Jesus’ Baptism: Why?

Sometimes I think I ask too many questions when I read the Bible. As I was studying Jesus’ early life and his decision to “go public” at the age of thirty, I wondered why Jesus decided to be baptized by John the Baptist. Why would the Son of God, who was without sin, seek out his cousin, the prophet who lived in the wilderness, to baptize him? Why did he need to be baptized?

19th Century Russian
Painting: Jesus’ Baptism

It is interesting to note that Jesus’ baptism is recorded by all four Gospel writers – one of the very few events before the last week of his life that all the Gospels describe, some in more detail than others. Take a few minutes to read these four accounts – you might be surprised what you find: Matthew 3:13-17; Mark 1: 2-13; Luke 3:21-23; and John 1:29-39.

Biblical scholars estimate that the journey from Jesus’ small, obscure town of Nazareth to the Jordan River, where John was baptizing many people, would have taken 10-14 days on foot. What many of us in the West fail to realize is that Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River has great significance. For first century Jews, ritual immersion in water, particularly “living water,” was very important. The purest form of “living water” was rainfall and therefore, by definition, any lake or river was considered “living water.”

The choice of baptism by John in the Jordan River was important because it was “living water” to the Jews and Jesus would use this term in reference to himself on several occasions. In addition, the Jordan was the river where God blocked the water flow so Joshua and the Israelites could cross the river and enter the Promised Land many centuries earlier. For Jews it was not only that “living water” of the Jordan River was important to their religious life, but also a reminder that God keeps his promises as he did with Moses and Joshua.

When Jesus went to John the Baptist, he was not seeking ritual purification, but rather was using this event to announce the beginning of his public ministry. At thirty years of age, he had reached his “age of authority” in Jewish society and now this unknown young man from Nazareth was “going public.”

As I read these four accounts of Jesus’ baptism, I noticed that Jesus does not ask John to baptize him, but simply joins a line of others who are waiting to be baptized by this courageous and stern prophet. John the Baptist has attracted many followers and is a powerful figure by this time, yet when he sees Jesus he humbles himself and says “I am not worthy to untie his shoe,” and becomes the first witness to clearly state who Jesus really is – “the Lamb of God” and “the Son of God” (John 1:29 and 34).

When Jesus emerges from the water, while praying, the heavens open and the Holy Spirit descends on him in the form of a dove. A voice from heaven announces, “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased” (Luke 3:21-22). Don’t miss this important part of the baptism – all three persons of the Trinity are clearly seen here. The presence of the Holy Spirit is critical because of the Spirit’s role in equipping Jesus for the challenges that lay ahead of him.

When Jesus submits himself to John’s baptism, he identifies with all of us. This baptism is the first step toward his painful death on the cross. He submits to baptism for sins he never commits and three years later dies on the cross for our sins, so all of us can be forgiven.

My former pastor, Craig Barnes, points out that at the beginning of the Bible God spoke frequently, but as the Old Testament moves on, God’s words are much harder to come by. Then, for 400 years between the Old and New Testaments, there are long periods of silence from God. But the birth of Jesus changes all this and when Jesus is baptized, God roars from heaven: “This is my Son.”

By sending his Son who would suffer and die for our sins, God demonstrates his great love for us and clearly states his desire that we were loved by him. If we can’t hear this, it may be because we are choosing not to respond to his offer of a new life.

So What?

  • Jesus’ baptism is so much more than fulfilling a religious requirement. Jesus is announcing his public ministry, but also identifying with all of us and our sinfulness. This demonstrates so much about Jesus’ character and his love for those who will follow him.
  • Consider the thoughts that are possibly going through Jesus’ mind as he is baptized by John. He knew he has much suffering to endure and this is just the beginning. Yet he humbles himself and identifies with sinners. Thank you, Lord, for your love for us and for sacrificing yourself for our sins.
  • Sometimes we can feel as if God is silent and non-responsive to our prayers. But this baptism of Jesus and his endorsement by God the Father is clear evidence of God’s message to us that we are loved. Maybe we need to pay closer attention and listen to God’s message to us that he loves us — as evidenced in the gift of his Son who paid for our sins. God is speaking to us everyday and his grace is a daily reminder of how much he loves us.