Why did Jesus need to be baptized? This question seemed to perplex even John the Baptist (Matt. 3:14). To answer it, we need to know what kind of baptism Jesus underwent and the purpose of his ministry. Then we can see the significance of our baptism.
Jesus Underwent the Baptism of John
It’s significant that Jesus was baptized by John, because this baptism was a different kind than what we receive.
When Jesus comes to John for baptism in Matthew 3:13—17, John had just declared in Matthew 3:11, “I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” John clearly distinguishes between the baptism he offers and the one that Jesus will offer. This difference is of course not in the means of water, but that one is “for repentance” and the other, “with the Holy Spirit and fire.” John’s baptism and message make sense in light of who Jesus and the Old Testament declare him to be: John is among the line of the prophets who called people–especially God’s people Israel–to repent in light of coming judgment and to hope for the salvation of the Lord (see Ezek. 33:11; Isa. 30:15; Matt. 11:7-9). His baptism is an extension of that message. Why Jesus would receive such a baptism has to do with his mission.
Baptized to Fulfill All Righteousness
When Jesus comes to John for his baptism, it’s not because he needs to repent for sin, but “to fulfill all righteousness” (Matt. 3:15). When Jesus is baptized, it initiates his ministry as the true and faithful Israel, who answered the call for righteousness perfectly. Whereas Israel had constantly failed to keep the law and to heed the call of the prophets to righteousness, Jesus, in receiving John’s baptism, was taking on the role of the only perfectly faithful Israelite. Thus, we have this well-known vindication from the Father; “And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; and behold, a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased’” (Matt. 3:16—17).
Knowing this explains what happens next in the story, as that same Spirit who descended on him in baptism “immediately drove him out into the wilderness” (Mark 1:12). There Jesus withstood 40 days of temptation in the wilderness, in sharp contrast to the Israel’s grumbling against the Lord (see, for example, Exod. 16). In Jesus’ unwavering faithfulness in the wilderness, we see a Messiah who has not only received the sign of his Father’s unquestioning approval, but perfectly lives it out, just as he said: “For I always do the things that are pleasing to him” (John 8:29).
Along with Jesus’ obedience as the true Israel, his baptism also sets his course towards the cross. Jesus declares in Luke 12:50; “I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how great is my distress until it is accomplished!” In Mark 10 we also see that Jesus’ ministry will culminate in a baptism that is the giving of “his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). For Christ, baptism is also a judgment. The trajectory of his ministry was not aimless, but always defined by his baptism–headed for Calvary.
Christ’s Baptism and Our Baptism
Christ’s baptism points to what he will accomplish for our salvation, and our baptism declares its accomplishment and unites us to him! Paul writes,
“Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the death by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” (Rom. 6:3-5)
Because of Christ’s work, what was obligation, judgment, and death for him is our very hope of “newness of life.” Baptism for us is our guarantee of sweet fellowship with God that is grounded in grace. It assures us that, because Christ’s baptism took him to the grave and back, our destiny is now resurrection with him. Because this is so–because we now have the Holy Spirit–we’re reminded every time we think of our baptism, or witness a baptism, of this very promise from our Lord Christ: “For sin will have not dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace” (Rom. 6:14).