In John 4:1, John goes out of his way to tell readers that Jesus didn’t baptize anyone. Why is this?
First, John the Baptist tells his audience that he baptizes with water, but that the Holy Spirit baptizes with the Holy Spirit and with fire (Matt 3:11). This means that while there is a continuity between John’s ministry and Jesus’s ministry, there is also an important distinction between them. John’s ministry was to prepare the way for Jesus’s ministry. John is the servant of Jesus.
The Pharisees asked John if he was the Messiah, and John pointedly tells them no, and that there is another to come who is greater than he, and that is only job is to point to Jesus. This distinction underscores the superiority of Jesus to John. If Jesus goes around water baptizing people, then he could come off as an imitator or peer of John’s. While Jesus and John work together for kingdom fulfillment, Jesus is superior. Jesus is the one who takes away the sin of the world, not John. John merely points people to the Savior.
This very point explains John’s further comment that only Jesus’s disciples did the baptizing. The disciples are servants of the master (John 13:16). We see in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians that a superiority debate arose among the Corinthians and the debate was connected to who baptized who. Paul exhorts them that they are all equal in Christ. Paul says this:
I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers. What I mean is that each one of you says, “I follow Paul,” or “I follow Apollos,” or “I follow Cephas,” or “I follow Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one may say that you were baptized in my name. (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas. Beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.) For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.1 Corinthians 1:10–17
The superiority of Jesus to John comes into play regarding the fact that John baptized Jesus. When Jesus instructs John to baptize him, John objects precisely on the grounds of Jesus’s superiority (Matt 3:13–17). Jesus, however, insists. So, if Jesus’s baptism is not a sign of Jesus’s inferiority to John, why did Jesus get baptized?
Jesus was baptized as a prefiguring of his death, burial, and resurrection. In the resurrection, Jesus is the firstborn of the new creation. He is the new Adam. New creation is the central meaning in baptism. Noah was baptized in the flood and the Israelites through the Red Sea crossing. These events underscore that Noah, and the Israelites are God’s “new humanity” that ultimately point to and are fulfilled in Jesus’s death, burial, and resurrection. The sign of baptism for Jesus, then, is one that points to him as the true new Adam. Jesus isn’t baptized because he needs cleansed of sin, he’s baptized as a sign that he is going to redeem death.
Why does this matter and what does it mean for us?
That Jesus didn’t baptize is a reminder of his superiority in the Kingdom of God. Jesus is the preeminent one, not us. He is the King, we are the servants. We are not the ones doing the saving, He is. Every ounce of Christian ministry comes from him and glorifies him.
This is a part of what John means when he says that while he baptizes with water, Jesus baptizes with the Holy Spirit. John is saying that water baptism is an outward symbol of an inward reality. The symbol is administered by the disciples, but the inward reality of sanctification—the redemption of a sin nature—is accomplished by Jesus.
We see the fulfillment of the baptism in the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Jesus teaches that in that world-changing event of Pentecost, he is the one who pours out the Holy Spirit. That’s a unique privilege of the King.
The application of this can be summed up in John’s words, “I must decrease, and he must increase” (John 3:30). Jesus is the main character on the stage of the story of redemption in the world, not us. We must be careful not to be tripped up the temptation to think that God’s saving work through us is any work of our own. It is all His work. Jesus is the one who takes away the sin of the world, not us.