The baptism of Jesus – was it necessary, what did it mean?

  • Question 196, from Richard

    Why did Jesus need to get baptised? He was sinless so he didn’t need to repent. Also he didn’t need to make a public statement of commitment to God because he was God.

    This was a question asked by one of the young people during a youth talk on baptism.

    The account of Jesus being baptised appears in Matthew, Mark and Luke and is hinted at heavily in John’s gospel, although it is not explicitly stated there. The account in Matthew chapter 3 includes John the Baptist’s initial refusal to baptise Jesus. Luke chapter 3, verse 21, mentions Jesus’ baptism, but does not mention whether it was John who baptised him, although it seems likely. Mark is very matter-of-fact about it (chapter 1, verse 9-11), while John’s gospel contains two prophetic statements made by John the Baptist about Jesus, including calling him the ‘Lamb of God’ twice (chapter 1, verse 29 and 35).

    All four gospels agree that this marks the beginning of Jesus’ earthly ministry, and include a reference to the Holy Spirit descending on Jesus in the form of a dove – a detail that is common across all four accounts. There is also a revelation that Jesus is ‘God’s Son’, although that is only found in Matthew, Mark and Luke.

    So, why did Jesus need to get baptised?

    In Matthew’s account, John the Baptist protests that Jesus should be baptising him. However, Jesus says he wants to be baptised in rode to “fulfil all righteousness” (chapter 3, verse 15). In Matthew chapter 5, verse 17, Jesus says he has come to ‘fulfil the Law and the prophets’, which could be considered the same thing as fulfilling all righteousness. Jesus may have equated baptism with fulfilling all the demands for holiness found in the prophetic books.

    The forgiveness of sins is only one aspect to baptism. It is also a mark of commitment to live a new way. After his baptism, Jesus was going to be living a new kind of life, obedient to the Father, preaching the good news, and ultimately dying on the cross.

    Getting baptised is therefore Jesus’ first act of obedience and through it is confirmation and affirmation that he is the messiah. The descent of the Holy Spirit and the statement about Jesus being God’s son confirm this, as does John the Baptist’s declaration that Jesus is the Lamb of God. This may have been the moment when Jesus realised, himself, that he had a unique calling. (See a previous freelance theology article on this.)

    There are hints throughout the gospels that many of Jesus’s followers saw him continuing John the Baptist’s ministry. As a prophet, there were frequent parallels made between John the Baptist and Elijah. In 2 Kings chapter 2, Elijah hands on his ministry as a prophet to his successor, Elisha. This takes place at the River Jordan as well. Jesus takes on John the Baptist’s message of repentance when he begins his ministry, which has a similarity to the way Elisha continued Eliljah’s work.

    Further reading

    Was Jesus aware that he was God?

    A brief introduction to baptism


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