ABSTRACT: At the beginning of Jesus’s public ministry, he walked into the Jordan River to be baptized by John. But why would the sinless Son participate in a baptism of repentance? This surprising start to Jesus’s ministry carries at least five meanings: he fulfilled old-covenant expectations, consecrated himself for his mission, represented those whom he came to save, identified himself as the beloved Son of the Father, and anticipated the final baptism of the cross. He was baptized for us, so that we might be baptized into him.
In addition to the Lord’s Supper, Jesus gave every Christian an intimate, tangible link to himself. He prescribed a sensory experience to join us to all he undertook for us. Yet we seldom draw upon it! Believers have been baptized. Jesus was baptized. Our individual baptisms echo Jesus’s baptism on our behalf. Though properly we receive baptism only once, we can yet have a continuing connection to this powerful sign. The key, though, won’t be found in digging out some record of a personal event we might not even remember — or in asking to be rebaptized. Rather, questing into the event of Jesus’s own baptism can lead us into the mystery that we have been “baptized into Christ” (Galatians 3:27).
Let’s excavate the meaning of this episode of Jesus’s life among us as we follow five aspects of this story: expectation, consecration, representation, Trinitarian identification, and anticipation.
At the dawn of Jesus’s public ministry, great crowds of people were coming out to the wilderness by the Jordan River where Jesus’s cousin, John, preached and baptized. “Prepare the way of the Lord,” he urged as he quoted the prophet Isaiah (Mark 1:3). John considered himself to be the herald of God’s long-expected arrival in the person of the Messiah. He called the people to repent through deliberate acts of love and equity toward their neighbors (Luke 3:10–14). The people, in turn, confessed their sins and then went down to the river to be symbolically washed clean for a fresh start. The act symbolized dying to the old patterns of sin and rising to a fresh start in living righteously for God.
John considered his baptism to be not definitive but preparatory. He was getting people ready to perceive and then accept the Christ of God, who was about to appear on the public scene. And the people poured out for John’s severe, bracing preaching. They undertook this definitive act of commitment because they were longing for their covenant Lord to come reclaim and redeem his people.
What deep need lay beneath this enthusiasm for John’s message and the pride-breaking baptism he demanded? Hundreds of years before Jesus, the prophet Isaiah expressed the great longing of God’s people under the judgment of exile for their sin. They yearned for God himself to come and set things right: “Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down!” (Isaiah 64:1). Isaiah confessed for the people that “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment” (Isaiah 64:6). God’s people had no cache of worthiness to which they could appeal. The only claim they could make was to familial loyalty: “But now, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter. . . . Remember not iniquity forever. Behold, please look, we are all your people” (Isaiah 64:8–9).
The ancient longing was twofold. First, we yearned for God himself to cross the divide between Creator and creation, which Jesus did in the incarnation. At the same time, we ached for God to cross the divide of sin, to come from his place of holiness to our place of sin, which sundered our fellowship with him. And we desired that he somehow do this in a way that would not tarnish his perfection yet would cleanse us from our impurity. We required a true way to make us right again with our God.
Jesus’s baptism represented God’s crossing of this divide. Mark’s account uses the same word for rend as the Greek version of Isaiah 64:1: “When he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove” (Mark 1:10). The root here is schizo, to tear apart (hence why the term schizophrenia is applied to a mind divided by mental illness). God answered the cry for the heavens to be rent open when the Spirit came down upon Jesus as he came up from the waters. But why did the act of descending into the Jordan elicit such a dramatic heavenly response?
At his baptism, Jesus offered himself without reservation to his Father as he began the public phase of his redeeming mission. What might Jesus have been praying as he waited with the others to descend from the banks into the Jordan? The author of Hebrews places Psalm 40 on Jesus’s lips, and the beginning of his ministry seems like an ideal time for Jesus to have made this prayer his own. Quoting from the Greek version of Psalm 40:6–8, Hebrews declares,
Consequently, when Christ came into the world, he said,
“Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired,
but a body have you prepared for me;
in burnt offerings and sin offerings
you have taken no pleasure.
Then I said, ‘Behold, I have come to do your will, O God,
as it is written of me in the scroll of the book.’” (Hebrews 10:5–7)
We can see the connection with the inauguration of Jesus’s ministry even more clearly if we continue the psalm, in the translation from the Hebrew:
Then I said, “Behold, I have come;
in the scroll of the book it is written of me:
I delight to do your will, O my God;
your law is within my heart.”
I have told the glad news of deliverance
in the great congregation;
behold, I have not restrained my lips,
as you know, O Lord.
I have not hidden your deliverance within my heart;
I have spoken of your faithfulness and your salvation;
I have not concealed your steadfast love and your faithfulness
from the great congregation. (Psalm 40:7–10)
Jesus arrived at the Jordan to declare his full solidarity with both us the sinners and his holy Father. Son of Man and Son of God, Jesus came “to fulfill all righteousness” (Matthew 3:15). We can imagine Jesus praying this psalm as he gets ready to go into the waters of the Jordan to be baptized. He has come to do his Father’s will. We feel his sense of mission as he says, “Behold, I have come.” He knows he is fulfilling the prophecies of Scripture. He is the one man of whom it can be truly said, “Your law is within my heart.” His delight in his Father would lead him to speak of such steadfast love to the multitudes that would come to him.
Being baptized by John meant admission of sin and the need for forgiveness. But Jesus was sinless! How could he confess sin, even by gesture if not by words? Jesus’s baptism represents his total identification with the people he came to save. Paul tells us that God made him who knew no sin to become sin on our behalf (2 Corinthians 5:21). This taking of our sin was not just for three hours on the cross. Jesus’s whole ministry involved his taking our place.
The fourth Gospel records John the Baptist making a declaration that we might think fits more naturally at the crucifixion. But it was at the baptism that John shouted out, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). Though he had no sin, Jesus identified with sinners. He said, in effect, “I will live where they live. I will go through what they go through. I will not be above them. I will be with them. I will take the cleansing waters as one of them. I am on the side of sinners.”
In the fifth century, Narsai of Syria imagined Jesus making an extended reply to his cousin’s hesitation to baptize him. Here is an excerpt,
Let it be so! I am being baptized as one deficient and in need of mercy,
So that I may fill up in my person what is lacking in the human race.
Let it be so! I am paying for the bond that Adam wrote in Eden.
From the same clay that passions have overwhelmed is my structure.
Let it be so! I am heating our weak clay in the water of the Spirit. . . .
I will go forth to bring back our captive race from the rebel.1
Jesus, of course, was never in himself “deficient and in need of mercy.” He loved his Father with all his heart and expressed that devotion through perfect obedience to his Father’s word. So, Jesus deliberately engaged an action that was unnatural to him. He repented in solidarity with us, the sinners. He acted for us, not himself. Going as our representative into the waters of confession, he offered a perfect human response of submission and faith. We, in ourselves, cannot even get repentance right! Jesus entered baptism for us and as one of us.
4. Trinitarian Identification
At the same time Jesus identified with common humanity at his baptism, the Holy Spirit and the Father identified Jesus as the unique Son of God. When Jesus came up from the water, the Spirit of God descended on him in the likeness of a dove (Mark 1:10; Luke 3:22). Jesus had been conceived in Mary’s womb by the power of the Holy Spirit (Luke 1:35), and he was never without the Spirit as he grew up (Luke 2:40, 52). But now, at the outset of his public ministry, he received a special anointing of the Spirit in front of the multitude. The Spirit had empowered prophets in earlier generations. John described the difference: “I saw the Spirit descend from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him” (John 1:32). The Spirit found a suitable home in the incarnate Son. The Spirit revealed that Jesus is the Christ, the Anointed One for whom God’s people had been yearning.
Moreover, right after Jesus’s baptism, a voice from heaven declared, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased” (Luke 3:22). The Father testified to a relationship that has been since all eternity. Now the love between the divine persons of the Trinity would be expressed from within the confines of Jesus’s humanity. Two chapters after recounting Jesus’s baptism, the fourth Gospel explains further, “He who comes from above is above all. . . . He bears witness to what he has seen and heard. . . . The Father loves the Son and has given all things into his hand” (John 3:31–32, 35). Jesus spoke the words of his Father, based on their relationship of utter harmony and delight that was now unfolding before us.
To complete the Trinitarian loop, it seems that this relationship between the Son on earth and his Father in heaven was dynamically maintained through the Holy Spirit. Right in between the verses quoted above from John 3, we read, “For he whom God has sent utters the words of God, for he gives the Spirit without measure” (John 3:34). This verse deliberately works two ways. We can read it as the Father giving the incarnate Son the Spirit without measure. The Son, in turn, now gives the full and endless supply of the Spirit to those joined to him.
So, the baptism of Jesus marks the first time that God clearly identified himself to the world as Trinity. All three persons were involved in the baptism. The Son offered himself to the Father for the mission prepared for him. The Spirit descended from the Father to empower the ministry of the Son. The Father spoke aloud his enduring love for his Son. In this one scene, we learn that God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and the eternal Son has come to identify with us as man and therefore to bring us into that triune circle of love.
Christ’s baptism in the waters of the Jordan also anticipated his baptism in blood on the cross. Jesus deliberately alluded to this event when he predicted his passion: “I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how great is my distress until it is accomplished!” (Luke 12:50). He had consecrated himself to his Father as his ministry began. But a greater sacrifice awaited him. Jesus would have to wrestle down his human will in the garden of Gethsemane, drawing on the full meaning of his entering the Jordan: “Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done” (Luke 22:42). If at his baptism Jesus had committed the course of his life and strength to his Father’s mission, on the cross Jesus would have to release his very spirit in consecrated death: “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” (Luke 23:46).
By now, we should not be surprised that at Jesus’s death there would be another symbolic rending: “The curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom” (Mark 15:38). This curtain separated off the Most Holy Place and could be entered only once a year by the high priest making atonement. When Jesus completed his perfect atonement on the cross, the veil of separation was removed once for all.
The baptism of Jesus, then, is emblematic of the whole course of his incarnate ministry among us. Not surprisingly, the ancient iconographic tradition of Jesus’s baptism draws the rocky banks of the Jordan to also look like a cave in which Jesus lies. That gives the scene a tomb-like quality. Also, however, this river-cave could be a womb out of which would come new life. In both ways, the dying and rising — going down into darkness, depths, and death and coming up into light and life — are very prominent. The baptism encapsulates and anticipates Christ’s living, dying, and rising for us.
With Emperor Constantine’s conversion in AD 312, Christianity came to be publicly accepted, and then, by 323, our faith was the official religion of the Roman Empire. With the subsequent conversion of multitudes of former pagans, a massive number of baptisms occurred. So, the church constructed many beautiful baptisteries to receive these new believers. Over time, vivid depictions of Jesus’s baptism were added as frescos or mosaics. So, at places such as the baptistery in Ravenna, or in the catacomb of San Ponziano, we see that these new believers went down into the pool of water against a backdrop of Jesus standing in the Jordan with John while the dove of the Spirit is coming down. They literally entered the story. Their baptisms were a participation in Jesus’s baptism.
This seems to me theologically astute. The Father declared Jesus as his beloved Son at the baptism. We get included in that relationship when we are joined to Jesus by the Holy Spirit through faith. As Paul wrote to the Ephesians, we have been “accepted in the beloved” (Ephesians 1:6 KJV). Our union with Christ joins us to all the events of his incarnate life, death, and resurrection that were enacted for our sake.
So, now the physical act of going down and getting up, the memorable feel of water against our skin, and the very sound of a voice affirming the love of the triune God can return us to the mystery that Jesus was baptized for us. To put it another way, all our individual baptisms are a participation in the one baptism of Jesus. As Paul wrote, we have been “baptized into Christ” (Galatians 3:27). Inquiring into the event of Jesus’s baptism, then, can awaken us to this mystical joining to Christ that the Spirit creates and sustains through faith.
The Son of God came among us in Jesus Christ. He made his way out to the wilderness with the people. He saw their needs. He felt the heartbeat of their concerns. He gathered their tears. He collected their hopes. He knew how hard their lives were. He knew their poverty and their confusion. He knew the brokenness in their relationships. He knew their estrangement from the Father, the soul-deep loneliness of lost humanity. He scooped all of these to himself and carried them into the river. He was fully committed to his mission. Jesus consecrated in his baptism not only himself but all of us in him.
I can imagine Jesus coming up from the waters, exalting, “I will tell of your name to my brothers; in the midst of the congregation I will sing your praise” (Hebrews 2:12; cf. Psalm 22:22). And he includes us: “Here am I, and the children God has given me” (Hebrews 2:13 NIV). Perhaps still dripping with water, the Son of God who became the Son of Man offered us with himself to his Father in words anticipating his final high-priestly prayer: “[I ask] that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (John 17:21).
The echoes of Jesus’s baptism reverberated through his life, and still resound through the world to this day. For his baptism is an emblem of his entire incarnate work of offering himself perfectly to his Father and gathering us into his own consecration and obedience. Our baptisms are a participation in the one baptism of Jesus, which was his consecration as our representative. If we are in Christ, we are in the same relationship to his Father that he enjoys: beloved!
Whenever we witness a baptism, we can recall Jesus’s baptism, and the fact of our own (whether enjoyed or nervously endured, and however well we remember it). Just as with the bread and wine of Communion, Jesus gave us a ubiquitous element to carry the mystery of our union with him. Baptism is only baptism when it’s connected to the words Jesus linked to the sign: “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19). Yet every touch of ordinary water can remind us of that extraordinary sacrament. So, every shower, every dive into a pool or splash in a creek can remind us of the journey down into the waters and up into new life that Jesus made on our behalf.
Every morning that we seek to present ourselves to God for his service (Romans 6:13), we can imagine being connected to Jesus in the dying and rising of his baptism. Every time we struggle to consider ourselves dead to the sin that allures us and alive to the God who calls us (Romans 6:11), we can find strength in claiming that we have already been “baptized into his death” for sin (Romans 6:3), and raised with Christ into life (Romans 6:4). This striking moment in Jesus’s history among us is an enduring touchstone for our communion with Christ.
Narsai of Syria, as quoted in Robin M. Jensen, Baptismal Imagery in the Early Church (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2012), 13. ↩