John has been in the wilderness recalling the people to their holy purpose by preaching repentance in view of the imminent Messiah and the incoming kingdom of God. Many of the people have responded repentantly, confessing their sins and being baptized to mark this returning of their hearts to the Lord. Thus was the way of the LORD made ready. One day as John continued his task, Jesus arrived from Galilee.
What would he do? Would he reveal himself as Messiah, give a speech, gather an army, align with religious leaders, declare war on Rome? Nay; he came to John “to be baptized by him.”
John protested: “I have need to be baptized by You, and do You come to me?” John’s objection resonates with us all. Why would the one person who doesn’t need to repent submit himself to a baptism of repentance?
Jesus answers John, but not his question. He commands, then comments “Permit it at this time; for in this way it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.”
Two words in Jesus’ response bear the weight of what’s happening in the text: righteousness and fulfill.
Righteousness is the state of living rightly before God. The structural standard or framework for living righteously before God was the Law, which God gave Israel after saving them from slavery in Egypt. Nevertheless, it was a framework they were historically, corporately, and individually unable to fulfill in how they lived it out; because of either disobedience or their exacting, obsessive, and usually failed attempts to keep the Law completely, the spirit of living rightly before God gradually diminished. Ultimately, righteousness had become to them something of a puzzle with a few pieces removed, other pieces added, and one whose big picture few could remember anyway. The people needed a fresh face to remind them what the righteousness of God looked like; thus, fulfill.
When Jesus says “we must fulfill all righteousness”, he is asking John to let the righteous framework to which he has been calling the people to repentantly return to finally reach its righteous fulfillment through the Messiah. This fulfillment begins with Jesus’ baptism.
If any adjective describes the essence of baptism, I believe it’s identifying. Jesus submitted to the baptism of repentance, not because he had sinfulness to repent of, but because he was identifying with those who did. Just as in Christian baptism we identify with Jesus’ death so we can also share in his life (Romans 6:3-5), in John’s baptism, Jesus identified with the people’s repentance so they could share in his righteousness. He was immersed into the reality of repentance so, having entered the company of the repentant, he could lead them, as Messiah, into the reality of righteousness. The framework must transition to fulfillment so repentance can translate to righteousness.
The implications of the spectrum between Jesus’ baptism and our Christian baptism are full of wondrous grace: we are now only able to identify with Jesus because he first identified with us. This should give us pause. By identifying with humanity, Jesus identified with men and women, Jews and Gentiles; or in more relevant terms, to Jesus black lives matter. Whatever identifying or compartmentalizing label we tag onto humanity—gay, straight, married, single, rich, poor, young, old, political party, blue collar, white collar, immigrant, illegal, law enforcer, convict, terrorist, victim, introvert, extrovert—Jesus Messiah has identified with all in baptism in order to bring all into God’s righteousness. Anyone who feels they belong to any such label can know Jesus has come alongside them in his baptism in order to walk along with them, ushering them upon the way of the Lord.
After Jesus’ baptism, the heavens opened and the Holy Spirit lightened upon him in the form of a dove; “behold”, Matthew alerts his readers, “a voice out of the heavens said, ‘This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased’.”
Jesus has identified himself with humanity; now the Father identifies Jesus as His own. He may be man, but he is so much more. We are blessed to know Jesus is one of us, but that blessing is contingent on who he really is. We have been granted access to Jesus because of how he is similar to us, but we have been granted his righteousness because of how he is different.
Amongst the company of the repentant, one stands apart, ready to live rightly before God, fulfilling and revealing what life upon the way is all about. Christian baptism is a response to what Jesus’ baptism began; the start of a journey upon the path he paved. I pray that with each daily step you take, know it’s a path permeated with his abiding presence; that this great company of the repentant are being brought into a way rich with righteousness fulfilled on our behalf. We are free to follow him.