During Jesus’ three-year ministry prior to his crucifixion, he often forgave sins without baptism. Then again, we know from John 4 that Jesus did, for a while, spend time in the Jordan River region baptizing.
(Joh 3:22-24 ESV) After this Jesus and his disciples went into the Judean countryside, and he remained there with them and was baptizing. 23 John also was baptizing at Aenon near Salim, because water was plentiful there, and people were coming and being baptized 24 (for John had not yet been put in prison).
The text doesn’t say why Jesus baptized early in his ministry and then appears to have stopped. After all, there’s no record of his baptizing later in any of the four Gospels. It seems likely that Jesus was symbolically approving the work of John — they were not rivals, and John’s baptism was in preparation for the ministry of Jesus.
It also seems probable that the baptism of Jesus was also a baptism of repentance for forgiveness of sins. If Jesus’ pre-crucifixion baptism had a different purpose than John’s, surely the text would have said so.
If that’s so, then some will be bothered by Jesus forgiving sins pre-Pentecost by baptism. And some will wonder whether there’s a difference between Jesus’ pre-Pentecost baptism and Christian baptism. That is, didn’t both serve to provide salvation?
Well, yes and no. Yes, when the Jews return to God in penitence and humility — as symbolized by baptism — God promised to forgive and restore them to right relationship — but it was right relationship under the covenants then in effect — Abraham/Moses/David. They were not in right relationship under the new covenant of Jesus. After all, that covenant had not yet been given.
To be in right relationship under the Christian covenant requires faith in Jesus as Messiah. And it’s likely that Jesus was not yet revealed as the Messiah this early in his ministry — although John the Baptist seems to have figured this out. We know from the synoptic Gospels that Jesus warned his own followers not to refer to him as the Messiah until much later in his ministry.
(Mat 8:2-4 ESV) 2 And behold, a leper came to him and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, if you will, you can make me clean.” 3 And Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, “I will; be clean.” And immediately his leprosy was cleansed. 4 And Jesus said to him, “See that you say nothing to anyone, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer the gift that Moses commanded, for a proof to them.”
(Mat 16:20 ESV) 20 Then he strictly charged the disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ.
(Mat 17:9 ESV) And as they were coming down the mountain, Jesus commanded them, “Tell no one the vision, until the Son of Man is raised from the dead.”
In short, my understanding is that, early in his ministry, Jesus appeared as a great rabbi and prophet, but he avoided being thought of as the Messiah. Hence, when he announced the coming of the Kingdom at the beginning of his ministry, he didn’t yet claim to be the Messiah. Not yet.
Therefore, when he forgave sin, he did so under the covenants then in effect, fulfilling the many promises that God would forgive sin at this time in response to repentance.
But, of course, this resulted in its own problems. If Jesus forgave sins, then he appeared to the authorities to be a blasphemer, since only God could forgive (Matt 9:3, e.g.). But Nathan, a prophet, could announce God’s forgiveness to David.
Jesus seems to have gone out of his way to make clear that he himself had the authority to forgive, that is, that he wasn’t just announcing God’s decision —
(Mat 9:2-8 ESV) 2 And behold, some people brought to him a paralytic, lying on a bed. And when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven.” 3 And behold, some of the scribes said to themselves, “This man is blaspheming.” 4 But Jesus, knowing their thoughts, said, “Why do you think evil in your hearts? 5 For which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise and walk’? 6 But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”– he then said to the paralytic– “Rise, pick up your bed and go home.” 7 And he rose and went home. 8 When the crowds saw it, they were afraid, and they glorified God, who had given such authority to men.
N.T. Wright likes to point out how many Jews would have reacted to this —
I have already suggested that, during his Galilean ministry, Jesus acted and spoke as if he was in some sense called to do and be what the Temple was and did. His offer of forgiveness, with no prior condition of Temple-worship or sacrifice, was the equivalent of someone in our world offering as a private individual to issue someone else a passport or a driver’s license. He was undercutting the official system and claiming by implication to be establishing a new one in its place. We have also seen that a good deal of Jesus’ warning about impending judgment was focused on the Temple.
My whole argument so far, in fact, tells strongly in favor of seeing Jesus’ Temple-action as an acted parable of judgment. When he came to Jerusalem, the city was not, so to speak, big enough for the two of them together. The central symbol of the national life was under threat, and unless Israel repented it would fall to the pagans. He believed that Israel’s God was in the process of judging and redeeming his people, not just as one such incident among many but as the climax of Israel’s history.
This judgment would take the form of destruction by Rome. It would not (disagreeing with [E.P.] Sanders) be followed by the rebuilding of a new physical Temple. It would be followed by the establishment of the messianic community focused on Jesus himself that would replace the Temple once and for all.
N. T. Wright, The Challenge of Jesus: Rediscovering Who Jesus Was and Is, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1999), 65–66.
Matthew 9:8 says that the people marveled that the power to forgive sin was given “to men.” In other words, they celebrated the fact that someone standing in front of them could forgive sins, rather than having to go to Jerusalem to appear before God. The language surely anticipates the power of the future church to grant forgiveness through evangelism — making the church an extension of the presence of Jesus as occupying God’s Temple on earth.
So we see Jesus forgiving sin both through baptism (most likely) and entirely apart from baptism. The Pharisees and scribes did not question that God could and would forgive sins apart from animal sacrifice. They just didn’t believe that Jesus had authority to announce that forgiveness.
Why did Jesus go around forgiving people? Well, because forgiveness would be a sign of the end of the Exile and the coming of the Kingdom. Because he, as God the Son, was of a nature that could not refuse forgiveness to those approaching him with penitent faith. Because he loved the people and they needed to be forgiven. And because a generous forgiveness, based on faith in Jesus as Messiah, anticipates the Christian age — even though this was not quite Christian forgiveness.
Rather, this is more like the forgiveness David received after his sin with Bathsheba.