Against the backdrop of John’s baptism for repentance, it does seem so strange that he should have asked Jesus why He should be baptized by him. I can recall from years ago having been asked why Jesus’ baptism was “the fitting way for [John and Jesus] to fulfill all righteousness,” and unfortunately, my answer was superficial. By wishing little more than to defend the truth that Jesus had nothing of which to repent, I gave what I believed was an answer which sufficiently defended that and in so doing no doubt left the questioner with a feeling of something to be desired. This post and ones which may follow it are products recent study on the subject of baptism and attempt to rectify that deficient answer as well as serve as an indication, for future reference, that baptism is inseparable from [biblical] history.
Comments by Kline
Christ’s baptism is one of those topics in which the problem is too much rather than too little information – to see the significance of Christ’s baptism requires not only a knowledge of redemptive history but also insight as to the way in which it is interwoven. In essence, the problem is knowing where to begin. As much as I dislike quoting authors, since I would rather show that I understand the content of their works by using my own words, in this case, I think I must make an exception. Therefore, I begin by citing Meredith Kline’s By Oath Consigned (pgs. 58-62), wherein he very ably strings together some observations regarding Christ’s baptism and covenant judgment worth mentioning:
//…As covenant Servant, Jesus submitted in symbol to the judgment of the God of the covenant in the waters of baptism. But for Jesus, as the Lamb of God, to submit to the symbol of judgment was to offer himself up to the curse of the covenant. By his baptism Jesus was consecrating himself unto his sacrificial death in the judicial ordeal of the cross. Such an understanding of his baptism is reflected in Jesus’ own reference to his coming passion as a baptism: “I have a baptism to be baptized with” (Lk. 12:50; cf. Mk. 10:38). Jesus’ symbolic baptism unto judgment appropriately concluded with a divine verdict, the verdict of justification expressed by the heavenly voice and sealed by the Spirit’s anointing, Messiah’s earnest of the kingdom inheritance (Matt. 3:16, 17; Mk. 1:10, 11; Lk. 3:22; cf. Jn. 1:32, 33; Ps. 2:7f.). This verdict of sonship was contested by Satan, and that led to the ordeal by combat between Jesus and Satan, beginning with the wilderness temptation immediately after Jesus’ baptism and culminating in the crucifixion and resurrection-vindication of the victorious Christ, the prelude to his reception of all the kingdoms of the world (the issue under dispute in the ordeal; cf. esp. Matt. 4:8ff.; Lk. 4:5ff.).
Further background for Jesus’ conceptualizing of his sufferings as a water ordeal (and at the same time an additional antecedent for John’s introduction of a water rite symbolic of judicial ordeal) is found in those supplicatory Psalms in which the righteous servant pleads for deliverance from overwhelming waters. Of particular interest is Psalm 69, from which the New Testament draws so deeply in its explication of the judicial sufferings of Christ: “I am come into deep waters, where the floods overflow me.... Let not the waterflood overflow me, neither let the deep swallow me up” (vv. 2b, iSa; cf. vv. 1, 2a, 14)... The suppliant Jonah found it possible to make literal use of this terminology of water ordeal in his appeal from the depths, and Jesus saw in Jonah’s trial by water the sign of his own judgment ordeal in the heart of the earth (Jon. 2:2ff. [1ff.]; Matt. 12:39, 40)…
Conclusions: John the Baptist was sent as a messenger of the Old Covenant to its final generation. His concern was not to prepare the world at large for the coming of Christ but to summon Israel unto the Lord to whom they had sworn allegiance at Sinai, ere his wrath broke upon them and the Mosaic kingdom was terminated in the flames of messianic judgment. The demand which John brought to Israel was focused in his call to baptism. This baptism was not an ordinance to be observed by Israel in their generations but a special sign for that terminal generation epitomizing the particular crisis in covenant history represented by the mission of John as messenger of the Lord’s ultimatum.
From the angle of repentance and faith, John’s ultimatum could be seen as a gracious invitation to the marriage feast of the Suzerain’s Son; and John’s baptism, as a seal of the remission of sins. Bright with promise in this regard was Jesus’ submission to John’s baptism. For the passing of Jesus through the divine judgment in the water rite in the Jordan meant to John’s baptism what the passing of Yahweh through the curse of the knife rite of Genesis 15 meant to Abraham’s circumcision. In each case the divine action constituted an invitation to all recipients of these covenant signs of consecration to identify themselves by faith with the Lord himself in their passage through the ordeal. So they might be assured of emerging from the overwhelming curse with a blessing. Jesus’ passage through the water ordeal with the others who were baptized in the Jordan was also one in meaning with the Lord’s presence with Israel in the theophany pillar during the passage through the Red Sea, and in the ark of the covenant during their crossing of the Jordan. And the meaning of all these acts of the Lord of the covenant is expressed in the promise: “But now thus saith the Lord that created thee, 0 Jacob, and he that formed thee, 0 Israel, Fear not: for I have redeemed thee, I have called thee by thy name; thou art mine. When thou passest through the waters, I will be with thee; and through the rivers, they shall not overflow thee: when thou walkest through the fire, thou shalt not be burned; neither shall the flame kindle upon thee. For I am the Lord thy God, the Holy One of Israel, thy Saviour” (Isa. 43:1-3a).
Viewed from a more comprehensive vantage point, John’s baptism was a sign of the ordeal through which Israel must pass to receive a judgment of either curse or blessing…
By his message and baptism John thus proclaimed again to the seed of Abraham the meaning of their circumcision. Circumcision was no guarantee of inviolable privilege. It was a sign of the divine ordeal in which the axe, laid unto the roots of the unfruitful trees cursed by Messiah, would cut them off (Matt. 3:10; Lk. 3:9). John’s baptism was in effect a recircumcising.//
Point of Interest
- John’s choice to baptize in the Jordan River itself has redemptive historical significance, since it is immediately upon crossing it that the Israelites who were baptized through the waters of the Red Sea were required by God to circumcise those who were born in the wilderness wandering, after which God is said to have “rolled away the reproach of Egypt” from them (Joshua 5:1-9). This, I believe, coupled with the facts that Jesus’ death is itself referred to as a baptism and a circumcision (Mark 10:38, Colossians 2:11) and that Christ’s baptism in the Jordan river itself pointed to His crucifixion, as will be shown in what follows, strengthens Kline’s contention that John’s baptism was a re-circumcision.
- Jesus’ death and subsequent resurrection is that to which believers are united by spiritual regeneration, the metonymic reference of baptism and circumcision (Colossians 2:11-12, cf. Deuteronomy 30:6, Romans 6:3-11). A reason Christ’s death is referred to as a baptism and circumcision is that Christ’s baptism was a consecration unto His actual participation in the ordeal, similar to Yahweh’s covenant in Genesis 15 that He would bear the covenant curse (Jeremiah 34:18-20) should He fail to deliver with regards to His promises entailed in the Abrahamic covenant, a covenant ratified in Genesis 17 by the sign of circumcision and confirmed by God’s oath in Genesis 22 (cf. Hebrews 6:13-18).
- One becomes a child of Abraham – not because he has fulfilled the law – but because he has been baptized in Christ’s crucifixion-baptism-circumcision (cf. Galatians 3-4). One is cut off from the covenant community when the sign of the covenant is not applied to him, because to reject that to which the sign refers would require that he bear what Christ bears in the stead of believers: excommunication (Isaiah 53:8, Jeremiah 11:19). One is united to Christ – and, hence, to the rest of the invisible church – in regeneration, so it is only sensible that one is united to the visible church by means of the sign of regeneration – in this period of redemptive history, baptism.
- The crucifixion-baptism of He by whom all things hold together constituted an end of one epoch and the beginning of another. Indeed, one of the realities baptism symbolizes is an epochal shift (cf. 2 Peter 3:5-13) – a new creation, as it were. Such shifts, since the first creation, are accompanied by judgment (e.g. Genesis 9:11, Luke 12:49-51, cf. Psalm 18:4, 16, 42:7, 69:1-2, Isaiah 8:7-8, Jonah 2:3-6) as well as blessing. The signs accompanying these shifts are similar too (Genesis 9:12-17, Ezekiel 1:27-28, Revelation 10:1). The flood-baptism marked the first epochal shift since creation, and was therefore a new creation; the flood cleansed the earth from sin analogous to the way in which God “blots” out one’s iniquities through the washing of regeneration. The fire-baptism marks the last epochal shift, wherein all unbelievers will be burned for their sin as opposed to the sin associated with believers which will be burned, enabling the believer to stand pure and glorified in the midst of the new Eden, the culmination of the new creation. That which ties these epochal shifts together by having ushered in the last days is Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection signified by His baptism.
- Just as Christ received the Holy Spirit in His baptism, He purchased the graces and merits necessary for the salvation of those for whom He died by His crucifixion-baptism, both of which are applied to those people for whom Christ died by the Holy Spirit at the time of the Father’s choosing through regeneration, a signification of our baptism. As such, Christ’s baptism truly pointed to the new creation He would institute upon His resurrection from the death to which He was consecrated by His baptism similar to the way in which an individual’s baptism soterically points to new creation: having been united to Christ through the Spirit, Christ is able to act as our federal head and bear the punishment for our sins and become our righteousness.
- From a previous post:
//Christ’s baptism and allusion to the Holy Spirit as a dove in Luke 4:22 may recall one to the hovering Holy Spirit during creation (Genesis 1:2) and subsequent aerial imagery during typological [re]creations (Genesis 8:11, Exodus 13:21-22, Deuteronomy 32:11). The deluge, which was an undoing of creation, enabled Noah and his family to be saved by water (1 Peter 3:20) as were Moses and the Israelites (1 Corinthians 10:1-2) – that is, by waters which could on the occasion of this destruction effect a completely new creation. Baptism puts to death the old by creating the new, which is seen too in soteriological terms as well (Colossians 2:11-15): being dead in sins, God puts to death the old man by the regenerative grace of the always present Holy Spirit, after which the elect individual is immediately raised with Christ unto faith and righteousness (cf. Romans 6:1-4, Galatians 3:27, Ephesians 2:1-6, 1 Peter 3:21-22). In the same way, Christ’s baptism anticipates that He will put to death the old, Adamic means of attaining righteousness, works, by the creation of new means, grace alone (Romans 8:32), which He will purchase for His people by obeying the covenantal stipulations by His own works.//
I would encourage those who are interested in further exploring baptism and biblical theology to check out Kline's book, Fesko's Word, Water, and Spirit, Horton's Introduction to Covenant Theology, and/or Beale's et. al. Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament.