This coming Sunday is the Baptism of Jesus, which one of the most confusing topics for Christians. We have Jesus, the Man-God, a person of the Trinity, who sought baptism. It confuses people today and confused John the Baptist as well.
Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan to be baptized by him. John tried to prevent him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and yet you are coming to me?” Jesus said to him in reply, “Allow it now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he allowed him. (Matthew 3:13-15)
The main question on many minds is “Why did Jesus need to be baptized?”
I have heard a number of explanations for this as a former Protestant. Some say that it was to set an example. Others insist he needed the Holy Spirit to descend upon Him. What’s the right answer?
First, what is baptism?
Let’s take a reading from the Catechism:
Holy Baptism is the basis of the whole Christian life, the gateway to life in the Spirit …, and the door which gives access to the other sacraments. Through Baptism we are freed from sin and reborn as sons of God; we become members of Christ, are incorporated into the Church and made sharers in her mission…” CCC 1215
One should naturally ask themselves, “What does that have to do with Jesus? He had no sin, is the Christ, and the Church was not founded yet.”
Second, let’s distinguish baptisms.
There are two baptisms we can observe in the Bible. The first of which is of John the Baptist in the Jordan. The purpose of this baptism was repentance, as the Gospel writers provide, “Repentance for the forgiveness of sins” and “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” and “John (the) Baptist appeared in the desert proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Luke 3:3, Matthew 3:2, Mark 1:4, respectively).
The second is the Baptism of the Spirit, which is what the Church performs. This sacrament was given as a ministry of the Church (Matthew 28:19-20) for the purposes outlined above. More importantly, baptism is now a sign of Christ’s death as He mentions:
Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Can you drink the cup that I drink or be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” (Mark 10:38)
There is a baptism with which I must be baptized, and how great is my anguish until it is accomplished! (Luke 12:50)
Finally, the purpose.
Now that we understand baptism better, we can understand its purpose in Jesus’ ministry better. By being baptized, Jesus now numbers himself among sinners, wading in the water, while anticipating his death. And yet, he insists in this means of bringing forth his public life. By doing this, Jesus is not simply being an example but is accepting and anticipating the cross.
The Catechism puts it this way:
The baptism of Jesus is on his part the acceptance and inauguration of his mission as God’s suffering Servant. … he is already “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world”. Already he is anticipating the “baptism” of his bloody death. Already he is coming to “fulfill all righteousness”,… Jesus will be the source of the Spirit for all mankind. At his baptism “the heavens were opened” – the heavens that Adam’s sin had closed – and the waters were sanctified by the descent of Jesus and the Spirit, a prelude to the new creation. CCC 536
The purpose of Jesus’ baptism was a prelude to the cross, his full acceptance of it, and his brave anticipation of suffering for us that we might enter into the same baptism.