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Why Did Jesus Need to be Baptized?

by Brant Pitre March 18, 2021 0 Comments

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Dr. Brant Pitre connects the baptism of Jesus to the crucifixion in order to show why Jesus needed to be baptized.


...there’s your connection between the Old Testament, psalm, and the Gospel reading for today. Now, it’s brief, but it’s powerful to think about...and I’d actually like to close out with a quote from Pope Benedict XVI. This is one of my favorite quotes from his three-volume book, Jesus of Nazareth—which, if you haven’t read, I highly recommend it. It’s really profound. And especially in this first volume, one of my favorite chapters is the chapter on the Baptism and the temptations of Jesus.

And in his discussion on the Baptism, Pope Benedict brings out the link between the Baptism of Christ and the crucifixion of Christ in a way that’s very powerful, and I think worth quoting and reflecting on for just a moment. So this is what Benedict XVI says:

Looking at the events in the light of the Cross and Resurrection, the Christian people realized what happened: Jesus loaded the burden of all mankind’s guilt upon his shoulders; he bore it down into the depths of the Jordan. He inaugurated his public activity by stepping into the place of sinners. His inaugural gesture is an anticipation of the Cross… The Baptism is an acceptance of death for the sins of humanity, and the voice that calls out “This is my beloved Son” over the baptismal water is an anticipatory reference to the Resurrection. This explains why, in his own discourses, Jesus uses the word baptism to refer to his death (cf. Mk 10:38; Lk 12:50).

That’s from Jesus of Nazareth, page 18. Now...there’s so much packed into this quote here. It’s really fascinating. But what the Pope is really saying there—at least for me—a few things stand out. First, this answers the question of why Jesus had to be baptized. Have you ever wondered that? You should have, because in Matthew, John the Baptist actually asks, “Why are we doing this? I need to be baptized by you, and yet you come to me.” And Jesus says:

“Let it be so now; for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.”

It’s not exactly the clearest answer to the question, but He obviously assumes that John is going to understand what He means. So Benedict kind of goes a little further there and explains it by saying...what’s happening here is that the reason Jesus has to be baptized, even though He Himself was without sin, is the same reason that He has to go to the cross, even though He Himself is without sin. He steps into the place of sinners by receiving John’s Baptism for the forgiveness of sins as an anticipation of the cross on which He will, in fact, take the burden of the sins of humanity upon His own shoulders in order to atone for them.

So the Baptism is the ultimate anticipation of Jesus’ passion as the suffering servant who atones for the sins of humanity. In other words, Jesus didn’t have to be baptized any more than He had to go to the cross. He goes down to the waters of the Jordan for our sake and for our salvation. And I think, at least for me, I don’t think most people think of Jesus’ Baptism as an anticipation of the cross. I don’t know about you...I tended to think of it for many years just as a public revelation of His identity. Hey everybody, here is the Son of God, and God is really well pleased with Him.

But the reason the Father is so well pleased with Him is because the Son is obedient to the plan of salvation by which the world will be redeemed. He doesn’t just take pleasure in the Son as Son, He takes pleasure in the Son as servant who’s going to do His Father’s will all the way down in the waters of Jordan and through those waters to the cross.

The other part of Pope Benedict’s description that caught my attention is...he says this:

The Baptism is an acceptance of death for the sins of humanity…

Jesus is already saying yes to the cross when He goes down in the water of the Jordan. And I can’t help but think about the implications of that for our own Baptism. Because every single Christian is baptized into the death of Jesus. Paul says this in Romans 6:

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. (Romans 6:3-4)

So Baptism is—sacramental Baptism—is a kind of co-crucifixion with Christ. We want to share with Him in His resurrection, we have to share with Him in His crucifixion. So when your parents—if you were an infant, if you were baptized as an infant. When your parents baptized you, they signed the contract for an acceptance of death on your behalf. But it’s not a death that doesn’t have meaning, because the suffering and death of a person who is in Christ participates in His salvific plan. It shares in His sufferings for the salvation of others. The baptized person lives in a way that’s configured to Christ—Christ crucified and Christ raised from the dead.

So that’s why Jesus, I think, does refer to His crucifixion as a Baptism...which is a weird way to talk about your death. You’re going to be executed by asphyxiation on a cross. When John and James say:

“Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.”

And Jesus says:

Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?”

The reason He’s saying that is because He sees His cross as the true Baptism, where He’s going to be immersed not in the water of the Jordan but in the sufferings of the cross. And so on this feast of the Baptism of the Lord, let’s remember that...remember the meaning of Jesus’ Baptism as suffering servant and then also the fact that our Baptism calls us—each one of us—to be suffering servants as well.

Brant Pitre
Brant Pitre


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