There’s this interesting discourse found in Matt. 3:13-17 between Jesus and John the Baptist. The other gospel-writers don’t tell us about it. But in Matthew, when Jesus comes to the Jordan to be baptized by John (not as in the old joke, that He was baptized by Jordan in the John), the two have a brief exchange. John tries to refuse to baptize Him, claiming that he needs to be baptized by Jesus instead – but Jesus demands it, and claims that it must be so for now, “…for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.”
We’re not told if the two had met before. We’re not told what John bases his assessment of Jesus’ condition on (ie. His need to be baptized by him, or his need to be baptized by Him). Our minds may be drawn to Luke 1, where John had recognized Jesus while they were both in their mothers’ wombs. So we might think that John recognized Jesus’ quality on sight. Whatever the case, he knows that there’s something special about Jesus. John, whose baptism has been a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins (Mark 1:4) finds himself baptizing Him whom is not in need of repentance, whom does not require forgiveness of sins.
So what is it about? There is ample evidence that John wasn’t the first to baptize. The Essenes (the community of Dead Sea Scroll fame) baptized, and they did it all the time (daily, in some cases!). For them, baptism was about being washed and cleansed from sin. John did it differently than they – he wasn’t about people just being clean. He was baptizing people into a different kind of life, a different kind of lifestyle – one that was directed differently than what had come before. It was a lifestyle that wasn’t to include sin. Jesus and His followers took this a little further. Notice Jesus’ words about His baptism – to fulfill all righteousness. Jesus wasn’t just interested in sin being taken out of people’s lives/lifestyles, He was interested in their lives being righteous (notice that He takes this up elsewhere: you must be perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect (Matt. 5:48).
Where the Essenes had practised a life of regular baptism, by the time we hit Jesus and His followers, we’re at people who didn’t consider multiple baptisms necessary (let alone required). They did re-baptize some people who had only received John’s baptism before, but this was into a different baptism, a different Name, a different lifestyle. In most cases, people were baptized as soon as they came to faith, before they’d even learned to be Christians – they were left to work that out afterwards. So baptism became a rite of initiation into a life directed to fulfilling all righteousness, with Jesus and for His followers.
That’s why Jesus was baptized by John. To show His followers the way to get started. Let there be no mistake, however. It is just a start – not a finish. Parents or well-meaning grandparents who come to “get a child done” are mistaken. They’re getting that child started – not done. It falls to the child, as they grow, to work out the implications of being a member of a community in which Christ, by the work of the Holy Spirit, is fulfilling righteousness.
Jesus’ call is a call to a life of holiness. “Good enough” isn’t good enough. It’s actually the enemy of what He does call us to. Don’t settle for it. Half-hearted devotion will not do – our enemy is always whole-hearted in his desire to lead us astray, to capture us with sin, to turn us away from God’s Way. We must be whole-hearted, also, if we are to resist. Let me quote the Book of Common Prayer:
“Every Christian man or woman should from
time to time frame for himself a RULE OF
LIFE in accordance with the precepts of the
Gospel and the faith and order of the Church;
wherein he may consider the following:
The regularity of his attendance at public
worship and especially at the holy Communion.
The practice of private prayer, Bible-reading,
Bringing the teaching and example of Christ
into his everyday life.
The boldness of his spoken witness to his faith
His personal service to the Church and the
The offering of money according to his means
for the support of the work of the Church at
home and overseas.”
-BCP, p. 555
There may be more that could be said about the items listed in that quotation, but there is certainly not less.”