Why Was Jesus Baptized?: insights from Theodore of Mopsuestia

One of the somewhat confusing issues in studying the gospels is the rationale for Jesus’ baptism. In fact, this issue was hotly debated and widely written about in the early church. The question goes like this, “If John’s baptism was a sign of repentance, then why would Jesus, who is described as sinless, undergo baptism?”

While studying for my message on Jesus’ baptism at Eastbrook for this past weekend, “Baptized with Water and Spirit,” I was encouraged and built up by insights from Theodore of Mopsuestia. Theodore was a church leader in present-day Turkey during the 4th and 5th centuries. These insights are taken from a fragment of his writings.

Many raise the question, What in fact was the nature of this baptism with which the Lord was baptized? What did it amount to, the baptism of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, who, for the sake of the salvation of all, became human? As such he was to show himself to be the beginning of a certain paradoxical life on account of which he is called Adam, since for Adam’s sake and for the rest of those who have arisen from Adam he becomes the beginning of everlasting life, in the same way that Adam was the original of this temporary and mortal life.

This Jesus, I say, recapitulated in himself everything that pertains to our salvation. For just as he both died and rose again, we also shall do so, in the same way. Since necessarily we were to be symbolically transferred from this present life by baptism and settled in that life which is to come, he saw to it that this baptism should be fulfilled first of all in himself. In his providential dispensation of things, he had received, before all others, this baptism of adoption which is by water and the Spirit. He thereby showed this baptism to be great and honorable, in that he himself, first of all, truly accepted it. Moreover, he himself identified himself with that part of society outside the law of grace, in which we also take part. For it was fitting the the Lord, in humility of spirit, should become subject both the the prophet and Baptist, like a common person from among the people. He was baptized that he might hallow the waters and bestow upon us, through the basin, regeneration and adoption and remission of sins and all the other blessings that came to us through baptism, prefiguring them in himself. As God, however, he is the One “who takes away the sin of the world,” and as such he has no need of baptism.

[Theodore of Mopsuestia, found in Manlio Simonetti, ed., Matthew 1-13, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture 1a (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001), 51.]