Why was Christ Baptised?
Proverbs 9, verse 1 speaks of the seven pillars of wisdom: “Wisdom hath built her house, she hath hewn out her seven pillars”. Correspondingly, there were seven great events in the Lord’s history here: His birth; His baptism; His temptations; His transfiguration; His death; His resurrection; His ascension.
Of these seven events, perhaps the one that puzzles believers more than any other is His baptism. Just why was the Lord Jesus baptised? Indeed, why did He himself insist on it being carried out? Some have suggested that the Lord did so in order to identify Himself with the Godly remnant in Israel that flocked to John’s baptism. They justify this view using the Lord’s own words in Matt. 3: 15 “thus it becometh us to fulfil all righteousness”. The Godly in Israel were rightly submitting to John’s baptism and so Jesus comes along with them. Now while there may be nothing amiss in this suggestion, and it may be true, it is not the answer that Scripture gives.
There is much in the Gospels, and indeed in the N.T. generally, that we will never understand unless we realise that primarily the Lord Jesus came as the Christ, the Messiah to Israel. Thus in Matt. 10: 5 we read “These twelve Jesus sent out when he had charged them, saying, Go not off into [the] way of [the] nations, and into a city of Samaritans enter ye not; but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel”. Again to a Gentile woman He said “I have not been sent save to the lost sheep of Israel’s house”, (Matt. 15: 24). He came initially as the Messiah to Israel, not to the Samaritans, nor to the Gentiles, but to the Jews. It was only after that He was rejected by the Nation that His mission widened out and the wondrous truth dawned on some “that this is indeed the Saviour of the world”. (John 4: 42).
Now what were the distinctive features of Israel’s Messiah according to the O.T prophecies? Firstly He must come of the seed of woman (Gen. 3: 15). Secondly He must be of Abraham’s seed (Gen 12: 3, quoted in Gal 3: 16). Later it was determined that He must be of the tribe of Judah (Gen. 49: 10; Micah 5: 2). Even later still He would be of David’s seed (Jer. 23: 5). Again He would be sent of Jehovah (Is. 42: 1), indeed He would be Jehovah’s Son (Ps. 2: 7). Finally He would be God Himself, whose goings forth are from eternity (Mic. 5: 2).
Now all these features and others are very carefully testified to in the N.T. Luke traces the Lord back to Adam (Luke 3: 23–38), Matthew traces His genealogy from Abraham, Judah and David (Matt. 1: 2–16), John’s gospel is full of the Lord as the sent one, and in Matt. 1: 23, His name is given as Emmanuel, God with us.
However, although all of these features were essential for Him who would be Israel’s Messiah, not all of them were peculiar to the Lord Himself: All men can trace their origins back to Adam; men outside of Israel can claim Abraham as their father. Many belonged to the tribe of Judah, and the Lord Jesus was not the only one of royal descent, but He, and He alone is the only–begotten of the Father, the Son of God. As such He is God and yet God seen in a man among men. If God were to enter manhood, that manhood would be perfect. A man who did no sin, knew no sin and in whom sin was not.
Now in what way could God introduce Him, make Him known to the people? How could He identify the Lord Jesus in an unmistakable way, marking Him out as absolutely distinct from all other men? There must be no doubt whatever in the matter. Who could be entrusted with this task? Could Herod the king be told to present Him to the people? Should Israel’s high priest be given the honour, or should the Sanhedrin be gathered together for that purpose? Such questions hardly need answers. All were most unsuitable. Even John, albeit the greatest born among women, the one who would point Him out as the Lamb of God, would not suffice, for he was still a man. God did not commit this testimony to either men or angels. God alone could make the declaration of who Jesus was. He would do it Himself, but if God would do it, how would He do it? The answer is, by baptism.
Of the four Gospel writers, Matthew is the one who presents to his readers the Messiah of Israel. The incidents that he selects under the inspiration of the Spirit of God are chosen specifically to enhance this presentation. He writes with Israel in mind, and Christ is presented to them as their King. In keeping with this Matthew devotes more space in his Gospel to the incident before us than the other three Gospel writers put together. Not only that, but the details given of the Lord’s baptism in Matthew chapter 3 all serve to mark out the Lord as God’s Son, and thus Israel’s Messiah.
In Matt. 3: 5, 6 the scene is set: “Then went out to him Jerusalem, and all Judea, and all the country round the Jordan, and were baptised by him in the Jordan, confessing their sins”. Matthew admits of no exceptions: all Judea and all the country round the Jordan. Luke tells us that there were exceptions, (Luke 7: 30), but not Matthew,—all were there. What marked those sons of Israel that came to John to be baptised? They were all sinners, and in being baptised they confessed their sins. Notice the wording carefully. It does not say that they were baptised and confessed their sins, as if these were two distinct things, but that they were baptised, confessing their sins, that is, it was in the act of being baptised that they confessed their sins. Hence John’s horror when the Lord Jesus came to him to be baptised. John knew what his baptism meant (vs 13, 14), it was a baptism of repentance for sins. If John were to baptise the Lord, it would indicate that He was a sinner just like the rest. Hence his horror, but the Lord insisted, (and His insistence to fulfil all righteousness is peculiar to Matthew’s account), and so John went ahead. Do you not see the point? If John’s baptism was a baptism for sinners, and it was, then if the Lord were to submit to it and God was to remain silent, then it would mean that Jesus was no different from all the rest. On the other hand in the ways of God, “it becometh us” provided the background for the Father to mark Him out as unique, as His beloved Son. What was that uniqueness essentially in His manhood? He did no sin, He knew no sin, and in Him was no sin. So it says “the heavens were opened to him”, not just opened (as in Luke’s account) but opened to Him. What does it mean? It was the first time the heavens were ever opened to a man. He had come from heaven and now after 30 or so years of perfection He could have gone back where He came from without embarking on His public ministry. He was sinless, He was perfect—but there is more. In the accounts of Mark and Luke the voice from heaven is recorded as addressing the Lord and saying “Thou art my beloved Son,” but not so in Matthew. The voice as Matthew presents it, was not to the Lord himself, but in testimony to the crowds that were there. “This is my beloved Son, in whom I have found my delight” All there that day were Israel’s sons. He is declared to be the Father’s Son. This was the divine universal testimony to Israel, and God Himself gave it! God Himself testified to Israel His delight in that man as the Anointed, as the Christ. Thus I submit to my readers that in no other way could it have been done. This was the real reason why Jesus was baptised. This was the very reason why John, His forerunner came. Let the Holy Spirit put the matter in His own words. You will find them in John 1: 31 “but that he might be manifested to Israel, therefore have I come baptising with water”.