(About Christ's Baptism and Ours)
QUESTION: I've been wondering about baptism for years. Why was Jesus Himself baptized at age 30, when He had matured enough, while in our time children as low as day-born, who do not understand even the meaning of baptism, are being baptized?
ANSWER: Excellent questions. Baptism has been used to picture various things, down through history. The Jews of ancient times baptized Gentiles when they became adherents of the Jewish faith. But you have raised two particular issues.
OUR BAPTISM MEANING
Let’s first think about the baptism of little children. This practice goes back many years, but there is absolutely nothing in the Bible instructing us to baptize little babies. Nothing! It is a tradition of some branches of the church, but it is based on error, and leads to dangerous presumption.
My father was baptized as an infant, in England, in 1902. His baptismal certificate reads: "Christian, dear child, we call thee....Now is thy heavenly rest begun." But sprinkling water on a baby’s head does not make him a Christian, or a member of the church. Salvation comes through faith in Christ alone, apart from any works or rituals (Jn. 3:16; Acts. 16:30-31; cf. Eph. 2:8-9).
There’s a reason why the rite is sometimes called "believer’s baptism." It’s because the examples we have in Scripture are of adults being baptized as a sign of their personal faith in Christ (Acts 2:41; 8:12, 35-37). And water baptism by immersion seems to fit the biblical pattern best. For one thing, it best interprets the meaning of the Greek word for "baptize." And it best pictures the death of Christ (down into the water) and the resurrection of Christ (up out of the water).
In baptism we bear witness to our identification with Christ, confessing the value of His death and resurrection for ourselves. Water baptism is for Christians, those who have put their faith in the Lord Jesus Christ as Saviour, and who want to witness to their faith before others, and also express their commitment to live for the Lord "in newness of life" (Rom. 6:4).
Baptism is a significant step of obedience to the Lord, but it does not save a person. No ritual can do that. It is an outward sign and testimony to what has already taken place, through faith in the Saviour.
CHRIST'S BAPTISM MEANING
The baptism of Christ was different. It came at a time when John the Baptist was using the ceremony of water baptism to symbolize the participant’s repentance of sin, and his or her desire to be ready for the Messiah’s coming (Matt. 3:1-2, 5-6). But the Lord Jesus was never a sinner who needed to repent. That may well be why John tried to refuse to baptize Him (Matt. 3:14).
The Lord’s response was, "Permit it to be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfil all righteousness" (vs. 15). So, what does that mean? We know that Christ’s baptism was unique, but the Bible doesn't explain exactly what His words mean. I think there were at least two things involved.
1) The Lord was about to begin His three years of earthly ministry, and for Him this was an act of public dedication to do the Father’s will (cf. vs. 17). That it was a significant (and unique) moment is attested to by the fact that the Triune Godhead was involved. The Spirit of God, taking visible form (as a dove) came and rested upon the Son of God, and God the Father voiced His approval from heaven (Matt. 3:16-17).
2) It was also a way of standing in the place of sinners. Though He was innocent of any personal sin, Christ was going to be the Sin-bearer, taking our place under the judgment of God. "He [God the Father] made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us" (II Cor. 5:21). "The Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all" (Isa. 53:6). So His baptism may have also been a symbol of His identification with us.
I hope those few thoughts are helpful to you. We have to discern baptism meaning from the Scriptures, not from traditions--no matter how well-meaning they are.