Matthew 3:13-17 (NRSV)
Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
Just like John the Baptist, we can resist the idea of Jesus undergoing baptism. When we consider his divine perfection—his sinlessness—a baptism of repentance is difficult to comprehend.
We need to see Jesus’ submission to baptism as a gift, however.
Let’s consider all this from the perspective of people who want to belong to a group. If you’ve never wanted to belong to a group, you are an unusual person, a true lone wolf. For most of us, finding some sort of group identity can be critically important to achieving worldly success and happiness.
My mind goes to the high school and young adult years, that decade or so when we make an intense exploration of who we are. As we reject some groups and pursue membership in others, our identities begin to take shape. We continue to repeat these processes our entire lives, but the teen and young-adult years are called “formative” for a reason.
You all know how this works. Once you’ve identified a group you want to enter, you have to figure out who the gatekeepers of the group are, and what they require for admission. You begin working on your application. It’s probably not on paper, but you’re going through an application process, nonetheless.
This process can be very healthy; well-run sports teams or academic clubs with principled leaders are good examples. This process also can be very unhealthy. Think of street gangs, where people who see limited prospects band together for survival, or ethically challenged business efforts, where profits supersede normal rules of behavior and concern for others.
Jesus, of course, is the gatekeeper for Christianity. But as he did so often in ministry, he turned the role upside-down.
Instead of us going to him for admission to the kingdom, he first comes to us. It is as if the coolest kid in school showed up at your door one day and said, “You’re going to run with me and my crew.”
Jesus’ baptism was an act of solidarity with humanity. Undergoing baptism signaled God’s intention to save us from our deserved eternal deaths. It also was in many ways his first step toward the cross.
Jesus also was saying he would handle the admission requirements for us. Only someone holy and pure could pass the test, and we didn’t stand a chance.
It is only because of Jesus’ work that we can undergo baptism ourselves to establish our eternal, unchanging identities as children of God. We ride our older brother’s linen coattails into membership in the kingdom of heaven.
And of course, like any group we desire to join, there are benefits. It is a truly beautiful thing when we gather to worship the one who saves us, remember who we are, and then behave accordingly.