Matthew 3:13-17; Mark 1:9-11; Luke 3:21,22; John 1:32-34
“Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.”
John the Baptist was commissioned by God to prepare the way for the promised Messiah, and the message that he preached was, “Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” Those who heard and believed John’s message demonstrated both their belief and their repentance by confessing their sins and being baptized. John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance. But one day, as he was busy baptizing repentant sinners, John looked up to see Jesus coming toward him in order to be baptized.
Jesus’ mother, Mary, and John’s mother, Elizabeth, were related to each other, which means Jesus and John were kinsmen. They might even have played together as children. But once he’d grown up, John took to living in the wilderness (Luke 1:80) so it’s not likely that the two men had seen one another for many years. Still, John must have recognized Jesus because he balked at baptizing him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” Jesus persisted, saying, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” So John baptized him.
John knew what his calling was. He knew that he was the one whom Isaiah spoke of ; “the voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord.’ ”(Isaiah 40:3) But even John did not know who Jesus really was until that very moment when Jesus came up out of the water, and the heavens were opened, and the Spirit of God descended like a dove and alighted upon him, and a voice spoke from heaven saying, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” (John 1:31-33)
But why must Jesus be baptized, when even the John the Baptist himself was not expecting it? This has been the subject of speculation among theologians and bible scholars ever since. Some believe that it was foreshadowing Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection, others believe that it symbolizes the sinner’s baptism into the righteousness of Christ, while still others say that it was a ritual to inaugurate him into his priestly ministry.
While all of these viewpoints have some merit, Jesus has actually provided us with a very explicit and succinct reason for why he must be baptized; it was “to fulfill all righteousness.” So then it is really not so much the “why,” but rather the “how” that we don’t understand. How does this act of obedience fulfill all righteousness? And what, exactly, is righteousness? Is it justice? Holiness? Moral perfection?
Webster once defined righteousness as “conformity of heart and life to the divine law.” In other words, righteousness is pleasing God on his own terms. It is God himself, and God only, who determines what is righteous. As the psalmist says, “Our God is in heaven; he does whatever pleases him.” (Psalm 115:3) So even though we may not understand the compelling reasons behind Jesus’ baptism, this much we do know: Jesus was baptized, his Father was pleased.