Why was Christ baptized by immersion?
You’ll find that the purpose of Christ’s baptism is addressed by Jesus and expanded on by Nephi. It should come as no surprise that the scriptures say nothing of Christ being baptized for the remission of sins since he was sinless. Nonetheless, immersion is still a crucial component of the ordinance and serves for more than a symbol of washed-away sins. I have written before about the many dramas depicted in baptism and only some of them are discarded for Christ’s sinless baptism.
When Jesus came to John to be baptized, John “forbad him, saying, I have need to be baptized of thee” (Matthew 3:14). John perhaps recognized the sinless nature of the One who stood before him. Additionally, he was beginning to recognize that Jesus was the promised Messiah (as confirmed by the dove (John 1:32-34)) and deserving of his discipleship (John 3:28-30)). Jesus instructed him as to the necessity of the ordinance: “Suffer me to be baptized of thee, for thus it becometh us to fulfill all righteousness” (JST Matthew 3:43).
Having seen this ordinance in vision, Nephi then leads us to the same understanding that John obviously received. He raises the same objection, “know ye not the he [Christ] was holy?” (2 Nephi 31:7) But there is something more to the ordinance than than remitting sins. “[I]t showeth unto the children of men the straitness of the path, and the narrowness of the gate, by which they should enter, he [Christ] having set the example before them” (2 Nephi 31:9). If even the Son of God must be baptized, travelling some 80 miles to have someone with authority perform the required element, then surely there is no other way for us to bypass the entrance to the kingdom of God.
Nephi continues with Christ as the great Exemplar, noting that “he said unto the children of men: Follow thou me. Wherefore, … can we follow Jesus save we shall be willing to keep the commandments of the Father” by getting baptized (2 Nephi 31:10)? In my previous answer, I described this as a play within a play. In the case of Jesus’ own baptism, He is serving as the archetypal initiate, breaking a trail into and out of the water for others to follow.
What’s more, there’s another drama Jesus is participating in that was hinted at with the straitness of the watery gate. “[H]e 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). Just as we kill the old man of sin in baptism and rise up serving God, so Jesus kills His will and fully immerses it in the Father’s will. Jesus has entered into a covenant of obedience, and this covenant gives Him the strength to resist Satan and live by every word that comes from God (Matthew 4:4).
Being a covenant, God promises blessings in return. So the imagery of resurrection following death still fits in Jesus’ baptism, just as it does in ours. But, once again raising the question of innocence, holiness, and sinlessness, why is the image of death and burial included in Jesus’ baptism. After all, death is the wage of sin (Romans 6:23), so what role does it have in His ordinance? Once again, this ties in with His covenant of obedience. He saw that it lead to the cross (just as Paul found the image of the cross in our baptism). After prophesying of His coming crucifixion, He brings the cross and the other images of His ministry into the symbolism of being immersed in the Father’s will. “Are ye able,” He asks His apostles, “to be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?” (Matthew 20:22).
Christ showed us the proper way to enter into covenant with our Father in Heaven. His apostles have further instructed us on the meaning of ordinance and the covenant. Remembering only the blessings of the covenant (specifically remission of sins) can not only cause confusion when Jesus receives the same ordinance, but it can also cause us to forget the covenants are more than blessings – they include obligations. Our sins cannot be remitted if we do not come unto Christ and follow Him. We must be saved from our sins, not in our sins. Additionally, the blessing of atoned sinlessness brings with it the joy of Christ’s triumphal third act – a glorious resurrection, where all enemies are subdued underfoot.