The baptism of Jesus is one of the most significant redemptive-historical events in the Scripture; yet one the is so often greatly misunderstood.There is a scene on the show Lost in which Mr. Eko–the Nigerian Drug Lord turned Priest–makes an outrageously blasphemous statement about the Savior. While baptizing Clair and her baby, Eko tells her, “It is said that when John the Baptist baptized Jesus the skies opened up and a dove flew down from the sky. This told John something – that he had cleansed this man of all his sins. That he had freed him. Heaven came much later.” Contrary to such a wickedly perverse explanation of the biblical record of the Savior, the Scriptural record everywhere teaches the absolute moral perfection and perpetual sinlessness of Jesus. Nevertheless, we still have to answer the question, “Why did Jesus receive a sign that God had appointed to symbolize the need to be cleansed of sin?” The Holy Spirit has given us the answer to the question in the record of the interaction between John the Baptist and Jesus.
When Jesus came to John at the river Jordan, John tried to stop Him saying, “I need to be baptized by You, and are You coming to me?” Jesus immediately responded to John’s refusal to baptize Him, saying, “Permit it to be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness” (Matt. 3:13-15). John recognized that Jesus was the only one who didn’t need to be baptized, because He was the only sinless individual on the face of the earth. Jesus insisted that part of the work that He came into the world to do was to keep the Law of God, thus meriting righteousness for His people. Isaiah had prophesied that the Suffering Savior would come and would be “numbered with the transgressors” (Isaiah 53:12). Though he was not a transgressor, He would–by imputation of the sins of all His people throughout all time–be treated as if He were the worst sinner who ever walked the face of the earth. This is, of course, most evidently so at the cross when he hung next to the two thieves. In that moment of His agony and soul abjection, the Savior–whose innocence was acknowledged by one of the thieves next to whom He hung (Luke 23:41), as well as by one of the soldiers who was looking on (Luke 23:47)–was being counted as a sinner (Isaiah 53:4; Luke 22:37).
The imagery of what transpired at Jesus’ baptism is often lost on us. We see the Holy Spirit descending on Him like a dove. We hear the voice from heaven saying, “This is My Beloved Son with whom I am well pleased.” We are caught up in this glorious revelation of the Triune God. We acknowledge the echoes of Old Testament redemptive-history. We remember how God saved Noah and his family through the water (1 Peter 3:20-21)–a dove landing on the Ark to intimate that they were entering into a typical new creation. The scene also draws our minds back to the crossing of that very river in which Jesus was being baptized–when God brought His people across the Jordan and into the Promised Land. We realize that this One standing in the water is the fulfillment of all of these types–that in Him, God was bringing about the new creation and leading His people into the heavenly Promised Land. Still, we fail to stop and meditate on what it meant for Jesus to be there in time and space with all those who needed their sins forgiven. Along these lines there is rich symbolism to help deepen our understanding of why Jesus was there.
Sinclair Ferguson has captured the imagery so well when he explains that when Jesus stepped into the water–after so many had already come to John to be baptized–He was stepping into a river that was symbolically polluted by the sin of the people. When John poured the water over Him, he was symbolically pouring dirty water poured over the sinless Savior. In this, we have a picture of Jesus bearing the sin of His people. Geoff Thomas captures the imagery from another angle–namely, by envisaging Jesus standing in line with sinners waiting to be baptized with them:
There is a great line of repentant sinners standing soberly and sorrowing on the bank of the Jordan waiting to go down into the waters to John to be baptized. Survey them there in your mind with me, standing in that long guilty line. There’s a thief, a drunkard, an adulterer, a liar, a bully, a wife-beater, an idol-worshiper, a torturer, Jesus, a murderer, a forger, a troublemaker, a braggart, a terrorist, a blasphemer, an abuser of children, a spendthrift . . . and hundreds more, every one a sinner, and there is Jesus made in the likeness of sinful flesh standing in line between the torturer and the murderer, indistinguishable outwardly, but inwardly he is wholly without sin. As the prophet said, Messiah would be numbered with the transgressors. He stands with sinners in solidarity; he stands for sinners in substitution. He will hang on a tree as the Lamb of God and bear the sins of the world. At the last he will do more than stand with them in their sin, he will be made sin for them. That is why he stands here in this sinner’s baptism because one day he will climb Golgotha in love and stand in the closest possible contact with sinners, taking responsibility for their sin and answering for it before the throne of God.
The Lord Jesus has taken the sinner’s nature, and his low condition, and his religion too – he has been circumcised on the eighth day. Throughout his childhood he sat in the synagogue, surrounded by sinners, and he went up to Jerusalem to the Temple and the feasts three times a year, and he was surrounded by sinners. He made his own a sinner’s religion of confession and imploring the mercy of God. He sang the psalms of sinners. Now he takes a sinner’s baptism, and he is pre-enacting the actual baptism into the wrath and curse of God which would soon take place on Golgotha when all the waves of judgment which our sins merit would fall on him, not us.
In his baptism Jesus proclaims his unspeakable closeness with sinners. He abhors not standing with them, identifying with them, because for this reason he has come into the world, to save them from their sin. He is saying to us, “Don’t be afraid of me. There is no reason to be afraid. When I come to you in the Word, then receive me and all I have to offer you. Confess you need of me. Repent of your sins and be baptized every one of you for the remission of sins. You too shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit and the inward witness of the Father’s love.”
How can our minds and hearts not be filled with gratitude when we consider what the Savior subjected Himself to for us and for our salvation. His baptism means our salvation. His baptism in the Jordan was a prelude to His baptism on the cross–where the Father would pour out all of His holy and righteous wrath on the Son in order to wash away our sins. He was baptized with the transgressors so that we–who trust in Him–might be counted among the saints.