All four of the Gospels tell us that Jesus was baptized, and the fact that each of the four writers mentions it confirms its significance to the gospel narrative. So what is it about Jesus’ baptism that makes it so important?
When we think about baptism within a Christian context, we think of it as a sacrament that outwardly demonstrates our initiation into the community of God and our association with Jesus’ death and resurrection. So, naturally, this creates some cognitive dissonance when thinking about Jesus’ baptism.
Luke tells us that John the Baptist shows up in Judea “preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins (Luke 3:3).” But Jesus wasn’t sinful and didn’t need to be forgiven, so why was He baptized?
If we want to understand Jesus’ baptism, we must ask the right questions. It’s more than simply asking ourselves, “Why was Jesus baptized?” We need to know when, how, and why baptism was introduced into Judaism.
Water purification in Israel
We don’t find baptism practiced in the Old Testament. So it’s interesting that when John shows up in the wilderness with this message of baptism, no one seems to question it. The Pharisees don’t show up asking, “What’s all this about? Why are you dunking people in the Jordan River?”
Obviously, the idea isn’t completely foreign to them, so where does this practice come from?
The significance of water and cleansing
Water has always had a symbolic significance in Old Testament stories. For example, the apostle Peter points back to Noah’s story to draw this very parallel with baptism:
… to those who were disobedient long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built. In it only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water, and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also-not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a clear conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ (1 Peter 3:20-21).
When Peter looks back at Noah, he makes a mental connection between the flood and the cleansing waters of baptism. This is in keeping with the Old Testament connections between water and purification.
The 19th chapter of Numbers goes into detail about water-related rituals of cleansing. For instance, the Israelites were informed that “Whoever touches a human corpse will be unclean for seven days. They must purify themselves with the water on the third day and on the seventh day; then they will be clean. But if they do not purify themselves on the third and seventh days, they will not be clean” (Numbers 19:11-12).
We see the same thing in Leviticus:
When a man is cleansed from his discharge, he is to count off seven days for his ceremonial cleansing; he must wash his clothes and bathe himself with fresh water, and he will be clean (Leviticus 15:13).
What’s translated here as “fresh water,” could also be translated as living water, which they would have interpreted as moving water. This passage speaks of cleansing oneself, but this image of bathing in moving water has a real baptism feel to it.
The prophets and purification
It’s no surprise that Peter would connect the flood and baptism. The prophets made the connection between water and purity often. For instance, Ezekiel uses this symbolism when prophetically addressing Israel’s future Messiah.
For I will take you out of the nations; I will gather you from all the countries and bring you back into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws (Ezekiel 36:24-27).
Here we see cleansing from sin and impurity being associated with the washing of water. Isaiah alludes to the same kind of purifying when he tells Israel:
Wash and make yourselves clean.
Take your evil deeds out of my sight;
stop doing wrong.
Learn to do right; seek justice.
Defend the oppressed.
Take up the cause of the fatherless;
plead the case of the widow (Isaiah 1:16-17).
The kind of cleaning that Isaiah is addressing is metaphoric. He’s encouraging Israel to wash themselves of their sinfulness and disobedience. And the washing (which would happen with water) is a metaphor, too. It speaks of a legitimate change that needs to occur in their hearts.
It’s also interesting to note that cleansing themselves from their unrighteousness isn’t just about avoiding destructive behaviors but also about embracing positive ones. They shouldn’t just stop being oppressors, but they should become those who defend the oppressed. They shouldn’t simply avoid exploiting the fatherless and the widow, but they should take up their cause instead. Righteousness isn’t simply about avoiding bad behaviors; it’s about becoming adept at doing good.
The rise of baptism in Israel
From the Dead Sea Scrolls and other secondary sources, we know that many faith communities-like the Essenes-had begun practicing cleansing rituals of immersion during the Second Temple period.
A lot of this rose out of a fixation on ritual purity focusing on preparing for the coming Messiah.
In an Essene scroll that spells out their community rules, we see baptism taking center stage:
By the Holy Spirit of the Community, in His truth, shall he be cleansed of all his sins; and by the Spirit of uprightness and humility shall his iniquity be atoned. By his soul’s humility towards all the precepts of God shall his flesh be cleansed when sprinkled with lustral waters and sanctified in flowing water. And he shall establish his steps to walk perfectly in all the ways of God, according to His command concerning His regular feasts; and he shall step aside neither to right nor to left, and shall make no single step from all His words. Then will he please God with agreeable expiation, and it will obtain for him the Covenant of the eternal Community (1QS III 7-12).
There is a lot of speculation that John’s time in the wilderness was spent with one of these communities in the Qumran region and that he adopted this practice. John’s baptism was about repentance and forgiveness in keeping with these community rules found in the Dead Sea Scrolls.
The crowds coming out to see John would have been familiar with the practice of baptism, even if they had never submitted to baptism themselves. We also know that Gentiles converting to Judaism were ritually washed to purify them from idolatry.
The baptism of Jesus
It’s against this background that Jesus arrives in Jordan to be baptized. And we can examine the various ways that the gospel writers approach Jesus’ baptism.
Matthew’s account of Jesus’ baptism
Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John. But John tried to deter him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”
Jesus replied, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” Then John consented.
As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:13-17).
Matthew focuses on John’s response to Jesus. John knows that Jesus isn’t there to be cleansed from unrighteousness. We see in John what we see in the reaction of others to Jesus. He instinctively recognizes his own unrighteousness in the Lord’s presence.
To fulfill all righteousness
Jesus tells John that this needs to be done to “fulfill all righteousness.” But what exactly does this mean?
As John recognizes, Jesus doesn’t need to be immersed to become clean Himself. So fulfilling all righteousness can’t mean that being baptized is fulfilling this kind of role in Jesus’ ministry. Instead, Jesus is linking His message to John. He had come to call sinners to repentance, and He set an example for them in the form of baptism.
At this moment, baptism becomes an integral part of the journey into a relationship with God. In time, this will become more than a symbol of cleansing. It will transition into a sign that new believers identify with Jesus’ death and resurrection.
A voice from heaven speaks
After Jesus’ baptism, Matthew tells us that the Spirit of God descended upon Jesus and the Father’s voice from heaven affirmed Jesus’ ministry. First of all, this was a critical affirmation for John. The torch was being passed, and God was proclaiming Jesus’ role.
Mark’s account of Jesus’ baptism
At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”
At once the Spirit sent him out into the wilderness, and he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him (Mark 1:9-13).
As is the case with a lot of Mark’s Gospel, we see his details in the work of Matthew and Luke. Mark focuses on the event details. Jesus’ ministry is established at the baptism, and He is immediately sent out to the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.
Luke’s account of Jesus’ baptism
When all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too. And as he was praying, heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased” (Luke 3:21-22).
Luke adds an interesting detail that Jesus wasn’t treated like a celebrity. They didn’t wait until the crowds left to baptize Him after hours when He wouldn’t be bothered. Instead, Jesus came when everyone else was standing around waiting to hear from John. Luke wants us to know that a crowd was present when God affirmed Jesus’ ministry.
Check out Luke’s version of the baptism as told in the JESUS film.
John’s account of Jesus’ baptism
The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! This is the one I meant when I said, ‘A man who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.’ I myself did not know him, but the reason I came baptizing with water was that he might be revealed to Israel.”
Then John gave this testimony: “I saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on him. And I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, ‘The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.’ I have seen and I testify that this is God’s Chosen One” (John 1:29-34).
This account really highlights that God’s pronouncement was meant, first of all, for John the Baptist. John’s period of asceticism and preparation for the Messiah was at an end. He was now going to enter into a dark period.
He’d soon be imprisoned in Herod’s dungeon and begin receiving reports about Jesus’ behavior which will shake his faith. He’d eventually send his own followers to ask the Lord if He is indeed the One or if they should be waiting on another (Luke 7:20). He would need this moment to look back on and draw strength from.
You can watch John’s account from The Life of Jesus.
The beginning of the Lord’s ministry
Jesus’ baptism was the point that Jesus stepped into a fast-moving current that would carry Him through the next three years at breakneck speed. From here, He would go on to be tempted in the wilderness and then begin His public ministry and press forward to Calvary.
To learn more about Jesus’ ministry, watch The Life of Jesus, a beautifully shot film based on the Gospel of John.