“To Fulfill All Righteousness” (Matthew 3:13-17)
The Baptism of Our Lord Jesus Christ is an event recorded in, or referred to, in all four gospels. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the account of the baptism itself is recorded. In John’s gospel, it is referred to. Clearly God wants us to know that this is an important event in the life and career of Christ, an important event for us to know about. And so it is. Thus the church has set aside the First Sunday after the Epiphany every year for us to focus on the Baptism of Our Lord.
As I say, this event comes up in each of the four gospels, and it comes up early. For this baptism really marks the launching of Christ’s public ministry. From here in the Jordan, Jesus will set out to do what he came to do, which is to bring in the kingdom of heaven by saving his people from their sins. This is Jesus’ inauguration day, if you will, the day when he takes up his office as the promised Messiah. The Spirit comes upon Jesus, anointing him with power and blessing for the performance of his office. The Father’s voice attests to Jesus as his beloved Son, with whom he is well pleased–his chosen one, in whom he delights.
The other gospel writers, Mark, Luke, and John, bring out these points about the Spirit’s descent and the Father’s voice, as does Matthew in our text today. But it is only in Matthew’s account that we find the little dialogue that goes on between John the Baptist and Jesus, before John consents to baptize him. And so we will give some added emphasis to this part of our text this morning, under the theme, “To Fulfill All Righteousness.”
First, let’s set the scene. What was going on, when Jesus comes to be baptized? Well, John the Baptist was baptizing lots of people out at the Jordan River at that time. John was preaching, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” And people from all around were heeding that message, and they were coming to John at the Jordan, to be baptized, and they were confessing their sins.
There were also some others coming out to see what was going on, some Pharisees and Sadducees. Whether or not they actually wanted to be baptized, since that seemed to be the popular thing to do, and they wanted to look good in front of others–in any case, John called them out and stopped them in their tracks: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance!” John spoke of a coming end-time judgment, as well as an end-time salvation, and he saw both connected to the person coming after him, the Mightier One, whose sandals he was not worthy to carry. John was speaking of course of Christ, the mighty end-time Judge and Savior.
So here comes Jesus, that Mightier One himself. Only Jesus is coming, not as the mighty end-time Judge. He’s not wielding an axe to chop down trees or carrying his winnowing fork in his hand, to cast the chaff into the fire. He’s not doing that. He’s not coming as the mighty Lord. Instead, he comes as . . . well, just another Israelite, needing to be baptized. Huh? This throws John off. He doesn’t understand. This does not compute.
“John would have prevented him,” our text says. How come? Why did he want to prevent Jesus from being baptized? Was it because he was not bearing fruit fit for repentance, like the Pharisees and the Sadducees? No, that wasn’t it. Quite the opposite. The thing was, Jesus didn’t have any sins to repent of! That’s what threw John off. Why would Jesus need to be baptized? He was no sinner. He didn’t have any sins to confess.
However, in the presence of Jesus’ holiness and sinlessness, John is painfully aware of his own unholiness and sinfulness: “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” John asks incredulously.
How is it with you? Are you aware of your own sinfulness, as John was? Here was John, “the greatest born among women,” as Jesus would later describe him–John, a man set apart for the Lord and filled with the Holy Spirit even from before his birth–and if John declares his need in this way, how much more should we! For you and I do have sins to confess, many of them. How deeply and desperately do we need God’s forgiveness!
But Jesus? No way! That’s why John tries to prevent him. But Jesus is gently insistent. He answers John: “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” What’s going on here? What does Jesus mean by this? Why does he want to be baptized?
He starts by saying, “Let it be so now.” In other words, “Permit it for now, at this time.” You see, John was expecting a mighty entrance from this Mighty One, the Christ, the omnipotent end-time Judge. And Jesus is saying: “Yes, John, you will see that. Just not at this time. For right now, I’ve got something else to do. In fact, what I’m about to do is what will lead to that final, end-time judgment and salvation. It is necessary for me to do what I’m about to do, in order to get to that final point. This is how I’m going to bring in the kingdom of heaven and do the judgment-and-salvation thing. It’s just going to take a little different route from what you were expecting. Bear with me on this, John. I know what I’m doing.”
“Let it be so now,” Jesus says. And then he continues, “for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” “It is fitting.” It fits what I’m doing to be baptized in this way. To be baptized, standing in with sinners. This is how I am going to save these sinners, by standing in with them, standing in for them, acting as their substitute.
Remember what the angel told Joseph years earlier about why this child was to be named Jesus? “You shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” And so now, thirty years later, here comes Jesus, living up to his name. He’s embarking on his saving mission, to save people from their sins, precisely by standing in for us, taking our place, beginning with this baptism and aiming for–yes, aiming for the cross. That’s why this baptism is so fitting.
“Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” You know, there’s been a lot of “fulfilling” going on in Matthew’s gospel so far. Jesus’ birth fulfilled the Old Testament prophecies. And now Jesus says that his being baptized and going forward as the substitute for sinners–that this is to fulfill all righteousness. It fulfills God’s righteousness, God’s purpose and plan to save and rescue and redeem his people.
The Old Testament speaks much about God’s righteousness in this way. Psalm 71 is a classic example. The psalmist prays: “In your righteousness deliver me and rescue me”; and “My mouth will tell of your righteous acts, of your deeds of salvation all the day.” Likewise, the prophet Jeremiah foresees the day when the Messiah will come and execute righteousness in the land, and the people will be saved, and his name will be called “The Lord is our righteousness.” These Old Testament passages are all fulfilled in Christ, of course. And this is why Jesus can say that his being baptized and setting out on his mission in this way is fitting to “fulfill all righteousness.”
“To fulfill all righteousness.” To fulfill God’s righteousness. God’s righteousness is shown in keeping his promise, in his acting in history to deliver on his promises by delivering us from our sins. And this is what Christ has come to do. And now it begins in earnest, here at his baptism. What is so fitting about this is that it is precisely in his standing in for sinners that Christ will accomplish this. And just as the Father voiced his approval of Christ at his baptism, so the Father will approve of Christ’s substitutionary death on the cross, when the Father then raises Christ from the dead on the third day.
And all of this now–God’s righteousness, Christ’s substitutionary death, his resurrection, God’s forgiveness and eternal salvation–all of this now gets delivered to you, applied to you, with your name on it, in your baptism. In the waters of Holy Baptism you were joined to the Jesus who stood in the waters of the Jordan and stood in your place on the cross.
Do you need to be baptized by Christ, as John the Baptist confessed? Well, yes you do. And that is what Christ has done when he baptized you. All your sins were washed away, by virtue of the man standing in the river and going to the cross. The Spirit of God came down on you, giving you a new heart, and bestowing God’s favor and blessing upon you. The Father’s voice came from heaven, declaring you to be his beloved child. Yes, dear Christian, in your baptism you are joined to Jesus, connected to Christ in his death and resurrection, buried with him into death, and raised with him in his resurrection. You are a new person now by baptism. You have a real purpose to your life, and you have a bright hope ahead of you. It’s a great thing to be baptized by Christ, which you are.
“To fulfill all righteousness.” That’s why it was fitting for Jesus to be baptized. For this righteousness, God’s righteousness, is fulfilled as Jesus goes forward from the Jordan to save you from your sins and to bring you all the blessings of the kingdom of heaven. And therefore that’s a fitting way for you to think of the Baptism of Our Lord and to live in the joy and blessing of your own baptism.