When Jesus appears at the Jordan River to be baptized by John, John is a little perplexed. He even questions Jesus for a minute, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and you come to me?” (Matt. 3:14) He just got done telling the crowds that his baptism was nothing but water, but that he knew the Messiah’s baptism would be something far greater. It would be a fulfillment of Ezekiel 36, where God says:
“I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules” (Ez 36:25-27).
This is the baptism John is referring to when he states that Jesus will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire (Matt. 3:11). This was also the baptism John says he needs. It is a baptism only Jesus would be ready to give after he had gone through his own baptism of fire in his death and resurrection (Luke 12:50; Mark 10:38).
By submitting to John’s baptism, Jesus took the sins of the world upon his shoulders so that he could carry them to the cross and bury them in his tomb.
Jesus would die for the sins of the world and be raised for our justification. Then it would be possible for him to baptize us into his death so that by being buried into his death, we might walk in the newness of life, just as he was raised to the glory of the Father (Rom 6:4). By submitting to John’s baptism, Jesus took the sins of the world upon his shoulders so that he could carry them to the cross and bury them in his tomb. In essence, he repented for our sins so he could then pay their debt with his death on the cross. Only then could he bring about the baptism John wanted to partake in so badly.
John knew his need. He felt it deep down in his bones. His faith longed for the baptism Jesus would bring because John was a sinner and knew his shortcomings. However, that’s the strange thing. There was not much that people could point to as a failure when it came to this locust eating honey badger of righteousness. Jesus even says it: “Truly, I say to you, among those born of women, there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he” (Matt. 11:11). If there was anyone who could argue they didn’t need to be baptized based on their own sufficient righteousness, aside from Jesus himself, John the Baptist had the best case to be made. But that wasn’t John the Baptist’s approach. Instead, he clearly tells Jesus he needs the righteousness that he knows will come through baptism. Why? John knew that no law can give life and there is no righteousness by the law (Gal 3:21). He lived the law and still knew his failings, and thus he knew there was true righteousness and life to be given in the baptism of the Messiah. He knew the great blessings God had promised to bring with baptism, and it awakened longing and desire within him. Nothing could be more precious.
So is baptism necessary? John, the last of the Old Testament prophets, the greatest man born of women, the honey badger of righteousness, thought so. He would have given his hind-teeth to have what Christ offers to us and to our children in baptism. Fortunately, we can rejoice in our own need and the gift we receive through baptism given by the same one by whom John desired to be baptized. In baptism, Jesus gives you the kingdom so that you are given the righteousness of Christ.