Why was Jesus baptized?
Martin Luther wrote that “At the Jordan [River], in his thirtieth year, Christ reveals himself fully for the first time.” What does this mean?
It means that in his baptism Jesus acted as our substitute. Jesus’ work was to undergo baptism, death, and resurrection. Jesus went into the Jordan and joined the fate of sinners to his own— John’s baptism was for sinners, for repentance; one could not be said to have repented unless one had been baptized.
The Gospel author Mark writes “In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.’”
Jesus’ baptism is significant in that He fulfills the call to repent and be baptized as a true Israelite and as such confesses the sinful condition in which he is participating. We, too, participate in Baptism as confessed and repentant sinful beings.
Jesus receives the Holy Spirit during his baptism; likewise, we receive the Spirit during ours. And Jesus receives sonship during his baptism. He functions not only as the son who receives blessings from the father, but as an heir to the father’s possessions. This, too, happens to us during our baptisms—we also receive sonship and are made co-heirs (along with the Son to all that the Father has.)
Most importantly, baptism gives us our identity as Christians. One of my commentaries notes that the Father is wellpleased with His Son’s humble baptism in the place of sinners. The Father will also be pleased with the Son’s lowly suffering and death in the place of sinners. And the Father will reveal His pleasure in His Son by raising Him from the dead.
Jesus underwent maybe not an identity change, more like an identity modification while in the Jordan River. The Gospels are silent on the years between Jesus as the age of 12 and the 30-year old man who sought out John the Baptist; there’s no mention of whether He had healed anyone or had taught anybody or snatched anyone from the clutch of death or cast out any demons until after He had been baptized. In some inexplicable way John’s baptism of Jesus serves as the line of demarcation between the son of Mary and the Son of God.
The Christian church today is divided between Christians, such as Lutherans like myself, who believe that God performs a divine work in baptism and those for whom baptism is a human response to a divine work. Some Christians believe that baptism removes all sins, including Original Sin (ref. Romans 5:12, Psalm 51:5), but not the consequences of Original Sin such as death and suffering. Others teach that Baptism is a memorial act, to which a person could look for a reminder of God’s saving work apart from human effort. For others Baptism is a public rite that identifies a new believer’s spiritual transformation and affirms that the believer has placed himself or herself under Jesus Christ. And in some more charismatic churches, the term “baptism” may refer to a physical manifestation of the Spirit in the believer patterned after Pentecost in Acts, rather than John the Baptist in the Jordan River. But it’s Jesus appearance on the bank of the Jordan River
But it’s Jesus appearance on the bank of the Jordan River that kicks God’s plan for our salvation into overdrive. And what took place between John and Jesus is very important to our understanding of Jesus’ journey from heaven to Earth and then back to heaven. Jesus’ baptism begins his journey to heaven, just as ours does—except his has one stop ours doesn’t, death by crucifixion for our transgressions. Jesus bore our sins to the Cross. He endured the full brunt of God’s wrath...
So we wouldn’t have to.
Pastor E.B. Holschuh serves at Zion Lutheran Church (LCMS) in Alamo. He is a retired Navy Senior Chief and former English and Russian. If you’d like to find out more about God, please email him at email@example.com. Visit Zion Lutheran at zionalamo.org; join us for worship at 9am Sunday (live-streamed via YouTube) and check out our podcast “Fear or Faith?” (episodes in English, Spanish, and Russian).