John, well, he’s different. Jesus’ kooky cousin wears camel’s hair and eats locusts and wild honey. So its only fitting that his baptism is a little different too. Christian baptism symbolizes and identifies us with the death burial and resurrection of our Lord (Romans 6:1-11). That hasn’t happened yet so what is John’s baptism about? It is the baptism of repentance (symbolizing repentance) in preparation for the coming King’s redemptive rule (Acts 19:1-7 emp. v. 4).
So if John’s baptism is symbolic of repentance, what is sinless Jesus being baptized for? Matthew’s account is written to give an answer to that question. All four gospels record Jesus’ baptism, but only Matthew includes Jesus’ explanation, “To fulfill all righteousness!” Yet this explanation only seems to make things worse! But notice Jesus says to fulfill – not because He lacks but to fulfill, not because he is repentant, but to fulfill. Three interpretations have gained favor among evangelicals. I don’t think the first one is valid; I think the second one closer to the truth, but only as understood in light of the the third option.
- Jesus’ baptism is anticipatory of His death, burial, and resurrection whereby he will fulfill all righteousness and make many righteous.
- Jesus’ baptism is an act of obedience as a man to the new command of God going out through John.
- In Jesus’ baptism He is identifying Himself with the sinners for whom He came to fulfill all righteousness.
So Jesus is fulfilling all righteousness not for Himself, but us, as our substitute. He doesn’t lack righteousness, we do. He comes as the second Adam, achieving all righteousness in our place (Romans 5:18-19).
Theologians have a helpful way to understand this; it is called the active and passive obedience of Christ. Christ not only passively bore your sins and the wrath of God, He also actively achieved all righteousness in your place. But don’t misunderstand this language to say that Jesus’ life comprises His active obedience, while His death comprises His passive obedience. Jesus suffered for us during His life, and His ultimate act of obedience was that of laying down His life. Yes, the cross is the ultimate, climatic act of both the passive and active obedience of Christ, but it cannot be dissected form His life. Jesus Christ didn’t just need to die for you, He needed to live for you. All of Jesus is necessary to save you from your sins. Christ fulfills all the obligations we shirked, and bears the penalty we deserve. He didn’t just die in your place, He lived in your place. He has become to you righteousness (1 Corinthians 1:30)! In Christ you become the righteousness of God (2 Corinthians 5:20).
This is how the Holy God of heaven now sees you, righteous in Christ. As God is well pleased with His Son, He is well pleased with us. We are loved in the Beloved. His love toward His beloved is His love toward us (John 17:23, Ephesians 1:6). The rays of the Father’s pleasure that go out toward His Son are the very rays of bliss that strike us.
And what a comfort is this, that seeing God’s love resteth on Christ, as well pleased in him, we may gather that he is as well pleased with us if we be in Christ! – Richard Sibbes