Why did Jesus need to be baptized?

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Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, 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 thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” 

The baptism of our Lord can be hard to understand sometimes. John initially balked at Jesus’ request to be baptized by him. But Christ said to do so to “fulfill all righteousness.” What does our Lord mean by this? People came to John to be baptized and confessed their sins as they did so. What sins did Jesus need to confess? Since we believe Jesus to be without sin, the answer is He had no sins to confess.

Some Church Fathers say Jesus requested baptism to set an example. In other words “don’t ask others to do what you are not willing to do yourself.” That makes some sense. But this doesn’t answer the question; “Why did Jesus, who was sinless, request baptism that was meant for people who confessed their sins?”

We need to answer this question on two levels. First we need to look at the Baptism of John as being different from the Lord’s Baptism after He entered and emerged from the waters. John’s baptism didn’t effect any changes in the person who was being baptized. John’s baptism put people in a state of readiness. It started people on the track of learning to repent by confessing their sins. But there was nothing in the waters that effectively changed anything in the person. It simply was a way of acknowledging that something wasn’t right in a person’s life. People remained in the same state of sin with no deliverance.

St. Gregory Palamas gives us a wonderful word to help us understand the difference in the waters after the Lord is baptized; something changes in those waters that show how necessary our Lord’s baptism is:

Water is a means of cleansing, but not for souls. It can remove dirt from those being baptized, but not the grime that comes from sin. For that reason the Healer of our souls, the Father of spirits (Hebrews 12:9), Christ, who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29), enters the water before us to be baptized, as we celebrate today in advance. He draws the grace of the all-holy Spirit from above to dwell in the water with Him, so that later when those being baptized as He was, enter the water, He is there, clothing them ineffably with His Spirit, attaching Himself to them, and filling them with the grace that purifies and illumines reasonable spirits. And this is what the divine Paul is referring to: “As many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” (Galatians 3:27)

One of the Old Testament readings for Theophany is from account of the bitter waters of Marah. People could not drink from the waters of Marah because they were bitter. God reveals a tree to Moses, who then throws it into the waters thus making the waters of Marah sweet and drinkable. (Read Exodus 15:22-16:1) This tree is a type pointing beyond itself to the Cross of our Lord. What does the priest do with the Cross at the Great Blessing of Water? He plunges it into the water as he sings the Theophany Troparion. So when we are now baptized in the Church, our Lord is there meeting us in those waters and “attaching himself to us.” We have “put on Christ.” That could only have happened after John first baptized our Lord.

Please take sometime to discuss this as a family. May you all celebrate the Feast of God’s manifestation with great joy and gratitude.

The blessing of the Lord be upon you,

Archbishop Paul

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