Why Was Jesus Baptized?

Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:13-17).[1]

The natural question provoked in the reader as he encounters the story of Jesus’ baptism is why was Jesus baptized? Indeed, John the Baptist himself was puzzled by the idea. He who was in no need of forgiveness would undergo a baptism of repentance? In his classic commentary on Matthew, Jerome suggests a tri-fold answer to the question: “first, in order that [Jesus] might fulfill all the justice and humility of the Law; second, so that by his own baptism he might give approval to John’s baptism; third, so that by sanctifying the waters of the Jordan … he might show forth the coming of the Holy Spirit in the [baptismal] bath of believers.”[2] It is the purpose of this paper then—by examining the context of Jesus’ baptism and gleaning from contemporary commentaries—to judge Jerome’s proposal and suggest a better interpretation.

Clues from the context

First, Jesus’ baptism was of special significance. Upon his baptism the Father speaks audibly from heaven saying, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” The only other time the gospels record the Father speaking from heaven is at the Transfiguration (Matt. 17:5, Mk. 9:7, Luke 9:35) and before the cross (John 12:28). The Spirit also descends to rest upon Jesus marking activity between all three persons of the Trinity. The next time Matthew mentions all three persons of the Trinity in one passage is in the Great Commission (Matt. 28:19).

Second, Jesus’ baptism was an inauguration. It is important to note the place of the baptism within the gospel narrative. That is, before his testing in the wilderness and before the start of his public ministry. Jesus had lived on earth for thirty years yet only “now” (Matt. 3:15), after his baptism and testing, did his public ministry begin. In inaugural fashion, Jesus’ office of divine sonship was proclaimed—“This is my beloved Son” announces the Father—his mission necessarily following.

Third, and closely related to the second clue, Jesus’ baptism triggered his testing. All three synoptics link the baptism with the testing, Jesus being directly led into the wilderness following the baptism (Matt. 4:1, Mark 1:9-13; Luke 4:1). As it relates to the subject at hand the testing should be seen as a consequence of Jesus’ acceptance of his Messianic commission[3] and the expression of his role as the true Israel.[4] Jesus’ testing has as its primary focus on Deuteronomy 6-8 and the lessons God put before the Israelites in their wilderness testing.

The purpose of identification

In light of these contextual clues one purpose emerges; that of identification. Jerome’s suggestions hint at this concept. By stating that through his baptism Jesus gave approval to John’s baptism, Jerome is signaling that Jesus was identifying with the message of repentance and with the people of repentance. Though Jesus did not need a baptism of repentance for his own sin because he had none, Jesus says “let it be so now.” Jerome paraphrases Jesus in saying, “I, who assumed the form of a slave must fulfill also the humility of a slave.”[5] In amazing humility, the God-man once again lowered himself to be baptized by his servant in order to identify with his people.

While it is unclear exactly what Jerome meant by fulfilling the justice and humility of the Law, by linking Jesus’ baptism to the Law he is signaling Jesus’ identification with God’s plan for Israel. Jesus did not come to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it (Matt. 5:17). This may be in view as he states the phrase, “to fulfill all righteousness”

France argues that the phrase fulfill all righteousness means to bring to reality the Christian life, a life of obedience to God. Righteousness in Matthew is not typically in reference to moral standards or legal correctness (see Matt. 21:32, “the way of righteousness”).[6] It is in this way that Jerome’s memorable paraphrase of Jesus’ response to John comes to life: “You baptize me in water, in order that I might baptize you for your sake in my blood.”[7] “Let it be so now,” says Jesus, as if to foreshadow what he will do for all those who believe on the cross.

A better interpretation?

Still, the context and magnitude of the event requires a fuller interpretation. For one, we are not giving due diligence to the theme of identification if we stop here. John’s followers were not merely identifying with repentance, they were “confessing their sins” (Matt. 3:6). And if we grasp fully the theme of Jesus’ identification with Israel—in which he often identified with its history and completed its mission (Matt 2:15, 18; 4:1)—then Jesus’ baptism should be seen as his ultimate identification with Israel, making confession for its sins.[8] Keener powerfully suggests that if this is true, “then Jesus’ baptism, like his impending death, is vicarious.”[9] Under this view, the phrase to fulfill all righteousness makes more sense. Perhaps in his baptism Jesus is fulfilling Zechariah’s vision of Joshua the High priest “clothed with filthy garments” on our behalf (Zech. 3:1-10).[10]

Moreover, the passage lends more to the community of the Godhead than the previous explanations suggest. The baptism appears to primarily illustrate an event in the Father-Son love story in which John, the crowds, (and we) are bystanders. In this way, Morris notes that Matthew puts his emphasis on the experience of Jesus. The sight of the opened heavens and the Spirit’s manifestation would have been an encouragement to Jesus.[11] The baptism is the inauguration of the new kingdom in which Jesus, upon completing his mission, is to be given ultimate authority. It is Jesus’ acceptance of his role as Son that causes the heavens to be opened, the Spirit to descend, and the Father to grant approval.[12] It must be said, of course, that the mission begun at the baptism is then completed at the cross. Hallelujah!

[1] All Scripture quotations will be from the English Standard Version (ESV) unless otherwise noted.

[2] Jerome, and Thomas P. Scheck, St. Jerome: Commentary on Matthew, (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2008), note on 3:13

[3] Leon Morris, The Gospel According to Matthew, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans., 1992), 70

[4] R. T. France, The Gospel According to Matthew: An Introduction and Commentary, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002), 97

[5] Jerome, note on 3:15

[6] France, 94

[7] Jerome, note on 3:15, the original phrase reads, “You baptize me in water, in order that I might baptize you for my sake in your blood.” It seems that perhaps in haste Jerome swapped the order of the weak possessive pronouns. Hopefully my correction adds clarity.

[8] Craig S. Keener, Matthew, (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1997), 85

[9] Keener, 85

[10] For more on Zechariah 3 and its relation to Matthew 3:13-17 see, SermonAudio, “God in Our Story,” by Dan Cruver at Heritage Bible Church, Greer, SC. Accessed October 25, 2018. https://www.sermonaudio.com/sermoninfo.asp?SID=10718815512.

[11] Morris, 66

[12] Keener, 86


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