Why Was Jesus Baptized? or the baptism of John

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( Jeffrey S. Bowman, all rights reserved, use by permission only)

This paper will attempt to present the Biblical and theological background of the baptism of John along with an explanation as to why Jesus was baptized.  Because of space and time constraints it will only touch lightly upon the MODE (i.e. immersion, sprinkling, or pouring) of baptism.  Furthermore, appeal to historical sources and background will be examined only as they connect with the Biblical and theological evidences.

Studies on the baptism of John and why Jesus was baptized are to be found in almost every text on Systematic Theology, commentary on the Gospels, Biblical encyclopedia, and book on baptism.  I realize that my study will not be any major contribution to the discussion.  Yet I think that my background affords me some openness of mind (if that is possible) that can formulate some fresh ideas without intense presuppositions that could heavily influence the processing of the biblical and theological data.  I am talking about the fact that I came to a knowledge of Christ as my savior in a "non-baptistic" church.  Thus theories about baptism, etc.; were not (and still are not) strongly promulgated.  I have no strong "water tradition" to uphold, even subconsciously, as I investigate the data relating to this study.  Obviously this can be taken as a pretentious claim on my part but it is claimed and put forth in the sincere hope that my conclusions may perhaps match the relevant data.



            Among them that are born of women there hath not arisen a greater than John the Baptist (Matt. 11:11)

So Jesus describes the greatness of the man who was His forerunner.  Yet "he that is least in the Kingdom of Heaven is greater than he;" Jesus went on to say.  John was the last of the Old Testament prophets.  He forms the connecting link or "prophetic bridge" from the Old Testament era to the arriving Messianic era.  He is the thundering voice of judgment calling Israel to repent and prepare for their coming King. [1]

Perhaps we are provided no greater introduction and background to John the Baptist than his own biography which he presents to the committee of the Sanhedrin:

            And this is the record of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levities from Jerusalem to ask him, Who art thou?  And he confessed, and denied not; but confessed, I am not the Christ.  And they asked him, What then? Art thou Elias? And he saith, I am not. Art thou that prophet? And he answered, No.  Then said they unto him, Who art thou? that we may give an answer to them that sent us. What sayest thou of thyself?  He said, I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, Make straight the way of the Lord, as said the prophet Esaias.  And they which were sent were of the Pharisees.  And they asked him, and said unto him, Why baptizest thou then, if thou be not that Christ, nor Elias, neither that prophet?  John answered them, saying, I baptize with water: but there standeth one among you, whom ye know not;  He it is, who coming after me is preferred before me, whose shoe's latchet I am not worthy to unloose.  These things were done in Bethabara beyond Jordan, where John was baptizing.  (John 1:19-28)

We can learn about John's ministry and baptism by noticing the nature and type of questions that are presented to him and his answers.  They can be seen as dealing with WHO and WHY?

"Who are you?  Messiah, Elijah, or the prophet?"  This question is significant because they assumed that John must be one of these three because of what he was doing.  This can be seen in their follow-up question: "Why do you baptize then if you are not..."  In their teachings and attempt to understand the Messianic age, they had identified the Messiah as the one who would call the nation together via a cleansing rite of baptism.  They added Elijah and the prophet as possible "messianic stand-ins" who would do the same.  They were fully aware of what the Old Testament proclaimed regarding the Messianic age even if they did not understand it correctly:

            Then will I sprinkle clean water upon you, and ye shall be clean: from all your filthiness, and from all your idols, will I cleanse you.  A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh.  (Eze. 36:25,26)

            So shall he sprinkle many nations; the kings shall shut their mouths at him: for [that] which had not been told them shall they see; and [that] which they had not heard shall they consider.  (Isa. 52:15)

Thus it seems clear that John was not so much doing something that was new or foreign to Jewish thought, he was rather "lacking the credentials" in the minds of the leaders to baptize.  Adams summarizes this point well:

            There is not one hint in the New Testament concerning the institution of this supposedly "new" practice.  Rather, the Jewish people most naturally assume that John is a prophet from God, because he is baptizing.  Notice the question asked by the representatives of the Pharisees (those eagle-eyed heresy hunter would have instantly pounced upon John for teaching new rites, had they not already been acquainted with and accepted baptism).  After John denied he was the Messiah or Elijah returned to the earth, they asked him, "Then why are you baptizing, if you are neither the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?"  By this statement, the Jewish leaders clearly indicate that the Old Testament predicted the coming of someone who would baptize and that this activity would be one of his distinguishing characteristics. [2]

Some have argued that John's baptism can be traced to the Quamran people or to Jewish proselyte baptism, but Beasley-Murray argues differently:

            Accordingly, it must be said, `There is not a single feature of John's baptism for which there is the slightest reason to go to Quamran to look for the source'.  It is salutary to receive this check on too ready an identification of the Quamran lustrations with the practice of baptism in the strict sense of the term.  The frequency of the lustration should have warned us against that...Such frequency of ablutions stands in strong contrast to the once-for-all rite of baptism. [3]

Furthermore, Beasley-Murray states:

            In short, there is no point at which contact can be found between John's baptism and proselyte baptism; there seems to be no ground therefore for the repeated assertion that the former was derived from the latter.  The basic ideas behind the two institutions had little or nothing in common. [4]

It seems reasonable to conclude that John's baptism was the escatalogical hope the Old Testament longed for.  It would mark the beginning of the Messianic era.  It is for this reason that the Jewish leaders did not ask John "WHAT are you doing?" (as if he was doing something new); but "WHO are you?" (Messiah, Elijah, or the prophet); and "WHY are you baptizing" since he did not claim to be either of the three who in their understanding would be baptizing.



What is the meaning of baptism in the Messianic era?  What would be it's purpose?  What is John's message?  These questions are of importance in dealing with this study.  Answering these questions will also provide us with a foundation on which to stand when we address the question of why Jesus was baptized.

What is the meaning of baptism in the Messianic era and what is John's message?

As already submitted, John's baptism was in keeping with Old Testament expectations.  To further examine this though of a once-for-all type baptism, Beasley-Murray states:

            Such a complete cleansing in a once-for-all lustration is known to the Old Testament only in eschatological hope, but the hope is significant: the prophets look for the Day when a fountain will be opened to cleanse the house of David from sin and uncleanness (Zech. 13:1), when the Lord will "sprinkle clean water" upon his people and put within them a new heart and a new spirit (Ezk. 36:25), and when He will refine his people as with fire and with fuller's soap (Mal. 3:1ff). [5]

According to the prophets, God's people Israel would be purged from their sin and uncleanness in the Messianic age.  John's message of repentance expressed in baptism [6] for the remission of sins (Mark 1:4) was the start of it.  He was preparing the way, getting the people ready for their messiah.  Beasley-Murray sees a great eschatological significance in John's baptism:

            The baptism of John is thus eschatological in import, by virtue of the character of the administrator and the Person to whom it points....It sealed the repentant as members of the covenant people fitted for the appearing of the Messiah, and therefore with hope of inheriting the Kingdom of the Messiah. [7]

What is the purpose of John's baptism and what is John's message?

Apart from the Old Testament eschatological concept of baptism there is also found many other types of purifying lustrations. [8]   These are what the writer of Hebrews has in mind when he talks about the various "washings" (Heb. 9:10).  Of the various washings/baptisms there is one that has particular significance and bearing to our topic: the induction and the purification of the priesthood.  Notice the following passages:

            And this is the thing that thou shalt do unto them to hallow them, to minister unto me in the priest's office:...And Aaron and his sons thou shalt bring unto the door of the tabernacle of the congregation, and shalt wash them with water.  (Ex. 29:1-4)

            And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying, Take the Levities from among the children of Israel, and cleanse them.  And thus shalt thou do unto them, to cleanse them: Sprinkle water of purifying upon them..., and so make themselves clean.  (Num. 8:5-7)

The descendants of Aaron (the tribe of Levi) were the priestly tribe of Israel.  In a similar fashion, Israel was to be the priestly nation to the world as the following scriptures testify:

            Now therefore, if ye will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto me above all people: for all the earth is mine:  And ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation. (Ex. 19:5,6)

            The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me; because the LORD hath anointed me to preach good tidings unto the meek; he hath sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound;  To proclaim the acceptable year of the LORD, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all that mourn; To appoint unto them that mourn in Zion, to give unto them beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness; that they might be called trees of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, that he might be glorified... But ye shall be named the Priests of the LORD: men shall call you the Ministers of our God: ye shall eat the riches of the Gentiles, and in their glory shall ye boast yourselves...  And their seed shall be known among the Gentiles, and their offspring among the people: all that see them shall acknowledge them, that they are the seed which the LORD hath blessed.  (Isa. 61:1-9)

The connection of the rite of induction and the purification of the priesthood as applying to the nation of Israel in the time of John is clear.  For Israel to be that promised kingdom of priests, Israel had to repent and be baptized "for the kingdom of God is at hand."  This was the sum of John's "prepare ye the way of the LORD."

There is another, often overlooked, very pragmatic reason for John's baptism.  John put it this way:

            And I knew him not: but that he should be made manifest to Israel, therefore am I come baptizing with water.  And John bare record, saying, I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it abode upon him.  And I knew him not: but he that sent me to baptize with water, the same said unto me, Upon whom thou shalt see the Spirit descending, and remaining on him, the same is he which baptizeth with the Holy Ghost.  And I saw, and bare record that this is the Son of God.  (John 1:31-34)

It would be during his baptizing that the Messiah would be revealed to John.  "And I knew him not...And I knew him not but he that sent me...said to me, Upon whom..."  This was how John knew that Jesus was truly the Messiah.  No doubt John had some sort of an inkling of Jesus' Messiahship, or at the very least the great righteousness of Jesus as revealed by his saying; "I have need to be baptized of thee." (Matt. 3:14).  Yet it was when John baptized Jesus he saw the Spirit descend upon Jesus in the form of a dove and he heard the Father's voice of approval (Matt. 3:16,17).  He then KNEW that Jesus was the "Lamb of God" and could point to Jesus a say "This is the man of whom I said..." (John 1:30).



            Then cometh Jesus from Galilee to Jordan unto John, to be baptized of him.  But John forbad him, saying, I have need to be baptized of thee, and comest thou to me?  And Jesus answering said unto him, Suffer it to be so now: for thus it becometh us to fulfil all righteousness. Then he suffered him.  And Jesus, when he was baptized, went up straightway out of the water: and, lo, the heavens were opened unto him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and lighting upon him:  And lo a voice from heaven, saying, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.  (Matt. 3:13-17)

This is truly an amazing passage and a tough question: "Why was Jesus baptized?"  There have been many answers offered.  Most attempt (and I think rightly so) to answer the question in light of Jesus' statement to John; "Suffer it now for thus it becometh us to fulfill all righteousness."  Here are a few samples that come from evangelical authors:

Harry Bultema says:

            In Matthew 3:15 he uses the plural us.  In this passage that so definitely states the reason of his baptism by John, not only Himself, or Him and John, or Him and us, but all Israel under the law, with which he had identified Himself.  Our Lord clearly showed in all his life on earth that he was under the law.  He was not only baptized but also circumcised and purified with his mother.  He kept the Passover and all the Jewish feasts and ordinances...The Levitical purifications were part of the law and Christ would not have been an obedient Jew, if he had refused these prescribed purifications.  Moreover, he was unclean, not through His own sin, but through the sin of the world that God as judge had laid upon him.


            John's baptism was from heaven and he obeyed heaven.


            John's baptism was the demand of the law and he obeyed the law.


            John's baptism was for purification; our sins made Him as an unclean one. [9]

Vincent Taylor:

            That He accepted baptism like other penitents is excluded by the entire absence of the consciousness of sin in His personality, as it is revealed in the Gospels.  We must infer, therefore, that He came to be baptized as an act of self-dedication to His Mission and perhaps also of self-identification with sinful Israel in the fulfillment of righteousness.  In baptism He received the assurance that He was indeed God's Son and Servant.  This view is suggested by the unique combination of ideas connected both with the Servant and the Messiah in the words of the Heavenly Voice and by His vision of the coming of the Spirit. [10]

H. A. Ironside:

            All, however, was in perfect keeping with the time, as "Suffer it to be so now" (Matt. 3:15) suggests.  He Who, as a babe, had been circumcised on the eighth day according to the law, would now, in subjection to the Word given forth by John, put Himself in company with the repentant part of the nation.  As the Shepherd of the sheep, He enter the fold by the door of submission to the rites of the law and the divine testimony of the time. [11]

The overall idea that these scholars present is that His baptism shows His identification with His people; and His obedience to and approval from God.  James Morrison has a simple yet profound thought that sweeps away any latent questions that may suggest it was improper for Jesus to be baptized: "It would have been unbecoming indeed for our Lord to have submitted to it, if its symbolism had been entirely inappropriate to One who was without sin.  But it was not." [12]

While the above ideas are strong possibilities and in many cases correct, I think that one more needs to be added that rides parallel with John's baptizing Israel as a kingdom of priests.  It is this: Jesus' confirmation and dedication as THE priest who will make an offering of Himself "once and for all."  Lewis Sperry Chafer states:

            However, it is reasonable for Christ, having reached the appointed age of thirty years, to be consecrated as Priest.  It is significant that when Christ came to be baptized it is declared, "Jesus himself began to be about thirty years of age" (Luke 3:23).  Such a detail is not added without meaning, and, when reviewing the Mosaic Law, it is discovered that the male child who would enter the priesthood was not eligible to do so until he was thirty years of age (cf. Num. 4:3), and from the added fact that there was no other public ministry to be entered which prescribed its age limits it is reasonable to conclude that the baptism of Christ had to do with His consecration to the priestly office.  It was be remembered that Christ was of the tribe of Judah and that, according to the Mosaic Law, no priest could naturally arise from Judah; yet non can question that Christ is a Priest, both as typified by Aaron and after the order of Melchizedek. [13]


It is also to be observed that there are four ages of Jesus recorded in scripture.  The first three have to do with "fulfilling all righteousness" and if the pattern follows, so does His baptism at 30 which is the fourth time His age is given:

            1)         His Circumcision on the eighth day.  Luke 2:21 cp. Gen 17:12; Lev. 12:3.

            2)         His Presentation at forty days.  Luke 2:22-24 cp. Ex. 13:2,12,15; Lev. 12:1-8.

            3)         His Confirmation in the temple at 12 years.  Luke 2:41-50 cp. Deut. 16:1,2; Num. 4:46,47; 18:16.

            4)         His Confirmation and dedication as priest at 30 years.  Luke 3:21-23  cp. Num. 4:3, etc. [14]

Thus, Jesus was baptized by John to "fulfill all righteousness" which is to be understood as being in reference to yet another action that Jesus did in harmony with the Old Testament.  He, like the rest of Israel, was identifying Himself with God's program via John's baptism.  His baptism allowed Him to participate in the "kingdom of priests" that was promised to Israel long ago.  Yet much more than that, He was to be THE Priest that would offer Himself "once and for all."  Ben L. Rose adds a further indication of this:

            As evidence of the fact that Christ was made a priest by John's baptism, we note that when Jesus cleansed the temple (Mt. 21:12; Mk. 11:15), He was exercising the authority of a priest.  And when the Jews came to Him asking, "By what authority doest thou these things, and who gave thee this authority?" (Mk. 21:23; Mk. 11:28), Jesus cited to them John's baptism, which He had received, and asked, "Was it from heaven or of men?"  In Jesus' mind there is obviously a definite connection between His priestly "authority" and His "baptism by John."  He indicates that if John's baptism was from heaven, and He surely believed it was, then He had been truly ordained a priest and possessed authority to cleanse the temple. [15]

This "kingdom of priests" supposition is in keeping with the enlargement of God's purpose in the future inclusion of the Gentile world.  The larger purpose has an enlarged priesthood, no longer confined to the lineage of Aaron, but all Israel.  Plus this larger purpose has a Divine High Priest, Jesus.  Who was not of Aaronic background or descent but that of Melchizedek (see Hebrews 5,6,7). [16]



The questions and issues surrounding the baptism of John and why Jesus was baptized have been studied from many angles.  My estimation is that John's baptism was in keeping with the Old Testament thought.  It was not something new but rather the beginnings of the Messianic age and it was perceived by Israel (including the leaders) as such.  It was a call to repentance because "the kingdom of God was at hand" and John was "preparing the way of the Lord."  So Israel responded and "they were baptized of him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins."  His baptism was to initiate Israel as the "kingdom of priests" that God had originally ordained.  John's baptism also had a very pragmatic reason of "revealing" who is the Messiah.  John would know who is the Messiah by the Spirit's decent.

The baptism of Jesus was to "fulfill all righteousness."  This had nothing to do with a need for Jesus to repent, rather it is to be understood as a reference to Jesus complying with the Father's will in acknowledging John's baptism.  Like the rest of Israel He identified Himself with the Father's program in that unfolding messianic age.  However He would not simply be another "priest" of Israel, He would be THE faithful High Priest who would offer Himself "once and for all."  His baptism also had a very pragmatic reason, "to be made manifest to Israel."  That day when John baptized Him, Israel knew by the Spirit's decent and the Father's voice of approval that Jesus was the Messiah.  

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Adams, Jay E., Meaning and Mode of Baptism (Phillipsburg:  Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1979)

Beasley-Murray, G.R., Baptism in the New Testament (Grand Rapids:  William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1976)

Bultema, Harry, The Bible and Baptism (Muskegon:  Bultema Memorial Publication Society, 1955)

Chafer, Lewis Sperry, Systematic Theology (Dallas:  Dallas Seminary Press, 1948)

Dale, James W., Classic Baptism, An Inquiry into the Meaning of the Word Baptizo (Philadelphia:  Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1869)

Foster, R.C., Studies in the Life of Christ (Grand Rapids:  Baker Book House, 1971)

Ironside, H.A., Baptism, What Saith the Scripture? (New York:  Loizeaux Brothers, 1930)

Ladd, George Eldon, A Theology of the New Testament (Grand Rapids:  William B. Eerdmans, 1974)

Morrison, James, A Practical Commentary on the Gospel According to St. Matthew (London:  Hodder and Stoughton, 1890)

Rose, Ben L., Baptism by Sprinkling (Reprint from the Southern Presbyterian Journal: Weaverville, 1949)

Taylor, Vincent, The Gospel According to Mark (London:  MacMillan  & Co., Ltd., 1963)

Wasson, Otis, Why Was Jesus Baptized? (Grand Rapids:  Grace Publications, N.D.)


     [1]   Foster, R.C., Studies in the Life of Christ (Grand Rapids:  Baker Book House, 1971) p. 297.

     [2]   Adams, Jay E., Meaning and Mode of Baptism (Phillipsburg:  Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1979)  p. 6.  Emphasis his.

     [3]   Beasley-Murray, G.R., Baptism in the New Testament (Grand Rapids:  William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1976)  p. 15.

     [4]   Ibid.  p. 42.

     [5]   Ibid.  p. 10.

     [6]   This would be a good time to state that I see the theological evidence for the MODE of John's baptism pointing to sprinkling or pouring.  That is the MODE mentioned in the quoted OT texts.  Some have suggested that John started something new, i.e. not found in the OT.  If this was the case, the Jewish leaders would have pounced upon him for blasphemy -- which they did not do.  In the NT, on the day of Pentecost when the promised baptism of the Spirit takes place, the Spirit is "poured out" upon the people.  Such pouring is in perfect harmony with the MODE of the OT.

     [7]   Loc. cit.  p. 32,33.

     [8]   For detailed examples see Adams and Beasley-Murray.

     [9]   Bultema, Harry, The Bible and Baptism (Muskegon:  Bultema Memorial Publication Society, 1955)  p. 47.

     [10]   Taylor, Vincent, The Gospel According to Mark (London:  MacMillan  & Co., Ltd., 1963)  p. 618.

     [11]   Ironside, H.A., Baptism, What Saith the Scripture? (New York:  Loizeaux Brothers, 1930)  p. 14,15.

     [12]   Morrison, James, A Practical Commentary on the Gospel According to St. Matthew (London:  Hodder and Stoughton, 1890)  p. 40.

     [13]   Chafer, Lewis Sperry, Systematic Theology (Dallas:  Dallas Seminary Press, 1948)  Vol. 5, p. 62.

     [14]   Chafer, Loc. Cit. Vol. 5, p. 65.  Also; Wasson, Otis, Why Was Jesus Baptized? (Grand Rapids:  Grace Publications, N.D.)

     [15]   Rose, Ben L., Baptism by Sprinkling (Reprint from the Southern Presbyterian Journal: Weaverville, 1949)  p. 11.

     [16]   Adams, Loc. cit.  p. 18,19.