The matter of Jesus’ baptism can be confusing for some people. If Jesus was perfect, and John was baptizing with water for repentance (Matthew 3:11), then why was Jesus baptized? He didn’t have anything to repent of!
Yet, in Matthew 3:15, Jesus says to John, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” What can this mean?
- Does it mean that baptism is necessary for salvation?
- Was Jesus not without sin?
- How does his baptism fulfill all righteousness?
Jesus was without sin, and baptism is not necessary for salvation. Jesus’ statement invites us to look more deeply into Jewish Law and how he fulfilled it.
Washed by Water
At the very beginning of Scripture, in Genesis 1:2, the earth is essentially a watery planet: “The earth was without form.” That is, there was no land, no definite shape or solidity: “And the spirit of God was hovering (or moving) over the face of the waters.” There is a sense here that water is a beginning, a starting point. This becomes an essential truth throughout Scripture and will remain a theme as we answer our question. God brings the dry land up out of the water that was covering it, and that is how the world begins.
In Genesis 6, we see that the world has become a very dark and evil place, so much so that God decides to destroy mankind and start over with Noah and his family. The whole world is covered in water for its wickedness, as if God is “washing” the earth. It is the earth that undergoes the first baptism. When the flood subsides, wickedness has been wiped away, and God begins anew with those who were in the ark.
Immersion as cleansing from unrighteousness is also a consistent theme in Scripture. In Genesis 8:6-12, there is an interesting episode with Noah and a dove. The flood has begun to recede and the ark rests on a high mountaintop. Noah sends a dove out of the ark, which finds no good place to land, and so it returns to him. The dove is moving over the face of the waters, just as the Spirit of God did at creation, looking for a place to land. When the dove does not return, Noah knows that it is safe to leave the ark.
In Exodus 14, God (through Moses) leads the Hebrews to the Red Sea after delivering them from slavery in Egypt. Just when it looks as though Pharaoh’s army will ride them down, God parts the sea and they walk through it. Although they don’t actually get wet, the imagery is of the people passing through the water just before their encounter with God at Sinai.
When Moses delivers the law to the people, it prescribes several different ceremonial washings for various purposes: for priestly service, for contact with blood or with the dead, after being cured of leprosy, and anything else resulting in ritual impurity. Some of these involved washing only the hands or feet, but a total immersion was required for certain things.
Both the process of immersion and the chamber used for it are, in Hebrew, called mikveh.
Immersed in the Spirit
In Isaiah 44:3, the pouring out of the Holy Spirit is likened to the pouring out of water on a dry land. Jeremiah 17:13 calls the Lord “the fountain of living water.” Over time, mikveh evolved to include all these concepts. Just as the body is immersed in water, so the soul of the one being baptized is immersed in the Holy Spirit, in God the fountain of living water.
The world began in water and was renewed by immersion. The people of Israel were led through the waters both before they met God at Sinai and again before they entered the Promised Land. The priests would wash their hands and feet in a large basin before conducting any act of service to the Lord (Exodus 30:17-21). Just so would a man be baptized before beginning his ministry; it is a sign that he is clean both inside and out, that he is ready to meet his God, that his spirit has been renewed.
This is the way the Jewish people would have understood baptism when John began to call them to repentance.
Fulfilling All Righteousness
Such was Jesus’ meaning in Matthew 3:15. It was not a statement that baptism is necessary for salvation, nor that he needed to repent of anything. The intent of the Jewish people regarding baptism was to signify their readiness to follow the will of God. So by engaging in this action, by including himself in this tradition of his people, Jesus “fulfills all righteousness,” not merely by the physical act, but by the spiritual implications of it.
There was no written legal requirement for Jesus to be baptized in order to inaugurate his ministry. Jesus followed the law, but he also followed the traditions in line with the heart of the law.
By this act, Jesus proclaims the beginning of his ministry. And just as the Spirit of God moved over the waters in the beginning, just as the dove flew over the flooded land in the days of Noah, so “the eyes of the Lord move to and fro throughout the earth that he may strongly support those whose heart is completely his” (2 Chronicles 16:9).
So the Spirit of the Lord descends like a dove on Jesus when he comes out of the water, and God is pleased, because in Jesus he has a Son whose heart is completely given to the Lord.