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Why did Jesus bother to be baptized?

On the Readings for Sunday, January 12, 2020, The Feast of the Baptism of the Lord.

Detail from "The Baptism of Christ" (c. 1482) by Pietro Perugino and his workshop. [Wikipedia]

• Isa. 42:1-4, 6-7
• Psa. 29:1-2, 3-4, 3, 9-10
• Acts 10:34-38
• Matt. 3:13-17

Growing up in a small Fundamentalist Bible chapel, I didn’t hear much about what baptism could or should actually do for me. On the contrary, I heard far more about what baptism couldn’t do: it couldn’t cleanse me of sin, make me right with God, or fill me with God’s grace. It was a classic example of a belief—or lack of a belief—being formed by a reaction against Catholic teaching. One thing we couldn’t abide was appearing even remotely susceptible to what we sometimes called “Romanism”.

If baptism was of so little value to me, why did Jesus bother to be baptized? After all, He was sinless and it seems that His very public baptism would suggest that He was just as much a sinner in need of repentance as those coming from Jerusalem and the surrounding area, “confessing their sins” (Matt. 3:6). And, indeed, today’s Gospel readily acknowledges that John the Baptist was taken aback by his cousin’s request to be baptized: “I need to be baptized by you, and yet you are coming to me?”

Jesus’ response was rather cryptic: “Allow it now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” It suggests that His baptism was part of God’s plan of salvation. Not because Jesus needed to be cleansed, but because His baptism points out our desperate need to be cleansed of sin, made whole, and filled with God’s life. As parents know, it is better to set an example by doing than by saying. And children are usually more likely to respect and respond to a lived example.

The Catechism provides some other reasons for Jesus being baptized. It inaugurated His public life and ministry, and in doing so revealed the Triune nature of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This in turn opened the door—the flood gates!—to an ever-deepening appreciation of how and why our heavenly Father works for the salvation of mankind. “This is my beloved Son,” states the Father, and by the grace of the Holy Spirit and the sacrament of baptism we too become sons and daughters of God. “The Christian must enter into this mystery of humble self-abasement and repentance,” explains the Catechism, “go down into the water with Jesus in order to rise with him, be reborn of water and the Spirit so as to become the Father’s beloved son in the Son and ‘walk in newness of life’.” (CCC 537).

Baptism is not simply a symbolic action, but a supernatural transformation. Buried with Christ in baptism, we rise with Him and walk in the newness of life, having died to sin (cf., Rom. 6:1-12).

In his book Jesus of Nazareth, Pope Benedict XVI has an entire chapter on the baptism of Jesus. The key to understanding that mysterious event, the Holy Father states, is found in the meaning of the word righteousness. Jesus’ response to John’s reluctance expressed His understanding that His kinsman’s baptism was a necessary, public way of showing “an unrestricted Yes to God’s will.” But the meaning of the baptism would not be fully known or revealed until it could be “seen in the light of the Cross and Resurrection.”

In other words, by stepping into the Jordan, Jesus demonstrated He was taking the place of sinners, as well as anticipating His death on the Cross. This is, Benedict notes, one reason why Jesus referred to His approaching crucifixion as a baptism: “I have a baptism to be baptized with; and how I am constrained until it is accomplished!” (Lk. 12:50).

Jesus did not descend into the waters because He needed to, but because we needed Him to. And this reflects the incredible love revealed in the Incarnation. God did not have to become man for our sake, but He did in order that we who were blind and living in darkness, as the prophet Isaiah wrote, could be cleansed of sin, made right with God, and be filled with God’s grace. That’s what baptism will do for you.

(This “Opening the Word” column originally appeared in the January 13, 2008, edition of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.)

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About Carl E. Olson 1233 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.


  1. While you wondered why, taught it was irrelevant I likewise struggled within that demeaned ‘Romanism’ thinking why did it matter that the Son of God should submit to it. The words that Justice be fulfilled vaguely seemed the key. Later thru the years it became apparent that a flesh and blood man was required to redeem Man. And the great mystery that confounded Satan was that only the Word who had the wherewithal could accomplish that reconciliation with the Father. Reading from my Kindle Mike Aquilina’s Fathers of the Church I found this, “Christ, then whose generation was before all things, sensible and intellectual today is baptized by John. That He cleanses him who was defiled, brings the Spirit from above, and exalts man to heaven. That he who had fallen might be raised up and he who had cast him down might be put to shame. And that we are saved” (Gregory of Nyssa On the Baptism of Christ). That was consistent with my musings on Justice, that our fallen nature was now raised up to the Father by the Spirit in the human nature of Christ. A Trinitarian event alluded to by Augustine. Another Father said here the Church is born. And the Mystical Body takes form.

  2. This brings to mind the baptism scene in the 1977 movie ‘Jesus of Nazareth’.

    A nice piece Mr. Olson – thank you.

  3. Thank you for a concise and insight-full article.

    15 “For if by that one person’s transgression the many died, how much more did the grace of God and the gracious gift of the one person Jesus Christ overflow for the many. 16 And the gift is not like the result of the one person’s sinning. For after one sin there was the judgment that brought condemnation; but the gift, after many transgressions, brought acquittal.

    17 For if, by the transgression of one person, death came to reign through that one, how much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and of the gift of justification come to reign in life through the one person Jesus Christ.

    18 In conclusion, just as through one transgression condemnation came upon all, so through one righteous act acquittal and life came to all. 19 For just as through the disobedience of one person the many were made sinners, so through the obedience of one the many will be made righteous. 20 The law entered in so that transgression might increase but, where sin increased, grace overflowed all the more, 21 so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through justification for eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” Romans 5:15-21 NAB

    • While I agree with everything said, I am confident that Jesus’ baptism was the first step in His ordination which was complete at His resurrection. The first step in the ordination of a Levitical priest was a washing by a priest (Lev 8:6) (because the washing had to be done at the gate to the Temple it was completed by Mary of Bethany). The same logic applies for why was Jesus presented at the Temple. A sacrifice had to be accepted at the gate of the Temple by a priest (Simeon) laying hands on the head of the sacrifice (Jesus as the lamb).

      • Jesus Was The First To Be Baptized With Both Water And The Holy Ghost.
        “This Is My Beloved Son In Whom I Am Well Pleased.”
        There Is Only One, Jesus The Christ; “It Is Through Christ, With Christ, And In Christ, In The Unity Of The Holy Ghost”, That Holy Mother Church Exists.

  4. These article that focus on the mystery around our Lord’a baptism helped to look at the related biblical scenes again, including the captivating one of Joshua and the Israelites at the Jordan – ‘the waters stopped flowing ,it piled up in a great height far away ,at a town named Adam .. ‘ –

    The Lord , The Word , who has seen and arranged it all from all eternity ..
    and that mysterious and seemingly insignificant reference to Adam though what the fathers had been yearning for , for our sins at flood levels , to be cast far away , is being fulfilled .. so that we do not flow into the Dead Seas , instead become the living waters , at the Great Price paid for same, that we are to ask for and receive , on behalf of many others too, since baptism also bestow upon us the role of priesthood in our Lord .
    We are also given the freedom to refuse same , in the hardness and pride of our hearts that prefer the enemy lies and seductions,to thus scorn the significance of our lives and actions , preferring instead the false gold of the worldy riches and attentions .
    The whole sexual rebellion too related , in refusing to accept what our thoughts and actions are to be about , not desiring the love and responsibility that is to be part of our lives any more , in light of the Spirit gives us too , like in that seemingly quiet and rather hidden event at the Jordan .
    Have also come across the view as to how St. John The Baptist was the last and legitimate Aaronic High Priest , the baptism of the Lord thus serving as the occasion of passing on of that temporal foreshadowing , to The Lord , who has ever been destined to be The High Priest , whose Sacrifice sets us free from the enemy holds and claims , to help us receive the Holy Spirit , to ever help us gently ,
    to see the extent of the depth of the enemy claims , to thus help bring forth true repentance and gratitude .
    That , in turn would help us all , at The Last Judgement , when ‘nothing will be hidden ‘ and just as we are given glimpses of the biblical events now , would reveal to us and the whole nations, how our thoughts , words and deeds either helped to wipe away our sins in His mercy delivering us from the planned enemy tortures, to thus rejoice with all of heaven in that mercy
    or worse ..
    May The Spirit ever open our hearts and eyes to the light of The Kingdom .

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