Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John. But John tried to deter him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” Jesus replied, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” Then John consented. As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” – Matthew 3:13-17
Why is Jesus baptized? There are two reasons for this question: (1) if what you believe about baptism is true, that it forgives sins, and (2) if what you believe about Jesus is true, that He is sinless, then why is He baptized? What you believe about baptism is true: it does forgive sins. Martin Luther in his Small Catechism says that baptism “works forgiveness of sins, delivers from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to all who believe this, as the words and promises of God declare.” What you believe about Jesus also is true: He is sinless. When Jesus says “let he who is without sin cast the first stone” in the story of the woman caught in adultery, he is referring to Himself as sinless, not to the people gathered around Him (see John 7:53-8:11). The answer to the question “Why is Jesus baptized?” may be found in Jesus’ words to John the Baptist from the third chapter of Matthew and in the Apostle Paul’s words from the sixth chapter of his letter to the Romans.
Jesus goes to the river Jordan from Galilee in order to be baptized by John the Baptist. John the Baptist tries to stop Jesus by saying: “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me” (Matthew 3:14b)? Why does John the Baptist say this? Only a few verses earlier, John the Baptist addresses the people, including the Pharisees and Sadducees, who come out to be baptized by him. John the Baptist says this about Jesus and His baptism: “I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me will come one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not fit to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire” (Matthew 3:11). If Jesus’ baptism “with the Holy Spirit and with fire” is superior to John the Baptist’s baptism “with water”, then shouldn’t John the Baptist be baptized by Jesus? John the Baptist thinks so and, therefore, says what he says to Jesus in Matthew 3:14b above. It is in response to this question by John the Baptist that Jesus says to him, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness” (Matthew 3:15). What does Jesus mean when He says this?
Jesus fulfill all righteousness. How does He do it? He suffers and dies on the cross for the sins of the whole world. The Apostle Paul, in his letter to the Romans, says “that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus [have been] baptized into his death” (Romans 6:3). What does Paul mean? Adam Fahling, in his book The Life of Christ, says that “[with] His baptism Jesus began His Messianic work [and thus] He became Jesus, the Savior of mankind.” Certainly, Jesus is the “Savior of mankind” at His birth, but what does He actually do to save mankind before His baptism? Not much according to the narrative of Jesus’ birth from Luke’s Gospel (see Luke 2:1-20). Not much either according to the narrative of the Visit of the Magi from Matthew’s Gospel (see Matthew 2:1-12). Not much either according to the narrative of the Boy Jesus at the Temple from Luke’s Gospel (see Luke 2:41-52). There are even more examples too numerous to list here. With His baptism, Jesus begins His Messianic journey which takes Him to the cross and His death. This is why Paul says what he says in Romans 6:3 above. Jesus’ baptism is the starting point for Jesus to “fulfill all righteousness.” This is why Jesus is baptized.
What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. – Romans 6:1-4