The list of essential ceremonial-style practices of the Christian faith is rather short, and surely would include baptism. Jesus, for example, identified it as one of the marks of discipleship (Mt 28:18-20). Peter’s landmark sermon of Acts 2 tells us the response to the sacrificial death of Jesus, the Lord and Christ, was to: “Repent and be baptized … for the forgiveness of sins. (Acts 2:38)” This may not be any surprise to you, but what do you make of the fact that Jesus himself was baptized? Moreover, the baptism he submitted to was John’s baptism, which is associated with participants repenting of their sins (Mt. 3:2) in order to “flee from the wrath to come (v7).” How does this square with our biblical understanding of the sinless Christ who “knew no sin” (2 Cor. 5:21; Heb. 4:15)?

Matthew’s account is the only Gospel account that sheds light on this particular issue. The Baptist said to Jesus, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me? (v14)” The answer puts two important themes of Matthew’s Gospel on display: fulfillment and righteousness. “Let it be so now, for it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness. (v15)” Though later in the New Testament Paul develops the concept of righteousness to answer the question of human justification, Matthew’s use of the word is rooted in an Old Testament understanding, which is understanding how humans are to live rightly within a covenantal relationship with God. It has the sense of heart-felt obedience that aligns with God’s will and nature. In short, Jesus submits to such a baptism not because he was a sinner, but because he is the obedient Son who, “does only what he sees his Father doing. (Jn 5:19)”

Something to Praise

It is no surprise to see John’s preaching linking repentance to baptism. In the call to repentance, he was calling a people to turn from old ways and submit to new. Specifically, to submit to the sovereign rule of Jesus Christ. All of us are rebels to the core. Praise God that Jesus came to fulfill all righteousness! He is the fulfillment of all of God’s salvation activity, and the righteousness required of every sinful man. We follow Jesus into the waters of baptism not merely because he is our example, but because he is the fulfillment of our righteousness. We are baptized into him (Rom. 6:3), and he in turn baptizes us with the enabling power of the Holy Spirit such that we may “walk in the newness of life.”