To Fulfill All Righteousness
John is preaching in the wilderness of Judea. People are flocking to hear his message that the long-awaited kingdom of God is about to arrive and that in order to be prepared for it, people need to repent of their sin. And John is baptizing those who confess their sin as a sign of their repentance.
A group of Pharisees come requesting baptism, but John refuses, demanding “Fruit in keeping with repentance.” Knowing what we do about the Pharisees, as Jesus would later say, “Everything they do is done for people to see” (Matthew 23:5), we can suppose that their reason for coming to John was not genuine repentance, but to display their “spirituality.”
John launches into a fire and brimstone sermon which culminates with his pointing to the coming of
one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire” (vs. 11).
It is right after this confrontation with the Pharisees that Jesus appears, and we have this brief drama which occurs in vss. 13-17. In the span of the five verses, three different voices speak, and each one expresses a distinctive opinion about the baptism of Jesus. Here are the three voices in this three-part drama: you have John the Baptist in verse 14; Jesus in verse 15; and "a voice from heaven" in verse 17 (the voice of God the Father). each voice expresses an opinion about what's happening. John objects to it; Jesus insists on it; and all heaven adds a blessing to it.
So, let's look at those three voices one at a time, and we'll consider what each one says and what it all means. Three voices, each expressing an opinion about Jesus at his baptism.
John Objects to it (vss. 13-14)
This whole event comes as a great surprise to John. Jesus shows up where he is baptizing people from "Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan” (vs. 5). Now, it wasn't an easy journey for any of these people to get where John was baptizing. But Jesus comes from further yet. Verse 13:
The Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John. But John tried to deter him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”
John instantly grasps the impropriety of this situation. How can he, a fallen man, baptize God incarnate? And clearly, John understood something of Jesus' divine perfection. "You ought to be baptizing me instead of the other way around." This was not an artificial statement of deference or humility. He had just said (v. 11),
"after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry."
Did John the Baptist fully recognize Jesus' deity? Perhaps. He was, after all, a prophet. In fact, according to Jesus,
" A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet . . . Truly I tell you, among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist" (Matthew 11:9, 11).
John correctly assesses the awkwardness of the situation. He is a fallen man. Although John was filled with the Holy Spirit from infancy, and by Jesus' own testimony, he was the greatest man ever born—he was a sinner. Baptism is more suited for someone like Him than for Jesus. In fact, John freely acknowledges his own need for a baptism of repentance (v. 14). He says to Jesus: "I need to be baptized by you."
Jesus is not only more qualified to perform a baptism than John the Baptist; John the Baptist has been prophesying that Jesus would baptize with the Holy Spirit. John wants that baptism. John freely testified that "He must increase, but I must decrease" (John 3:30). So, although our text says, "John tried to deter him," there is nothing in John's response that is sinful. In fact, this may be the only time ever when someone tried to refuse Jesus but didn't sin in doing so.
John is theologically correct according to everything he knew to be true at that time. John's Baptism was a public demonstration of repentance. Jesus had nothing whatsoever to repent of. If one of them should be baptizing the other, by all rights it should have been John repenting and Jesus performing the baptism. It speaks well of John's humility and his spiritual insight that he raised this objection (v. 14).
That's the first voice in this mini-drama, and it's the voice of John the Baptist. His response to the proposal that he should baptize Jesus: John objects to it. But John's objection is answered conclusively by voice number two. This is the voice of Jesus. Here's our Lord's own opinion of this event:
Jesus Insists on It (vs. 15)
Jesus replied, "Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness."
These are the first words spoken by Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew. They are only the second recorded words of Jesus in the gospels. Right here, at the very beginning of his public ministry, Jesus is insisting on participating in a ritual that symbolizes repentance from sin, even though he does not need repentance.
Theologians have suggested several explanations: First, that it is an endorsement of the ministry of John the Baptist—Jesus’ way of saying to the people, “John is right. You do need to repent.” Second, that Jesus was identifying with sinful humanity. Stepping into our shoes, so to speak.
The best explanation is the one Jesus gives himself, “to fulfill all righteousness.” But this is a problem because Jesus is God—he possesses perfect righteousness. What righteousness could there possibly be that Jesus needed to fulfill, to complete? The only explanation that makes any sense is that he is doing it for us.
What is it that we need to stand before God? Forgiveness? Well, yes, but forgiveness will only give us a clean slate. We will still be rotten inside. We need more than forgiveness to please God, we need perfect righteousness.
“Be holy, because I, the Lord your God, am holy” (Leviticus 19:2)
But if that is the requirement then we are in big trouble! We cannot live lives of perfect righteousness because we share in the nature of Adam. We need someone to live a righteous life for us. Jesus not only died for our sin, he lived for our righteousness. He alone lived a life of perfect obedience to God in every respect—not only in keeping the demands of the law, but also in suck practices as baptism for repentance—though he needed no repentance. In his baptism, right at the beginning of his earthly ministry, he was already “standing in” for us, just as he would on the cross.
For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous (Romans 5:19).
We glorify the cross of Christ—and rightly so—but let us not forget the importance of his righteous life which he lived on our behalf.
All Heaven Adds a Blessing to It (vss. 16-17)
At the end of verse 15, John the Baptist consents; Jesus is baptized; and (verse 16) as Jesus emerges from the water, a miraculous display of divine glory unfolds over Jesus. At this point a third voice is heard, and it is the voice of the Father, speaking His unqualified approval of the Son.
"At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him."
This was the sign John the Baptist had been told to expect, so this is first of all for his benefit. And here you have for the first time all three Persons of the Trinity manifest clearly all at once. The Holy Spirit, in the form of a dove, descends and comes to rest over Jesus.
"And a voice from heaven said, 'This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.'"
This is the Father's eternal assessment of the Son. The same voice from heaven speaks at the transfiguration of Christ (Matthew 17:5), saying, " “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!" Same verdict.
This part of the drama, too, has great relevance to our justification. This is the very same verdict God will render in the end as His final judgment, and it encompasses not only the Son Himself, but also all who are united with Him by faith. As a believer in Christ,
"[Y]ou died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. 4 When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory” (Colossians 3:3-4).
His life counts as your life, just as He in His death was a substitute for you. That's the great truth of justification by faith. It's not merely that we are forgiven. Justification is so much more than that. Christ not only took away our guilt; He provided us with the perfect righteousness God demands. He did far more than restore what Adam had lost; He elevated us to the highest possible position. God has "raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus."
"For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves" (Colossians 1:13).
All the merit of Christ's perfect righteousness is ours, and we are one with Him--so that when the Father says, "This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased," that verdict applies to all who believe. That is precisely what the apostle Paul has in mind in Ephesians 1:6 when he says that God "has blessed us in the One he loves." Even at the baptism of Jesus, at the very outset of His public ministry, "God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself" (2 Corinthians 5:19).
Job asks the question, "How can a man be in the right before God?" (Job 9:2). Job had no clear answer to that dilemma. You and I, from a totally different time zone, can look back on the finished work of Christ and give a definitive reply: We have a God-approved Savior who devoted His whole life to fulfilling all righteousness on our behalf. Isn't that an amazing truth? Don't ever lose sight of it and don't ever be tempted to let go of it or put your faith in anything less.
"Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved." (Acts 4:12).