January 28, 2019

The Baptism of Jesus

This video was written and produced in collaboration with Book of Mormon Central.

The baptism of the Savior in the New Testament is an immensely important part of Jesus Christ’s life. His baptism marks the beginning of his mortal ministry and the Father’s voice on that occasion was a heavenly sign to many of Jesus’s followers that Jesus is the Father’s “beloved son.” But the reason Jesus needed to be baptized and the purpose of baptism itself is left somewhat vague in the New Testament. The Book of Mormon beautifully clarifies some of the gaps, and can help followers of Christ understand why it’s so important to be baptized.

The gospel of Matthew records that, when asked by John the Baptist why He needed to be baptized, Jesus responded, “Suffer it to be so now: for thus it becometh us to fulfill all righteousness” (Matthew 3:15)

In the Book of Mormon, Nephi, the son of Lehi clarifies what it meant for Jesus to “fulfill all righteousness.” Nephi explained that even though Jesus was perfect, by being baptized He “showeth unto the children of men that, according to the flesh he humbleth himself before the Father, and witnesseth unto the Father that he would be obedient unto him in keeping his commandments.” (2 Nephi 31:7).

Jesus did not need a remission of his sins because he was without sin, but by being baptized, he showed his humility, and willingly made a sacred covenant to do the will of His Father. In this way, He showed us what our Heavenly Father wants all of us to do.

In addition to teaching us why Jesus needed to be baptized, The Book of Mormon also plainly and distinctively teaches that baptism is a sacred witness and covenant that we make with God, that we are willing to trust in our Savior, and keep his commandments. Being submerged symbolizes the burial of our old selves. Coming up out of the water represents our being raised up into a new stage of life as we promise to follow our Savior.

Baptism puts believers on the covenant path and is an outward sign of our commitment to Heavenly Father. This unique doctrine is taught many times throughout the Book of Mormon. For example, Alma taught at the Waters of Mormon that baptism serves “as a witness before [God] that ye have entered into a covenant with him, that ye will serve him and keep his commandments” (Mosiah 18:10). Nephi, son of Nephi, also confirmed that baptism acts “as a witness and a testimony before God” (3 Nephi 7:25). Because of the covenantal nature of baptism, the Book of Mormon also strongly states that little children are not to be baptized.

Another detail included in the Book of Mormon is the name of the place where Jesus was baptized. Lehi identifies it as “Bethabara, beyond Jordan” which agrees with the KJV reading of the Gospel of John.

Some of the early manuscripts of the Gospel of John, however, say that the place was called Bethany, not Bethabara. But some equally early Christian fathers claimed that Bethabara was the correct name, and thus several modern scholars have suggested that perhaps Bethany and Bethabara are two names for the same location. Bethany means “House of Palms,” and there were many palm trees in the Jordan Valley. Bethabara means “House of the Crossing,” and there were several places where the Jordan River could be forded.

Though the exact location and name of the site of the baptism of Jesus may never fully be resolved, several significant and symbolic lessons may be conveyed by the location of Bethabara.

The Jordan river, as recorded in the Old Testament, was crossed by Joshua and the Israelites when entering the promised land. The word Jesus is the Greek equivalent for the Hebrew name Joshua. By being baptized at the place where Joshua (his name sake) had crossed, Jesus was also crossing from the ways of the world into the life of promise through his baptismal covenant to keep all the laws of God.

In addition, a few centuries after Joshua, the prophet Elijah went to the Jordan River, near Jericho, and there he crossed from this mortal life and was taken up into heaven. The Dead Sea, near that place, was also the lowest place on earth, and there, Jesus symbolically descended below all things, symbolically taking his followers into the promised land by beginning his ministry with his baptism. That place, where John the Baptist was baptizing, was filled with ancient meanings and of important prophetic significance. As Russell M. Nelson taught in 1989, it might be that Christ “chose this location for His baptism in the River Jordan as a silent commemoration of the crossing of those faithful Israelites under Joshua’s direction so many years before, as well as a symbol that baptism is a spiritual crossing into the kingdom of God.” [1]

Many important insights about baptism come from the Book of Mormon. As Nephi, son of Lehi, beautifully taught: “And now, if the Lamb of God, he being holy, should have need to be baptized by water, to fulfil all righteousness, O then, how much more need have we, being unholy, to be baptized, yea, even by water!” What a wonderful blessing it is, to go down into the waters of baptism, following the Savior, covenanting to obey his commandments, and taking upon us His name, so “that we may always have his spirit to be with us” (2 Nephi 31:5).

[1] Why This Holy Land? by Elder Russel M. Nelson, 1989 Ensign.

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