We all know the story of Jesus’ baptism by John in the Jordan. We know that God chose this event to reveal publicly his approval of Jesus as “My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased” (Mt 3.18). We know that this event is one of the clearest exhibitions of the Trinity in the Scripture, with the Father speaking from heaven, the Son standing in the Jordan, and the Spirit descending like a dove and landing on the Son.
But as familiar as this story is to us, we find ourselves still wondering, with John, why Jesus came to John to be baptized. As John protested, “You should be baptizing me!” Was this just Jesus’ way of announcing the onset of his public ministry? And if so, what did Jesus mean when he said, “This is necessary for us to fulfill all righteousness”?
There’s been a lot of ink spilled by writers of commentaries over these questions. When that happens, it usually means that the Scripture itself doesn’t give a clear answer to them. And when that happens, the systematic theologians step in and offer speculation—ideally, well founded and scripturally based.
I’d like to do that here.
To begin with, we should notice what John intended his baptism to mean. He called it “a baptism of repentance” (Lk 3.3; Mt 3.11); by agreeing to be baptized, people were acknowledging their sins and turning from them (Lk 3.10ff). And this makes the image of Jesus’ baptism all the more odd—and John’s objection to it all the more sensible—since Jesus had nothing to repent of.
Which brings us to our second consideration—Jesus’ statement of his own purpose in being baptized: “to fulfill all righteousness.”
What does that mean?
Perhaps we should consider his words against the larger theological significance of his incarnation. He came, of course, to die for the sins of mankind (Mk 10.45). But in order to get to that point, he had to present himself as a spotless lamb; he had to demonstrate his own sinlessness through a perfect life, the perfect fulfillment of the Law, thereby putting in place a righteousness that could be reckoned to our account (2Co 5.21). Theologians call this his “active obedience.”
That done, he offered himself up, dying on the cross in our place—vicariously—paying our sin debt and putting us into position to receive his righteousness, also earned vicariously.
He lived in our place, and he died in our place. He fulfilled all righteousness for us.
That’s what he said to John, back at the baptism—remember?
The baptism was necessary, he said, “to fulfill all righteousness.”
The baptism of repentance.
Which he didn’t need. Because he didn’t need to repent.
What if—what if—he repented for us?
We’re terrible at repenting, you know.
We tell God we’re sorry, and we’ll never do it again.
And we’re not lying. We mean it.
But we do do it again, don’t we?
In spite of all our good intentions, and in spite of all we can do, we break the most important vow we ever make to God.
We can’t even repent right.
We’re miserable failures.
What if, at his baptism, Jesus offered the Father a repentance that was worthy of the name?
What if he repented—and never went back on his promise?
And what if that perfect repentance was offered to the Father—for us?
In our place!
“Let me do this,” Jesus said to John.
“It’s necessary to fulfill all righteousness.”
If I don’t do this, nobody else ever will. My Father will never get a decent repentance. I’ll do it for him. And for them.
And over the next 3 years, the Father received a repentance, and a life of obedience, and a sacrificial payment for sin, that were all perfect. In our name, and credited to our account.
Perfect. For us.