The Baptism of Jesus Explained
by Bob Burridge ©2020
(excerpt from my commentary on the Westminster Confession unit 6, study 4 “Baptism“)
The baptism of Jesus is of a different nature than the baptisms John had been administering to show the repentance of the people of Israel who came to him. Jesus had nothing from which to be cleansed. There was nothing of which to repent. So 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 gave no further argument. He understood what Jesus was asking.
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? Jesus was about to begin his public ministry. In his ministry he would exercise the office of priest in several respects. He must therefore qualify in keeping with the law given to Israel if he was to be above reproach and was to be understood for what he was doing.
that had to be followed for someone
to assume the authority of a priest in Israel.
First, he had to be called of God in a manner consistent with the Scriptures. He was not of the line of Aaron as was John. Jesus was not going to circumvent the law and intrude upon the authority of the priesthood. There were several called specially by God in the Old Testament who were not identified as priests by their blood line. Melchizedek is an example of those 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 was made clear by the revelations of angels at the time of his conception and birth. Many times the words of the prophets were quoted identifying him as the one who fulfilled the promises of the Messiah, the Anointed One. It was by this authority, not by his human heritage, that he was called to the office of a Priest of Israel.
Second, a priest must be at least 30 years old (Numbers 4:3). It is interesting that the gospels are very clear to state that at the time of his baptism Jesus was 30 years old (Luke 3:23). His age is not given again during any time after that in his ministry. This shows that here it must have had some particular importance. We need to remember that it isn’t that Jesus had to be 30 to qualify as much as it was God’s preshadowing of the priestly ministry of our Promised Savior that set 30 as the age for all priests in the Levitical system. Many of the details of the Mosaic law made little sense until the coming of our Redeemer where the shadows became a reality.
Third, a priest needed to be properly set aside by the forms 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) of the division of Abijah, those charged with temple service (1 Chronicles 24:10). The mode of ordination was also specified in Scripture. Among the things required was the sprinkling with water mentioned in Numbers 8:7. “and thus you shall do to them, for their cleansing, sprinkle purifying water on them …”
It is reasonable to assume that the baptism Jesus was seeking from John fulfilled this requirement of God’s law, and therefore fulfilled all righteousness in preparation for his ministry which was about to begin.
In confirmation of this line of reasoning, we see that when the authority of Jesus was questioned as he cast the money changers out of the temple, he cited his baptism by John. 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?’” The answer of our Lord in verse 25 is instructive, 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 when he quotes the words spoken by God at his baptism. In Hebrews 5:5-6 he says, “So also Christ did not glorify Himself so as to become a high priest, but He who said to Him, ‘Thou art My Son, Today I have begotten Thee’; just as He says also in another passage, ‘Thou art a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.’ ” The words “Thou art my Son” were spoken at Jesus’ baptism.
If Jesus had been baptized into the priesthood by an innovative ceremony, one that was at variance with the details of the law he was honoring, there would have been ample reason for the Pharisees at the temple to reject his argument. But they did not. The mode of the baptism of Jesus was most likely done by sprinkling 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. [For a more detailed study fully defining “baptism” read the article in my theological commentary.]
Jesus obeyed every part of the law in securing our righteousness. He did not dare to disturb even the shadows of the Levitical system lest any confusion should occur concerning the reality it prefigured. He partook of circumcision, temple presentation, 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.