Why did Jesus Want to be Baptized?

One day, St. John the Baptist noticed Jesus’ presence among the pilgrims. Overcome with supernatural emotion, he bent down to the newcomer, avoiding giving Him baptism: “I need to be baptized by you, and you come to me!”

Gaudium Press English Edition

Newsdesk (10/01/2022 11:40, Gaudium Press ) The baptism conferred by St. John was not of the same nature as the sacramental Baptism later instituted by Our Lord Jesus Christ. It was truly from God, but it did not have the power to confer sanctifying grace.

The Baptist himself emphasized the difference: “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” (Lk 3:16).

The effect of John’s baptism consisted of an incentive to repent of one’s sins, explains St. Thomas Aquinas. Now, in Jesus there was not even a shadow of sin, nor could there be, since He was the God-Man. He had, therefore, no matter for repentance and penance. What explains, then, why He wanted to be baptized?

Subjecting oneself to the human condition

Several reasons are given by the Fathers and Doctors of the Church. Here is one of them: when the Word became Man, He wanted to submit to the laws that govern human life. For example, He obeyed the laws that were in force among the Jews, being presented in the Temple after His birth, undergoing circumcision, and fulfilling the Jewish Passover rites.

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Thus, he also wanted to receive John’s penitential baptism. Lost among the crowd, Jesus – innocent – submitted to a rite intended for the sinner: “It is fitting that we fulfill complete justice”, He justified Himself before the prophet.

Commenting on these words, St. Ambrose says: “Justice demands that we begin by doing what we want others to do, and exhort others to imitate us by our example.”

Purifying the waters

Among the ten reasons enumerated in the Summa Theologica for Jesus’ baptism, St. Thomas Aquinas places prominence on the purpose of purifying the waters. Quoting St. Ambrose, the Angelic Doctor says that “purified by contact with the body of Jesus Christ, who knew no sin, they would have the virtue of baptizing.

Why did God choose water as the material for Baptism?

Water is an element rich in symbolism. For example, it is an image of God’s exuberance. Just consider that three-fourths of the earth’s surface is made up of water. It is also a symbol of life. It is an essential element for the maintenance of all living things. The more abundant the water is in a region, the more plants and animals grow there.

Moreover, it is the preponderant element of living matter, so much so that the human body itself is composed, for the most part, of water.

We can also consider it a symbol of God’s kindness, affection, and magnanimity toward mankind. It pleases the human being to see it fall, in the form of rain, crystal clear, refreshing, making the soil fertile, favouring crops, cleaning the air.

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Seen from another point of view, it has an uncommon power of destruction. Despite all modern technology, and a presumptuous progress that thought it could one day manage to dominate the elements of nature, men are amazed and terrified by the destructive power of water. And yet in this it is for us a symbol – that of the omnipotent power of God.

Because of its washing capacity, it reminds us of spiritual cleansing. Sacred Scripture refers to it several times, as in the following passage: “I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleaness and from all your abominations” (Ezek 36:25). In this passage, the prophet Ezekiel foretells the baptism of St. John and, more especially, the sacramental baptism instituted by Jesus.

Nothing more fitting, therefore, than for water to be the material of Baptism. And nothing more fitting than that God incarnate wanted to purify it by the contact of His most sacred body.

Incentive to Baptism

Another reason, one of the most important ones, for the Lord to decide to subject himself to the ritual of the Jordan was to stimulate in men the desire for sacramental Baptism.

The reception of baptism is necessary for salvation, as the words of Jesus to Nicodemus show: “Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” (John 3:5).

John’s baptism led to repentance of sins, but did not have the power to forgive them. Sacramental baptism, instituted by Jesus Christ, has infinitely greater effects.

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Adam transmitted to all his descendants the Original Sin. The sacrament of Baptism cleanses the soul from the stain of this sin, bestows sanctifying grace, raises man to the status of a child of God, and opens the gates of Heaven to him.

It is the key to all the other sacraments, which are indispensable for man to faithfully fulfill God’s law. Such is the greatness and effectiveness of the Sacrament of Baptism.

Msgr. João Scognamiglio Clá Dias, EP

Text adapted from the magazine Heralds of the Gospel, n. 13, January 2003.

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