Why 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? Th main ingredients: context, grammar, and OT Prophecy.
Matthew’s story shifts from Jesus birth and childhood (1-2), to preparing Israel for their king (3), to Jesus actual ministry (4-28).
Matthew 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.
After 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.
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.
The one who looked for Jesus would also see Jesus doing what Scripture promised the Lord would do. Consider Isaiah 61:1-2,
The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, Because the LORD has anointed me To bring good news to the afflicted; He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, To proclaim liberty to captives And freedom to prisoners; 2 To proclaim the favorable year of the LORD.
The opening sentence bears significance for obvious reasons. Our Lord goes to great lengths to show Jesus is anointed in the Spirit. If you were a saint, during Jesus day, waiting on the promised seed – Jesus, then this text stands out to you. It’s not a prophesy to be fulfilled on a specific day, it’s a verse describing the character of His ministry. Jesus ministry is the ministry of the Trinity. When Jesus preaches the Gospel, heals, prays, and prepares His disciples for the future, the Trinity is involved in it all. Jesus did not come to the healthy, but to heal the sick (Matt 9:12).
Matthew uses many of these key words throughout the Gospel to point out, believers are poor in spirit, brokenhearted over their sin, captivated by their sins, and mourn their sins. Jesus is the answer. The Spirit descends onto Jesus visually for Israel to know, her Messiah comes in the flesh. Luke 4:17-19 supports this view too.
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 Him before Israel and inaugurate His ministry.