Why did Jesus Need Baptism?


imagesWhy was Jesus baptized? Out of all the issues presented in the Gospels this one can be troublesome on the surface if we interpret Jesus baptism like our own. Jesus is fully God and fully man. Never was He in sin, have sin, or commit sin. In fact, being God makes Him holy, pure, undefiled, and righteous. Yet He is fully man, just like you and me. He ate, slept, got tired, stressed, had a full range of emotions, was tempted, and yet He never sinned (Hebrews 4:15).

So why does a blameless man, fully God, need to “confess His sins before the body and associate with His own death, burial, and resurrection; and then be immersed in water?” Answer, He doesn’t. His baptism has NOTHING to do with repentance and salvation. It has everything to do with inaugurating His ministry. You can stop reading here if you accept my answer without explanation. Jesus’ baptism occurs to reveal the Messiah to Israel before His ministry. The public anointing of the Holy Spirit begins Jesus ministry.

Now, how do I arrive at this conclusion? Two main ingredients: context and grammar.

Context: Matthew’s story shifts from Jesus birth and childhood (1-2), to preparing Israel for their king (3), to Jesus actual ministry (4-28).

UnknownMatthew opens with Jesus lineage to prove Jesus is the Seed promised to Abraham, David, Israel, and the world. His lineage connects the Abrahamic and Davidic Covenants. He has kingly lineage and is the promised Messiah.

In chapter 2, Matthew shows Jesus worshipped by outsiders, rejected by His own people (2:1-12), and God the Father’s protecting Him (2:13-23). At no point does Jesus act. This is an important observation. At this point in the story God the Father is the main protagonist. If Matthew’s Gospel ended there, we would learn nothing directly from Jesus. In fact, he’d be a silent main character (kind of like Keanu Reeves in the Matrix). But Jesus is not destined to go along for the ride forever. He will act, he will speak, and be the hero. The first time Jesus speaks is in 3:15. (There is a lesson here, the Gospels, like the rest of Scripture, are about the Triune God).

In Chapter 4 the protagonist of Matthew’s Gospel shifts from the Father to the Son. John the Baptist is the bridge between the Father and Son (chapter 3). This bridge recounts John’s preparations for Jesus, also preparing the reader for a similar encounter. Reader, you’re about to meet Jesus. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.” The encounter between Jesus and Satan is not meant to teach us how to resist temptation, rather it reveals the true character of Christ as both fully God and fully man. Jesus’ temptations were real and He remained sinless — something only the God-man can do. The lesson here, you’re about to watch and read about the God-man Jesus Christ indwelled by the Spirit. From here on out, you’re watching the Trinity do ministry.

images-1After being in the wilderness forty days, Jesus moves to Capernaum to begin His ministry according to God’s pre-ordained, yet recorded (Isaiah 9:1-2) plan. In 4:17, Jesus begins His ministry, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” John decreased, Jesus increased.

Matthew’s story board takes Jesus from promised lineage to a man who ministers. Readers now know Jesus is the Son of God, indwelled by the Spirit, and anointed for ministry which God publicly broadcasted at His Son’s inauguration. If it were in today’s world, every TV show and sporting event, “We interrupt this broadcast to bring you the anointing of God’s Son to ministry.” (Btw, If you think this isn’t grand enough, then prepare yourself for God’s Son and the broadcast His Second Coming will command).

God wants to publicize His Son’s ministry. Up to this point, Jesus has been hidden and obscure. God when are we going to see the Messiah step on the scene? His “Shock and Awe?” Answer, at the baptism. Here’s Matthew’s account,

Then Jesus arrived from Galilee at the Jordan coming to John, to be baptized by him. But John tried to prevent Him, saying, “I have need to be baptized by You, and do You come to me?” But Jesus answering said to him, “Permit it at this time; for in this way it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he permitted Him. After being baptized, Jesus came up immediately from the water; and behold, the heavens were opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending as a dove and lighting on Him, and behold, a voice out of the heavens said, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased” (Matthew 3:13-17).

The text clearly indicates Jesus is not baptized for His sins. After the baptism, the Father announces, “This [man],” whom you see the dove descending on, is in fact, Jesus “My beloved Son” — the Seed in the lineage, born of a virgin, worshipped by foreign Magi, protected from King Herod, a Nazerene, and proclaimed by John the Baptist — your promised Messiah who will rescue you from your sin-nature and die on behalf of our sins. Now, go read about His ministry and learn from Him.

images-3Grammar: Naturally there is one “small” problem here needing clarification. What does it mean when Jesus said, “fulfill all righteousness”? I have not found a single OT prediction indicating Jesus would be unrighteous or gain righteousness if (and only if) He were baptized. Yet, this word here brings much problems to our text. The answer is rather simple. ‘fulfill’ (translated from πληρόω) does not always mean “prediction accomplished.” Like most words, there are nuances to meaning. Here are some different ideas communicated by ‘fulfill.’

  • In Matthew 1:22, the virgin birth is a finished prediction regarding the birth of Jesus. If there were a check box besides it in Isaiah 7:14, you could mark it complete.
  • It can simply mean to fill up, “When [the net] was ‘fulfilled,’ men drew it ashore” (Matt. 13:48).
  • It can mean a simple completion of time, “When many days had ‘fulfilled,’ the Jews plotted together to do away with him” (Acts 9:23).
  • Or to finish, “Until now you have asked for nothing in My name; ask and you will receive, so that your joy may be made ‘fulfilled’ (John 16:24).

The common bond between every meaning is a base meaning of ‘completion’. I believe Jesus is simply saying, “This needs to be done to complete righteousness.”

So, what does Jesus mean by “righteousness?” Its basic root meaning communicates “right works.” It conveys the idea of doing right, having right character, or having a favorable verdict. The problem comes when we try to Pauline the meaning here and think of it as some salvific righteousness Jesus needs. He is the blameless, spotless lamb of God. God Himself. Perfectly holy, true, right, and just. How can he be more righteous? He is the definition of right. But if we strip away a lot of our preconceived theological baggage (which is good baggage in the right context) and start our grammatical interpretations with basic meanings and let the context fill out (fulfill) the definition, then I think there is a simple answer. Jesus is saying, “John the Baptist, it is necessary for you to complete this action because it’s the right work right now.” Aka, “You’re fulfilling righteousness.”

What right works? God’s designed plan to anoint Jesus in front of those at the Jordan river who associate with the message and cleansing of Jesus kingdom. Therefore they show themselves associated with the Trinity.

One final “proof” if you will. John the Baptist, why did you have to baptize with water? “But for this purpose I came baptizing with water, that He might be revealed to Israel” (John 1:31). John affirms this interpretation. Jesus was baptized to magnify Jesus before Israel and inaugurate His ministry.


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Jason Vaughn

About Jason Vaughn

Jason is a graduate of the Master's Seminary and the pastor of Cornerstone Las Vegas, a Grace Advance church plant. He loves Christ, his wife Kyla, sometimes his kids :), the church, missions, people, and coffee. You can also follow him on his personal blog at shepherdthesheep.com.
  • This is great couldn’t agree more. We celebrate this great event at our feast of Epiphany.

  • Jason

    For those interested, I deleted the comment above because a link to another article / sermon is no benefit to those interested in this thriving thread due to the difficulty of interacting with the link and the article while trying to interact with this post. I’d have liked to seen the argument spelled out here as that is appropriate for blog / published communication. Thank you Mike for enduring my preferences through this. I went to cut and past the appropriate parts of the argument and found it too daunting and did not want to leave something out I felt un-important to find out it was important to the author.

    Further more if you’re interested in my response, I really don’t have one other than to say, a natural reading of Matthew would NEVER lend itself to the above position. I believe I have shown that. So, my assessment of the above argument is “valid doctrine, wrong text.” Very common among preachers to read a doctrine into a text and use it as proof, even though, in this case, Matthew does not even set the text up the same way the preacher sets the text up.

    Furthermore, I know in my circles there is a debate about the Active Obedience issue and from my perspective, it’s molehills turned mountains. It’s like calling in the Navy Seals when you find out your friend is a Patriots fan. In the end, the men I know on both sides of the debate end up with similar conclusions. We do not have a righteousness inherently our own, it is a righteousness from Christ. The debate is over “how” that gets there. But since both affirm the cross, I’m not really concerned.

  • Thanks Mike! I appreciate the view, being how I interpreted it as well.

    For the sake of clarity for our readers, no one is arguing that Jesus was baptized because he needed to repent of confess sin. On that point, Vaughn and Johnson agree, as Johnson says, “John’s baptism signified repentance, and it was usually accompanied by a public confession of sin. Jesus had no need for such a sacrament. He was ‘full of grace and truth’ (John 1:14). Hebrews 7:26 says He was ‘holy, innocent, unstained, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens.'” Likewise, they also both agree that this was something commanded in the OT for Christ. “Baptism wasn’t required or even mentioned in Moses’ law, so this isn’t a matter of legal obedience” (PJ). The question is, what does it mean to “fulfill all righteousness?” This is where we part ways.

    My position would be that Christ and John were fulfilling all righteousness as apposed to just John the Baptist (note the “us/we” in Matt. 3:15). So, this was an act of submission to the will of the Father – an act of obedience to Him. Was He righteous? Yes, but He still needed to “fulfill all righteousness.” As PJ wrote, “John instantly grasps the impropriety of this situation. How can he, a fallen man, baptize God incarnate? And clearly, John understood something of Jesus’ divine perfection… there was no lack of righteousness in Jesus’ character or His person; He was perfect in every way, from the very start… He didn’t become righteous (or somehow gain more righteousness) by becoming human. It was impossible for Him in and of Himself to be more righteous than He is innately. In and of Himself, He was fully and consummately righteous before he ever obeyed one jot or title of the law.” This is in harmony with passages like Jn. 4:34, “My food is to do the will of Him who sent Me and to accomplish His work.” This Baptism was just one of many acts of submission to the will of the Father so that He might accomplish His work (in this immediate context, commissioning Christ for His public ministry, but all of which culminate in His cross work). This submission was necessary so that He would put Himself under the law to redeem those under the law (Gal. 4:4-5; Heb. 2:17). That being said, this is an act of submission for us. I think this is what Hebrews 5:8-9 is talking about, “Though He was God’s Son, He learned obedience through what He suffered. After He was perfected, He became the source of eternal salvation for all those who obey Him.” Of course, Heb. 5 is speaking of the “passive obedience” of Christ that Jason refers to below. But I also think that’s possible because He “actively obeyed” in humble submission as a man – again – which is what Gal. 4 and Heb. 2 talk about. I also think that this was why Jesus had to be subsequently tempted in the wilderness.

    I think PJ summarizes the view well:

    “But as you think this through, don’t make the mistake of carving the obedience of Christ into two parts. Scripture always treats the obedience of Christ as a seamless garment one whole act of lifelong habit of unbroken obedience to the will of the Father. If you don’t like the terminology of “active and passive obedience,” that’s OK. Neither do I. The important point is that “the one man’s obedience [by which] many will be made righteous” is not merely what happened one Friday to Fulfill All Righteousness at Calvary. The righteousness Christ sought to fulfill encompassed an entire lifetime of devotion to the will of the Father.”

    Anyway, Jason is right that we must let the context drive the interpretation of the text. I would absolutely agree. And I would also very adamantly agree that it is necessary that we don’t bring our presuppositions to a text of Scripture and allow it to speak of itself! 🙂

    • Dennis Swanson

      But the conclusions reached on this view of obedience (active or passive) is extra biblical. Christ’s “life” doesn’t atone for anything, it doesn’t add anything to the life the of Christian. It is only his death that makes a sacrifice. His life of obedience (after all could He actually not be obedient?) simply the the demonstrable aspect to the world and subsequent generations that He was who He claimed to be, the Son of God, the Second Person of the Trinity. Nothing more, nothing less. The active obedience aspect may be a necessary part of the logic construct of Covenant Theology (whether you claim to be one or not) but that doesn’t make it biblical.

  • Dennis Swanson

    Well, it’s another view if you are wanting to infuse the extra biblical covenants into the Baptism of Jesus without actually using the terms. Phil has always grabbed onto the active obedience doctrine (which in a chapel message and subsequent journal article I called a “relic of covevant theology”) and made it almost central to all of soteriology (he also said or wrote that he’d rather abandon inerrancy than active obedience.) It’s silly mainly because it’s not biblical, albeit a vital component of covenant theology, but it’s making a very minor and rather arcane point of doctrine the central pivot. That’s always how bad theology and bad practice develop.

    • Greg Pickle

      Agreed, and I am always very grieved not so much that people hold to the imputation of active obedience (though I think it’s not taught in Scripture) but how it is used as such a litmus test of soteriological orthodoxy. This should **not** be something that divides Christians, even on an elder/church doctrinal statement level – and I tend toward some pretty tight standards for such things. Sadly, I really think some over-simplistically view the denial of imputing active obedience as the denial of imputing righteousness at all, despite the strongest protestations and biblical citations to the contrary.

      The irony of this all, for dispensationalists who hold this view, is that they miss the opportunity to destroy the foundation on which the whole Covenantal house of cards sits – Christ obeying in our place.

      • Jason

        Amen Greg. I’ve long been surprised how one could hold to both. I get the sense some of these guys read men for soteriology then the Bible for eschatology and just can’t see the disparity. I’m sure there are contradictory holes in my theology too so I want to be gracious. Changing to be more biblical on this would require a lot of back tracking and even from the pulpit.

        When I came to TMS, I asked the ASB President and faculty, “Is this a Reformed school.” They answered, “We strive to be biblical and not fit a doctrinal mold.” I LOVED that. We started together and I don’t remember a lot of guys in our class being uber Reformed guys but a lot of us agreed with key points of Reformed doctrine (sovereignty of God in salvation, depravity, etc . . . ). A few guys from our class or the following year class left b/c the school wasn’t Reformed enough. . .. Then sometime around 2009 / 2010 a group of Reformed guys came in and created stink towards Andy and some other non-Reformed guys. Young guys joining together to fight mole-hills . . .how could we go wrong? Now I get the sense they apply pressure on the need to be Reformed and maybe “bully” (for lack of a better word) those who are not more traditional Reformed. . . . all the while, we fit into the true esprit de corps of TMS. So I’d think, if you were a true Reformed guy, you’d have to realize, a lot of the TMS men here aren’t with me on some things, the school isn’t trying to be Reformed, but we agree on the big things 🙂

        In fact, a faculty member or student should not have to fear for his job or tenure at the school over this issue. If you have a point, bullying and fear tactics don’t win the point, they just win politics. Looking at the DMin line up has me a little worried about the future too.

        • Greg Pickle

          I get how people hold both views, as we finite men seem to all have views that don’t align with our hermeneutic, for various reasons. But I think that on this point there has been such a perception that this view is *the* biblical and historical alternative to works-based justification that it really feels like slipping into New Perspectivism or something to even enter a truly exegetical discussion on the matter. As I was searching it out for myself, I was well aware of this and did a ton of reading and research, for this very reason.

          Hopefully the new DMin instructors will be teaching things that are their strengths but not impacted by a different approach to the text that I have sometimes heard from some of them. One of the things I always loved at TMS was how everything was so text-driven. The professors always seemed to demand and reinforce this. I hope it always stays this way. It’s why the guys at Shepherds’ Conference, despite many being not as well-known as some others, have been my favorite conference speakers.

          Students who have really bought in on an M.Div. level to biblical exegesis will be fine. But without that, no manner of preaching technique is going to improve you in any real way; the power of our preaching is not in theology but in *exegetical* theology, grounded in the text.

      • Dennis Swanson

        In my experience nearly all division and strife amongst the brethren, almost always unnecessary is over minor, or in this case arcane, points of doctrine than are Macbeth, Act 5, Scene 5, Line 28.

  • Dennis Swanson

    Excellent article, although the stealth covenantalists who rally at every opportunity to defend the active obedience doctrine. A long time ago I wrote this:

    “Now of course, I don’t hold to what I think is a contrived concept of active/passive obedience. Christ lived a righteous life which demonstrated to the world and generations His fitfulness to be the perfect sacrifice on the cross. His righteous life does not atone for sin, only His death does that, and His righteous life credits nothing to my “account” as a believer. I think covenant theology reads way too much into the First Adam Second Adam parallel on this point.”

    When you look closely into history this is just a relic of Catholic theology (read up on the treasury of merit) that the reformers never washed out of their otherwise biblical thinking.

    • Jason

      Wow! I definitely knew about it being connected to Cov works / grace. Ken Stiles has an excellent write up on this point at ShepherdtheSheep.com but I had never really thought about connecting it to Catholic teaching. It does make sense now though. And I definitely agree with your quote. In fact, I heard John MacArthur say the same thing once when preaching through Luke about why Christ lived a perfect life and the law (he did not however mention the A/P issue). Ironically I came to my own conclusions before I ever even knew Andy had a thesis on the issue and that John sermon was instrumental because it explained why Christ lived a perfect life. Had he not lived one, he wouldn’t be the blameless sacrifice we need . .. .

    • Thanks for commenting, but, respectfully, I disagree with your assertion, “When you look closely into history this is just a relic of Catholic theology… that the reformers never washed out of their otherwise biblical thinking.” Honestly, I think it gets really difficult to maintain that this is an “unnecessary” or “minor” issue (referring to your comment below) when you use language like that. How can we say a doctrine is from a totally pagan and rankly heretical cult, and then call it insignificant at the same time? Or at the very least, assertively call it unbiblical, but then maintain that it’s okay to adhere to an unbiblical doctrine? Those statements are themselves polarizing and very quickly move this up very closely, if not actually, a first level doctrine. To move it to a third or fourth level category, there has to be at least some willingness to say, “Yes, I think that can be a valid and biblical interpretation (like, for instance, the interpretation of “perfect” in 1 Cor. 13:10. I maintain that perfect refers to Christ, but I can see where those who maintain that it refers to the canon make a biblical argument), but by your vernacular, I’d say that’s not the case.

      Further, from what I’ve studied, the Reformers explained the “active obedience of Christ” to refute the position of the RCC regarding the infusion of Christ’s righteousness (applied by Christ’s death + meritorious acts of all RC saints + merits in the indulgences), as apposed to the imputation of Christ’s righteousness. It was not as a remnant of the RCC system that they never purged themselves of.

      That’s my two cents worth anyway.

      • Dennis Swanson

        Well, first of all calling Catholicism “totally pagan and rankly heretical cult” is a bit much. You need to be more careful with your terms. Catholicism is not classified by anyone as a “cult” and at the time of the Reformation Catholicism was the home of most Christians. Most of what we now know as Catholicism wasn’t codified as such until the counter-reformation era. The difference between the Reformers view of Christ’s life-works or active obedience and the Catholic position is more of a difference of degree not type. To use their own “bank” analogy in the Treasury of Merit, Christ was the founder of the bank and made the single largest deposit (in fact even Catholic theologians will say the amount He deposited is essentially limitless), but subsequent believers works could add to the Treasury as well. But, in reality almost no one does. In Catholicism actually very very few go straight to heaven and really very few go straight to hell, the overwhelming majority go to purgatory. Now, the Indulgence system (which is what first motivates Luther to act) was built to help people out of purgatory. There are a few ways out of purgatory to heaven (in Catholicism): (1) do your time, be “purged” and go to heaven; (2) have the Pope dispense resources from the Treasury of Merit to get you out of Purgatory early; (3) have people buy indulgences on a deceased persons behalf; (4) prayers to the saints, to Mary, etc., which incline them to intercede on a deceased person’s behalf (of course the problem with this one is the person who prays, lights candles, etc., can’t objectively know if/when the prayers are answered). #3 was prevalent in Luther’s time and was rather scandalously abused (BTW Trent did address this, although indulgences.

        OK, so much for history. The Reformers abandoned the abuses and works-righteousness salvation, but a lot of stuff (like Active Obedience) still hang around albeit made more palatable. For instance, the Reformer’s cut back on the role of Mary, but certainly did not eliminate all the supra-biblical folderol around her. The Reformers still thought advocating the separation of church and state a capital offense and persecuted the Anabaptists with more zeal than the Catholics did. Even your statements about “levels” of doctrine or heresy originates in Catholicism (venial and mortal sin).

        But, while I reject the normative Reformed (or perhaps better Covenantal) position on Active Obedience, I don’t get terribly vexed by those who do until they begin to use it as a cudgel by which they judge orthodoxy.

  • Jason

    I mentioned Ken Stiles article. Here is link to the start of the series. http://wp.me/p2dzI5-jE

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