When I told my pastor I wanted to become a church member, he offered a simple explanation for why I should then seek baptism: because Jesus did so. Why, though, did Jesus wade into the Jordan and ask his cousin John to lower him beneath the waters? After all, he had no sin to confess, no need to repent.
I’ve always sympathized with John’s incredulous response to Jesus’s request. “I need to be baptized by you,” said John, who pre- pared the way for the Christ, “and do you come to me?” (Matt. 3:14).
Yes, Jesus responded, “for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness” (Matt. 3:15).
In his baptism, Jesus identified with all of us who, because of sin, will someday die as a result of God’s judgment (Gen. 3:19). Water has been a sign of God’s judgment since Genesis 6–7, when God judged the wickedness of man and sent a flood to destroy all but Noah and his family. Though he never would sin, Jesus would nevertheless die at the hands of sinful men as he absorbed the wrath of God for the sinful world.
Water, of course, is also necessary for life. Before there was light, the Spirit of God hovered over the waters (Gen. 1:2). And one day when the resurrected and ascended Jesus returns to inaugurate the new heavens and the new earth, a river of life will flow from the throne of God and of the Lamb in the New Jerusalem (Rev. 22:1–2). Any who follow him into the waves as enemies of God will emerge as brothers and sisters of the Son of God, fellow heirs of his eternal inheritance.
Baptism is a sign and seal that we have been adopted into the family of God. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit have loved one another in perfect unity since before creation, before God molded Adam from the dust. At Jesus’s baptism we notice all three persons. As Jesus emerges from the water, the Spirit of God descends like a dove and rests on him (Matt 3:16). So that no one will mistake the meaning of the sign, the Father boasts from heaven, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matt. 3:17).
Every time I remember my baptism, I hear these words of blessing. Jesus was plunged beneath the waters of judgment, so that I might drink the waters of everlasting life. Because Jesus calls me brother, I can call God my Father. Because the Spirit descended on him as a dove, I have peace with God, who once regarded me as his enemy.
Once I was outside the people of God, estranged from this family due to my sin. But now I am a brother to all who have been likewise baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The church is our home, the place where, despite our disagreements and disputes, we come together to confess that we have one Lord and one faith (Eph. 4:5). To us has been given the Great Commission to follow in John’s footsteps and call others to repentance while we point them to Jesus, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29). We baptize so they might always know that God loves them, that he is well pleased with them because they now belong to Christ.