Immersion in water was a sign of ritual purification among various ancient religions and sects, such as the Essenes. Whereas such baptisms were ritual and repeated, the baptism of John the Baptist had a moral significance of repentance and amendment, that marked an initiation among those who were preparing themselves for the coming of the Messiah.

The Gospels of Mark and Luke tell us that John’s Baptism was “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mk 1:4: Lk 3:3). The Evangelists do not hesitate to tell us that John’s baptism was for repentance, then why was Jesus baptized? The New Testament never suggests that Jesus repented sins. Jesus calls others to repentance (Mk 1:15) and forgives sin (Mk 2:5).

Faith in Jesus’ sinlessness is affirmed throughout the New Testament:

  • “Can any of you charge me with sin?” (Jn 8:46).
  • You know that He was revealed to take away sins, and in Him there is no sin” (1 Jn 3:5).
  • “For our sake He made Him to be sin who did not know sin…” (2 Cor 5:21)
  • “He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in His mouth” (1 Pet 2:22)

Not only did Jesus not sin but John the Baptist declares that Jesus is “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” (Jn 1:29).

The writers of the Gospels could have conveniently left out Jesus’ baptism if they thought it implied that Jesus needed to repent. Likewise, if they thought Jesus’ baptism indicated that John was superior to Jesus. There were some people who would gladly have understood the baptism in such a way since at the time of the composition of the Gospels, disciples of John could still be found, even as far as Ephesus in Asia Minor, modern day Turkey (cf. Acts 18:25, 19:3).

Clearly the Evangelists believed that Jesus’ baptism was an important part of the story that needed to be told. Today’s second reading, from the Acts of the Apostles, identifies the beginning of Jesus’ ministry with His baptism by John: “… how Jesus of Nazareth began in Galilee, after John had been preaching baptism” (Acts 10:37).

It is certain that to the early disciples, Jesus’ baptism was a special moment in Jesus’ story that needed to be told. But why?

Joseph Fitzmyer, S.J. explains the Father’s declaration of Jesus as “Son”: “… the heavenly identification stresses the relation of Jesus to His Father, as an important phase of His earthly career begins” (The Gospel According to Luke I-IX, 483).

Jesus’ ministry is enabled by the descent of the Spirit, as Fitzmyer affirms: “The main purpose, then, of the baptism scene … is to announce the heavenly identification of Jesus as “Son” and (indirectly) as Yahweh’s Servant. The descent of the Spirit upon Him is a preparation for the ministry, the beginning of which is noted … immediately following …” (The Gospel According to Luke I-IX, 481).

The Evangelists were convinced that John played an important role in preparing for Jesus. The Gospel of John affirms: “That He may be manifest in Israel, I came baptizing with water” (Jn 1:31). Similarly, the Synoptics recount John “the one who comes after me is more powerful than I” (Mt 3:11; cf. Mk 3:6, Lk 3:16).

Following the understanding of the Gospels, St. Thomas Aquinas maintains: “The whole teaching and work of John was in preparation for Christ” (3a. 38, 2, ad 2).

According to Thomas, John’s baptism was a sign of an intention to reform. In itself, the baptism did not effect a change: “Neither did they receive anything, save only the sign of penance” (3a. 38, 4 ad 2).

Thomas follows the idea of some of the Fathers that Jesus was baptized to draw us to baptism: “Christ wished to be baptized in order by His example to lead us to baptism… that He might lead us more efficaciously, He wished to be baptized…” (3a. 39, 2, ad 1).

The Baptism of Jesus by John serves as an example for us. Thomas recalls the words of Ambrose that justice consists in doing first what you wish others to do and so you “encourage others by your example” (3a. 39, 1, ad 2; Ambrose, Commentary on Luke’s Gospel, 3, 21). The fact that Jesus underwent an exterior rite verifies that, interiorly, we encounter Christ and His grace in the exterior rites of the sacraments.

Unlike John’s baptism Jesus’ baptism changes us. In Matthew’s and Mark’s Gospels, John announces, “I baptize you in water, but… He shall baptize you in the Holy Spirit” (Mt 3:11; Mk 1:8).  The Gospel of Luke likewise asserts: “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Lk 3:6). In the Gospel of John, John is told: “The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and rest is the one who is to baptize with the Holy Spirit” (Jn 1:33).

Thomas comments, “By the baptism of the New Law men are baptized inwardly by the Holy Spirit, and this is accomplished by God alone” (3a. 38, 3 ad 1). Thomas recalls Augustine’s words, “our sacraments are signs of present grace” (3a. 38, 6 ad 5; Augustine, Contra Faustum, 19).

Thomas picks up on the thoughts of the Fathers of the Church that Jesus was baptized, “that He might sanctify baptism” (3a. 38, 1) and “in order to consecrate the baptism with which we were to be baptized” (3a. 39, 5). Thomas recalls that Ambrose had said that by His Baptism, Christ cleansed the water by the flesh of Christ that knew no sin (3a. 39, 1; Ambrose, Commentary on Luke’s Gospel, 3, 21).

We might not see how the cleansing of the waters of the Jordan affects us, yet Thomas affirms: “We become receivers of this grace through God’s Son made man, whose humanity grace first filled, and then flowed to us” (1a2ae. 108, 1). By undergoing Baptism, Jesus made baptism a means of grace for us.

Thomas relates Jesus’ baptism is our example. Just as the heavens opened when Christ was baptized, in baptism, the heavens are opened for us: “Those who are baptized make a profession of faith, and baptism is called the ‘sacrament of faith.’ Now by faith we gaze on heavenly things, which surpass the senses and human reason” (3a. 39, 5).

Thomas notices that Luke says, “Jesus, having been baptized and was praying, the heavens opened” (Lk 3:21). Thomas reflects “… the very fact that through baptism heaven is opened to believers is in virtue of the prayer of Christ” (3a. 39, 5).

Christ’s Passion opens heaven in general but heaven is open to each one in baptism, as Thomas observes: “Christ’s Passion is the common cause of the opening of heaven to me. But it behooves this cause to be applied to each one, in order that he enter heaven. And this is effected by baptism: ‘All who are baptized in Christ Jesus are baptized in His death’ (Rm 6:3)” (3a. 39, 6 ad 3). Thomas notes “At Christ’s baptism the heavens were opened as though the way had been shown by which we were to enter into heaven” (3a. 39, 5, ad 3)

Thomas calls attention to the Trinitarian aspects of the Baptism: “For the Son was in the flesh, the Father in the voice and the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove” (Commentary on Matthew).

The Father is “totally pleased in the Son, who has as much goodness as the Father” (Commentary on Matthew). “The Father loves the Son, and has given all things in His hands” (Jn 3:55).

The Spirit descended on Jesus but also the Spirit also comes to us: “All those who are baptized with the baptism of Christ receive the Holy Spirit… Therefore it was fitting that the Holy Spirit should descend upon Him” (3a. 39, 6).

Thomas acknowledges that God loves us initially as His creations: “For in whatever one’s good is reflected, in it something is pleased with it, as an artisan takes pleasure in his beautiful work of art, and as a man in his beautiful image reflected in a mirror. The divine goodness is in every individual creature” (Commentary on Matthew).

While our resemblance to Christ is “never as whole and perfect except in the Son and the Holy Spirit,” baptism makes us God’s children in the Son: “… especially at the time of baptism, by which men are born again into adopted sons of God, since God’s sons by adoption are made to be like His natural Son: ‘Whom He foreknew, He also predestined to be conformable to the image of His Son’ (Rom 8:29)” (3a. 39, 8 ad 3).

We are in the process of being conformed to the image of the Son by the Spirit.

Denis Vincent Wiseman, O.P.

The translations from the Commentary on the Gospel of St. Matthew were done by Fabian Larcher, O.P. The full text is available on the web page of the Dominican House of Studies in Washington DC:

References to St. Thomas’ Summa Theologiae customarily give the part of the Summa, the question and the article. Jesus’ Baptism is found in the third (tertia) part of the Summa. References in this homily are to questions 38 and 39. In the beginning of each article, Thomas raises objections to what he will explain. After he has given his answer, he replies to the objections. This is his reply to the second objection, which is identified with the Latin preposition, ad, meaning “to.” Thus the effects of John’s baptism are found in 3a. 38, 2, ad 2.