John’s baptism was designed for sinners–penitent and confessing sinners whose sins were forgiven through baptism.
Jesus was baptized by John. What’s up with that?
It is rather startling actually. Jesus undergoes a ritual designed for sinners. But, perhaps, it is not so startling. Jesus ultimately died a death designed for criminals (sinners) as well. Jesus was numbered with the transgressors, both in his death and baptism. Jesus identifies with sinners through his baptism.
More specifically, Jesus identifies with Israel. He joins the penitent community that awaits the in-breaking of the kingdom of God. He submits to God’s command as part of believing Israel. The parallel between 1:5 and 1:9 is striking.
1:5 All Judea and Jerusalem went out and was baptized by John in the Jordan river.
1:9 Jesus came from Nazareth and was baptized by John in the Jordan river.
Jesus joins other obedient believers in submitting to God’s command as preparation for the coming kingdom. Moreover, Jesus actually represents Israel as the faithful remnant, just as he will on the cross.
But there is more.
Jesus is anointed by the Holy Spirit. The heavens are split open and the Spirit descends. The language is reminiscent of Isaiah 64:1–God rends the heavens and descends to bring his presence among his people. The Spirit is poured out on Jesus–this inaugurates the eschatological presence of God, a kingdom presence, in the world. The Father announces Jesus’ sonship and his delight–reminiscent of Psalm 2:7 and Isaiah 42:1 (both texts include Messianic ideas but they also have a wider meaning and application to Israel–and to us!).
And it is that story we enter through our own baptism.
This is the first Christian baptism; it is paradigmatic for our own baptism. Jesus is immersed in water, the Spirit is poured out on him, and the Father declares his relationship with Jesus as he delights in him.
That is our baptism, too! When we are baptized, we too experience the pouring out of the Spirit–we, too, are anointed. When we are baptized, God says over us, “This is my child.” When we are baptized, God delights in us and rejoices over us. Baptism is a serious act but a moment of celebration as well.
The baptism of Jesus is our model. Jesus invites us to follow him, and if we would be disciples of Jesus, we will follow him into the water and experience God’s gracious delight and gifts. It is an act of discipleship but it is also a moment when God acts–God delights, God declares, God anoints with the Spirit, and, in our case as with other sinners who came to baptism, God forgives.