Jesus Is Sinless — So Why Was He Baptized?

ROSARY & ART: The First Luminous Mystery, the Baptism of the Lord

Pietro Perugino, “The Baptism of Christ,” ca. 1482
Pietro Perugino, “The Baptism of Christ,” ca. 1482 (photo: Public Domain)

Pope St. John Paul II, in his 2002 Apostolic Letter, Rosarium Virginis Mariae, proposed adding a fourth quintet of mysteries to be contemplated when praying the Rosary: the Luminous Mysteries. Leaving their use to “the freedom of individuals and communities,” the Pope nevertheless recommended them more fully to flesh out “important aspects of the Person of Christ as the definitive revelation of God.” As traditionally structured, the mysteries of the Rosary did not take explicit countenance of elements of Jesus’ three-year public ministry, which the Luminous Mysteries seek to highlight. The Pope suggested — but did not mandate — that the Luminous Mysteries be contemplated on Thursdays. The Joyful Mysteries, normally contemplated on Thursdays, could then shift to Saturdays, a day particularly dedicated to Our Lady.

All four Gospels speak of the beginning of Jesus’ three-year public life with his baptism in the River Jordan by St. John the Baptist. The Church emphasizes that each January when it celebrates the Baptism of the Lord (in the United States usually on the Sunday after Epiphany), immediately preceding the return to Ordinary Time, during which the Church focuses on the start of Jesus’ Public Ministry.

What was John’s baptism all about? Why was Jesus baptized?

Let’s make it clear up front: John’s baptism was not baptism in the sense we understand that sacrament. The life-giving sacrament of baptism, which incorporates us into the Body of Christ, could not have preceded Christ.

But that’s not to say that John’s baptism did not in some sense prefigure, i.e., anticipate and point toward, Christian baptism. That’s like how the Passover meal and sacrifice anticipated and pointed toward — prefigured — the Eucharist.

Christian baptism frees us from sin, original sin and any personal sins we might have. Sin is man’s fundamental problem. It’s what breaks his relationship to God and makes him subject to suffering, sickness and death — if man chooses to disconnect from the Source of Life (God), what else besides death is possible?

John’s baptism already pointed to the problem of sin and the one thing human beings absolutely need to contribute to the mix to tackle that problem: repentance. Even God cannot take away sins we want to keep. Even God will not violate our freedom by taking away the evil a person perversely loves. It is God himself who inspires repentance in us — the good we do always begins with God — but God’s grace does not destroy human freedom. God inspires good, but we can persist in evil.

All the Gospels make clear that John, Jesus’ elder cousin (whom we met in the Mysteries of the Annunciation and Visitation), began his preaching and baptizing in the Judean desert in the name of “repentance” (Mark 1:4, Luke 3:3). The very first words Matthew records out of John’s mouth are: “Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven has come near” (3:2). He describes his mission as “making straight the way for the Lord” (John 1:23). His appearance and diet — rough camel hair clothes and wild locusts — are clearly penitential (Matthew 3:4). His preaching is a call to repentance, culminating in his baptism. He counsels those who are repentant — soldiers, tax collectors, the better-off — how better to live their lives (Luke 3:11-14). And he repels the Pharisees who show up to go through the motions but without true repentance or conversion of heart (Matthew 3:7-10). And the Gospels characterize all of this as “Good News” (Mark 1:1).

John’s baptism pointed to the need for repentance in order to receive and be eligible for the Kingdom of God. Think of it, in some sense, like the ashes you receive on Ash Wednesday. They do not forgive sins and, if you receive them only for cultural or nostalgic purposes, they are so much dirt on your forehead. But, if you receive them to remind you of the need to dedicate Lent to a change of mind and heart, to repentance, their purpose is meaningful.

Nor should we forget that John’s baptism does not stand alone, independently of Jesus. John’s appearance in the Judaean desert is tied imminently to the start of Jesus’ public life. John is not doing “his thing” for himself; he repeatedly points away from himself toward “the One who is coming,” toward Jesus. John “prepares the way of the Lord.” John is there to reveal Jesus to us.

That’s why, in John’s Gospel (1:32-38), John speaks of Jesus as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” John points Jesus out to his disciples and they follow Jesus. John does not grasp his disciples to himself: he hands them off to “the one who will come after me [who] is greater than I” (John 1:30). Like Mary, like every Christian, the path to follow Christ starts unavoidably with denying one’s self (Matthew 16:24).

So why was Jesus baptized? Jesus is sinless. Why did he receive John’s baptism?

Jesus is sinless. But he came to save us sinners: “for us men and for our salvation, he came down from heaven.” Even John knows: “I need to be baptized by you, and you come to me?” (Matthew 3:14). In submitting to John’s baptism (which he didn’t need), Jesus declares his solidarity with us sinners.

Jesus takes us to the bath of repentance. He does not need Jordan’s water; Jordan’s water is made holy by him upon whom it was poured. Jesus’ baptism, therefore, manifests his intent to save us.

It is also an extremely important Christological event: it is the opportunity for a “theophany,” a “divine manifestation.” The baptism is an opportunity for One “greater than John” — God himself — to put his stamp of approval on Jesus’ Mission: “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17). The Holy Spirit also descends upon Jesus, in the form of a dove (Matthew 3:16; Luke 3:22). John the Evangelist also makes clear (1:32-34) that John the Baptist, who witnessed this, was told by God that “the man on whom you see the Holy Spirit come down and remain is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.” So, the very Trinity is evident here, affirming the clear divine origins of Jesus’ saving mission.

Christian baptism, which far exceeds John’s, makes us children of God and heirs of heaven. It incorporates us into Jesus’ saving death in the hope of resurrection. It forgives our sins and gives us a permanent entitlement to the graces we need to be saved. It sets our life on the path of truth toward heaven, toward him who is “the Way, the Truth and the Life” (John 14:6). And, for most of us, all that happened just a few days, maybe even minutes, after we were born. 

Do we ever stop and thank God for that mystery and sacrament?

Today’s Mystery is depicted in art by the late 15th/early 16th century “Italian” Renaissance painter, Pietro Perugino. The huge fresco (almost 11 by 17 feet) is in the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican.

The painting is highly theological and also very Renaissance. One example of its Renaissance characteristics is the pronounced split of time: 15th-century people, dressed according to their times, mingle with John’s crowd. Another is the background: medieval painting ignored the physical world in favor of heavenly realms, but Perugino gives us rivers and hills. A third is its classical features: the crowd is symmetrical and balanced, while features of the classical world — Rome’s Parthenon and Titus’ Triumphal Arch — appear in the background.

What is more interesting is its theology. The split of time does not just bring 15th century people into the picture. It brings in eternity. Four separate “times” appear in this picture. The central event is the painting’s theme: Jesus is baptized by John in Jordan. But, in the middle upper right, we are taken back to the time before Jesus’ baptism: John is preaching to the crowd. And, on the middle upper left, we are carried forward: Jesus is preaching to the crowds. Finally, the most important “time” — which is not time (because time passes) — is eternity breaking into this scene. Heaven and earth come together.

That’s most apparent with God the Father, attended by his angels, over the entire scene, speaking his Word. It’s also apparent in the Holy Spirit right over Jesus’ head. But it is also clear among the angels who mingle with men: two are on Jesus’ right, holding his garments and a towel. Our vision of “reality” often forgets Shakespeare’s wise counsel that “there are more things on heaven and on earth than are dreamed of in your philosophy.” Which is why we profess our faith every Sunday in what God has created, “visible and invisible.”

See also Matthew 3:13-17 [3:1-17]; Mark 1:9-11 [1:1-11]; Luke 3:21-23a [3:1-23a]; John 1:29-34 [1:1-37]. The first passage deals strictly with Jesus’ Baptism; the passage in square brackets situates it within the larger account of John’s baptismal ministry. For more on the painting itself, see here.