Jesus lived on this earth “without sin” (Heb. 4.15). His forerunner, John (cf. Lk. 1.16-17, 76), baptized multitudes “for the remission of sins” (Mk. 1.4; cf. Mt. 3.5-6).
Why, then, did a sinless Jesus submit to John’s sin-atoning baptism (Mt. 3.13-17)?
John himself, knowing the holiness of Christ, even balked at baptizing the Lord, asserting that he (John) had “a need to be immersed by” Jesus. For this reason, John “kept thoroughly hindering him” (Mt. 3.14). In the original language, the term, hinder, is an intensive form, and is written in the imperfect tense, suggesting both a sustained and a strenuous refusal to baptize the sinless savior.
Jesus’ reply was this: “it is for us to fulfill all righteousness” (Mt. 3.15).
Those who rejected John’s baptism were rejecting “the will of God” (Lk. 7.30). Hence, to maintain his sinless status — as one who obeyed the law of God in every particular (Mt. 5.17f; Heb. 5.8; cf. 1 Jn. 3.4) — Jesus was immersed by John, not to take away sin, but to keep from sin. Once John understood this, he proceeded to baptize Jesus (Mt. 3.15).
Without doubt, John’s intentions were pure, but they were misguided. He acted from a reverential heart. Still, he was wrong.
Many of the Lord’s disciples have experienced similar episodes of misguided reverence — Peter (John 13.8-9); Paul (Acts 23.1; cf. 1 Tim. 1.13; Jn. 16.2); Cornelius (Acts 10.25-26); even John (Rev. 19.10; 22.8-9). These episodes acutely remind us that while sincerity is important (1 Jn. 3.18), reverence must always be chaperoned by sacred truth (1 Tim. 1.5-11; Jn. 4.24; 17.17).