“In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the wilderness. And he went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”
Luke 3:1-3 ESV
Through the Bible: Matthew 3, Mark 1, Luke 3
Three of the four gospels have an account of Jesus being baptized. Interestingly, even though John’s gospel doesn’t have the actual baptism of Jesus, it does have John the Baptist’s testimony of seeing the Holy Spirit descend on Jesus (see John 1:32-33).
Of the four gospels, Luke gives the most detail about John the Baptist’s message. He tells the people to repent (Luke 3:3). He rebukes them for not producing fruit in keeping with repentance (verse 8). And when people ask John, “what should we do?”, he gives them an answer:
“And the crowds asked him, “What then shall we do?” And he answered them, “Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.” Tax collectors also came to be baptized and said to him, “Teacher, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Collect no more than you are authorized to do.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.””
Luke 3:10-14 ESV
John has detailed instructions for what tax collectors must do. What soldiers must do. What the crowds must do. His baptism seems to have a lot to do with religion. Religion is all about doing in order to earn God’s approval. Repent. Stop sinning. Bear fruit. If you’re an addict, get clean. If you’re an alcoholic, dry out. And if you do, and do, and do some more, then religion says you are ready for baptism.
But then, along comes Jesus to be baptized. We know from Matthew that John protested, saying that he is the one that should be baptized by Jesus (see Matthew 3:13-15). Why did John protest? Obviously, because Jesus had never sinned, so He didn’t need baptism.
But I think there’s more to it than that. John told his listeners that they needed to “produce fruit in keeping with repentance” (see Luke 3:8). So it’s not simply not sinning; it’s also doing good. In light of this, John could argue that Jesus also hadn’t done anything to earn baptism. There’s no record of Jesus giving away one of His tunics or sharing His food (compare Luke 3:11).
In fact, there’s no record of Jesus having done anything at this point. He has yet to preach a sermon, or face a temptation, or heal anyone. All those come later. At this point, all He has is who He is.
21 Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heavens were opened, 22 and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form, like a dove; and a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son;[c] with you I am well pleased.” (Luke 3:21-22)
Before He preached a single text. Before He passed a single test. Before He healed a single person. Before He shed a drop of blood. He had the approval of His heavenly Father. More than that, He had His delight.
Maybe this was why Jesus was baptized: to show that we don’t have to do anything to earn our heavenly Father’s love. It is automatic.
Too many of us are like Apollos in the book of Acts. We know only the baptism of John (see Acts 18:25-26). All we know of relationship with God is “repent, behave, and perform.” We need to know the way of God more accurately. And the way of God is this: He delights in you, beloved child. You have His approval before you do a single thing.
Centuries later, another John (Bunyan, of Pilgrim’s Progress fame) wrote this playful, yet profound little couplet:
Today, rest in your Father’s delight. He is well pleased with you.