Why Did Jesus Receive the Baptism of Repentance From John?

Last week, we started this section of Matthew’s Gospel that we are referring to as the prelude to Jesus’ preaching ministry. John the Baptist taught some very significant things concerning the kingdom of heaven, which was at hand. As he is teaching, Jesus comes to be baptized by him.

Matthew 3:13-17

Then Jesus arrived from Galilee at the Jordan coming to John, to be baptized by him. But John tried to prevent Him, saying, “I have need to be baptized by You, and do You come to me?”

But Jesus answering said to him, “Permit it at this time; for in this way it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he permitted Him.

After being baptized, Jesus came up immediately from the water; and behold, the heavens were opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending as a dove and lighting on Him, and behold, a voice out of the heavens said, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased.”

Jesus’ baptism

Last week we mentioned that the baptism of John was already a tradition established in Jewish religious practice. As John was baptizing Jew in the Jordan, Jews would make this pilgrimage to receive the washing of ritual purification. This was such a good, religious thing to do that even the scribes and Pharisees came to be baptized. According to the Law, baptism (ritual cleansing) was practiced for two reasons:

    1. Those being consecrated as priests would be completely ritually washed with water. We refer to this today as baptism by immersion and it signified the purification of the priest from sin (Leviticus 8:5-9). The priests, being symbolically clothed in righteousness through baptism, would then offer atonement through animal sacrifice for the sins of the people. This foreshadowed the perfect atoning sacrifice of the coming Messiah.
    2. Those who had become unclean (because of skin disease and probably contact with the dead or sick) would be ritually washed in order to be ceremonially clean (Leviticus 14:8-9). This became a common practice of worship.

John stated that he baptized with water for repentance (Matthew 3:11), which means his baptism was the Old Testament baptism and signified ritual cleansing or purification from the uncleanliness of sin.

Jesus came to be baptized by John with this very Old Testament religious, ritual baptism (v. 13). In verse 14, we see that John considers Jesus to already be pure and ritually clean. John does not believe that Jesus has any need whatsoever of receiving the baptism of repentance. By His nature, the Messiah is the only righteous one. He is God and God cannot be unrighteous. The Messiah is the one in whose righteousness we are clothed. He is the one in whom the Old Testament priests were consecrated in the ritual of baptism. So John says, “I have need to be baptized by You, and do You come to me?”

In verse 15, Jesus stated that His own ritual baptism was fitting in order for them to fulfill all righteousness. Why do you think that Jesus’ baptism was fitting to fulfill all righteousness if, even by John’s exclamation, Christ had no need of ritual purification?

First, ritual baptism by full immersion received from a descendant of Aaron (John was born to Zechariah, the high priest) would consecrate Jesus as the eternal high priest in the priesthood of Aaron. Jesus was not only born into David’s line, but also into Aaron’s. Zechariah was his uncle by marriage.

Second, the baptism of repentance signified that the Messiah would be the repentance of His people. He would not only be priest, but would offer Himself as the atoning sacrifice. When Isaiah describes this 700 years before Jesus’ birth, he describes it this way,

“But He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; The chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, And by His scourging we are healed. All of us like sheep have gone astray, Each of us has turned to his own way; But the Lord has caused the iniquity of us all To fall on Him” (Isaiah 53:5-6).

Jesus was not symbolically clothed in God’s righteousness like the people who were being purified from their sin. Jesus had no sin. Instead, to fulfill all righteousness, Jesus would be the repentance of His people. He would be their right eternal intercessor. Righteousness would be fulfilled for all of Christ’s people.

This is why we believe that we no longer have to receive ritual cleansing every time we sin or make a mistake. This is why we do not believe that we have to confess to a priest so that we can have each new sin absolved. Jesus Christ took all of our iniquities upon Himself. He is our repentance. He fulfilled, once for all, righteousness for His people. This is why we practice a new baptism. We are baptized in the name of Christ. We are only baptized once after true conversion because Jesus Himself bears all of our iniquities. He is our atonement. He is our repentance.

Testimony of the Godhead

In verse 16, we read that Jesus came up from the water and the Spirit of God descended like a dove and shone upon Jesus. In Isaiah 42:1 (and 11:2 and 61:1), God states through Isaiah that He would put His spirit upon His servant who would establish justice. Jesus accomplishes this justice by taking the iniquities of the world upon Himself.

This verse should not be extrapolated to make the claim that Jesus received the indwelling of the Holy Spirit at this time. While John was filled with the Holy Spirit while he was still in the womb (Luke 1:15), the Scriptures never describe Jesus as being filled with the Spirit. Jesus is one with both God and the Spirit. Though the Spirit was always working during Jesus’ life, it is almost nonsensical to make the claim that Jesus was ever indwelled by the Spirit. The point of the Spirit’s shining upon Jesus was as testimony from Heaven that this is the servant Isaiah was prophesying about. When we don’t take the time to look back at the Old Testament, we can be guilty of explaining the New Testament in some very wrong and sometimes dangerous ways.

In verse 17, we read that not only is the Spirit of God shining upon Jesus, but there is also a voice from Heaven saying, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased.” This is a direct quotation of the Old Testament, both Psalm 2:7 and Isaiah 42:1, the same passage in which God states that His spirit would be upon His servant. Psalm 2:7 testifies to God’s anointed king, His Son, who would sit on Zion’s throne and bring justice. Isaiah 42:1 also testifies to the one who would bring justice.

So, we read about the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit all testifying in this one moment. Jesus is bringing justice and He is doing so by becoming the repentance of His people, fulfilling all righteousness on behalf of His people. This fact is what separates the true Gospel from the social gospel of our day. Jesus has already made restitution for sin.

Questions

  1. How might “social justice” actually distract us from the true Gospel?
  2. Is it still important for us to deal justly and how is this different than “social justice?”

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