The gospel lectionary this week recounts the baptism of Jesus, which raises questions about why Jesus was baptized.
At that time Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan River so that John would baptize him. John tried to stop him and said, “I need to be baptized by you, yet you come to me?”
Jesus answered, “Allow me to be baptized now. This is necessary to fulfill all righteousness.”
So John agreed to baptize Jesus. When Jesus was baptized, he immediately came up out of the water. Heaven was opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God coming down like a dove and resting on him. A voice from heaven said, “This is my Son whom I dearly love; I find happiness in him.” (Matthew 3:13-17, CEB)
It seems only right that we ask questions about the meaning of baptism since John the Baptist himself asked such questions.
John Wesley’s Notes on the New Testament include these comments on these verses.
It becometh every messenger of God to observe all his righteous ordinances. But the particular meaning of our Lord seems to be, that it becometh us to do (me to receive baptism, and you to administer it) in order to fulfil, that is, that I may fully perform every part of the righteous law of God, and the commission he hath given me.
Let our Lord’s submitting to baptism teach us a holy exactness in the observance of those institutions which owe their obligation merely to a Divine command. Surely thus it becometh all his followers to fulfil all righteousness. Jesus had no sin to wash away. And yet he was baptized. And God owned his ordinance, so as to make it the season of pouring forth the Holy Spirit upon him. And where can we expect this sacred effusion, but in an humble attendance on Divine appointments.
Wesley comes down on the side of interpreting Jesus’ baptism as a model for his followers. Jesus was baptized even though he had no sin and required no repentance, which were key aspects of John’s baptismal message. Jesus did this to set a model for us. For Wesley the baptism of Jesus is an example of the obligations that rest on us as Christians for no other reason than Jesus Christ commands us to observe them. If we reject the command, Wesley argues, we should not expect the Holy Spirit.
As I ponder this passage, my mind turns to Paul’s teaching in Ephesus about the difference between the baptism of John and the baptism of Jesus. The key question in those verses had to do with the Holy Spirit. Did the disciples receive the Holy Spirit when they were baptized? To which the disciples say they don’t know anything about the Holy Spirit?
Paul, engaging in some spiritual diagnosis, asks which baptism they received. He goes on to explain that the baptism of John was a baptism of repentance that prepared the people for the coming of Jesus (as Gabriel said of John in Luke 1).
Paul’s teaching here makes me wonder if the baptism of John was meant to come to an end with the presence of Jesus and the coming of his kingdom. The pre-show shuts down when the main act arrives. Jesus underwent baptism as a way of bringing to conclusion the baptism that is a sign of repentance and opens up the age of baptism that conveys the gift of the Holy Spirit. Could the fulfilling of all righteousness be the fulfilling of the purpose of John’s baptism of repentance?