I knew a pastor who years ago received his ordination from one of Southern California’s first mega-churches. The head pastor was known for being a strong Bible-first expositional preacher. His knowledge of the Bible was notorious and intimidating. As part of the ordination process, my friend had to submit himself to something similar to an oral exam in front of a panel of other pastors who quizzed him on his theology and knowledge of the Bible.
The head pastor always posed something of a trick question to those he faced; “If Jesus was sinless, why did he submit himself to a baptism of repentance at the hands of John the Baptist?”
Matthew 3:11-15 (ESV) says:
I baptize you with water for repentance but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
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.
I’ve kept this question with me since hearing the story. In conversations with Mormons it’s often suggested that Jesus was baptized to set an example for what we must do. I don’t disagree with this. I think followers of Jesus should follow Jesus’ example and be baptized. But I think I’d like to put a caveat on that.
John was baptizing Jesus with a baptism of repentance. Repentance is clearly an important and fundamental step in trusting Jesus. To be saved by Jesus a person has to be saved from something. Recognizing one’s sin and turning away from it (and toward Jesus) must happen.
But I don’t believe Jesus, as a sinless person, needed to repent. Jesus was indeed baptized by John but not for repentance.
Matthew 3 continues:
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.”
I think John was absolutely correct in objecting that he wasn’t qualified to baptize Jesus. Jesus had him proceed because it didn’t matter who baptized him. Jesus’ baptism was a confession of his devotion to God, and God’s confession of his devotion to Jesus. The only two participants of concern were Jesus and God. The righteousness that was fulfilled was not the absolution of sin in Jesus’ life but rather the confessions of Jesus, the Father and the Holy Spirit.
As Christians, we follow Jesus’ example in baptism. But we do not follow Jesus in a baptism of repentance. We do not carry on the baptism of John the Baptist. We carry on the baptism of Jesus, a baptism of identification and commitment. Just as John was an insignificant and unqualified baptizer, it doesn’t matter by whose authority we are baptized. What matters is how and why we stand before God in our baptism.