We first come across baptism in the context of John the Baptist. John’s baptism is a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1:4). John came as a prophet, calling people to repent and, as a visible way of showing that response, to be baptized in the Jordan River. John saw this “baptism of repentance” as an act which prepared Israel for the coming Messiah, the one who would “baptize with the Holy Spirit” (Mark 1:8).
This context makes Jesus’ own baptism by John all the more perplexing. If submission to John’s baptism was an act of repentance, then does that mean that Jesus needed to repent? Did he need to turn from sin? Did he need to be forgiven?
What didn’t happen at Jesus’ baptism?
First allow me to stress two things that didn’t happen at Jesus’ baptism. First, he did not repent from sins. Second, he was not adopted as God’s Son.
He was not repenting of sins.
John had just finished saying that Jesus would baptize with the Holy Spirit. In Matthew, he goes on to describe Jesus as the Judge of all: “His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire” (Matthew 3:12). Jesus was the Judge who could adjudicate true from false repentance, he had no need of repenting himself. That is why John expressed disbelief when Jesus came to be baptized by him by saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” (Matthew 3:13) Jesus never sinned (Hebrews 4:15), so he had no need of repentance.
Jesus was not adopted as God’s Son at the baptism.
There was a popular heresy in the early church that said God adopted Jesus as his Son at the baptism. This heresy arose out of a misunderstanding of Mark 1:11 and its parallel passages in the other synoptic gospels when the voice from heaven declares “You are my Son, whom I love; and with you I am well pleased.” But what we have here is the same thing we have in Romans 1:4 when Paul says that “through the Spirit of holiness [Jesus Christ] was appointed the Son of God in power by his resurrection from the dead.” In neither event, the baptism or the resurrection, is Jesus made the Son. Instead, he is declared to be the Son. That is, his divine Sonship is made clear. His identity is confirmed, not formed, by these events.
So why was Jesus baptized?
If Jesus didn’t need to repent or be forgiven, why then did he submit to John’s baptism?
Jesus was identifying with Israel.
When the people came to John in the wilderness they were re-enacting a portion of Israel’s history. By coming to the wilderness they were entering a place associated in the Old Testament with testing and decision. When Israel rebelled in the wilderness they were met with judgment. When Israel trusted God, they were brought through the raging waters of the Jordan, into the Promised Land. By being baptized, the people of Jerusalem were committing themselves to trust God. They were, in a sense, identifying themselves with past Israel.
Jesus was doing the same sort of thing, not as an act of repentance, but of solidarity. He was saying, in a sense, “your story is my story.” I am willing to walk in the same steps as Israel, committing myself to God alone.
The problem for Israel, though, is that even though they had periods of repentance, they quickly fell back into sin. Indeed, even though “all of Jerusalem” came out to be baptized, it was also those from Jerusalem who called for Jesus’ execution. While many heard and responded to John’s call to turn from sin, they never responded, or didn’t properly respond, to John’s call to look to the Greater One.
Jesus was identifying with fallen humanity
Israel’s story, though, is a microcosm of humanity’s story. And Jesus is not only identifying with Israel, but with all of humanity. The need to trust God fully goes back not just to Israel’s wilderness wanderings, but to Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden. In submitting to a “baptism of repentance” which he did not need, Jesus identified himself in solidarity with all fallen humanity.
Jesus was declared as the true Son
After Jesus was baptized we’re introduced to a marvelous scene: “he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: ‘You are my Son, whom I love, with you I am well pleased.’” (Mark 1:10-11)
The Father describes Jesus as “my Son.” In the Old Testament, the phrase “God’s son” can sometimes refer to heavenly beings, to kings (especially in the line of David), and to Israel itself. Here Mark wants to show us Jesus’ special relationship with the Father and restate his Messianic role. Jesus is not just a son, He is The Son, a truth which becomes ever more clear throughout the gospel and the rest of the New Testament.
We begin to see a continuity and discontinuity with Israel and its kings. Israel was God’s “son” who was trapped in a cycle of repentance and failure. The same story goes for its kings. But Jesus comes along as the true Israel, and as the true Messiah-king. The rest of the story reveals to us that Jesus does not fail, that he remains faithful to the Father even to death on the cross.
Again, we can go back even farther than Israel’s story, to the story of Genesis. In the creation story the Spirit hovers over the waters and it is by God’s breath that Adam becomes a living being. God’s revelation of the Spirit in Jesus’s baptism ought to draw our minds back to creation, back to Adam and Eve. Here, though, the Spirit is at work empowering Jesus to take up the role of the true human who would succeed where Adam and Eve failed.
Why does it matter that Jesus was baptized?
Jesus’ baptism doesn’t prove his unique identity by itself, but it does remind that Jesus stands both with humanity and above humanity. The rest of the New Testament shows us that Jesus was fully man and fully God. In his baptism he fully identifies himself with fallen humanity, not because he himself is fallen, but as an act of solidarity. This is a sort of “proto-cross” event. On the cross Jesus goes a step farther. He doesn’t just identify with humanity, but he takes the penalty for humanity. Jesus’ baptism sets us up for that reality.
But it’s also clear that Jesus doesn’t just come as a normal human being standing in for the rest of all normal human beings. If he did that, his death could at best only save himself. He would only be giving to God what he already owed him. No, the voice from heaven, the presence of the Spirit, and the declaration of the Father all point us to the fact that Jesus is something more. He is the Son who pleases the Father. And, because he is the true and infinite Son, his stand of solidarity can really be effective in our salvation.