Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan to be baptized by him. And John tried to prevent Him, saying, “I need to be baptized by You, and are You coming to me?”
But Jesus answered and said to him, “Permit it to be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he allowed Him.
When He had been baptized, Jesus came up immediately from the water; and behold, the heavens were opened to Him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting upon Him. And suddenly a voice came from heaven, saying, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.”
– Matthew 3:13-17
[Background notes on this passage: John the Baptist and Jesus were related through their mothers, but grew up in different parts of the country. John’s family lived in the south, close enough to the city of Jerusalem for his father to serve in the Temple. Jesus, while born in Bethlehem (a stone’s throw from Jerusalem) was raised in Nazareth, a northern town surrounded by countryside. In traveling to the Jordan to see John, Jesus would have walked some distance — I’ve never walked that far but I guess it would be at least two days’ journey.]
The first question that jumps out of this passage is: why would John try to prevent Jesus being baptized? I think the answer lies in the meaning of baptism. Earlier in Matthew people are coming to John to confess their sins, return to God, and be baptized — an outward symbol of inward cleansing. Back in Jesus’ day, baptism was a religious rite for adults (not babies), because it was a sign of repentance, of turning away from sins — something adults needed to do (not babies). (The Church’s switch to baptizing babies is an interesting historical/theological discussion too long to get into here.)
But Jesus had nothing to repent of. John did. And that is the source of John’s protest. The roles were reversed, and he said so.
Jesus’ answer is puzzling. “…to fulfill all righteousness…” wasn’t He already righteous? What could He be missing? When all’s said and done Jesus didn’t need to be baptized for His own sake. I think He did so in order to be a true leader of His people, to identify with us and walk alongside us, to put Himself in a place where we could follow His example. Because true righteousness isn’t a matter of doing what’s ‘required’ – righteousness in God’s eyes involves going the extra mile, acting out of caring for others.
Immediately following Jesus’ baptism, God the Father acknowledges Jesus by sending the Holy Spirit (side note: this is the first appearance of the Trinity of Father, Son, and Spirit together in the New Testament) and declaring Jesus to be His Son. And not just Son, but a Son in whom he is “well pleased”. If we ever want to know what pleases God, or how we can live a life that honors Him, we need look no further than the life of Jesus.