Sunday, January 25, 2015

Why I Believe: Evidence Twenty-three: Joseph Smith and the Baptism of Jesus Christ

101 Reasons Why I Believe Joseph Smith was a Prophet.

Evidence Twenty-three: 
Joseph Smith and the Baptism of Jesus Christ© 

There is a passage in the Matthew account of the baptism of Jesus Christ that has puzzled students since the time of Christ. Matthew records that when Jesus came to John to be baptized, John demurred saying he needed to be baptized of Jesus. “And Jesus answering said unto him, Suffer it to be so now: for thus it becometh us to fulfill all righteousness. Then he suffered him.”  (Mt. 3:3, my emphasis.)

Many years ago I had a marvelous experience when I read Alfred Edersheim’s, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah. There I encountered a discussion of this issue that has been important to me ever since. Edersheim writes that “From earliest ages it has been a question why Jesus went to be baptized.” He observed, “Objections lie to most of the explanations offered by modern writers.” He listed a dozen contemporary (to him) explanations: Jesus came:

1.  “For His personal sinfulness.”
2.  “As the Representative of a guilty race.”
3.  “As the bearer of the sins of others.”
4.  “Acting in solidarity with His people.”
5.  “To separate Himself from the sins of Israel.”
6.  “Surrendering Himself thereby unto death for man.”
7.  “To do honor to the baptism of John.”
8.  “To elicit a token of His Messiahship.”
9.  “To bind Himself to the observance of the Law.”
10.  “To commence His Messianic Work.”
11.  “To consecrate Himself solemnly to” his Messianic work.
12.  “To receive the spiritual qualification for” his Messianic work.(1)

Edersheim objected to all of the above for two reasons:
“...the most reverent of these explanations involve a twofold mistake. They represent the Baptism of John as one of repentance, and they imply an ulterior motive in the coming of Christ to the banks of Jordan. ... As applied to sinful men it was indeed necessarily a ‘baptism of repentance;’ but not as applied to the sinless Jesus. Had it primarily and always been a ‘baptism of repentance,’ He could not have submitted to it.”  (2)
In other words, for Edersheim baptism was not just for repentance. It had another purpose, but here too the scholars had missed it.
“Again, and most important of all, we must not seek for any ulterior motive in the coming of Jesus to this Baptism. He had no ulterior motive of any kind: it was an act of simple submissive obedience on the part of the Perfect One–and submissive obedience has no motive beyond itself.” (3)
Say what you may about Alfred Edersheim, the man was a true believer and he could think! But is he correct in his analysis where the others went wrong? Enter Joseph Smith, Junior as translator of The Book of Mormon. 2 Nephi 31 contains a marvelous discussion of this same issue.  Here it is:
5) And now, if the Lamb of God, he being holy, should have need to be baptized by water, to fulfill all righteousness, O then, how much more need have we, being unholy to be baptized, ye, even by water! 6) And now, I would ask of you, my beloved brethren, wherein the Lamb of God did fulfill all righteousness in being baptized by water? 7) Know ye not that he was holy?  But notwithstanding he being holy, 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. 8)Wherefore, after he was baptized with water the Holy Ghost descended upon him in the form of a dove. 9) And again, it showeth unto the children of men the straitness of the path, and the narrowness of the gate, by which they should enter, he having set the example before them. 10) And he said unto the children of men: Follow thou me. Wherefore, my beloved brethren, can we follow Jesus save we shall be willing to keep the commandments of the Father?  (My emphasis.)
In one verse (7), Nephi solves the age-old issue of the meaning of Christ being baptized to fulfill all righteousness.  Jesus began and finished his ministry by submitting to the will of God.(4) God’s will is wholly righteous and embraces all righteousness. For the Savior to covenant with the Father to obey his commandments is therefore, the very essence of righteousness itself. Mankind, on the other hand, “ not the Lord to establish his righteousness, but every man walketh in his own way, and after the image of his own god...”(5) Thus, Jesus “showeth unto the children of men the straitness of the path, and the narrowness of the gate, by which they should enter, he having set the example before them.”

So far so good, but what about the “ulterior motive” of which Edersheim spoke?  He said obedience had no other motive. Does Nephi have anything to say about this?  Indeed, he does.  In his commentary about the passage cited above, Nephi continues,
13) Wherefore, my beloved brethren, I know that if ye shall follow the Son, with full purpose of heart, acting no hypocrisy and no deception before God, but with real intent, repenting of your sins, witnessing unto the Father that ye are willing to take upon you the name of Christ, by baptism, yea, by following your Lord and your Savior down into the water, according to his word, behold, then shall ye receive the Holy Ghost; yea, then cometh the baptism of fire and the Holy Ghost....(6)
Nephi mentions three things the candidate for baptism must do. Follow the Son, 1) with full purpose of heart, 2) acting no hypocrisy and no deception before God, 3) with real intent. If that is not a description of not having an “ulterior motive” I do not know what the phrase means. Though this counsel is given to baptismal candidates, surely, Christ of all God’s children would have been baptized with full purpose of heart. Surely, he would have done so “acting no hypocrisy and no deception before God.” Surely, he would have come to John with “real intent.” As Christ had no “ulterior motives” behind his baptism, neither should we.

I love Alfred Edersheim. I love Nephi. And I love Joseph Smith. I have said before in this column, and I am sure I will say it again, one of the things which I love most about the Prophet Joseph Smith is his uncanny ability to answer spiritual questions which have plagued the religious world. He most often does so simply, directly, and clearly. It is almost as if he went through the Bible and made a list of all the problems people have encountered and then set out to answer them. This, of course, is foolishness. The answers we find such as this are interwoven into various narratives through about 900 pages of new scripture which he produced. There is not a scintilla of evidence that he made such a list or had such a goal. But it is not impossible, nor improbable, that God himself may have had such a list and such a goal to be achieved in the Restoration of all things until we may eventually enjoy the “fullness of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.” Joseph Smith was his instrument in bringing about much of this restoration and fullness.

Thank God for Joseph Smith.

Let’s think together again, soon.


1. Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1977, part one p. 279.

2. Ibid., 279-280, emphasis in original.

3. Ibid., 280, emphasis in original.

4. Jesus began his ministry at his baptism, which as we have argued above was a submission to the will of God.  He finished his mortal ministry by dying on the cross, once again in submission to the Father’s will.  See Mt. 26:39-44 in reference to the atoning suffering in Gethsemane which carried over to the cross. But the idea is made explicit, even on the cross in JST Mt. 27:54 which reads "...a loud voice, saying, Father, it is finished, thy will is done, yielded up...."  Among his first recorded words in the pre-mortal life were, "Father, thy will be done...."  (Moses 4:2)  At age twelve he told his mother, "It must needs be that I be about my Father's business." (Lk. 2:49) I might add that we have several statements in John showing that Jesus maintained this commitment to his Father's will.  See, for example, Jn. 8: 16, 19, 28, 38, 42, and 49.  See also 3 Ne. 27:13.  Among his first words to the Nephites is this statement, "I have suffered the will of the Father in all things." (3 Ne. 11:11.)  Relative to this last point, Elder Jeffery Holland has observed:  
“I cannot think it either accident or mere whimsey that the Good Shepherd in his newly exalted state, appearing to a most significant segment of his flock, chooses first to speak of his obedience, his deference, his loyally, and loving submission to his father.  In an initial and profound moment of spellbinding wonder, when surely he had the attention of every man, woman, and child as far as the eye could see, his submission to his Father is the first and most important thing he wishes us to know about himself.
Frankly, I am a bit haunted by the thought that this is the first and most important thing he may want to know about us when we meet him one day in similar fashion.  Did we obey, even if it was painful?  Did we submit, even if the cup was bitter indeed?  Did we yield to a vision higher and holier than our own, even when we may have seen no vision in it at all?” [Jeffrey R. Holland, “The Will of the Father in all Things,” Brigham Young University 1988-89 Devotional and Fireside Speeches, (Provo: BYU Publications, 1989), pp. 76-77.]
5. D&C 1:16, emphasis added.

6. 2 Nephi 31:13.


  1. “I told the brethren that the Book of Mormon was the most correct of any book on earth, and the keystone of our religion, and a man would get nearer to God by abiding by its precepts, than by any other book.”

    Indeed, it restores the "plain and precious" answers to questions of the ages. Thanks for the post!

  2. Question. If Christ was baptized to fulfill all righteousness, then why do we not posthumously baptize persons who died before the age of accountability. Not unto repentance but as the gateway into the Kingdom of God?