John the Baptist was the one prophesied by Scripture as, “a voice of one calling: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way for the LORD make straight in the desert a highway for our God” (Isa. 40:3). He went out into a desert area of the Judean countryside and implored the nation of Israel to repent and turn back to God. Crowds flocked to him, and he pleaded with the people to be baptized in water as an act of expression of their repentance.
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. (Matt. 3:13-15)
Here was Jesus, the Divine One, the One who would later walk ON water, wading into the waters of the Jordan River to be baptized by John. Yet, the act of water baptism was foremost meant as an expression signifying the person was repenting from his sins and turning back to follow God’s will and ways.
But Jesus lived a sinless, holy life! He was the wholly perfect and pure God. Why, then, did He receive baptism?
Initially, even John was puzzled when Jesus approached him. John himself knew that he was the one who needed salvation through Jesus, who is the Christ. For, it was Jesus who would bear “our sins in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness” (1 Peter 2:24). And, “without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness” (Heb. 9:22).
Therefore, John asked why Jesus came to him. John told Jesus that he was the one who needed rather to be baptized by Jesus. To that, Jesus answered, “it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.”
To begin to understand why Jesus accepted baptism, first understand that Jesus didn’t need to be baptized as an expression of repentance—because He never sinned.
Rather, Jesus’ baptism signifies the “kicking off” point in His public ministry. He came into the world to become the bridge reconciling man with God. And He began by identifying with the people through water baptism, which symbolized their repentance and their need for restoration to God.
Men were lost in sin, and needed a Savior. Therefore, Jesus, the sinless Son of God, would take upon himself the sins of the world at Calvary.
In accepting baptism, Jesus was showing the world that He had fully accepted the path which would take Him to lay down His life at Calvary for the redemption of man. At Calvary, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21).
For, as Jesus said of himself, “the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).
While Jesus is the Son of God, the most common name recorded in the gospels that Jesus used to refer to himself is, “Son of Man.” The fullness of Deity remained on Him, yet He humbled himself and also became wholly man. He was fully God and fully man. This was necessary so He could become an acceptable atonement to intercede between the heavenly Father and man. “Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death . . . For this reason he had to be made like them, fully human in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people” (Heb. 2:14-17).
“God sent his Son born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship” (Gal. 4:4-5). Jesus left the riches of heaven and descended into the world. He was born of a virgin, and clothed himself in flesh as the Son of Man to identify with man.
We also see symbolism in Jesus’ baptism that He was the One destined to become our eternal High Priest. As Jesus is the intercessor between man and the heavenly Father, it was appropriate for Jesus, as a representative over the people, to openly acknowledge the people’s need for repentance and restoration—as represented in “John’s baptism” (see Acts 19:3-4).
Priests in the nation of Israel were responsible for confessing the sins of the people before God. And, only the High Priest could enter the Holy of Holies to acknowledge Israel’s sin as a nation and intercede with the LORD on the nation’s behalf.
So, Jesus, as the true High Priest on behalf of all people, began his ministry by publicly confessing the people’s sin. For, “we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin “(Heb. 4:15).
Jesus’ baptism also pictures an anointing to His rightful authority as Son of David, king and heir to the throne of David. The kings over Judah were to be anointed with oil by prophets. At Jesus’ baptism, we see a symbolic anointing (by John the Baptist) over Jesus as Israel’s King of kings. No, Jesus wasn’t anointed with oil, as were the temporal kings of Israel. Instead, Jesus was covered with water from the Jordan River (in the same river and perhaps at the same point where the Israelites crossed over into the promised land).
More than that, in Scripture, the pouring on of oil wasn’t the true affirmation of being anointed—it was the anointing presence of the Holy Spirit afterwards which showed God’s approval as Israel’s selected king (i.e. 1 Sam. 10:6, 1 Sam. 16:13).
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” (Matt. 3: 16-17).
Immediately after Jesus came up out of the water, the Spirit of God descended on Jesus affirming His anointing by God as “King of the Jews” and heir to the throne of David. As Jesus said to Pilate, “You say rightly that I am a king. For this cause I was born, and for this cause I have come into the world, that I should bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice” (John 18:37 NKJV).
Furthermore, by being baptized Jesus gives a clear and unescapable message that the heavenly Father is calling everyone to repentance. Jesus said, “Unless you repent, you too will all perish” (Luke 13:3). To be saved, we must approach God in repentance. For that’s where God meets us—in His mercy.
As the penitent Israelites were baptized by John, it stood in stark contrast to the religious Pharisees and leaders who stood on the banks of the Jordan in a condescending manner while the “sinners” poured out their hearts before God.
There can be no salvation without repentance. Nor can a man be saved apart from accepting Jesus Christ as his personal Load and Savior. “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast” (Eph. 2:8-9).
Those who confess and repent are the ones credited as righteous, not those who pursue righteousness through their own merits. Therefore, to begin His public ministry, it was appropriate for the Son of God—who represents us before the heavenly Father as the Son of Man, our High Priest, and our great King—to be baptized, symbolizing His advocacy for those beseeching God’s mercy. For, Jesus is the only One who can intercede between God and man.