Jesus is baptised - why?

The Baptism of the Lord Jesus is commemorated on the Sunday after January 6 in churches that follow a traditional calendar. January 6 is the traditional date for Epiphany, which marks the visit of the Magi and the wedding of Cana.[1]

Where did Baptism start?

Maybe the story of Naaman, the commander of the King of Aram’s army who Elisha the prophet told to go and wash in the Jordan to be healed of leprosy, is an early story of a purification ceremony. Historians debate the starting point for a later Jewish custom of baptising converts – they debate whether it began after Christians started to baptise or did it begin at about the same time.

But John the Baptist, calling on Jewish people to repent– turn from sin – and be baptised was new.

Preaching repentance:In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea  and saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’” (Matthew 3:1–2)

To the Jewish people: “People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan.‘ Confessing their sins, they were baptised by him in the Jordan River.” (Matthew 3:5–6)

Where did John’s baptism come from?

Matthew 21 records that Jesus asked the chief priests and the elders of the people: “ John’s baptism—where did it come from? Was it from heaven or of human origin?” 

They discussed it among themselves and said, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will ask, ‘Then why didn’t you believe him?’” As he so often did, Jesus asked a good question.

Matthew describes John as “he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah: “A voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.'” (Matthew 3:3)

His calling of people to repent is how he carries out his task of preparing the way of the Lord, the fulfillment of Isiah’s prophecy. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near,” is his call. Baptism is the response of those who repent. John’s baptism is part of this heaven-sent task.

The answer to Jesus’ question is “of heaven”

What was John’s baptism?

Physically it was immersion in the River Jordan. What was it Spiritually? In Acts 19 we learn that it was different to the baptism involved in becoming a Christian. Paul meets some disciples of John in Ephesus who have “received the baptism of John.”

“Paul said, ‘John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance. He told the people to believe in the one coming after him, that is, in Jesus.’  On hearing this, they were baptised in the name of the Lord Jesus. (Acts 19:4–5) 

John’s baptism was a sign that someone had repented. But just as Jesus is the greater one for who John describes himself as “unworthy to carry his sandals”, Jesus brings a greater baptism.

Did Jesus baptise?

Water Baptism is something Jesus asked his disciples to do but is never recorded as doing himself. After Jesus is baptised himself, both his group and  John and his followers went about baptising, but the Scripture records Jesus delegated the baptism task.

“Now when Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard that Jesus was making and baptising more disciples than John  (although Jesus himself did not baptize, but only his disciples)” (John 4:1–2)

Why did Jesus get baptised?

It seems that John was aware that Jesus was without sin, and aware of his own sin suggested that the roles should be reversed with Jesus baptising him “I need to be baptised by you, and do you come to me?” (Matthew 3:13)

But Jesus insisted. “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” Righteousness here means following the law. Jesus fulfills righteousness more thoroughly and completely than any other person could.

Jesus honours John’s ministry by taking part i. it by being baptised, although he did not need to repent.

Jesus takes over the ministry of baptism. Holy Spirit and fire.

Jesus will baptise with “Holy Spirit and fire”, John prophesies. When Paul meets those disciples of John in Ephesus he baptises them in the name of Jesus and they receive the Holy Spirit, as they join the Christian community.

While some believe “fire” points to the day of Pentecost, fire likely refers to judgement.

“He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire,” says John, and immediately goes on to say, His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” (Matthew 3:11–12)

Those baptised into Christ will not fear the judgment.

The dove.

The one who will baptise with the Spirit receives the Spirit in the form of a dove as he comes out of the Jordan. “And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, whom I love; with him, I am well pleased.’” (Matthew 3:17).

Just as baptism marks the beginnings of our Christian life, Jesus’ baptism marks the beginning of his earthly ministry.

[1] The Baptism of Jesus is a moveable feast in some churches: if Epiphany is moved to occur on January 7 or 8. the baptism feast day is held on Monday. Some Eastern churches – Catholic or Orthodox stick to an earlier custom of having Epiphany and the baptism together on January 6 as the great Feast of the Theophany. For followers of the Julian calendar, it falls on January 19.


Some prayer points to help

Consider your baptism, the promises made, and pray that you will keep them.