The baptism of Jesus is the beginning of his ministry, as all of the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew 3:13-17; Luke 3:21-23; Mark 1:9-15) and Acts 10:37-38 demonstrate. This is the point at which Jesus is called both to begin and to fulfill his mission. One of the major questions must be, quite simply, why? Why should Jesus be baptized by John the Baptist whose purpose is to prepare the people of Israel for the coming of the Lord by confirming them in repentance by an act of baptism “for the forgiveness of sins”? Why should Jesus, the Lord, be baptized in repentance for the forgiveness of sins when he has none?
This is a question that was asked by the first Christians also, for the wonder and confusion, perhaps even embarrassment, surrounding Jesus’ baptism by John finds its way into some of the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ baptism. While Mark simply states that “Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan” (Mark 1:9), Matthew has John basically begging off the task, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” (Matthew 3:14). Luke and John have even more interesting takes on the baptism. Luke’s account has Jesus being baptized, but it is not attributed directly to John: “When all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too. And as he was praying, heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased” (Luke 3:21-22). John states that “I saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on him. And I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, ‘The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.’ I have seen and I testify that this is God’s Chosen One” (John 1:32-34). In this case, the baptism is directly attributed to John, but the event is described after the fact not at the time of the baptism.
The fact that all of these Gospels attest to the baptism, and attempt to explain it in a variety of ways, indicates that this is a historical event in the life of Jesus. It loomed large in Jesus’ own life and in the life of his followers, who also saw it as the beginning of his public ministry. Since John describes his own baptism, though, as a sign of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, why would Jesus need this baptism? The fact that Jesus was baptized indicates that there was a great need for it.
My answer would be that he does not “need” it in terms of sinfulness, but that we “need” it, those who are his disciples. Since Christians are not followers of John the Baptist, however, and since Jesus’ baptism functions for the removal of sin, in what way do his disciples, including us today, “need” Jesus’ baptism by John? We need it as a model. For the first followers of Jesus this was a model of repentance, that the time to repent and prepare for the Messiah and the coming Kingdom of God was now. It was a model, therefore, of how these disciples were to act, but also of how we are to act today and how God acts always: preparation for the Kingdom is a time of repentance. Jesus’ action, though, is also a model for the baptism that would mark entry into the people of God as followers of Jesus. It becomes a model of the sacrament of initiation into the Church, the means by which Jesus’ disciples were brought into the Kingdom of God.
The baptism is also a sign to Jesus’ followers that a ministry has begun, a public beginning to his ministry so that all could see. As Jesus says to John, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” If it is the time to fulfill righteousness, the time of the end has come near: the fulfillment of the kingdom of God in Jesus’ ministry. Related to the revelation of the Kingdom would be the knowledge of Jesus' relationship to God as God's son and, with the coming of the Ho;y Spirit, the revelation of God as Trinity. While this would take time to make itself manifest doctrinally, the reality of God present in father, Son, and Holy Spirit was manifest in the experience of Jesus from the time of the baptism.
Yet, there is another reason not related to needs of the disciples of Jesus and that is that the baptism and the voice of God speaking to Jesus is Jesus himself coming to understand his own mission and vocation. If we take Jesus’ humanity seriously, as we must, then he too must come to understand his own call, as we all must. He must listen for and to the voice of God. At the baptism he hears the voice of God: “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17). He was God’s son, he was beloved, and he was called. His vocation needed to begin and he needed to hear God’s voice speak it aloud. It is at this point that Jesus begins his ministry to call us all to hear that we are children of God, loved by God and called to fulfill our own unique vocations.
John W. Martens
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