To many Christians the baptism of Jesus seems almost as much of an enigma as it did to the Baptist. It serves as a precedent for our own baptism. It also forms an introduction to Christ’s ministry. And it is linked with a special endowment of the Spirit. But beyond this it seems inappropriate to speak of his baptism as one of repentance for the remission of sins. Does not Jesus forgive sin rather than confess it? Should he not be the baptizer rather than the baptized? Why then does his ministry begin with a baptism?

The answer is important, for it involves an understanding of the ministry itself as well as of the initiatory act. Indeed, Jesus himself is aware of this, for we remember that he speaks of the baptism that he has yet to accomplish. The baptism stands like a prophetic sign at the beginning of the ministry, showing us what kind of work it is that Jesus is to do. And conversely, the ministry itself sheds light upon the baptism. If the latter seems out of place, the reason is that we do not understand the former. Our failure to see the significance of Jesus’ baptism means we shall probably miss the real point and meaning of his ministry.

We learn from the baptism, first, that the ministry of Jesus is not just a good-will mission of healing, teaching, and friendly intercourse. It is a ministry of self-identification with sinners. In a sense this is true already in Bethlehem, where the Word is made flesh. But at Jordan Jesus consciously takes his place among the throngs that crowd down to the water and confess their sins. Or rather, he takes their place, so that the baptism of John finds its focus and fulfillment when Jesus is baptized, and the crowds give way to this one person who has no sin of his own ...

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