Then Jesus came from Galilee to John the Baptizer at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. But John tried to stop him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and yet you come to me?” Jesus answered him, “Allow it for now, because this is the way for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then John allowed him to be baptized. (3:13-15)
We often read this only as Jesus’ obedience to the Father—that he need to be baptized to continue his life of righteousness, to fulfill it. Yet, Jesus told John it was necessary “for us to fulfill all righteousness.” According to Jesus, John also played a role in righteousness being fulfilled. Was this more than putting Jesus under the water and bringing him up again? Almost certainly.
John, in addition to being foretold by angelic promise and being the cousin of Jesus, holds a special place in the Bible’s theological construct. He was the forerunner of Jesus’ earthly ministry. Though John did not believe it of himself (John 1:21), he was the “second Elijah,” the fulfillment of prophecy (Malachi 4:5-6; Matthew 11:14).
In addition, Jesus himself gave a very specific discourse about John in Matthew 11. John had been jailed and sent his own disciples to verify whether Jesus indeed was the Messiah. Among other things, Jesus noted “For all the prophets and law prophesied until John.” In other words, John the Baptizer marked the end of the Old Testament prophets. John marked the end of one era, the old covenant, and he introduced the beginning the new covenant when he proclaimed, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29).
Not only did John bridge the old covenant era to the new, he was a benchmark against which the surpassing greatness of the new covenant was measured. Again in Matthew 11 Jesus said,
Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one greater than John the Baptist has appeared, but the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.
The least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than the one about whom Jesus said none greater had ever been born.
Let that sink in.
Jesus’ pronouncement was not a slam on John the Baptizer. On the contrary, it was a clear signal that the kingdom Jesus was inaugurating was an order of magnitude above all that God’s people had known until that time.
John’s baptism of Jesus was like a passing of the torch or a handing-off of the football—not personally, because John was not the Messiah. But, representatively, John was the old covenant giving way to the new, the law giving way to the Spirit, fading glory yielding to the glory that will never fade away, and daily sacrificing ceasing in favor of the once-for-all-time sacrifice.
The significance of what John and Jesus did at the Jordan River far outweighs any experience I could have there. I did not need to be re-baptized in the Jordan to be baptized into Christ. And that is the most important baptism of all.