Why was Jesus baptized? Even for the early church, as the canon of scripture itself was being formed, it seems to have been a controversial question. If Jesus goes before John for the “baptism of repentance,” it seems that Jesus himself is a sinner. The account from the Gospel of Matthew suggests as much when giving voice to John’s reluctance: “It is I who need baptism from you, and yet you come to me!”
Mark’s Gospel begins with John’s proclamation, “for the forgiveness of sins,” and the promise that “someone greater than I is to come.” The next moment, we see the “someone,” whose sandal straps John is not worthy to untie, receiving the sign of repentance from John, not giving it.
He was like us in all things but sin, the author of Hebrews reminds us when discussing Jesus’ high priesthood. And yet we balk at the statement. “If he did not sin, how could he really be like us? How could he be fully human?
We misunderstand this because we misunderstand our humanity as well as our sin. Christ has come not only to reveal divinity to us; he has come to reveal us to ourselves. Not only is he truly God. He is truly human. And he is truly human precisely because he does not sin. All of our sin is nothing other than the rejection of the truth of our humanity. Jesus’ utter acceptance of our humanity, his drinking of our cup fully, his sharing of our wounded condition, reverses our sinful rejection of our creatureliness.
His baptism, then, is at the heart of his mission to heal us. He enters even the wounds of our self-rejection, without having made the rejection himself. He accepts full solidarity with us even if it means being seen as sinner. Jesus’ baptism is one of his earliest great transformations of our human condition. The first was that the Word itself could take human flesh.
All the further implications would follow: that he would be tempted to reject this mission of transformation; that he would undertake all manner of healing and disarming of devils; that he would announce a kingdom to transmute all blindness, poverty, imprisonment, and darkness; that he would, at last, suffer the very fate of sin in death.
Just as we now baptize our children to announce a new fate for the human body, the baptism of Jesus is the inauguration of that fate. Announced as sinner, wholly one with our condition, Jesus, hovered over by the very spirit of God, is gazed upon by the Father who sent him and who now says to himand all of us who share his flesh—“This is my beloved, in whom I am well pleased.”