Where did John the Baptist get the idea of water baptism, and why was Jesus baptized?

Q. Where did John the Baptist get the idea of water baptism? I see it mentioned in the O.T. regarding leprosy, but don’t see in the O.T. water baptism for repentance. Also, why did Jesus agree to John’s baptism? Just to set an example? But that would make it seem that He too was in need of repentance, wouldn’t it? Which of course is not the case.

Biblical scholars generally agree that the roots of water baptism are in the requirement in the Law of Moses that people bathe with water to return to a state of ceremonial cleanness after some uncleanness infraction. This applied not only in the case of skin diseases such as leprosy, as you noted, but also in a wider variety of matters, such as eating certain kinds of unclean food and even taking the scapegoat out into the wilderness on the Day of Atonement. Since being ceremonially clean meant being able to participate in good standing in the worship of God, it was a natural development for John to apply the practice of washing to a more profound sense of being “clean,” that of being genuinely repentant for one’s sins.

As for why Jesus wanted to be baptized even though he had no sins to repent of, we need to realize that John’s baptism was not an end in itself. It was a means to an end. John’s message was, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” John didn’t want people to repent and be baptized just because they were sinful. He wanted them to do that because God was breaking into the world in a new way, and he wanted people to be able to join in what God was doing.

So, in effect, John was saying, “Anyone who wants to be part of what God is doing, come and be baptized.” The implicit assumption in the case of most people was that this would involve forsaking sins and having a new orientation in life. But for someone like Jesus, who already had the right orientation—he always wanted to be doing what his Heavenly Father was doing—and who had no sins to repent of, it was still appropriate for him to make the public gesture that John was calling for.

I think that is why Jesus told John to go ahead and baptize him “to fulfill all righteousness.” John was saying, “If you want to be part of the new thing that God is doing, come and be baptized.” By being baptized, Jesus was saying, “Yes, I want to be part of the new thing that God is doing!” He didn’t need to have sins to repent of in order to make that public declaration.

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is an an ordained minister, a writer, and a biblical scholar. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the New International Version (NIV) that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He was also a consultant to Tyndale House for the Immerse Bible, an edition of the New Living Translation (NLT) that similarly presents the Scriptures in their natural literary forms, without chapters and verses or section headings. He has a B.A. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

3 thoughts on “Where did John the Baptist get the idea of water baptism, and why was Jesus baptized?”

  1. I think it’s marvelous to realize the symbolism of Jesus’ baptism too. Others had been cleansed of their sins but Jesus, having no sin, was bathing in the sins of others; taking on the sins of those who would enter into this “new thing that God was doing.”

  2. As I’ve checked I don’t see “the Law of Moses that people bathe with water to return to a state of ceremonial cleanness after some uncleanness infraction.” If so, wouldn’t I find a direct command like if I ate unclean food, I should clean my body with water before going to the temple to worship? I’m not finding this, but that doesn’t mean they may have practice this cleaning – don’t know.

    1. Leviticus 17:15 says, “Anyone, whether native-born or foreigner, who eats anything found dead or torn by wild animals must wash their clothes and bathe with water, and they will be ceremonially unclean till evening; then they will be clean.”
      Leviticus 16:26 says, “The man who releases the goat as a scapegoat must wash his clothes and bathe himself with water; afterward he may come into the camp.”
      Leviticus 22:6 says that a priest who touches anything that makes him unclean “will be unclean till evening. He must not eat any of the sacred offerings unless he has bathed himself with water.”
      Similar requirements for bathing with water to return to a state of ceremonial cleanness are in Leviticus 14:8-9 and in multiple places in Leviticus 15.

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