Regarding the Baptism of Jesus

The background

Augustine of Hippo who died in 430 A.D. maintained that the new birth was the cure or antidote for original sin:
He said that God sent his Son “so that those who believe in Christ might be absolved by the washing of regeneration from the guilt of all their sins – both the original sin they have inherited by birth, to counter which, in particular, rebirth was instituted ….” (Needham, The Triumph of Grace, p.251, cf. pp.59,121,286, 293, etc.).

Augustine also taught that the flesh is sinful (e.g. pp.123,149, etc.) and that all those born as a result of carnal lust or concupiscence are therefore evil (pp.121f.). In contrast, though Jesus was truly flesh he had no human father, but, born of the Virgin Mary, he was innocent (pp.122,127,132, etc.).

The Reformers inherited the ideas of Augustine and accepted his notion of original sin. Thus they and their successors regarded the flesh referred to in John 3:6 as evil (see e.g. Hodge, ST, 2, p.242). They argued that all those born flesh by natural birth are evil and on that account need to be born again.

Now clearly if all this is true, Jesus, who was not born as a result of carnal desire in the normal course of nature, was not subject to original sin and in fact never sinned throughout his earthly life, did NOT need to be born again.

In more recent times, however, scholars have concluded that John 3:6 is not referring to sin at all but to the contrast between the earthly (perishable) and the heavenly side of us (see e.g. Leon Morris, John, p.219 and notes).

If this is true, the picture changes. For Paul tells us in 1 Cor. 15:50 that flesh and blood, that is the earthly or natural side of our nature sinful or not, cannot inherit the kingdom of God. The implication is that he is simply endorsing in a different context and in different words the teaching of Jesus in John 3:1-6.

Now since Jesus was clearly human, that is, flesh and blood, and a true child of Adam (Luke 3:38) as a result of his incarnation and even died in the flesh (1 Pet. 3:18), he also needed to be born again. And this is surely the implication of the teaching of Matthew 3:13-17. Why then was Jesus baptized?

In the NT, baptism signifies repentance (John the Baptist), faith and the spiritual new birth. Now clearly, as John the B. recognized, Jesus, not being a sinner, did not need his baptism of repentance (Mt. 3:14). What he (cf. Nicodemus) did not recognize, however, was that as flesh and blood Jesus did need the outpouring of the Spirit to enable him to fulfil all righteousness, to be perfected in the image of God (cf. Mt. 5:48; 19:21) and to complete his mission here on earth which included dying for our sins. It was therefore as one who had fulfilled the law that he was granted eternal life (or new birth) in accordance with the OT promise (Gen. 2:17; Lev. 18:5; Dt. 32:47; Ezek. 20:11,13,21, etc.). He thus experienced the blessing of the Spirit without measure (John 3:34) as the acknowledged Son of God (Mt. 3:17).

In John 3:1-8 Jesus tells us that all those who are flesh, that is all human beings born of woman, must of necessity be born from above. Now if Jesus himself was flesh, a true human being born of woman (cf. Gal. 4:4), then inevitably he needed to be born again (from above) in preparation for his entry into the kingdom of God. To deny this is to lapse back into an old heresy of the church called docetism which denies that Jesus was truly man. Little wonder that John in particular warns his readers to acknowledge that Jesus has come in the flesh (1 John 4:1-3; 2 John 7).

There are various other arguments that can be used to support the notion that Jesus was born again. One relates to what Jesus says of John the B. in Matt. 11:11. There he tells us that John was the greatest born of women. Now in view of the fact that John himself recognized that Jesus himself was greater than he was (Mt. 3:11), Jesus must have meant that John was the greatest MERELY born of woman. The implication of this is that Jesus himself was not only born of woman but was also born of the Spirit.

Another simple argument can be based on Galatians 4:1ff. where Paul contends that even a son when he is a minor experiences first slavery, then servanthood and finally mature sonship. While it may be true that Jesus was never enslaved to the “elementary principles of the world” (ESV) he was certainly in the house of bondage, Egypt (Mt. 2:14f.), then under the law (Lu. 2:41ff.) and was finally acknowledged as God’s own Son (Mt. 3:17). Since Christians strongly maintain that men and women are not sons of God by nature, they are bound to conclude that spiritual sonship can only occur by means of adoption and the new birth. On the other hand, to argue that Jesus was God’s son by nature is to miss the point, as I shall now endeavour to show.

In Mt. 3:17 when Jesus is baptized with the Spirit, God says he is well pleased with him. Why? The only possible answer is that Jesus, as man and a true Jew, has kept the law of Moses to perfection and thus proved himself to be a true son, in fact, the one and only Son. With him function matched ontology. According to Lev. 18:5 (cf. Gen. 2:17, etc.) keeping the law was the means of attaining life, but no one in the OT succeeded in this (1 K. 8:46; Ps. 130:3; 143:2, cf. Gal. 3:3,5). In contrast, Jesus did, and so he was baptized at the time set by the father, which signified the end of his stint under the law (cf. Gal. 4:2). This surely demonstrated his acceptance and status as God’s Son. If no one else realized this, the devil certainly did. Hence his all-out attempt to undermine him by means of temptation (Mt. 4:1-11).

Many other arguments could be used. For example, John 3:3,5,6,7 all make it plain that the new birth is a NATURAL necessity which brings man to the maturity God has planned from the beginning. If the need to be born again arose merely from sin, Jesus would surely have used an imperative as he did when he urged people to repent (Mark 1:15; Luke 13:3,5).

To sum up, traditional theology failed to recognize that revelation is progressive. Thus our forebears understood Scripture, and man likewise, as a flat uniformity. Development and hence diminished responsibility is basic to man (see e.g. 1 Cor. 13:11, etc.), and God
made provision for this. A true covenant theology, which is also dispensational, as even Calvin recognized (Inst. 2:11:13), makes this plain.

Why Was Jesus Baptised?

Over the years various answers have been given to this question but none to my knowledge has proved convincing.

Matthew 3:13-17 and Acts 2:1ff.; 10:44-48

Anyone coming to the NT for the first time who compared Matthew 3:16-17 with Acts 2 and 10 might reasonably conclude that the picture is basically the same and that baptism points to or signifies rebirth.

Difficulties and background

Traditionally the idea that Jesus was subject to the new birth has been regarded as anathema. Why?

John the Baptist

First, it is asserted six times in the NT that John the Baptist baptized with water while Jesus baptized with the Holy Spirit. Furthermore, it is explicitly stated that John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance (Mark 1:4). Even John himself was reluctant to baptize Jesus since he apparently recognized (a) that Jesus had no sins to repent of, and (b) that he himself needed Jesus’ baptism of the Spirit (Mt. 3:14). For all that Jesus tells him to proceed, and as a result of his action God pours out his Spirit on his beloved Son with whom he is well pleased.

Augustine of Hippo

Next, in the fifth and subsequent centuries Augustine of Hippo (d.430 A.D.) had an enormous influence on the church in the West. Though his mother Monica was a Christian, he had a pagan education and, early in his career, he embraced Manicheism which taught that matter, including the flesh, was evil. Though he later claimed to have renounced Manicheism when he became a Christian, Augustine nevertheless went on to assert that all those who were born naturally, that is, as a result of what he called ‘carnal lust’ or ‘concupiscence’ inherited Adam’s sin and were hence evil. As the offspring of the Virgin Mary, Jesus, though truly flesh, was innocent.

The Church and John 3

As a consequence of these views the conclusion drawn by the church from Jesus’ discussion with Nicodemus in John 3 was that the new birth was the antidote of original sin (see e.g. Needham, p.251, etc.). In other words, since our first natural or fleshly birth involves sin, we need to be born again. Indeed, since baptism normally signifies new birth, Augustine went so far as to teach that all babies who remained unbaptised went to hell. Thus his dogmas of infant baptism and baptismal regeneration haunt the church to this day.

(My wife is a twin. Her sister died when she was 10 days old. Her mother was not a Christian but such was the superstition of the time that she had her dying daughter baptized.)

Catholics, Protestants and Original Sin

Though today even Catholics may try to soften aspects of Augustine’s teaching, the fact remains that many, including Protestants, still believe in original sin and that the new birth is a dire necessity to counter it.

The Twentieth Century

To my knowledge, since 1880 at least when Bishop Westcott’s commentary was published, scholarly understanding of John 3 has changed. While it is true that Paul sometimes uses the term ‘flesh’ to imply sin, it is almost universally held that John does not (see e.g. L.L.Morris, John, p.219 and notes). This being so, it is recognized that what Jesus is doing in John 3:6 is contrasting our earthly or physical (natural) side with the spiritual heavenly side. Thus, since we are fitted to live on the earth by deriving from the earth, so we must be fitted for heaven by deriving from heaven. In other words, we must undergo a spiritual birth by being born from above (cf. Gal. 4:26) in preparation for eternal life in the presence of God (cf. John 1:12f.). In conformity with this, in 1 Corinthians 15:50 Paul tells us plainly that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God.

The Consequence of the Modern Understanding

If we assume that the modern understanding of John 3 is correct and that the flesh in itself is not evil, then it has logical consequences, one in particular, that theologians for various reasons* seem reluctant to make especially with regard to 3:6.** What Jesus actually says is “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit” (ESV). But if Jesus himself was flesh, then he himself had to be born again. To deny this is to deny that he was incarnate, that is, flesh, which the NT, John in particular (1 John 4:1-3; 2 John 7) regards as a basic essential of the gospel.


I conclude then that when Jesus was baptized and God poured out his Spirit on him and publicly acknowledged him as his Son, Jesus, whom the author of Hebrews calls the pioneer and perfecter of our faith (Heb. 12:2 RSV), was born again. Like God (Dt. 1:30) and Joshua (Dt. 31:3) in the OT, Jesus went before us and blazed the trail of the regenerate life, as Hebrews especially makes plain (cf. Mt. 19:21).

So what is called for in these days is a paradigm shift in our understanding of Jesus. The docetic Jesus of traditional ecclesiastical dogma must give way to the truly human or incarnate Jesus of the Scriptures (see espec. Heb. 2).

A simple syllogism:

Major premise: All who are born of the flesh need to be born again (John 3:3,5,6,7).

Minor premise: Jesus was born of the flesh (Luke 1:42; Gal. 4:4).

Conclusion: Therefore Jesus must have been born again.

Finally, what needs to be understood is that just as Jesus’ righteousness is the foundation of our righteousness (justification by faith, Phil. 3:9), so Jesus’ regeneration is the foundation of ours (Gal. 4:5-7, cf. John 3:16,36; 1 John 2:23-25; 5:11f.). Apart from it, we could never hope to be born again and together with him become the children and heirs of God (Rom. 8:15-17, cf. Gal. 4:1-7).

*Some perhaps simply don’t see the implication. I fancy, however, that creeds, confessions, church tradition, church affiliation, pride, prejudice, money and fear of reactionary fundamentalist traditionalists also play a large part.

** Berkhof (Systematic Theology, p.472) maintains that Jesus statement in John 3:3 “is absolute and leaves no room for exceptions”. The same is surely even more obviously true of John 3:6.