One of the puzzling things about the synoptic gospels is the baptism of Jesus. John the Baptist preached a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins (Mark 1:4). And Jesus was baptized by John (Mark 1:9). The question is why? Was Jesus a sinner in need of repentance? The emphatic answer is no!
What’s Up with Jesus’ Baptism?
But why was Jesus baptized by John since his baptism was a repentant baptism for the forgiveness of sins and Jesus didn’t commit sin? Mark gives us no editorial comment that explains the purpose of Jesus’ baptism, whereas Matt. 3:15 adds that he was baptized “to fulfill all righteousness.”
We can confidently say, however, that Jesus wasn’t baptized because he needed forgiveness of sins, (1) because Mark asserts that Jesus is Yahweh in Mark 1:2-3 with his citations of Isa. 40:3 and Mal. 3:1, (2) because the Baptist states that he’s unworthy to loosen Jesus’ sandals in Mark 1:7, (3) because God pronounces that “you [Jesus] are my beloved Son in whom I am pleased” in 1:11, (4) because Jesus resists Satan’s temptation in 1:12-13 (cf. Matthew 4), and (5) because Mark presents Jesus as obeying God’s commands throughout the gospels.
Mark’s Gospel emphasizes that John’s mission was to proclaim the coming of the promised, Jesus, the Christ, the Son of God (Mark 1:2-10). Context suggests Jesus was baptized by John for at least three reasons: (1) to express public agreement with John’s pronouncement about the coming Messiah, (2) to demonstrate that he was indeed this coming one to whom John bore witness, and (3) to identify with the sinners whom he came to save. That John baptized Jesus while he both proclaimed the coming of the Messiah and baptized sinners who repented of their sins supports this interpretation (Mark 1:4-9).
Son of God
Both a visual (the Spirit descending from heaven as a dove) and a verbal (God’s voice from heaven) affirmation support that Jesus is the coming Yahweh about whom the prophets prophesied and whom John proclaimed (Mark 1:2-8). The Spirit’s presence at the baptism of Jesus recalls the OT promise that a messianic figure would be endowed with God’s Spirit (Isa. 11:2; 32:1; 61:1). As one commentator notes, “This is, of course, a different strand of prophecy, from that echoed in v. 8, of the widespread pouring out of God’s Spirit on his people. It is more in line with the concept of the Spirit equipping special people for special tasks, as in 1 Sam. 16:13 (Judg. 3:10; 6:34). The combination of this gift of the Spirit with the concept of anointing in Isa. 61:1 (as in 1 Sam. 16:13) makes it a particularly appropriate mark of the mission of Jesus, the Christos” and the Son of God in Mark’s Gospel.
Jesus’ identity as God’s Son and as Messiah occur in Mark 1:1 and near the end of the gospel. This point is confirmed by the high priest’s question in 14:61 whether Jesus is “the Christ, the Son of the Most High God.” This does not suggest that “Son of God” and “Messiah” are synonymous, but that both titles are unique descriptions of Jesus. Whether Son was understood as a messianic title in 2nd Temple Judaism is debated, and whether Mark’s audience understood it as such is uncertain. Some would argue that texts where it appears to be used as a title for the Messiah are post-Christian (2 Esdras 7:28; 13:32, 37, 52; 14:9 and 1 Enoch 105.2). In the Dead Sea Scrolls, “Son” is used messianically when those texts discuss Ps. 2:7 or 2 Sam. 7:14 (DSS 4Q246).
Jesus’ sonship is well attested in the NT (Matt. 2:15, 3:17; 4:3; John 1:49). According to Nathaniel’s response to Jesus in John 1:49 (you are the Son of God; you are the king of Israel), when Jesus informed Nathaniel that he had always known him, at least some Jewish Christians believed that the Messiah was God’s Son (cf. Matt 1:1; Mark 12:35). Other Jewish texts affirm that the Messiah was Yahweh (Psalms of Solomon 17-18).
The term Son in John’s gospel (even if Nathaniel doesn’t really understand what he’s saying) highlights Jesus’ unique relationship to the father: he is God’s Son, an heir of the kingdom; he is the Messiah over that kingdom, and he is God in the flesh (John 1:1-5, 14). This interpretation is supported by the fact that Jesus is also called David’s son (Matt. 1:1). This doesn’t mean Jesus is literally from David’s physical posterity, but that Jesus is uniquely connected to David and to his throne by virtue of being part of David’s Jewish heritage (Rom. 1:3; cf. Matt 1:1-17) and by virtue of God inaugurating Jesus to be David’s successor to his throne at the resurrection (Rom. 1:4).
As God’s Son, Jesus has a unique and divine relationship with God. Since the gospels present Jesus as doing the works that only God can do (healing the sick, raising the dead, forgiving sins), Jesus’ sonship makes him an equal to God. Thus, when God calls Jesus his Son in Mark 1:11, he’s speaking with reference to Jesus’ unique and divine relationship with God, the Father.
According to Mark, Jesus is both Messiah and God’s unique Son. His relationship to God as his Son is one that distinguishes him from others who have a relationship with God through faith and become God’s sons when they receive the Spirit (cf. Gal. 4:6). Jesus provokes fear into the demons (Mark 3:11; 5:7); he casts out demons (1:21-28); he heals (2:1-12; 10:46-52); he forgives sins (2:1-12); and he resurrects from the dead (16:1-8). What Mark has said about Jesus in his introduction (1:1), God himself confirms at Jesus’ baptism: Jesus, the man, is both God’s Son and the coming of Yahweh in the flesh.
Jesus’ baptism affirms that Jesus, the man, shares in God the Father’s identity as Yahweh. This doesn’t mean that Jesus is the Father, for the NT makes clear that he’s the Son (Mark 1:13; John 3:16). But at Jesus’ baptism, God, the Father, who is Yahweh, declares from his heavenly throne that Jesus, the Son, shares in Yahweh’s divine identity. And as Yahweh, Jesus, the Son, identifies with the sinners he came to save. Jesus is the savior of sinners because he is Yahweh in the flesh who has come to save sinners. May Christian devotion to Jesus be consistent with the devotion Yahweh himself deserves.