The Baptism of Jesus Examined
by Bob Burridge ©2020, 2022
John’s early ministry was to administer baptism to the people of Israel who came to him repenting of their sins. It represented the washing away of their guilt as they came trusting God to forgive and restore them.
The Sanhedrin in Jerusalem sent a delegation to find out who John claimed to be (John 1:19-27). They were not sent to ask what he was doing. Baptisms were well know to the Jews. They wanted to know who he claimed to be. They knew him as the son of the High Priest Zacharias, but was he now claiming to be someone more?
John clarified that he wasn’t the Promised Messiah, or Elijah. In John 1:23 he cited Isaiah 40:3-5. He was the voice crying out in the wilderness to “make straight the way of the Lord”
To the Jews, baptisms were well known as proper things for a priest of God to do. They were performed in the Temple services and in various cleansing rituals. They involved sprinklings or pouring liquids on something or someone to represent spiritual cleansings. Hebrews 9:10 refers to these Old Testament “washings”. There it uses a form of the Greek noun “baptismos” (βαπτισμος) “baptisms”. The verb form βαπτιζω (baptizo) is used for performing these ritual washings. We got our English words “baptism” and “baptize” from these Greek words.
Jesus came to John to be baptized.
Jesus had nothing defiling or sinful from which to be cleansed. There was nothing for which he had to repent. John expressed his reluctance and lack of understanding. He believed he should be seeking baptism from Jesus for the purification of his own soul.
Jesus answered in a manner that satisfied John that this baptism was to be for a different purpose. It was “to fulfill all righteousness” (Matthew 3:15). John understood what Jesus was asking. He gave no further argument. Righteousness is defined in Scripture as innocence before God’s law. In Deuteronomy 6:25 it defines it this way, “it will be righteousness for us if we are careful to observe all this commandment before the LORD our God, just as He commanded us.”
But what law would be fulfilled and honored by a baptism of Jesus by John? In his ministry Jesus would exercise the office of Priest in several respects. To be above reproach for what he would be doing Jesus had to keep within God’s law as it had been given. He wanted to be properly set aside as he started this public ministry as a Priest in Israel.
There were three requirements in God’s law for someone to be set aside for the office of a priest.
1. First, he had to be called by God.
Jesus was not of the priestly line of Aaron as was John the baptizer. God had also specially called Melchizedek who was not a priest by his blood line. He was called by special revelation. In Hebrews 7:17 it is directly said that Jesus was a priest of the order of Melchizedek.
The calling of Jesus as God’s Messiah was made clear by the revelations of angels at his conception and birth. Many times the Old Testament prophets were quoted identifying the promised Messiah as specially called by God. Jesus was the one who fulfilled these Messianic promises as the Christ, God’s Anointed One. It was by this authority, not by his human blood line that he was called to the office of a Priest of Israel.
2. Second, a priest must be at least 30 years old. (Numbers 4:3)
The gospels state that at the time of his baptism Jesus was 30 years old (Luke 3:23). His age isn’t given again during any time after that in his ministry. Here his age must have had some particular importance. It qualified him for that work as priest.
3. Third, a priest needed to be properly set aside by the required form of ordination.
This was only valid if done by an already properly recognized and authorized priest. John was qualified since he was of Aaron’s tribe, son of Zacharais (Luke 1:5). He was of the division of Abijah, those charged with temple service (1 Chronicles 24:10).
The mode of priestly ordination was also specified in Scripture. Among the things required was the sprinkling with water on him mentioned in Numbers 8:7. “and thus you shall do to them, for their cleansing, sprinkle purifying water on them …” The baptism Jesus was seeking from John fulfilled this requirement of God’s law, and therefore it fulfilled all righteousness in preparation for his ministry which was about to begin.
When Jesus cast the money changers out of the Temple the Jews questioned his authority to do that. Matthew 21:23 records, “when He had come into the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to Him as He was teaching and said, ‘ By what authority are You doing these things, and who gave You this authority?’”. Jesus answered them by citing his baptism by John in verse 25. Jesus answered, “The baptism of John was from what source, from heaven or from men?” The accusers were left with no grounds for complaint that Jesus had abused priestly authority.
The writer of Hebrews makes this same connection with the priesthood of Jesus. He quoted the words spoken by God at his baptism. Hebrews 5:5-6 says, “So also Christ did not exalt himself to be made a high priest, but was appointed by him who said to him, “You are my Son, today I have begotten you”; as he says also in another place, “You are a priest forever, after the order of Melchizedek.” Hebrews 6:20 & 7:17 identified Jesus this same way as, “a high priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.” The words “You are my Son” were spoken by God at Jesus’ baptism. (Matthew 3:17, Mark 1:11, Luke 3:22).
If Jesus assumed the authority of a priest without that God given ceremony, there would have been a reason for the Pharisees at the temple to reject his argument. But they did not. The mode of the baptism of Jesus would have been done by the God prescribed sprinkling of water on him as he and John walked down into the waters of the Jordan river. Then after the baptism into the priesthood they came together up out of the water.
Jesus obeyed every part of the law in securing our righteousness. He would not disturb the Levitical system lest any confusion should occur concerning the reality it prefigured. He partook of circumcision, temple presentation as a child, Passover, and other of the biblical feasts.
The baptism of Jesus is another example of his devotion to God’s law to encourage us that he is our righteousness. He kept the law in every point to be above reproach. He is our High Priest, and innocent Savior when he was crucified.
Baptisms were done in specific ways as seen in the Hebrew words and descriptions used in the Old Testament.
Several Hebrew words were used in the Old Testament to describe ritual purification sprinklings. In Leviticus 8 Moses consecrated Aaron and his sons for the priesthood by sprinkling them with holy oil and blood. The Hebrew word there is nazah (נזה) which is used 24 times in the Old Testament. Hebrew lexicons define it as “sprinkle, spurt, spatter, or splash”.
The Septuagint (LXX), used by Jesus and the NT writers, was the Greek translation of our Old Testament. It used Greek words to translate these various types of washings.
The Greek root verb form βαπτω (bapto) was used 9 times to translate these washings. It’s prime meaning is “to dip”: In Leviticus 11:32 it translates בוא (bo’). Objects defiled by contact with the dead were dipped into water. It translates טבל (taval) six times. Leviticus 14:6,51 a bird is dipped in the blood of another sacrificed bird (obviously not immersing it). Leviticus 14:16 a finger is dipped in oil to apply it to the ear lobe, thumb, and toe of a priest bringing a sacrifice. Joshuah 3:15 the foot of the priests bearing the Ark of the Covenant “stepped” into water. Ruth 2:14 a morsel of food was dipped into vinegar. 1 Samuel 14:27 dipping the end of a rod into honey. It translates מחץ (makhats) in Psalm 68:23 of “strike” your feet in the blood of an enemy. It translates צבע (tsava’) in Daniel 5:21 meaning to wet with the morning dew (can’t mean immersing).
Another form of that word, βαπτιζω (baptizo), was used twice in the Septuagint. In 2 Kings 5:14 it translates טבל (taval) of Naaman washing himself in the Jordan River. In Isaiah 21:4 it translates בעת (ba’at) figuratively of being “terrified”, washed over in terror.
John would have baptized using these Levitical modes of sprinkling or pouring water for purification. If he was totally immersing people to baptize them, the accusing Jews would have brought that up. He would have been doing it in some way God had not ordained for purification rituals.
(Bible quotations are from the English Standard Version unless otherwise noted.)