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To Fulfill All Righteousness: Jesus’ Baptism of Repentance

13 July, 2010

b picWhy was Jesus baptized by John? That is to say, why did Jesus go to John, who was callling people to ‘repent’ in view of the coming Kingdom (Matt 3:2), among people who were ‘baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins’ (v. 6)? Why did Jesus undergo the baptism about which John lambasted the hypocritical Pharisees, an act which symbolized ‘fleeing from the wrath to come’ — in short, the ‘baptism with water for repentance’ (see vv. 7-8, 11)?

John, after all, was also taken aback by Jesus’ request for baptism: “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” (v. 14). John was the sinner, not Jesus; why was Jesus asking to be baptized ‘for repentance’? Jesus’ answer to John represents not only the answer to this particular question but the character of his entire mission: “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” (v. 15). This is key.

The answer to the question of why Jesus underwent John’s baptism is not to deny the fact that it was a baptism of repentance; the answer is to embrace the awesome reality that Jesus’ baptism was precisely a baptism of repentance, as an integral aspect of his fulfilling all righteousness. Here, at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, we see that from first to last “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matt 20:28). Christ’s life no less than his death was to serve, in that ‘form of a servant’ in which he performed for our sakes and on our behalf the perfect obedience of the law, even unto death on the cross (Phil 2:5-11). Jesus’ righteousness doesn’t just cover our sins — it covers our repentance, too.

Even if we know better, it’s so easy to believe that the Christian life of repentance and faithfulness is the part of redemption that’s up to us; that God has forgiven, now we keep our noses clean; that God is gracious toward us, as long as we’re faithful toward him in response. Jesus’ baptism teaches us that Christ fulfilled all righteousness, even the righteousness that should be there in our repentance, but isn’t. Even my best repentance, on its best day, needs to be forgiven through and through by death of Christ, and covered by the righteousness of his life.

In initially wanting to ‘prevent’ Jesus from receiving baptism (Matt 3:14), John thought he was doing well; Jesus, after all, had absolutely no need of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. But what John needed to realize, and Jesus understood with utter clarity, is that he would accomplish all that we need.

It’s no coincidence that the next stage of Jesus’ ministry would be his defeat of Satan in the wilderness, as the faithful second Adam triumphing in the desert over the temptation that the first Adam failed to thwart in his garden paradise (Matt 4). And it’s certainly no coincidence that in this baptismal initiation into his earthly ministry — in this window into the heart of the gospel of free grace in the righteousness of Jesus Christ — the identity of God our Savior is revealed with more clarity than ever before:

And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” (Matt 3:16-17)

This is the God of righteousness and grace, not righteousness or grace, but both together, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. In his baptism of repentance, Jesus not only does so much to reveal the gospel, but he does so much to reveal the God of the gospel. Isn’t it fitting, then, that at the climax of Matthew we read not of Jesus’ baptism, but of the root and the fruit of his work, of the truth about God and the reality of his accomplished redemption:

“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matt 28:18-20)

The ministry that began with the baptism of the true Man for our sakes, is fulfilled in the call to baptism into the name of the Triune God. Jesus was baptized for us so that we might be baptized into his death and resurrection; he fulfilled all righteousness so that we might ‘be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ’ (Phil 3:9).

  1. 16 July, 2010 1:45 pm

    This was really helpful.
    Particularly because Armenians often abuse the baptism of Jesus for their own cause.
    Being basptised into the death and resurrection of Christ letting us share in his baptism of repentance for our sake, links covenantal baptism to the baptism of repentance that Jesus did once and for all for his people.
    This is helpful also, amongst others, for explaining the new covenant in Christ in new terms and imagery!
    Thank you!

  2. mario permalink
    5 December, 2010 7:35 pm

    The bible says that unrighteousness is SIN. I believe that to “fulfill all righteousness” means that Jesus took all our sins when John the baptist layed hands on Jesus and transfered all our sin onto Jesus. Jesus did not become sin but took our sin past, present and past sins.
    One must understand the old testiment and the tabanacle. Please read Hebrews 8,9,10 here we see that Jesus was the perfect lamb without spot or blemish.
    We must go back in history and understand the the custome of the people and the laws of God . Therefore the Tabancle the high priest had to take the lamb without spot or blemish and he would lay hands on the lamb and transfer all the sins of Isreals unto it and then it it was sacrificed. Here we see that John the baptist was in the wilderness for many years being prepared by God for the greatest event of mankind Jesus taking our sins onto him, the bible says that wages of sin is death. Jesus then had to pay the price for our sin and the cross was the payment of the sin.

    Hope I explined myself clearly. If I have not please comment

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