Q. Matthew 3:13-17 describes the baptism of Jesus, including John the Baptist’s objection that Jesus should be baptizing him. Why did Jesus want to be baptized, anyway?
A. This question was raised by Christians already in the first century, which is probably the reason that it is recorded here—unlike the baptism accounts in Mark 1:9-11 and Luke 3:21-22. John the Baptist had disciples and a very well-known ministry before Jesus had disciples or a public ministry.
In fact, in the earliest decades of Christianity, there were people called Mandaeans; among other things, these gnostic Christians asserted that John the Baptist was, in fact, superior to Jesus. Mainstream Christianity rejected that view. In later passages, the Gospels of Mark and Luke clearly present the superiority of Jesus. The Gospel of
John records John the Baptist as approving when Andrew and another disciple became disciples of Jesus (1:35-37). Jesus did not have the same motivation to be baptized as the people immediately ahead of him or behind him at the Jordan River; they were baptized as a sign of repentance. By being baptized, Jesus identified himself with sinful humanity. His prayer and the revelation of Father and Spirit tell us that Baptism unites us with the Trinity and makes us beloved children of God. Jesus later speaks of having to undergo a baptism, namely, his plunge into depths by which he saves humanity and all creation.
During the Easter season, our liturgy affirms that by his being baptized, Jesus sanctified even water. Jesus was baptized to encourage his later followers to be baptized. That action began his public ministry; similarly, that act begins the new life of every follower of Jesus. Jesus’ baptism resembles in some ways the key visions of Old Testament prophets (Is 6:1-13; Ez 1—3; Dn 7—8; Am 1:1-2; Mi 1:1—2:13; Hb1:1—2:20). The Jewish Christians for whom Matthew wrote would have made that connection readily.
Other New Testament passages indicate how the Baptism celebrated by Jesus’ followers differs from the baptism that John the Baptist administered (Acts 8:14-17 and 18:24-26).