All four gospels tell us that Jesus was baptized (Matthew 3:13-17; Mark 1:9-11; Luke 3:21-33; John 1:29-34) – so we know it happened, but why? It can be especially confusing because Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist. The people whom John baptized confessed their sins (Matthew 3:6; Mark 1:5), with John’s baptism being a baptism of repentance (Mark 1:4; Luke 3:3; Matthew 3:11), but the Bible affirms that Jesus knew no sin (2 Corinthians 5:21), being like us in every way except sin (Hebrews 4:15). Therefore, Jesus’ baptism had to be different from the other baptisms that happened at that time at the Jordan River, as it was not about repentance or his sin since he had no sin nor a need to repent. In fact, John the Baptist recognizes that Jesus does not need to be baptized (Matthew 3:14).
Matthew’s account of Jesus’ baptism gives us a partial answer to why Jesus was baptized – Jesus tells John that it is needed to “fulfill all righteousness” (Matthew 3:15). That answer still raises the question – why does this fulfill all righteousness (and what does that even mean!)? One thing that is interesting about the word “fulfill” is that throughout the first couple of chapters of the Gospel of Matthew, the Gospel writer keeps highlighting how Jesus fulfills statements made by Old Testament prophets (see Matthew 1:22; 2:15; 2:18; 2:23) – something that continues in Matthew (for example, Matthew 4:14-16). Therefore, the baptism of Jesus is the working out of the plan of God to save people from their sins that had been predicted in the Old Testament.
But how does Jesus’ baptism fit into the saving plan of God? In being baptized, Jesus was identifying himself with God’s people – he did not need to be baptized due to sin but to be made “just like sinners” so that he might save sinners. In some ways, while the people went into the water to “wash away” their sin, Jesus went into the water to “take upon” their sin! In addition, by getting baptized by John, Jesus shows the people that John was right in looking for another kingdom (see Matthew 3:2), a kingdom needed because of the way that our world has been broken by sin.
The baptism of Jesus shows us that Jesus is God’s anointed king to bring this kingdom. While John’s baptism makes him like God’s people, Jesus’ baptism was also different from all the others who were baptized by John the Baptist – as only at Jesus’ baptism were the heavens split open, with God the Father speaking and the Holy Spirit descending in the form of a dove (all three members of the Trinity are there!!!); this didn’t happen when anyone else was being baptized by John! The people that John baptized were made “ceremonially” clean, ready for the coming of the kingdom. In contrast, Jesus’ baptism was setting him apart to begin his special work as the Savior of God’s people – John the Baptist even mentions that the purpose of his baptism was to reveal who Jesus was (John 1:31). This baptism marks the starting point of his ministry.
Therefore, Jesus’ baptism shows his humility and desire to be identified with God’s people. Christian baptism is different from John’s baptism of Jesus, as Christian baptism is in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:19-20). Jesus’ baptism identified him with God’s people who long for a Savior; Christian baptism identifies us with Jesus Christ and with his body, the church (1 Corinthians 12:12-13). John’s baptism was with water to get people ready for the kingdom; Christian baptism reminds us that Jesus baptizes us with the Holy Spirit, that Jesus is the greater one to whom John looked (see Matthew 3:11; Luke 3:16). In fact, Christian baptism is a reminder that Jesus must increase and that we must decrease!