Lectionary blogging: Why was Jesus baptized?

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.

And

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?

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14 thoughts on “Lectionary blogging: Why was Jesus baptized?

  1. That Jesus would supplant any need for John’s baptism does seem to be an agenda Luke and the other gospels intend to make.

    Historically, of course, we know from Acts the ministry and baptism of John not only continued but spread widely. Cf. the stories of the founding of the church at Ephesus and the initial identification of Apollos, later active in Corinth, as a disciple of John. Today, the Mandeans trace their spiritual lineage to John as well, to whom they sometimes refer as “The Light” or “The Truth.”

    So how do we parse the apparent differences between the gospels’ witness/agenda and that of historical literature and living traditions?

    1. I am pretty sure I’m missing some nuance or complexity in your question. My first reaction is that the agenda of the gospel has not yet been achieved. But baptism is far from the only case of this.

      The question that is raised for me is whether we over-emphasize the baptism of repentance as some sort of hanging on to John’s agenda.

      1. Given the close association Luke/Acts makes between repentance and baptism, textually, and the fairly universal symbolism of washing with cleansing and death/resurrection, I tend to think there is a strong and unavoidable link.

        We see the kinds of lifeways at least several of Jesus’s disciples turned away (repented) from and what they turned toward by contrast. We don’t have but might assume a similar pattern among John’s disciples as well.

        1. Okay. So, what was the meaning of the sinless and unrepentant Jesus getting baptized? What righteousness did he fulfill?

  2. It will be interesting to see how long the progressives keep you tethered in these lectionary ruminations…

    When you were risking more, others found themselves ricking more, too.

    1. It is not the progressives, Gary. It wasn’t that it was too risky. It was that I saw nothing productive coming out of it and it was raising up in me a spirit of contention. If I thought I could do something significant and change the discussion in a fundamental way, that would be different.

  3. Note the person and number of Jesus’s comment. This is how WE must fulfill all righteousness. I am assuming he includes John and himself here, and is not speaking “royally.”

    He, too, is repenting, right? Turning from a former life and occupation (carpenter) to another (prophet of the kingdom of God)?

    1. Interesting that the CEB leaves out the pronoun. I wonder if the translator thought it was implied.

      You make baptism sound like a change in vocations, but clearly it is not that for most who are baptized. At least, not in the “last down your hammer” way you describe.

      You make repentance sound much more practical than I usually hear it discussed.

  4. For some in early Christianity baptism did mark a change in vocations. It’s mot all baptism marked, but it’s among them.

    What it definitely marked for all was a turning from a way of life not yet fully aligned with God’s kingdom toward one that was. There is much practical about that, but practical does not mean easy or painless or even deathless. The first vows are not about renunciation and rejection and resistance (parallel the temptations) for nothing.

    1. I’m not familiar with Goff. Who was he?

      Interesting use of Numbers. The setting aside of men at age 30 and the consecration by sprinkling is interesting as we think about this passage. I like Goff’s bit about the prophets sprinkling and immersion being something that would have been seen as an innovation.

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