Opening the Word: Why Jesus was baptized

Was it fitting and necessary for Jesus to be baptized? It is an important question, and the answer says much about the person and mission of Jesus. It has, therefore, been taken up by theologians and doctors of the Church over the centuries.

St. Thomas Aquinas, in the Summa Theologica (see III, Q. 39, 1-8), listed a number of objections, including: “It would seem that it was not fitting for Christ to be baptized. For to be baptized is to be washed. But it was not fitting for Christ to be washed, since there was no uncleanness in him. Therefore it seems unfitting for Christ to be baptized.” His answer draws upon both Scripture and the Church Fathers: “I answer that, it was fitting for Christ to be baptized. First, because, as St. Ambrose says on Luke 3:21: ‘Our Lord was baptized because he wished, not to be cleansed, but to cleanse the waters, that, being purified by the flesh of Christ that knew no sin, they might have the virtue of baptism.’”

St. Thomas also quoted St. Gregory Nazianzen, who had written, “Christ was baptized that he might plunge the old Adam entirely in the water.” He further noted that Jesus, in being baptized, was setting an example for everyone who would follow him and take up the cross of discipleship.

After all, if the sinless Son of God would willingly enter the waters of baptism, how much more urgent is it that we sinners are washed in the waters of regeneration?

There are other reasons given, including one implicit in the sermon of St. Peter to the first Gentile convert, Cor-nelius, heard in today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles: “You know the word that [God] sent to the Israelites as he proclaimed peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all, what has happened all over Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John preached, how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power.”

Here the emphasis is on the anointing; the Greek word is echrisen and the root word is chrió, from which comes the word “Christ.” And the title “Christ” is itself the Greek translation of the Hebrew word “Messiah,” which means “anointed.” Jesus was anointed by the Holy Spirit and presented as uniquely fulfilling the threefold office of prophet, priest and king.

The term “Messiah” occurs some 530 times in the Old Testament, and the importance of the title would be difficult to overstate. For example, Psalm 45, one of the messianic psalms, states this of the anticipated Messiah: “Your throne, O God, stands forever, your royal scepter is a scepter for justice. You love justice and hate wrongdoing; therefore God, your God, has anointed you with the oil of gladness above your fellow kings” (Ps 45:7-8).

Jesus, however, was not anointed as Messiah by oil; instead, the Spirit of God descended “like a dove” and the Father spoke his words of blessing, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”

Thus, wrote St. Irenaeus, the one “who anointed is the Father, the one who was anointed is the Son, and he was anointed with the Spirit who is the anointing” (see Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 438). He further noted that this same anointing of the Holy Spirit is given to all those baptized into Jesus the Christ.

Entering the waters prepared by Christ, the baptized emerge cleansed by the Holy Spirit, filled with divine life, made children of the Father. 

Carl E. Olson is the editor of