Why Jesus was Baptized

Baptism of Jesus

Baptism of Jesus by Pierro della Francesca

Although not a matter to associate with one of the models of eschatology Jesus’ baptism is tied directly into prophecy so it is fitting to address that question here.

In short, Jesus needed to be baptized to fulfill the messianic prophecies identifying him as the Messiah—the baptism sets the stage for the Spirit of God to descent on Him to identify him as the Messiah.

When Jesus’ baptism is addressed people often state Jesus was without sin so why would he need to be baptized. And, that it must have been so that we could identify with him or he could identify with us or to set an example for us or some other fuzzy sort of feel good answer. Nope, the bible is very explicit on this and tells us directly why Jesus needed to be baptized.

Before diving straight into the baptism it is important to set the stage for it and review how we arrived at the point of Jesus baptism.

Look at John 1:19-28 (ESV) and pay attention to the conversation between John the Baptist and the minions of the Jewish high command sent to find out who he is:

19 And this is the testimony of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” 20 He confessed, and did not deny, but confessed, “I am not the Christ.” 21 And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the Prophet?” And he answered, “No.” 22 So they said to him, “Who are you? We need to give an answer to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” 23 He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as the prophet Isaiah said.”
24(Now they had been sent from the Pharisees.) 25 They asked him, “Then why are you baptizing, if you are neither the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?” 26John answered them, “I baptize with water, but among you stands one you do not know, 27 even he who comes after me, the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie.” 28These things took place in Bethany across the Jordan, where John was baptizing.

As you can see the Jewish leaders already associate the act of Baptism with the coming Messiah. They know either the Messiah or Elijah or the Prophet will be baptizing. They don’t ask what are you doing or why are you baptizing only which of these three are you. When John says he’s none of them (of course Jesus later tells us in Matt. 17:12-13 the reference to Elijah refers to John the Baptist) they then ask what business he has baptizing then.

As a quick side note the reference to the Messiah and Elijah are straight forward enough to understand, but what about the Prophet. Deuteronomy 18:15 relates the Messiah back to the Prophet “The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers—it is to him you shall listen.” In a fascinating way the scene at the Transfiguration helps us to see how the Old Testament prophecies are woven into the events surrounding Jesus baptism.

Notice that God says in Deuteronomy “to Him you shall listen” and at the Transfiguration in Matthew 17:5 He says “This is my son….listen to Him.” Also, notice how Jesus related John the Baptist to Elijah in verse 17:11 when he speaks of Elijah and restoring things remember back to the Old Testament how Elijah restored by ridding Baal’s prophets from the land and getting the people to turn back to God just as John the Baptist was restoring the land in preparation for the Messiah.

So we know that the act of baptizing is associated with the coming Messiah and the Jewish leaders are aware of that fact and that the Messiah and Elijah and the Prophet are expected to be baptizing. The fact that someone is out there baptizing appears to be a sign that the expected Messiah will soon make his appearance and John confirms this by saying he is preparing the way as the voice crying in the wilderness.

Of course John’s reference to a voice in the wilderness to prepare the way for the Lord refers back to Isaiah 40:3 “A voice cries: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD”

So we see the stage being set for the appearance of the Messiah. After 400 years of prophetic silence there is growing anticipation in the land among the people that the Messiah is coming. The people are coming to be purified in the ritual of baptism as they await the Messiah and the Jewish leaders feel the energy among the people. God has prepared the hearts of His people to receive the Messiah and that moment of unveiling is at hand.

Now, let’s transition a bit to get a solid understanding of what Jesus meant when he said “to fulfill all righteousness” in Matt. 3:15 and see how this ties the baptism to Old Testament prophecies.

Today when we use the term righteousness we mean upright, moral, or sin free living. In the days of the Old Testament the term righteousness 1 meant honoring or fulfilling the terms of a contract or covenant. If you look at the phrase “to fulfill all righteousness” in terms of living a moral life the phrase doesn’t make sense, but if you look at it in view of fulfilling the terms of a covenant specifically the law and prophecy concerning the Messiah it makes perfect sense. Remember the words of Christ in

Matt 5:17
that he came not to abolish the Law and the prophets, but to fulfill them.

 Apparently such phrases were commonplace and would have been understood by the people of Jesus’ time. Where ever we find Jesus fulfilling something he is talking about scripture or the word of the prophets. Another verse adds more proof to this being the correct way to view the term righteousness is

Romans 3:21
But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify.

The second part of this verse states how the law and the prophets testify to how God’s keeps his covenant with the Jewish people or keeps his part of a bargain. We see an example of how Jesus (the first part of the verse) testified to it when He stood in the temple and proclaimed the fulfillment of Isaiah in

Luke 4: 18 -21
The Spirit of the Lord [is] upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised,

  1. 19 – To preach the acceptable year of the Lord.
    20 – And he closed the book, and he gave [it] again to the minister, and sat down. And the eyes of all them that were in the synagogue were fastened on him.
    21 – And he began to say unto them, This day is this scripture fulfilled in your ears. (Remember the reference to the spirit in verse 18, but we will get back to that shortly)

And one more example of how Jesus is cognizant of the need to fulfill  what the scriptures say about the Messiah when he states what the scriptures say about the Messiah when he states in

Luke 24:44
Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.”

In a conversation of that time period Jesus could have drug out His statement when answering John by saying so we can fulfill what was written about me in the law and the prophets and the Psalms, but here he was being succinct and rolling all these things into “all righteousness”. It was a concise way of saying they are going to fulfill the promise of God made through all these mediums.

Now at the moment of baptism we are about to see the law (that is the Pentateuch or Torah or scripture) and what the Old Testament prophets proclaimed—that God would send a Messiah was about to be fulfilled as Jesus was about to be baptized and begin his ministry and step on the stage fulfilling both prophecy and the promise of God to send a Savior or Messiah.

Now as Jesus emerges from the waters of His baptism comes the most crucial element spoken of in the law and by the prophets concerning how God reveals the Messiah is about to be realized. There are two passages identifying the Messiah which state the Spirit of God will rest on Him. The act of baptism sets the stage for the main event which is the appearance of the Spirit of God which will rest upon the Messiah.

At least two specific prophecies tie the Spirit of God to the Messiah. First Isaiah 11:1-3 and verse two specifically.

1 There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse,
and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit.
2 And the Spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him,
the Spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the Spirit of counsel and might,
the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD.
3 And his delight shall be in the fear of the LORD. He shall not judge by what his eyes see,or decide disputes by what his ears hear.

And Secondly Isaiah 42:1
Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.

The Jewish people would be familiar with these promises of the Spirit being on the Messiah so in order to accept Jesus as the Messiah they have to know the Spirit of the Lord is upon him. That is why all four gospels make a point to mention the Spirit of God descended upon Jesus at his Baptism.

The Spirit of the Lord needs to come and rest on the Messiah to fulfill this prophecy. John explains the role of the baptism (God’s spirit will come upon someone he baptizes) in this process which tells us the true reason Jesus needs to be baptized.

Most people are confused about whether or not John recognizes Jesus as the Messiah when he comes to him to be baptized and think he does since he tells Jesus he should be baptizing him instead of the other way around. But pay close attention to John’s testimony on this matter—even though he recognizes Jesus as someone special he states twice that he doesn’t know who the Messiah is until the Spirit reveals that person.

John 1:31-34
31 I myself did not know him, but for this purpose I came baptizing with water, that he might be revealed to Israel.” 32 And John bore witness: “I saw the Spirit descend from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. 33 I myself did not know him, but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’34 And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God.”

The bible doesn’t go into specifics about how John is told to baptize—it could have been an angel or a vision or dream—just that God communicated the command to baptize to him somehow.

Here we see by John’s testimony that the reason he is out there baptizing is that God told him that someone he baptizes will have the spirit descend on him and stay on him so that he may be revealed as the Messiah. It is John’s role to baptize someone whom the spirit will descend on and thus reveal the Messiah to Israel. Jesus makes sure John baptizes him so these events can take place so that they can fulfill all righteousness (i.e. fulfill what was predicted by both the law and the prophets) so that the messianic prophecies about him can be fulfilled and identify him as the Messiah.

This is why Jesus is baptized—to fulfill the messianic prophecies that identify him as the Messiah. Someone John baptizes will have the Spirit of the Lord descend on them–fulfilling prophecy–and identifying that person as the Messiah.

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1 Jeremiah, Habakkuk, and Ezekiel all speak of righteousness as a covenant obligation. See the Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary for more on the subject among other resources.

Check back here in the future for a post on the prophetic elements of the Transfiguration.

Special note on the painting of Jesus’ baptism at the beginning of this page:
There is so much art work created on Jesus’ baptism through the ages it seemed natural to use one of those paintings with this article. I chose Pierro della Francesca’s rendering after reading Rev. Huw Butler’s critique of the painting. He does such an outstanding job of it I put the link below so you can read it for yourself. If you enjoy art and like to see multiple dimensions in a painting then Rev. Butler’s (serves a church in Wales) comments will reveal this painting’s hidden nuances to you. If they have art appreciation classes in heaven then we know what the good Reverend will be doing there. I look forward to taking his class.

http://www.dyffrynclwyd.org.uk/sermons/serm130108.htm

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