“Then cometh Jesus from Galilee to Jordan unto John, to be baptized of him. But John forbad him, saying, I have need to be baptized of thee, and comest thou to me? And Jesus answering said unto him, Suffer it to be so now: for thus it becometh us to fulfil all righteousness. Then he suffered him. And Jesus, when he was baptized, went up straightway out of the water: and, lo, the heavens were opened unto him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and lighting upon him: And lo a voice from heaven, saying, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3:13-17)
To truly understand baptism as a symbol of the cleansing of our consciences and the washing away of our sins, we need to understand somethings about ceremonial purifications and John the Baptist’s baptism of repentance.
Water was used for ceremonial purifications in the Old Testament (Exodus 19:10-13; Leviticus 8:6; Hebrews 9:10). It was used to consecrate the people and their priests so that they could meet with God and minister before Him. Only those who have passed through the waters of baptism have been ceremonially consecrated to Christ; that is, only they have publicly set themselves apart for communion with Him and service to Him.
The baptism of John the Baptist, which may be said to have bridged the gap between the Old and New Testaments, is best understood as a ceremonial purification rite. Its purpose was to consecrate the people for the coming of their promised Messiah. This is why John’s baptism was called the “baptism of repentance,” because it was believed that repentance alone could prepare the way for the Christ to come.
All who were baptized by John remained in the Jordan afterward to confess their sins. Once their confession was complete, they came up out of the water, symbolizing their purification from sin and readiness for the coming Kingdom of God. Interestingly, there was one exception to the rule.
When Christ was baptized by John in the Jordan, the Bible says that Jesus “went up straightway out of the water.” Being sinless, Christ had no sins to confess. Why, then, did the sinless Savior insist upon John the Baptist baptizing Him? According to Jesus, it was “to fulfill all righteousness.” In other words, Jesus did not just come as our perfect expiation, but also as our perfect example.
When we are baptized, we are following the example of Jesus. Since He is our perfect “example,” the Apostle Peter admonishes us to “follow in [Christ’s] steps” (1 Peter 2:21). Obviously, this includes the step of baptism. Here we find another important reason why every Christian should be baptized.
Notice, the Father was “well pleased” with His “beloved Son” at His baptism. Likewise, He is well pleased today at the baptism of all of His children, since they are following the example and obeying the command of His “beloved Son.”
The presence of the Godhead at Christ’s baptism—the voice of the Father, the baptism of the Son, the descending Spirit—led Augustine to say, “Let us go to the Jordan and see the Trinity.” The Trinity is also seen at our baptism, for we are baptized, as Christ’s commanded, “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost” (Matthew 28:19).