Summary: Jesus identifies with us in Baptism
As we come to think about the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, we mustn’t make the mistake of forgetting what comes before it. Matthew has just finished describing John’s ministry of preparation for the coming of the Messiah. His message has been one of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. He’s been warning people to flee from the wrath that’s coming as God’s Messiah bursts on the scene. And in the final words we have recorded from John’s lips, he tells people that he baptises with water for repentance but one is coming who will baptise with the Holy Spirit and with fire. Jesus’ coming will bring the breath of life and the fire of cleansing.
Into that scenario comes Jesus; not to take over from John as you might expect, but to be baptised by him. This is not something we see very often in our world, is it? What usually happens when one person takes over from another is that they distance themselves from their predecessor. They don’t want to have to compete with the reputation or relationships that their predecessor had built up. You even see it in the church. I’ve heard of a number of occasions where a vicar has died and his widow has been encouraged to leave the parish for the sake of the incoming incumbent. If a vicar retires it’s assumed that they’ll move to a different parish to give the new incumbent the freedom to do things differently. But here we find Jesus coming on the scene, and immediately he submits himself to the ministry of John, his predecessor, the one who acts primarily as his herald.
So why does he do it? Does he need to do it? And what difference does it make to us?
Why he didn’t need to be baptised.
Well, John was in no doubt about what should and shouldn’t be happening. v14: John would have prevented him, saying, "I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?" There was no sense of rivalry as far as John was concerned. He understood exactly where he stood in relation to Jesus Christ. He was the forerunner, sent to proclaim the coming of the Messiah. And Jesus was that Messiah.
But let me ask you: why didn’t Jesus need to be baptised?
First he was so much greater than John. He was the Messiah, whose sandals John wasn’t even worthy to carry.
Second, baptism was the sign of repentance from sin. Jesus was without sin so he had no need for baptism.
In fact John understood that Jesus was the reason people needed to be baptised. They needed to be purified so they’d be ready for his arrival. So when Jesus came and stood before John, John realised that he too needed to be baptised, not by himself, but by Jesus. He needed that baptism of the Holy Spirit and fire, to cleanse him completely.
Why he needed to be baptised.
But Jesus says "Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness." There is a sense in which Jesus did need to be baptised. There were good reasons for this action of Jesus. Can you see what they might have been?
To fulfill the law- all righteousness. A couple of chapters later in Matthew, in the sermon on the mount we have these words of Jesus recorded for us: "Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill." Jesus’ whole life was intended to fulfill the law and its requirements. His baptism by John isn’t a sign that he needed to repent. Rather it’s a sign that he identifies with all those who live under the law and that he himself submits to that law. His life from start to finish was lived under the law of God, the law of righteousness. His submitting to baptism says that John’s message is right. That people do need to submit to God’s law if they’re to be ready for the coming of the King.
Hebrews 4 speaks of the comfort we can derive from knowing that Jesus understands what our life is like. (Heb 4:14-16 NRSV) "Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. 15For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. 16Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need." One of the reasons for Jesus being baptised by John was to identify with us in our weakness. Not that he needed to repent, but that he understands what we go through.