Every once in a while, you come across a passage of Scripture that leaves you scratching your head and wondering, “What’s that all about?” The brief account of Jesus’ baptism in Mark 1:9-11 is one of those passages.
Every other time we see baptism in the New Testament, it follows acknowledgement of sin, confession, and repentance (Acts 2:38), and it symbolizes being washed and cleansed from that sin. Jesus was perfect and sinless, so why did he need to be baptized? Even John the Baptist (the one who baptized Jesus) asked that question. The corresponding account of his baptism in Matthew 3 begins to answer:
“Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented.”
Jesus himself explained that he was being baptized in order to “fulfill all righteousness.” On a basic level, part of the reason for Jesus’ baptism was simply to obey what God wanted him to do. Even though he had no need for baptism, Jesus submitted to God’s will that he be baptized. So the question then becomes, “why?” If it wasn’t something Jesus needed, why was it something that God wanted Jesus to do? I believe there are two answers to this question:
1. To fully and truly identify with mankind. Hebrews 2:14 says, “Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he [Jesus] himself likewise partook of the same things…” Verse 17 follows with, “Therefore he [Jesus] had to be made like his brothers in every respect…to make propitiation for the sins of the people.” In order to “fulfill all righteousness,” the just penalty for sin must be paid; and in order to be an acceptable substitute for us and pay that penalty on our behalf (propitiation), Jesus completely identified with sinful man by taking on human flesh and partaking of the same things that sinful people need – things like baptism (following conversion and repentance, of course).
John MacArthur writes, “He who had no sin took His place among those who had no righteousness. He who was without sin submitted to a baptism for sinners. In this act the Savior of the world took His place among the sinners of the world.” I really can’t say it much better than that!
2. To foreshadow Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection. Romans 6:3-5 says, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” Verse 9 adds, “We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him.”
In this passage Paul explains that the main purpose of a Christian’s baptism is to associate and identify with Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection. Jesus’ perfect sacrifice – which required him to wholly identify with sinful man – completely satisfied the wrath of God. Jesus’ resurrection displayed his utter victory and power over sin, and it assures those who trust in him that they too are set free from the power of sin and made righteous before God. We as sinners identify ourselves with the perfect Man Jesus in the same way that he, the holy Son of God, identifies with us. There is beautiful symmetry and poetry to this image, and Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection are its focal point.
“For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” –2 Corinthians 5:21