Why did Jesus need to be baptized? It was a delicate issue for the earliest Christians, as one can see in Matthew’s baptism account, in which “John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’” One of the sensitivities was that long after Jesus’ death and resurrection, there were still followers of John the Baptist. The Acts of the Apostles (18:25) tells us that Apollos, when he met the Apostle Paul, “knew only the baptism of John.” In the next chapter of Acts, Paul comes across some more disciples of John the Baptist. Paul asked whether they had received the Holy Spirit and they answered, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit” (19:2). Paul asked, “‘Into what then were you baptized?’ They answered, ‘Into John’s baptism.’ Paul said, ‘John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, in Jesus.’ On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus” (19:3-5).
It is strange that the New Testament itself tells us that there were disciples of John, unaware of Jesus and the Holy Spirit, years after Jesus’ baptism, even though John himself thought of Jesus as the one who was to come, the Messiah, “one who is more powerful than I.” It also points to the historical reality of Jesus’ baptism by John, a potential source of embarrassment for the followers of the Messiah and Lord, but an account that was maintained because it was true. But this still brings us back to the initial question: Why did Jesus need to be baptized? To put it another way, why was it true that Jesus was baptized by John?
Matthew’s Gospel offers an answer from Jesus himself in reply to John the Baptist’s reluctance: “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” How to understand this righteousness is the difficult issue. John’s baptism was intended for the forgiveness of sins and the repentance of Israel. Since Jesus is sinless, what need would he have of repentance?
There are several ways to interpret Jesus’ baptism. One is that though fully divine, Jesus as fully human needs to recognize the call, the starting point, of his ministry just as any person must listen for the voice of God in determining one’s vocation. God’s identification of Jesus as the divine son of God inaugurates the divine mission for Jesus in a public manner.
Another way to understand the baptism is to see Jesus aligning himself with sinful humanity, even though he is free from sin, through his willingness to associate fully with the human condition. In his baptism Jesus begins the process of rescuing humanity from sin.
Still another way to consider Jesus’ baptism is to see in it the model for the nascent church. Jesus models for his followers the need for repentance from sins and establishes the form of baptism that will be established in the church.
Still others have focused not simply on Jesus’ baptism, but on the revelation following the baptism, when “a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’” Note that the voice does not speak to Jesus in Matthew’s account, but identifies Jesus for John and others who might be present—as well as later readers—as “my son,” the divine son known from Ps 2:7 and, among Greeks and Romans, from the Roman imperial ideology that classified the emperor as divi Filius, the son of God. Here, in fact, was the true son of God made manifest. Even more, however, the son of God is revealed in the context of the Father and the Holy Spirit—what would later be defined as the Trinity.
It is not that Jesus became God through his baptism or that an unaware Jesus suddenly realized his mission upon his baptism or that Jesus abruptly knew his true identity by his baptism.
Why did Jesus need to be baptized? It’s the wrong question. Why did we need Jesus to be baptized? Because we needed to know these things. As so often in the life of Jesus, the divine condescension, the profound humility is for us. It is another way of Jesus saying, “Follow me!”