In addition to John the Baptist’s message of repentance, the second most important thing about the work given to him was his practice of baptizing people as a sign that they had done what he demanded. They had repented of their sins and were looking forward to the coming Messiah.
Many commentators suggest that John copied his baptizing from Jewish proselyte baptism or from the ritual purification of the Essenes, who had centers not far from the lower Jordan River where John was. But the comparison does not adequately recognize the uniqueness of John’s practice. Essene baptisms were not really baptisms; they were purifications. And proselyte baptisms signified the admission of Gentiles into the Jewish community and were never administered to Jews. John’s baptism was a once-for-all baptism, and it was primarily for Jews, though John would not have excluded Gentiles. This is why John’s practice was so striking and effective. Matthew says, “People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.”
Something of the surprise in John’s unprecedented calling of Jews to make public repentance of their sins by being baptized is seen in his rebuke of the religious leaders who would have been excusing themselves from John’s demand on the ground that they were Jews. “We have Abraham as our father,” they were thinking. John rejected that claim in exactly the way Jesus and then Paul did after him. Jesus told the leaders, “If you were Abraham’s [true] children, … you would do the things Abraham did. As it is, you are determined to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God.” He called them children of their true father the devil
The situation is exactly the same for us today as it was for Jews then. No one is saved by his or her ancestry. You will not be accepted by God because your mother was a Christian or because some other godly relative has prayed for you. You yourself must repent of your sin and put your trust in Jesus, who alone is God’s beloved Son and the Savior.
While John was engaged in this important preparatory ministry, Jesus suddenly stood before him requesting to be baptized. John did not want to do it. “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” he protested. John probably knew Jesus personally or at least knew about Him because of the relationship between their mothers, Mary and Elizabeth, who were cousins. John knew that it would be more fitting for Jesus to baptize him than for him to baptize Jesus.
Since John’s baptism was a baptism unto repentance and Jesus had no sin of which to repent, how is it that He sought baptism by John in the first place? And why did He seek this, as He said to John, “to fulfill all righteousness”? How could baptism add anything to the already perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ?
There have been many attempts to explain this, and they vary greatly. The best way to understand Jesus’ words is by understanding the primary significance of baptism, which is not immersion or sprinkling (that has only to do with the mode or form of baptism) but the idea of identification, which is what the word baptizo primarily means. In Christian baptism we are identified with Jesus in His death and resurrection so that His death becomes our death and His resurrection our resurrection. In Jesus’ baptism by John, Jesus identified himself with us in our humanity, thereby taking on himself the obligation to fulfill all righteousness so that He might be a perfect Savior and substitute for us.
The last two verses of chapter three record the testimony of God the Father to Jesus. We might call it God’s authenticating seal on the outward sign of John’s water baptism of Jesus. This was an impressive testimony for two reasons. First, the entire Trinity was present: the Father who spoke from heaven, the Son of God who was baptized, and the Spirit of God who was seen descending like a dove on Jesus. It is difficult to think of any testimony more impressive than one in which the entire Godhead is involved – “baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”
The second reason involves the words that were spoken. “A voice from heaven [that is, God’s voice] said, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.’” Any Jew who knew the Old Testament would immediately have a setting for these words. The first part of the sentence (“This is my Son”) comes from Psalm 2.7, where God declares of His Messiah, “You are my Son. … Ask of me, and I will make the nations your inheritance. … You will rule them with an iron scepter; you will dash them to pieces like pottery.” The second part of the sentence (“with whom [him] I am well pleased”) comes from Isaiah 42.1, at the beginning of the prophecies of God’s suffering servant who would atone for Israel’s sin. So here, in the words of God himself, we have verification of the essential message of John the Baptist and Christianity itself, described earlier, namely, that Jesus is the Son of God, the Messiah, and that His work was to save His people from their sins.
Do you love Jesus?
Are you well pleased with Him?
The Father is; that is what these words state clearly. If the Father is pleased with Jesus, shouldn’t you be? If you are not, you are far from being a true Christian. If you are, surely you will want to follow Jesus in faithful obedience and point others to Him, as John the Baptist did.