This is Why Jesus Was Baptized
The Catholic Church has always believed and preached that Jesus is the Messiah foretold by the Old Testament. He is the second Person in the Holy Trinity and the eternal Son of God. In the Incarnation, Jesus “became truly man while remaining truly God” (Catechism of the Catholic Church #464). In a mystery very worthy of contemplation, Jesus grew up like us, endured temptation like us, and experienced the full range of human emotion like us. Yet at the same time, His will never wavered from that of the Father. He was “like us in all things but sin” (Heb 4:15).
John the Baptist’s ministry was a baptism of repentance (Matt 3:11, Mark 1:4). John exhorted all who came to him to “repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt 3:2). So why would the divine, sinless Son of God have to get baptized? John the Baptist himself was the first to ask the question. He initially protested, saying that Jesus should be the one baptizing him; Jesus responded that it was fitting “to fulfill all righteousness” (Matt 3:14-15). Theologians through the ages have written on this question. Jesus’ baptism was an event filled with some of the major themes of the mystery of salvation: the Incarnation, the Passion, the identity of Jesus, spiritual warfare, and the Christian sacrament of baptism.
To Unite Himself with Humanity
The Incarnation of Jesus is a tremendous mystery. God became man, purely out of love! Men and women were given the gift of free will at the very beginning. How else could we be able to love God? Yet as humanity chose sin instead of union with God, He did not abandon His creation. God was no mere spectator: the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. Jesus didn’t wait for humanity to make further progress or to become less sinful. He stepped right into the muck and mire of the human condition. It’s a gesture jam-packed with significance: the very first act of His public ministry in the synoptic gospels was to step into the place of sinners (Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth pp. 18-20). Jesus fulfilled what the prophet Isaiah foretold of the Messiah to come, that “he was numbered among the transgressors” (53:12).
To Anticipate the Passion & Cross
This point starts at Calvary and goes in reverse, back to the baptism of Jesus. All through His life, Jesus perfectly submitted His will to that of the Father. There is no better shining example of that than the Passion and death of Jesus. Praying in the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus lifted up the prayer that “not my will but yours be done” (Luke 22:42). Earlier in Luke’s gospel, Jesus draws a direct connection between the Passion and baptism. Jesus spoke of “a baptism with which to be baptized” (12:50) – that is, His Passion.
St. Paul also connects baptism and the Passion in his letter to the Romans. “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? ...For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his” (Rom 6:3, 5).
Jesus embraced the sins of humanity when He embraced the cross. His baptism in the Jordan prefigured that: it was “an acceptance of death for the sins of humanity... this also explains why, in His own discourses, Jesus uses the word baptism to refer to His death (cf. Mark 10:38, Luke 12:50)” (Ratzinger, Jesus of Nazareth pg. 18).
The key feature of Jesus’ embrace of the cross was His self-emptying love (kenosis) for us. That is the underlying meaning of the somewhat confusing line that Jesus spoke to John the Baptist: “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness” (Matt 3:15). Jesus acknowledges that He doesn’t need baptism like the rest of the penitents would. Being perfectly obedient and righteous, however, was central to His very being. Uniting Himself to the Father’s will and embracing the cross, He obeyed Jewish purity laws and underwent baptism—neither of which were required of Jesus, due to the fact that He is God. Is that not a description of perfect love? Doing things you wouldn’t have to do just for the sake of your beloved?
To Reveal His True Identity
Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan was a turning point in His life; it marked the beginning of His public ministry. It’s an event recorded in all four gospels (Matt 3:13-17, Mark 1:9-11, Luke 3:21-23, John 1:29-33). The details line up, as well: all four evangelists record the heavens opening, the Holy Spirit descending like a dove, and the voice of the Father saying, “this is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased” (Matt 3:17). There are slight variations to the story; for example, Luke adds a more concrete description of the Holy Spirit, Who descended upon Jesus “in bodily form, as a dove” (3:22). John relates his account of Jesus’ baptism through the testimony of John the Baptist.
What makes this event a turning point? The entire Trinity is present, and the Father & the Holy Spirit reveal the identity of Jesus, the Second Person of the Trinity. God the Father speaks directly to humanity, which rarely happens in the gospels—only at Jesus’ baptism and at the Transfiguration. The Father is very concise and tells us the main thing we need to know about Jesus: this is the Son of God.
The appearance of the Holy Spirit has ties to the prophecies of the messiah. The “Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon” the shoot from the stump of Jesse (Isaiah 11:2). Additionally, the messiah was promised to have the Spirit of the Lord put upon him in Isaiah 42:1. In the synagogue at Capernaum, Jesus read from Isaiah, “the Spirit of the Lord is upon me” (Luke 4:16-30).
The mini-sermon of the Father gave weight to everything that Jesus said and did. When Jesus preached that He was the way, the truth, and the life, he wasn’t speaking poetically. There is truth backing up His words. When Jesus cured and forgave sins, His identity again shone through. His words and deeds were not those of an ordinary man.
To "Bind the Strong Man," or, to pick a fight with Satan
Jesus came as man to redeem fallen humanity and to open the gates of heaven. That’s nothing new (hopefully) to our ears; it’s a very endearing illustration of our God Who Is love. There’s another side of the Incarnation: of Jesus the warrior king. St. Paul warned that in the spiritual life, “our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph 6:12). It was those spiritual forces of evil that Jesus waged His campaign. His weapons aren’t ones that we associate with combat—humility, sacrifice, obedience, complete self-gift—but with those, He conquered sin, death, and won an eternal inheritance for us (cf. Heb 9:15).
With that backdrop, Jesus’ teaching in Luke 11:21-22: “when a strong man, fully armed, guards his castle, his property is safe. But when one stronger than he attacks him and overpowers him, he takes away his armor in which he trusted and divides his plunder.” St. Cyril of Jerusalem cited Jesus’ baptism as Him binding the strong man (Satan) and plundering his castle. Held prisoner were souls ensnared by sin, and Jesus freed humanity from captivity. Jesus’ victory over the devil was accomplished on the cross and began in the Jordan River.
To Institute a New Sacrament
Our chains from captivity to sin are thrown off in Christian baptism. It opens a marvelous door for us to life in the Holy Spirit. By getting baptized Himself, Jesus instituted a new sacrament. “Our Lord was baptized because He wished, not to be cleansed, but to cleanse the waters, that, being purified by the flesh of Christ that knew no sin, they might have the virtue of baptism” (St. Ambrose, quoted in Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae, III, Q. 39, Art. 1). All the covenants of the Old Testament sealed a unique closeness between God and His Chosen People. The baptism of the New Covenant far surpasses the old ones. We are not adopted only as sons, but as heirs (Romans 8:14-17).
Jesus opened the flood gate of grace by incorporating us into His Mystical Body. As with all other things, Jesus showed us the way: through baptism, faith, and the sealing of the Holy Spirit. When we descend into the baptismal font just as Jesus descended into the Jordan, we become united to the Holy Trinity in a way never dreamed of by 1st century Jews.
St. John the Baptist, pray for us!