Martin Luther was no stranger to hyperbole when he wanted to make a point. One example of this is what he said about Jesus’ baptism. Luther said that “it is at the Jordan that the New Testament really begins. It is at the Jordan River, where John was baptizing, even more than at Bethlehem, where Jesus was born, that the New Testament begins.” Certainly Luther was not denying the singular significance of Bethlehem. Rather, his purpose was to highlight the fact that the baptism of Jesus was the formal and public declaration of his identity and mission. This One born in Bethlehem is indeed the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Jesus is our Redeemer who, though in very nature God, stooped low to identify with his fallen people.
Why Jesus was baptized is a perennial question. Why would the Son of God submit to John’s baptism; a baptism which symbolized repentance? This was the same question John had. He was scandalized by the very thought of baptizing the Messiah. Indeed he resisted baptizing Jesus. But Jesus insisted. He explained to John that his baptism was necessary at that point in history “to fulfill all righteousness.”
This was so primarily for two reasons. First, in order to fulfill the righteous requirements of God’s eternal purposes the Messiah had to be baptized to identify with his fallen people. The nation was in desperate need of repentance. Jesus, of course, had no such need. But in submitting to John’s baptism of repentance the Son of God was standing in solidarity with sinful people. He was named among the transgressors even though he was no sinner. Another way of looking at it is to say that Jesus was baptized for the same reason he was circumcised. Though he did not need what circumcision symbolized (the removal of sin) he took the sign in order to fully identify with his people. All that sin made necessary for us, from circumcision to death, he took upon himself and on our behalf.
Secondly, Jesus’ baptism functioned as a public inauguration of his ministry. At his baptism Jesus was announced as the Lamb of God; the one who would fulfill all that the generations of sacrifices had anticipated. Jesus’ baptism was also the occasion of a spectacular unveiling of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Spirit descended and the Father spoke in public affirmation of the Son’s identity. It was in the Jordan River that the incarnate Christ was empowered by the Holy Spirit and commissioned by the Father to accomplish his redemptive purposes.
The salvation of sinners is a Divine work from start to finish. If sinners are to be saved then it must be by the decree and through the actions of God himself.
Surely he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
smitten by God, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his wounds we are healed. (Isaiah 53:4-5)