March 16, 2023

Why Did Jesus Have to Be Baptized?

Nathan W. Bingham & Sinclair Ferguson
Why Did Jesus Have to Be Baptized?

Since Jesus is the sinless Savior, why did He ask John to baptize Him? Today, Sinclair Ferguson looks to Scripture to convey how Christ proclaimed the gospel through His baptism.


NATHAN W. BINGHAM: Joining me today on the Ask Ligonier podcast is Dr. Sinclair Ferguson, one of our teaching fellows here at Ligonier. Dr. Ferguson, why did Jesus have to be baptized?

DR. SINCLAIR FERGUSON: Well, this is a really interesting question. And like most questions, there are several layers to the answer. The first layer, in a sense, is actually answered by John the Baptist in John 1, when the baptism of Jesus is in the center of the first chapter of John’s gospel.

John says the reason he came baptizing was so that Jesus might be revealed to Israel. And so, clearly in the divine economy, the call of John the Baptist and the baptism of Jesus was, we might say, the transition in Jesus’ life—and the transition point in the whole of redemptive history—to the public emergence of Jesus.

So, if you think about it, the only thing we know about the Lord Jesus between the age of two, when His family comes back from Egypt, to the age of thirty, when He’s baptized, is the incident at the end of Luke 2. So, very much, His baptism is His public emergence onto the stage.

The second thing is that part of that public emergence onto the stage was that He was given a fresh anointing of the Spirit. I mean, clearly the Spirit of the Lord was on Him from His conception, but the Gospels tell us how the Spirit came upon Him like a dove coming. And the language that’s used kind of reminds us both of the flood and Noah and the Ark, and also of the original creation. And I think what is being indicated to us here is that what Jesus is now embarking on is that He is actually beginning the work that will lead ultimately to the new creation. And so there needs to be, as it were, a line drawn in the sand between Jesus growing as a private individual and Jesus entering into this very public stage of His ministry.

And then there’s yet another dimension, and that is that this baptism is real, and it’s also symbolic. So what does it mean? John the Baptist says, “You do not need to be baptized by me; I need to be baptized by You,” and Jesus responds, “No, it’s fitting to fulfill all righteousness.” So, why would John say that? Because he recognized Jesus was the Messiah, that he felt his own unworthiness, but also that this was a baptism of repentance, for forgiveness.

So, if we think about the baptism that John was administering, why were people coming? They were coming because they were conscious of their sin. He was going to wash them with water in baptism, and symbolically their sins would be washed away from them into the waters of the Jordan as they repented. And so, you can understand John saying to Jesus, “You do not need this.” And Jesus saying—when you understand the gospel, you see, you understand why Jesus said—“No, I do need this. We’ve got to do this, John.” Not because Jesus was repenting in order that His sins would be forgiven. But because, I mean, even visually and symbolically, what John would be doing would be taking some of that Jordan water, symbolically polluted by the sins of the people he baptized, and baptizing Jesus with that polluted water.

And I think this is what Jesus is driving at when later on He says, “I’ve still got a baptism to be baptized with, and I’m held in until it’s accomplished.” He’s obviously speaking about the cross, that in fact what was happening in His baptism in Jordan was a kind of prophetic act pointing forwards to what would happen on the cross. He was being baptized into the sins of the people. As the sin-polluted waters of Jordan were applied to Him, He was taking the sin in order that they might have the forgiveness, and that this is finally realized in His baptism on the cross. He regarded the cross as the real baptism.

So the message here, I think, is Jesus knows He needs to be baptized because His whole ministry is for Him to be baptized into our sin in order that we might be baptized into His righteousness. We’ll put it this way: just as He teaches us the gospel in words, He also preaches the gospel to us in the event of His baptism. And I think when we see it in these terms, we understand not only why it is necessary, but how marvelous it is that He was willing to be baptized, both in Jordan and then at Calvary.