Why Was Jesus Baptized?

By: Dr. Gregory S. Neal

"Why was Jesus baptized?" This is an excellent question, and one for which there is really no simple answer. While many answers have been proposed, not all are of equal worth, some are just plain wrong, and the few which remain can often leave us wanting more. However, let's take a look at the Holy Scriptures and see what we can find.

The story of Jesus' baptism can be found, in one form or another, in all the three Synoptic Gospels, but lets take a look at is as it is found in Mark 1:7-11 (NRSV).

[John] proclaimed, "The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit." In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased."

The other two Synoptic Gospels generally depict John's difficulty with performing the baptism. In Mark's Gospel we see why ... John knew he wasn't worthy to Baptize Jesus. As St. Matthew records it: "I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?" (Matthew 3:14, NRSV) John's confusion is, indeed, very understandable. If Jesus were to come to me, or to any other minister of the Gospel, seeking baptism, I know that we would be confronted with a serious emotional and theological quandary.

Frankly, it has very little to do with worthiness. No human being is ever worth, in and of themselves, to participate in any means of grace; we are made worthy by the blood of the lamb to participate in the means of grace. Put another way, I am equally unworthy to baptize Jane Blow as I would be to baptize Jesus. Only God's grace, working through the promise of scripture, makes my participation, as a minister of the Gospel, possible.

Our problem would be one of a theological nature. Consider, for a moment, what baptism is all about. As the Nicene Creed says:

"We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins."

If we recognize that baptism is for the remission of sins -- if baptism is a means of grace through which God claims us and washes us clean from our sinful nature -- then what was the purpose of Jesus' baptism? After all, as in the words of the Nicene Creed, we believe Jesus to be:

God from God, Light from Light
true God from true God
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father;
through him all things were made.

It doesn't sound to me like he needed to be baptized. Certainly not for the "forgiveness of sins." He had no sins — he was perfect — hence he didn't need baptism. Right?

Why, then, was Jesus Baptized? We have 3 Gospels which tell us he was baptized -- interestingly enough, John's Gospel doesn't tell us that John the Baptist actually baptized Jesus (read it carefully, if you doubt me) -- hence there is no reason for us to think that he wasn't. so ... why was Jesus baptized?

I have, in the past, suggested several reasons. For instance, some tend to think that, in being baptized, Jesus was setting a pattern for the rest of us to follow. This is certainly possible; Jesus set many patterns for his Disciples, including a pattern for prayer, a pattern for teaching, a pattern for preaching, healing, and many other acts of ministry ... why not here, as well? My biggest problem with the idea is that it makes his baptism into a "let's pretend" action ... an action which doesn't at all coordinate with Jesus' own stated reason for being baptized: "... to fulfill all righteousness." (Matthew 3:15 NRSV) What did it mean for his baptism to "fulfill all righteousness?"

One of my favorite sacramental approaches to the baptism of Jesus is articulated in line with the his own reason for his baptism: "to fulfill all righteousness." As sacramentalists we may not be far off base by affirming that Jesus may well have been baptized in order to sanctify the action as a Means of Grace. Through baptism into Christ we are entered into a life that, if lived by faith in God's Grace, fulfills God's righteousness in us. Jesus' baptism affirmed that we should be baptized (hence, the concept of pattern-setting mentioned above), but it doesn't stop there: Jesus' baptism actually energizes — it consecrated — the sacrament for our sanctification. In other words, he was baptized so that our baptism would have meaning as a Means of Grace.

© 2000 Dr. Gregory S. Neal
All Rights Reserved

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The Reverend Dr. Gregory S. Neal is the Senior Pastor of the First United Methodist Church in Commerce, Texas, and an ordained Elder in the North Texas Conference of The United Methodist Church. A graduate of Southern Methodist University, Duke University, and Trinity College, Dr. Neal is a scholar of Systematic Theology, New Testament origins, and Biblical Languages. His areas of specialization include the Theology of the Sacraments, in which he did his doctoral dissertation, and the formation and early transmission of the New Testament. Trained as a Christian educator, he has taught classes in these and related fields while also serving for more than 25 years as the pastor of United Methodist churches in North Texas.

As a popular teacher, preacher, and retreat leader, Dr. Neal is known for his ability to translate complex theological concepts into common, everyday terms. HIs preaching and teaching ministry is in demand around the world, and much of his work can be found on this website. He is the author of several books, including
Grace Upon Grace: Sacramental Theology and the Christian Life, which is in its second edition, and Seeking the Shepherd's Arms: Reflections from the Pastoral Side of Life, a work of devotional literature. Both of these books are currently available from Amazon.com.