John’s soul was the soul of a prophet. It had been forged and shaped in the utter fire of God’s love. As such, his vision was singular, clearly focused on one thing alone- the will of God. His life was sternly simplified. He ate locusts and wild honey; he wore the simplest of clothing (Matt 3:4). He life was centered on the proclamation of the Word of God. Because his heart was captivated by the reality of God, John knew that the final kingdom was approaching. The decisive moment was at hand. Knowing the eternal urgency of this moment, he could not but attempt to draw all of God’s people into His offer of salvation from eternal destruction. “Repent for the kingdom is at hand.”
But then, disconcertedly, this man of holiness was confronted with divine holiness itself. This precipitated a crisis for John. This man of God now saw God-the-man coming towards him. What could he, John, do for Him. He knew that Jesus was holiness itself. John knew that his cousin had no need of repentance. Had he not lept in his mother’s womb when Elizabeth had earth the voice of Mary, the bearer of Jesus? John knew that he needed the baptism in the Spirit that only Jesus could accomplish. Jesus did not need to be prepared for the kingdom; that kingdom was already present in Him; He was that kingdom. Yet John is persuaded by his cousin to baptize Him so as to ‘fulfill all righteousness.’
Why was Jesus baptized? For us, baptism’s primary function is to remove sin. But it is clear that Jesus had no sin. So why baptism for the Messiah? The answer probably lies in the water rituals of Israel and the profound symbolism they carry. All of creation emerged out of the initially water-covered mass. The Lord brings about the first judgment on the world through the waters of the Flood which provides a new beginning. Through the waters of the Red Sea God saves His people Israel and gives them a new identity. Once slaves in Egypt, now they are freed from Pharaoh and become Israel in the Promised Law living under the Torah. Laymen were ritually washed as part of the ceremony by which they endowed with the priestly status. People (as well as household articles) were ‘submerged’ into a large reservoir of water called a mikvah in order to change their status from unclean to clean. In all of these, something new is taking place: a new status, a new beginning, a new identity.
Up until His encounter with John, John led a private life. Now, He was entering into the public stage of His ministry. He was always the Messiah, but now He was leaving His private life and entering the public sphere. The waters of John’s baptism cannot transform Jesus but it is Jesus who will transform these ritual waters into the place where men’s sins are removed and we receive the very Spirit of God. When water becomes connected to Jesus’ Passion, the power of God is present to transform all who enter into it to become sons of the living God. “Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God” (Jn 3:5).