Why Was Jesus Baptized?
I came across this question today, along with the pat answer (given in the COMMENTS section – not in the body of the blog, which answers a different question from today’s topic here) that Christians tend to give, as if it solves the whole problem. I did a bit of writing there to answer it, as much of a challenge to myself to focus my thinking about it as an attempt to answer the question itself. But time is limited, and since I’m in the midst of trying to get back to writing, I thought I’d share my response here and look for answers. First, though: the passage!
In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when he said,
“The voice of one crying in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord;
make his paths straight.’”
Now John wore a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins… Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the 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 3:1-6; 13-17 ESV)
So… why was Jesus baptized? Yesyes – he was baptized “to fulfill all righteousness.” I know what it says – I just typed it! But why – or maybe better… how – does the immersion of Jesus “fulfill all righteousness?”
If you know your Bible very well at all, you know that there is a TON of meaning packed into those four little words – meaning that was clear to the 1st Century Jewish worldview, but is nowhere near as clear to us today. Just reciting those words at someone who is asking, “Why was Jesus baptized?” is hardly going to get the job done.
We tend to read Jesus’ words as a recitation of a parental evasion – you know, a “Because Dad said so” kind of thing. Perhaps that is an accurate interpretation, but it is hardly the only option.
Another way we read those words is to make “righteousness” synonymous with “goodness.” That way, we read this verse as Jesus saying, “Go ahead and do this, because it is another thing on a long list of good things that I need to do.” There’s some merit to that interpretation as well, but by itself, it falls short.
A far more fulfilling option to me is presented by Tom Wright. He proposes, across a VAST library of writings with a ridiculous amount of supporting evidence, that words like “righteousness” and its verb form “justify” refer to God’s entire salvation plan. He translates Matthew 3:17 as, “This is how it’s got to be right now. This is the right way for us to complete God’s whole saving plan.” This meaning has the benefit of encompassing all the implications of the above two ideas, while going further by connecting it to God’s purposes in a way we can actually wrap our heads around. It is something “Dad” said to do, and it is a good thing – but this interpretation explains WHY.
Let’s think about ritual for a little while – but try to eliminate the negative connotations and cling to the positive. Ritual is more than just something we do over and over because we have to – that’s OCD, not worship. Ritual connects you to a larger community – a community spread across time and space! Think about the Passover ritual (as well as many of the other high feast day rituals in Israel) – in re-enacting the Exodus by wearing traveling clothes, eating traveling food, and re-telling the ancient story, worshippers years and years later became the Exodus people again. Paul makes this pretty explicit in his “participation” theology in 1 Corinthians 10.
So what, you say? What does this have to do with John’s baptism?
Well, WHY did John preach and practice a baptism of repentance into the remission of sins (Mark 1:4) *on the far side of the Jordan*? Why there, when (if the location doesn’t matter) he could just as easily have done it in the Temple mikvehs, in the Mediterranean, or anywhere else where running water could consistently be found?
Israel stopped wandering and became a nation when they crossed through the Jordan River into Canaan, leaving Egypt and idolatry and fear of the Canaanites on the other side. Okay – so they didn’t do so well at that once they were ON the other side, but just as eaters of the Passover participated in the Exodus again, those who came across to the far side of the Jordan to submit to John’s baptism were, in effect, confessing Isaiah’s confession (“woe is me, for I am a man of unclean lips and I dwell among a people of unclean lips”) and participating in the renewal – not just or even primarily of themselves – but of GOD’S PEOPLE, the vehicle by which God’s salvation was *always* intended to be conveyed to the whole world.
John calls the people to the far side of the Jordan to say, “God wants us to start over from the beginning, to pledge our loyalty to Him again (a la Joshua 1), to renew our potential to convey the blessing of Abraham to all the world.”
When you think about it that way… OF COURSE Jesus needed to be baptized. If ALL ISRAEL needed to be baptized into the forgiveness of sins and the righteousness of God, then OF COURSE Jesus, the representative Israelite needed to be baptized. John, overwhelmed by both the goodness of his cousin and the shocking idea that the Messiah would take onto himself the sins of the people, misunderstands the kingdom agenda and – like Peter will do in Matthew 16 – tries to prevent Jesus from fulfilling his calling.
Jesus says, “No – it must be like this – I must take on the sins of the nation – your immersion is about confessing that Israel is broken and in desperate need of God’s salvation. I *am* Israel, so I must do this in order for Israel – and thus the world – to be saved.” *THAT* is what it means to fulfill all righteousness – to do everything it takes to bring every aspect of God’s saving plan into reality.
All that in four little words. Thank you, Lord.
in HIS love,