Jesus’ baptism foreshadows the time on the cross when he will die for the sins of the people of Israel and indeed for the sins of all those who are his.
Jesus’s baptism is an act of humility. In his baptism, he consents to be counted as if he were a sinner, along with everyone else.
This essay examines the significance of Jesus’s baptism in relation to the history of redemption and the person and work of Christ. It surveys the Gospel record of Jesus’s baptism and its emphasis on the coming of the Spirit and the Father’s voice of approval.
What is the significance of the baptism of Jesus? Here is the record given in Matthew 3:13–17:
Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”
The passage presents us immediately with a mystery: at first John the Baptist resists the idea of baptizing Jesus. But in the end, he consents. Why did he resist, and why did he change his mind? In addition, what is the significance of the opening of the heavens, the descent of the Spirit, and the voice from heaven?
The record of John the Baptist and his baptism of Jesus occurs not only in Matthew 3:13–17, but in Mark 1:9–11 and Luke 3:21–22. In addition, John 1:29–34 overlaps with these passages. It describes the descent of the Spirit on Jesus (verse 33), which took place when Jesus was baptized. But it does not directly describe the baptism itself.
The verses that directly describe Jesus’s baptism by John do not fully explain its significance. The Gospels invite us to see the event of Jesus’s baptism in relation to a larger context. Each of the Gospels describes the ministry of John the Baptist and the significance of his baptism more broadly. Each also alludes to Old Testament backgrounds, and each looks forward to a baptism that Jesus himself will bring, the baptism with the Holy Spirit: “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Matt 3:11).
The History of Redemption
The Gospels set the baptism of Jesus in the context of the age-long unfolding of the history of redemption, which takes place according to the plan of God. The background of this history is found in Genesis 1–3, in the events of creation and the fall. The fall of Adam is followed by the first promise of redemption, found in Genesis 3:15, the promise of “her offspring,” the offspring of the woman, which already points to Christ (Gal 3:16).
John the Baptist explains his baptism as “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1:4). His central message is, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt 3:2). The call to repentance is spread all the way across the pages of the Old Testament, because human sin dishonors God, renders us guilty, and breaks fellowship with the God who made us. Repentance on the part of man is necessary, but also atonement in order to deal with the guilt of sin. In the Old Testament, the necessity for atonement is symbolized by animal sacrifices, which depict the removal sin through the death of an innocent substitute. These sacrifices prefigure the coming of Christ as the final atoning substitute. John says, “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29; compare verse 36). The Old Testament also describes ceremonies that use water as a symbol for washing and cleansing from sin: Leviticus 1:9; 8:6; 11:32; 15:5–33. These ceremonies point forward to Christ, whose blood cleanses us (Heb 9:12–22). John uses water in baptism, thereby signifying cleansing and the forgiveness of sins.
God called John the Baptist to serve as the forerunner of the Messiah: “I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Matt 3:11). The Gospels indicate that John is the fulfillment of the prophecies in Isaiah 40:3 and Malachi 3:1 concerning a prophetic forerunner (Matt 3:3; Mark 1:2–3). John proclaims that “the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt 3:2).
God has always been ruling over the world (Ps 103:19), but the “kingdom of heaven” comes when God climactically exerts his power to accomplish the salvation of his people. John announces that this decisive time of salvation is “at hand.” And Jesus, the one greater than John, actually brings this kingdom in an inaugural form as he casts out demons and heals diseases (Matt 12:28; Luke 7:22–23). The decisive events that bring salvation are Jesus’ death and resurrection.
So, the Bible gives us an understanding of the unique role of John the Baptist in the history of redemption. He is the one appointed to “prepare the way” for Jesus (Matt 3:3). He stands on the cusp of a new era, the era when God’s saving rule will be exerted and salvation will be accomplished by Jesus, once and for all.