The big thing that happens in Matthew chapter 3 is that Jesus is baptized by John the Baptist.
Now John has been out baptizing people, preaching “repent for the kingdom of God is at hand.” There were a couple of reasons why people are baptized in terms of Jewish culture in those days: the first was for conversion to Judaism, the second was for Milkveh or purification. The Essenes who lived in the wilderness near John baptized for renewal or a return to a pure Jewish faith without the Roman appointed high priest, and it’s suggested that John picked up his message and reason for baptizing from them.
Whatever the case, baptism was meant for purification purposes, whether into a purer religion or just general purification from becoming unclean by transgressing the law.
The question that comes up here for me is “why did Jesus have to be baptized?”
I mean Jesus was without sin (Hebrews 4:15). When He touched unclean people, He didn’t become unclean, He cleaned them (Matthew 8:1-4). The man was perfect religion; He didn’t need to convert. Why in the world would He need to be baptized?
Jesus says, “it’s to fulfill all righteousness” (Matthew 3:15), but what does that mean?
There are quite a few thoughts on the why. Maybe Jesus was fulfilling the ministry of John (John 1:32). Maybe He was identifying with us as sinners and setting the precedence for baptism (Romans 6). Maybe He was emulating the crossing of the Jordan as He fulfilled and redeemed Israel’s history (Joshua 3:14). And all of these may be true.
I think the reason has to do with John’s lineage. His parents were both descendants of Aaron (Luke 1:5). His father learns of John’s conception while in the temple performing his priestly duties burning incense (Luke 1:8-20). What this means is that John was a priest. He grew up with a father who was a Levite, who served in the temple. He would have learned the trade of being a priest. He would have been educated profusely in the Law and the Old Testament, and He should have served in the temple when it was his family’s time to serve.
Instead John was out baptizing people in a dirty river just so that Jesus would come to him one day and be baptized.
In light of this I think the best explanation for Jesus’ baptism is found in Hebrews 4:13-5:10, which I won’t reprint here, but I encourage you to read. It talks about Jesus being our high priest who offers atonement for our sin. In the Old Testament the high priest was “baptized” before entering office (Exodus 29:4), and I think that’s what we’re seeing the baptism of Christ: a christening into the office of high priest, an act that is approved by God Himself when He speaks from heaven and anoints Jesus with the Holy Spirit, something we’ll look at more next week.
Practically in our lives, Jesus fulfilling righteousness in being baptized by a priest, so He might be our high priest is summed up in 1 John 1:9-10 and 2:1: “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar and His word is not in us. My little children I am writing these things so that you may not sin, but if anyone sins, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.”
If you fall short, and we all do. Confess and repent and be cleansed by the propitiation for our sins, our Lord Jesus Christ.