John the Baptist water baptized Jews.
Water baptism was not a new thing. Jews were being water baptized for centuries under the law requirements in the temple and in large pools like Bethesda (John 5:2).
However, John was unique in that he was a prophet, did not wear temple garments (he wore camel’s hair), and he preached in the wilderness not near the temple.
He preached water baptism and repentance for the remission of sins. Remission of sins is forgiveness.
“John did baptize in the wilderness, and preach the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins.” – Mark 1:4
“And he came into all the country about Jordan, preaching the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins;” – Luke 3:3
The Baptism of Jesus
When Jesus came to be water baptized, John realized that he had no sin to remit, and forbad Jesus to be baptized.
“But John forbad him, saying, I have need to be baptized of thee, and comest thou to me?” – Mat 3:14
Jesus insisted to be baptized, but not because he had secret sins to confess. Jesus knew he was God manifest in the flesh, and without sin. The Lord said:
“Suffer it to be so now: for thus it becometh us to fulfil all righteousness.” – Mat 3:15
The reason Jesus needed to be water baptized by John alongside sinful Israel was not because he had secret sins to confess, but to fulfil all righteousness.
But, what does that mean?
To Fulfill the Law
Jesus did not come to destroy the promises, prophets, and laws given to Israel. He was not setting a new pattern with his water baptism, but fulfilling an old one.
“Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil.” – Matt 5:17
Washings with water were required for many different people at different times with different purposes under the law. If someone failed to do them, they would be guilty of breaking the law.
One particular law that was being invoked by John was the washing requirement for all priests.
John was preaching the kingdom come and in the kingdom the entire nation of Israel was to be priests unto the Lord (Exo 19:6, Isa 61:6).
Jesus kept the law perfectly, and as such submitted himself to the required ordinances to fulfill all righteousness.
To Fulfill the Prophets
The law and the prophets spoke of Jesus. A few prophecies spoke of the messenger coming before the Lord to prepare his way.
“As it is written in the prophets, Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, which shall prepare thy way before thee. The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” – Mark 1:2-3 (quoting Mal 4:1 and Isa 40:3)
John the Baptist was that messenger, and Jesus was the prophesied Lord.
God told John a prophecy that he would be able to identify the Messiah through his water baptism.
“And I knew him not: but that he should be made manifest to Israel, therefore am I come baptizing with water.” – John 1:31-33
If Jesus did not fulfil what was spoken of him then the prophecies would be false, the message of John the Baptist a lie, and God would be unrighteous.
Jesus came to fufill the prophets and he fulfilled multiple prophecies by being water baptized of John.
To Justify John’s Message
Jesus was water baptized to justify John’s message.
John the Baptist preached the kingdom was at hand. Those that heard his preaching and justified God’s word to him were water baptized of him (just as they justified God in Jesus’ ministry).
“And all the people that heard him, and the publicans, justified God, being baptized with the baptism of John.” – Luke 7:29
By being baptized of John, Jesus was saying, “John’s teachings are truly from God”.
In order to align himself with God’s prophet and his message, Jesus needed to be water baptized of John.
Through participation in the water baptism of sinful Israel, Jesus identified himself with Israel looking for a kingdom come, and then presented himself as the one who would fulfill all righteousness.
To Make Himself Known
Multiple times in Jesus’ time on earth God spoke from heaven and testified that Jesus was His Son (John 12:28, Mat 17:5).
Jesus knew that he was the Son of God (Luke 2:49), and that his water baptism would identify him as such to Israel. Therefore, Jesus insisted to John that he be water baptized of him.
When he came up out of the water the Spirit of God descended on him and God spoke for everyone to hear.
“And Jesus, when he was baptized, went up straightway out of the water: and, lo, the heavens were opened unto him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and lighting upon him: And lo a voice from heaven, saying, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” – Matt 3:16-17
Without his water baptism there would not be this public identification that he was the Son of God.
John later would preach this event as proof that he was the Messiah.
“And John bare record, saying, I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it abode upon him… And I saw, and bare record that this is the Son of God.” – John 1:32-34
Nobody in Jesus’ time could accomplish what Jesus did in his water baptism.
Neither does anyone today in the dispensation of grace need to follow Jesus in baptism. We have a greater baptism that identifies us with Christ, being baptized by faith into his death.
“But I have a baptism to be baptized with; and how am I straitened till it be accomplished!” – Luke 12:50
“Know ye not, that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death?” – Rom 6:3
Jesus was not water baptized to institute a new ordinance. Water baptism was an old tradition.
He was not water baptized for the remission of his sins, as was everyone else that was water baptized.
He was water baptized to fulfill all righteousness in that he was the prophesied Messiah, the Son of God.