Why was Jesus baptized? The Bible says that John preached a baptism of repentance, but Jesus wasn’t a sinner who needed to repent. So why was he baptized?
It’s interesting that John wondered about this himself. So we’re in good company if we wonder why it should be that Jesus came to him for baptism. Scripture tells us that when Jesus came to be baptized, “John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I have need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’” (Matt. 3:14). John was aware that he himself was a sinner and needed cleansing. He was also aware that Jesus was not a sinner in need of repentance.
But Jesus didn’t come to John and receive baptism for the purpose of confessing his sins and seeking forgiveness. His baptism served a different purpose. He hinted at this when he said, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness” (Matt. 3:15). This fulfilling all righteousness has to do with Jesus fulfilling the Law and the Prophets. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said,
“Do not think I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished” (Matt. 5:17).
All that Jesus did, he did for us and for our salvation—not only in the death he died but also in the life he lived. This is important for us to understand. We normally think of his work on the cross as being the whole of his saving work. But it was necessary before his death to lead a perfect life, to perfectly obey the Law, to fulfill all its requirements. He not only died for us, he lived a perfect life for us. This was necessary in order to qualify him to be our Savior. Our savior had to be a righteous savior, an obedient savior, a covenantally faithful savior.
Israel had been unfaithful. Israel had broken God’s commandments, had dishonored God and his Law. But Jesus came and kept the Law…entirely.
Every obligation that God imposed upon Israel was necessary for Jesus to fulfill. God required Israel to receive John’s baptism; and thus it became a requirement of Israel’s substitute as well. This is what Jesus means when he says, “It is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” It was one of his duties as our substitute.
On the day of his baptism, which was also the day when he was anointed with the Holy Spirit and became the Messiah, that very day was the day on which he officially began taking our place. That’s when he began his ministry of substitution. At waters of the Jordan he began to take the place of sinners. He was not a sinner, of course. But he came to take the place of sinners and to identify with sinners.