Some years back, Baptist historian Bill Leonard said that questions about baptism used to be about how we do it. Infants or adults? Sprinkling, pouring, or immersion? Stuff like that. But now, Leonard says, the question has become, “Does baptism mean anything at all?”
Should we care about baptism? If so, why should we care?
Matthew’s account of Jesus’ baptism gives us some great reasons to care about baptism. According to this passage (Matt. 3:13-17), Jesus insisted on being baptized and the Spirit came down and heavenly Father was pleased.
When Jesus came to John the Baptist to be baptized, John tried to stop him. He said, “Look, you should be baptizing me, not the other way around.”
The great John the Baptist tried to dissuade Jesus from being baptized. True, the passage suggests that John tried to stop Jesus because he considered himself unworthy to baptize the Messiah. Reason aside, however, verse 14 tells that John tried to prevent Jesus from being baptized
But Jesus insisted on being baptized. Why?
In his book entitled Simply Jesus, N. T. Wright mentions that Jesus’ baptism is one of numerous events recorded in the gospels that bring together three important vocations of Jesus: Messiah, servant, and God. Wright says that, in Israel’s history, these streams had been separate, but in Jesus they are gloriously brought together in one person.
Matthew’s account of Jesus’ baptism mentions a voice from the heavens which Wright describes as a sudden joining of heaven and earth through which the “royal vocation of the Messiah” is exposed. Wright also joins with many other scholars in noting that “[a]ll the signs are that Jesus understood his baptism as the moment when he was ‘anointed,’ like Israel’s kings long ago …”
In verse 11, we are told that John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance—repentance of sin. Jesus had no sins of which he needed to repent. In submitting to John’s baptism of repentance, Jesus, as a servant, identified himself with those he came to save. In the tradition of the Servant Song of Isaiah 53, Jesus “was numbered with the transgressors” (Isa. 53:12, NRSV).
The voice from heaven identified Jesus as “my Son” indicating, in the words of Wright, “Israel’s God was acting through him, in him, as him.” By the way, we should not overlook the mention of the Trinity in this passage as we see references to the Father, the Son, and the Spirit.
So, in Jesus’ baptism, we see an example of these three streams, Messiah, servant, and God, coming together in the person of Jesus. If passages like this one are to be believed, then Jesus was much more than a good man and a great teacher. Something much bigger and more wonderful was going on in him and through him. God was becoming King with a view toward seeing God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
And baptism was and is part of that glorious plan.
Jesus insisted on being baptized “to fulfill all righteousness” (v. 15, NRSV). Ben Witherington III understands this phrase to mean that “Jesus will do everything he can and all that is required to fulfill God’s loving plan.”
What was happening in Jesus’ baptism? There was a glorious joining of the streams of Messiah, servant, and God coming together in the person of Jesus. Baptism was for our Lord one way that he did everything he could and all that was required to fulfill God’s loving plan.
No wonder Jesus insisted on being baptized.
But what does Jesus’ baptism mean for us now?
On a somewhat shallow level, we could say simply that, if baptism was important for Jesus, then it must be important for his followers. Even if we fail to grasp any degree of the meaning behind the ritual, the fact that Jesus insisted on being baptized should be enough to convince his followers to insist on baptism.
Yet there is more to this ritual than we can experience on the surface. In fact there is more to baptism than I can fully explain or, frankly, understand.
One thing that we can see readily is that the heavenly Father was pleased by Jesus’ choice to be baptized as our passage says. This hasn’t changed. When we baptize new believers today I am convinced that the Father says again, “I am well pleased” (v. 17, NRSV).
We can also easily see that the Holy Spirit, God’s real presence, was involved in Jesus’ baptism because, again, the passage says so. This hasn’t changed either. The Holy Spirit is involved in baptisms today just as surely as this was the case at Jesus’ baptism.
I cannot explain all the mysteries of baptism. There is more to it than just water and words. If I could explain the depths of the meaning of baptism then I would be able to explain the depths of the meaning of love and I can’t do that either.
But I think there is something very important that we see in Matthew’s account of Jesus’ baptism that brings into sharp focus one facet of what baptism means to us today. Again, Jesus said that his baptism would “fulfill all righteousness” (v. 15). Baptism was for our Lord one way that he did everything he could and all that was required to fulfill God’s loving plan.
This also hasn’t changed. When new believers are baptized today they take an important step in doing everything they can and all that is required in fulfilling God’s loving plan. It’s important to note that baptism isn’t the last step in this regard—it's but one step, but an important one. A step that was important to Jesus himself.
Baptism is in part our promise before God and the church that we will leave the water committed to do everything we can and all that is required in every aspect of our lives to fulfill God’s loving plan. Jesus was baptized in part to lovingly identify himself with us—with those he came to save. When we submit to baptism we identify ourselves with him. We mark ourselves publicly as the subjects of this King who got in line with sinners at the Jordan one day and then embarked on a journey that would lead him to the cross of Calvary and to a tomb that he would leave empty.
Does baptism mean anything at all? Oh yeah. Jesus insisted on being baptized and the Spirit came down and heavenly Father was pleased. If it was true then it is true now and it was true then.