Why Was Jesus Baptized?

November 26th, 2012

One day, as John was baptizing in the Jordan, he looked up to see a familiar face. He smiled as Jesus approached, and the two men embraced. These men had known one another their entire lives. They had played together as boys and dreamed together as young men. John was six months older, but he always knew it was his younger cousin who would play the greater role in God’s plans. The two had shared long walks and conversations both in Jerusalem and in the monastery by the Salt Sea. They had stayed up long into the night discussing the Scriptures and the kingdom of God. John’s preaching and baptism at the Jordan would officially set in motion a chain of events that would lead to John’s own death in a matter of months, and to Jesus’ crucifixion just three years later.

Jesus took off his sandals and robe and said to John, “Baptize me, brother!” John stepped back, confused, protesting: “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” Jesus insisted, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness” (Matthew 3:14, 15 NRSV).

With his baptism, the three-year public ministry of Jesus began. From this time on, the die was cast. The prospect was exciting, and terrifying. Jesus’ ministry publicly began here, at the age of thirty, when he waded into the waters of the Jordan to be baptized by his older cousin.

Even in the first century, Christians were unsettled by John’s baptism of Jesus. When the disciple John (not John the Baptist) wrote his Gospel, he didn’t explicitly mention Jesus’ baptism in his initial encounter with John at the river. Christians wondered why Jesus would come to John to be baptized. Why would one who “knew no sin” receive a baptism, indicating a repentance of sin?

In Jesus’ baptism, the sinless man chose to identify with sinful people. He stepped into the water, not out of his need but for ours. Later he would tell his disciples that “the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10 NRSV). He wasn’t embarrassed to identify with sinners by wading into the waters of repentance. He didn’t announce to everyone present, “I don’t really need this; it’s for you.” He chose to let others think what they would—he was walking into the water with us and for us. In the days ahead, he would eat with sinners and tax collectors. He would befriend prostitutes and adulterers. This was his mission. In his baptism, Jesus identified with sinners.

Baptism has many meanings. Like a kaleidoscope, it presents a different picture with each turn. As Jesus stepped into the water to identify with sinful humanity and become the “son of man,” the Holy Spirit descended upon him in the form of a dove. He heard the voice of God announcing that he was God’s “beloved son,” with whom God was “well pleased” (Mark 1:10-11 NRSV). Thus, in that moment Jesus was at one and the same time the “son of man” and the “son of God.” Jesus also received power from the Spirit for the ministry that lay ahead. Here at the Jordan, we see the first glimpse of what Christians would come to call the Trinity. The Son came to be baptized. The Father spoke. The Spirit descended.

The words spoken by God at Jesus’ baptism come, at least in part, from Psalm 2:7, a coronation song in which the psalmist speaks of the kings of Israel as God’s sons. But it is not an exact quote. The Psalm says, “You are my Son; today I have become your Father.” But to Jesus, God spoke in the midst of his baptism, saying, “You are my Son, my beloved, with you I am well pleased” (emphasis added).

Jesus was “beloved” of God. The word used was agapetos—a Greek adjective that is a term of endearment signifying a special and deep bond, a favorite, one who is treasured and dear. God reaffirmed this special relationship with Jesus at the Mount of Transfiguration, not long before Jesus’ death, by using the Greek verb eudokeo (Matthew 17:5). The word indicates taking particular delight or pleasure in someone or something.

Recently our oldest daughter Danielle and her husband moved back to Kansas City after a one-year stint in Africa and a couple of years in Chicago. They returned to the area so Danielle could go to graduate school. Having her back has brought great joy to my wife LaVon and me. I gave Danielle a big hug the other day and told her, “I love you so much. I’m so proud of you, and I feel such joy that you are back in Kansas City and I get to see you regularly.” To me, this is the sense that agapetos and eudokeo carry with them; this is what Jesus was hearing from God.

For Jesus, his baptism was a defining act. In that moment, he identified with sinners and heard God’s affirmation that he was the Father’s beloved son. He received the Spirit’s power. And it marked the beginning of his ministry. Jesus’ baptism was an ordination in which he was set aside and empowered for his mission of drawing people to God, inviting them into God’s kingdom, demonstrating God’s will, and ultimately laying down his life for humanity.

For us, as Christ followers, Baptism is also meant as a defining act. Through our baptism we are claimed by God, anointed with the Spirit, and set aside for God’s purposes. Our brokenness is recognized and God’s grace is promised. And in our baptisms we are initiated into, and become a part of, God’s covenant people. We are meant to remember our baptisms each day. Even if we don’t remember the act itself, we remember that God has promised to forgive our sins, that we are called to ministry, that the Holy Spirit resides in us, and that we are God’s children.


Excerpted from Adam Hamilton's newest book and study, The Way: Walking in the Footsteps of Jesus. See program elements below. Used by permission.

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