissipate. Even as a virgin-born, divine-incarnate, unique person in the world, the Son desires to be wholeheartedly obedient to the Father (i.e., righteous). Thus, he must submit to the God-ordained message of life-dedication preached by John. To call this a “fulfillment” of all righteousness taps into what Matthew has been arguing repeatedly from the beginning of his book (Matt. 1:18–2:23), and what he will continue to do in the following stories (Matt. 4:14–16; 5:17)—Jesus is the fulfillment of all God’s work in the world. He is the final goal and consummation of all God’s saving activity. God has sent John as the final herald of the King’s return, and now Jesus comes in line with this and fulfills it by submitting to John’s baptism.
Jesus as the Last Adam
So why did Jesus need to be baptized? Because central to Jesus’s purpose in being the Savior of the world is his own faithful obedience to the Father. He was obedient even to the point of death on a cross (Phil. 2:8; Rom. 5:18), thereby securing our salvation.
As Brandon Crowe helpfully summarizes, “Jesus is portrayed in the Gospel as the last Adam whose obedience is necessary for God’s people to experience the blessings of salvation.” Jesus’s baptism signals the inauguration of his mission as the obedient Son and of his model of what it means to be faithful to God.
We don’t simply get baptized because he did. We’re baptized into him and he baptizes us with the Holy Spirit.
The church’s ongoing practice of baptism—like another essential practice, the Lord’s Supper—is simultaneously a repetition of and a post-Pentecost transformation of Jesus’s own act. Jesus was baptized as a sign of his dedication (wholehearted obedience), and so too we follow his example. At the same time, his own baptism is transformed in our experience because he is more than just a model. We don’t simply get baptized because he did. We’re baptized into him, and he baptizes us with the Holy Spirit.
Though like John the Baptist we may at first be perplexed as to why Jesus was baptized, we can see now that Jesus’s baptism is a crucial part of his saving work in the world, always to be remembered.