Thomas Reese on Baptism for Mission, Not Only the Remission of Sins

“The Baptism of Christ” by Joachim Patinir, circa 1510. Image courtesy of Kunsthistorisches Museum/Creative Commons

The Rev. Thomas J. Reese, a Jesuit priest, is a Senior Analyst at RNS. Previously he was a columnist at the National Catholic Reporter (2015-17) and an associate editor (1978-85) and editor in chief (1998-2005) at America magazine. He was also a senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University (1985-98 & 2006-15) where he wrote Archbishop, A Flock of Shepherds, and Inside the Vatican. Earlier he worked as a lobbyist for tax reform. He has a doctorate in political science from the University of California Berkeley. He entered the Jesuits in 1962 and was ordained a priest in 1974 after receiving a M.Div from the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of BCNN1.


Last Sunday (Jan. 12) most Christian churches celebrated the baptism of Jesus, an event in his life I always found confusing. I could never understand why Jesus was baptized. After all, Catholics believe that Jesus is the Son of God. He is sinless. He never committed any personal sins, and he was not even subject to original sin.

In Matthew’s Gospel (3:13-17), John the Baptist appears to be just as confused as I was. He does not want to baptize Jesus. He says Jesus should baptize him.

So why did Jesus get baptized?

I think the problem John and I had with the baptism of Jesus is that we had a very narrow and deficient view of baptism. When I grew up and memorized my Baltimore Catechism, baptism was described as the sacrament that washed away original sin, the sin we inherit from Adam and Eve. For adults, it also washed away all personal sins.

Likewise, for John, baptism was for the remission of sins.

There is nothing wrong with this description of baptism, as far as it goes, it just does not tell us enough.

If we want to know what the baptism of Jesus and our own baptisms are all about, we need to look to the prophet Isaiah, from whom the Gospel writers borrow in describing Jesus’ baptism.

The baptism of Jesus is all about his commissioning by his Father. In Matthew’s Gospel, after Jesus is baptized, “the heavens were opened for him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming upon him. And a voice came from the heavens, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.’”

The words and actions in the gospel echo those from the Old Testament Book of Isaiah: “Here is my servant…, my chosen one with whom I am well pleased, upon whom I have put my spirit.”

Some early Christians thought that, at his baptism, Jesus for the first time received the Spirit. They also thought that he became the Son of God at this point in his life. It is clear from the infancy narratives that Luke believes that Jesus was the Son of God and united with the Spirit from the moment of his conception.

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Source: Religion News Service