Why Was Jesus Baptized? or the baptism of John
(© Jeffrey S. Bowman, all rights reserved, use by permission only)
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
INTRODUCTION AND BACKGROUND TO JOHN THE BAPTIST
Among them that are born of women there hath not arisen a greater than
John the Baptist (Matt. 11:11)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
BAPTISM IN THE MESSIANIC ERA - JOHN'S MESSAGE
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
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).
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
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.
What is the purpose of John's baptism and what is John's message?
from the Old Testament eschatological concept of baptism there is also found
many other types of purifying lustrations.
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
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.
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)
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."
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.
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
WHY WAS JESUS BAPTIZED?
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)
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:
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
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.
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.
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."
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.
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:
His Circumcision on the eighth day.
Luke 2:21 cp. Gen 17:12; Lev. 12:3.
His Presentation at forty days. Luke
2:22-24 cp. Ex. 13:2,12,15; Lev. 12:1-8.
His Confirmation in the temple at 12 years.
Luke 2:41-50 cp. Deut. 16:1,2; Num. 4:46,47; 18:16.
His Confirmation and dedication as priest at 30 years.
Luke 3:21-23 cp. Num. 4:3,
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.
"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).
SUMMARY AND CONCLUSION
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.
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.
Jay E., Meaning and Mode of Baptism
(Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and
Reformed Publishing Company, 1979)
G.R., Baptism in the New Testament
(Grand Rapids: William B.
Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1976)
Harry, The Bible and Baptism
(Muskegon: Bultema Memorial
Publication Society, 1955)
Lewis Sperry, Systematic Theology
(Dallas: Dallas Seminary Press,
James W., Classic Baptism, An Inquiry
into the Meaning of the Word Baptizo (Philadelphia:
Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1869)
R.C., Studies in the Life of Christ
(Grand Rapids: Baker Book House,
H.A., Baptism, What Saith the Scripture?
(New York: Loizeaux Brothers,
George Eldon, A Theology of the New
Testament (Grand Rapids: William
B. Eerdmans, 1974)
James, A Practical Commentary on the
Gospel According to St. Matthew (London:
Hodder and Stoughton, 1890)
Ben L., Baptism by Sprinkling
(Reprint from the Southern Presbyterian Journal: Weaverville, 1949)
Vincent, The Gospel According to Mark
& Co., Ltd., 1963)
Otis, Why Was Jesus Baptized? (Grand
Rapids: Grace Publications, N.D.)
 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.