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.
After Jesus was baptized,
he came up from the water and behold,
the heavens were opened for him,
and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove
and coming upon him.
And a voice came from the heavens, saying,
“This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”
Why in the world does Jesus need to be baptized? One of the principal reasons for baptism is the cleansing of sin. We read that people came to John the Baptist and “were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.” It is described as a “baptism of repentance” (Mk 1). But Jesus has no sins to confess. He has nothing from which to repent. This is why John is shocked by Jesus’ request. “I need to be baptized by you, and yet you are coming to me?” (Mt 3:14)
Jesus’ reply is extremely important, even if it’s a tad cryptic. He tells John to “allow it for now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness” (Mt 3:15). Fulfill all righteousness? What does that mean? The word Jesus uses for “righteousness,” in the original Greek, is dikaiosunē. It’s a word that would have stood out to the Jews listening nearby. It meant something specific.
In the Jewish mind, dikaiosunē referred to God’s justice. God is “righteous”; God is “just”; God is dikaiosunē. These were all synonyms. But it meant more than that. God’s dikaiosunē also referred to the fact that he treated the Israelites with an over-the-top generosity. “I have drawn near to you with my dikaiosunē,” God told them in the Greek Old Testament. “I have taken you by the hand and I have kept you” (Is 42:6). Indeed, in the Jewish mind, part of what makes God “righteous,” is that, in spite of our failings, God still wants to draw near to us. He keeps us anyway. That is over-the-top generosity. That is dikaiosunē.
But it’s still a little strange, isn’t it? Why does Jesus answer John the Baptist this way? How does it make sense that, when asked why he wants to be baptized, Jesus says it’s because of his dikaiosunē, because of his over-the-top generosity? How is it generous of him to get baptized?
In short, Jesus’ baptism reveals the over-the-top generosity of God because it reveals that he is human. Humans get baptized, not God. Humans have heads upon which we pour water. Humans have chests upon which we smear oil. God has neither. Until Jesus, that is. Jesus wants to be baptized because he wants to be like us. Jesus wants to be baptized because he wants to feel what you feel, to experience what you experience in the same way you experience it.
This is more radical than you might be thinking. This is more than just water and oil. By his baptism, Jesus is affirming his desire to be like you in every way, to be like you in your pain, in your anxiety, in your sense of abandonment. Jesus has baptized himself into our condition, and our condition is radically broken.
We should not be surprised, then, to read that John the Baptist actually “tried to prevent [Jesus]” from entering the waters of the Jordan (Mt 3:14). We want to prevent him from these miseries. But this is a mistake. It is a mistake to imagine that God will not be generous to us.
We do the same thing everyday. We prevent God from descending into the deeper waters of our life, from entering into our misery. Not necessarily because we have hard hearts, but sometimes because ― like John the Baptist ― we’re certain he won’t be that generous to us. “You are coming to me?” we ask with John. Really? To me? The answer is “yes.” He has come to you. God has baptized himself into your life. He has poured your fears across his forehead and smeared your sins across his chest. It is a mistake to keep him standing upon the shore. It is a profound mistake to prevent him from entering even your muddiest waters.