Here’s an interesting thought: when Christ was baptized by John the Baptist, was He merely setting an example for us to do the same, or was He actually entering into a baptism of repentance? Perhaps you have never thought about it before. Or perhaps you don’t really care to think about it because you don’t see the relevance to the question.
Either way, let’s be clear: both Luke and Mark tell us that John was “preaching a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins” (Mark 1:4; Luke 3:3). All those who came to him were to repent of their sins. They couldn’t simply come and say they wanted to be baptized and not repent for the wrong they had done in their lives. It wasn’t a careless or casual exercise that people engaged in because it was the “cool” thing to do. John required that he see actual evidence of actual repentance. This is, after all, why he took exception to the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to be baptized and forcefully said to them that they needed to “bear fruits worthy of repentance” (Matthew 3:8).
Thus, when Jesus came to be baptized, I doubt that John and Jesus got together on the sidelines before taking the plunge so Jesus could say to him, “I am not really going to repent of anything, but baptize me anyway. I want to set a good example for others.” No such “deal” was struck between the two of them.
And yet, there is an obvious dilemma: John required people to repent of their sins and yet Jesus had never sinned. So how could Jesus repent and thus be baptized?
Could it be that He did, in fact, repent but that He repented on our behalf? Fortunately for us, the fog is cleared a little bit by some clarification from a wise woman:
“Many had come to him [John] to receive the baptism of repentance, confessing their sins,” Ellen White writes, “Christ came not confessing His own sins; but guilt was imputed to Him as the sinner’s substitute. He came not to repent on His own account; but in behalf of the sinner.” She goes on to write that “Christ honored the ordinance of baptism by submitting to this rite. In this act He identified Himself with His people as their representative and head. As their substitute, He takes upon Him their sins, numbering Himself with the transgressors, taking the steps the sinner is required to take, and doing the work the sinner must do” (Spirit of Prophecy, vol. 2, p. 60).
What a beautiful picture! Christ was baptized on our behalf. He confessed sins on our behalf. Even at His own baptism, He was bearing the sins of the world—sins that you and I had not even committed yet.
Of course, not only is this a beautiful picture of what Christ has done on our behalf, but perhaps it has implications for what we are to do on others behalf as well. Not that we have any merit that can be substituted for others, but we can repent for others—plead for their forgiveness and salvation. And, by so doing, perhaps our attitudes will be winsome to them and they will, indeed, come to repentance on their own.