We close the week with a question from Bob, a podcast listener who writes in to ask a simple question, but a very good question, too. Simply put, why did Jesus insist on being baptized by John the Baptist?
Matthew as Our Guide
The fullest description of the baptism of Jesus is given in Matthew 3. So let’s let Matthew guide us in answering the question: Why did Jesus insist on being baptized by John? There are at least two things that Matthew makes plain about John’s baptism which are relevant for why Jesus would insist on submitting to this baptism.
“John’s baptism of repentance brought into being a people of God for the coming Messiah.”
First, Matthew 3:6 says that people were coming to be baptized confessing their sins. And then he quotes John in Matthew 3:11: “I baptize you with water for repentance.” So Matthew was making plain that the purpose of John’s baptism was to provide an occasion for Jewish people to confess their sins and repent and get right with God. That is the first thing.
Second, John makes clear that his baptism of repentance is bringing into being a people of God for the coming Messiah, and that he is bringing this people into being with an identity that is not identical with their Jewishness, but with their repentance.
We see it in Matthew 3:9. He says to the Pharisees who had come out to the river, “And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham.” What does that mean? It means there is no salvation and no security in claiming your lineage from Abraham.
God is free in choosing who will be in his people. He can make saints of his own, out of rocks if he wanted to. So the new people of God that are being gathered by this baptism being prepared for the coming Messiah, Jesus, are marked by repentance and the fruit that comes from repentance. They are not, like the Pharisees, depending on their ethnicity or their religious pedigree by saying, “We have Abraham as our father.”
Now, Jesus comes into that situation and John says to him: Whoa. “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me [to be baptized]?” (Matthew 3:14). In other words, he makes crystal clear that Jesus does not need this baptism. He does not need to repent. He does not need to confess any sins. So why are you here?
“All the righteousness that would be required of men before the court of God Jesus performed.”
Jesus gives one sentence in answer, and it is massively important. He says, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness” (Matthew 3:15). It is fitting. That is why he is doing it. It is fitting. Well, what is fitting? Fulfilling all righteousness is fitting.
Evidently, Jesus saw his life as the fulfillment of all righteousness. The fact that participating in a baptism of repentance even though he had no sins to repent of is part of that shows that the righteousness he wanted to fulfill was the righteousness required not of himself, but of every sinful man.
Jesus had read Isaiah 53. Indeed, Isaiah 53 was his life mission. And here is what he read in verse 11: “By his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous.” The righteous one will cause many to be counted righteous.
My answer to the question of why Jesus insisted on being baptized is that this new people who were being gathered by John the Baptist on the basis of repentance and faith, not on the basis of Jewishness, would need to be justified. They would need to be counted righteous, because they weren’t righteous. They would need to have a righteousness not their own, as Paul said in Philippians 3:8–9.
That righteousness included the fulfillment of all righteousness in life, the life of Jesus. All the righteousness that would be required of men before the court of God, Jesus performed. So he joined fallen humanity, for whom he was providing righteousness by sharing their baptism.