To Fulfill All Righteousness (Phil Johnson)

Matthew 3:15   |   Sunday, August 3, 2014   |   Code: 2014-08-03-PJ

I want to look at a text that we typically pass over without

giving it much thought. It's the baptism of Jesus in Matthew

3. We'll focus mostly on verse 15, but let me describe the

setting, and we'll read the surrounding verses, so we can

consider the context properly.

This is the starting point of Jesus' public ministry. John

the Baptist is baptizing "in the wilderness of Judea." This is a

desert region at a low elevation south and east of Jerusalem,

close to where the Jordan river flows into the Dead Sea. If

you have ever visited Jericho, you know the region. These

are rolling badlands, chalky, desert terrainCtotally barren

except for the rocks. The only greenery is a thin strip of trees

that grow on the banks of the Jordan riverCand as you travel

south even that little strip of life turns to scrub brush and

begins to diminish. The Jordan is mud-colored at that point.

The last traces of vegetation finally disappear about two

miles north of the Dead Sea. In the heart of that desolate

region is where John the Baptist was baptizing people.

We can pretty well pinpoint the spot. John 1:28 says,

"These things took place in Bethany across the Jordan, where

John was baptizing." That's not the same Bethany where

Lazarus, Mary, and Martha lived. It was a smaller town on

Matthew 3:15 2

the east bank of the Jordan River, about five miles north of

the Dead Sea, where there was a ford in the river. There's a

baptismal site and an Eastern Orthodox church there today.

Other than that, it's still a totally barren region. It's five miles

east-southeast from Jericho and at least two days' journey to

get there from Jerusalem in Jesus' time.

But John the Baptist was drawing huge crowds to hear

him preach and be baptized. Matthew 3:5-6 say, "Jerusalem

and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out

to him, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan,

confessing their sins."

So this was a baptism of repentance. John himself says so

in verse 11: "I baptize you with water for repentance." Verse 6:

those who came were "confessing their sins," and John the

Baptist required convincing evidence of genuine repentance.

Matthew 3:7-12 is where we have that famous incident

where a team of Pharisees came to be baptized. Remember,

Jesus' complaint against the Pharisees (Matthew 23:5) was

that "They do all their deeds to be seen by others." This is

where the crowds were, so naturally, this was a good place

for Pharisees who wanted to be seen doing penance (or


John refuses them and rebukes them (v. 7): "You brood of

vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?" And

then he preaches a sermon full of damnation and hell fire,

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aimed at these phony religious virtuosos. But notice: the

central point of John's sermon is that Jesus is coming. John is

merely the forerunner, "the voice of one crying out in the

wilderness, 'Make straight the way of the Lord,' as the prophet

Isaiah said" [John 1:23]. And John understands his role,

because he says in verse 11: "He who is coming after me is

mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will

baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire."

By the way, the fire John mentions is not a Pentecostal

outpouring of strange phenomena. It's not a good thing at all.

Fire is used repeatedly by John the Baptist in this immediate

context to refer to judgment. Verse 10: "Every tree therefore

that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the

fire." It's the same fire he's still speaking about in the very

next verse (v. 12)Ca fire that burns up "the chaff" with flames

that will never be quenched. In other words, verse 11 means

that Christ will baptize His elect with the Holy Spirit, and the

rest (including any Pharisees that haven't truly repented) He

will baptize with fire (v. 12): He will "gather his wheat into

the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire." He

is warning these phony Pharisees about a baptism of

judgment that is coming on unrepentant people.

That's where our text comes in. Right after John rebukes

the Pharisees, through the end of Matthew 3, we're given this

Matthew 3:15 4

brief vignette about the baptism of Jesus. So let me read the

text, starting in verse 13:

Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be

baptized by him.

14 John would have prevented him, saying, "I need to be

baptized by you, and do you come to me?"

15 But Jesus answered him, "Let it be so now, for thus it is

fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness." Then he


16 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;

17 and behold, a voice from heaven said, "This is my

beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased."

I love this story. It's tied forever in my mind to my first

Sunday at Grace Community Church, back in 1983. Darlene

and I had just moved from Chicago with two small boys and

a third on the way. Our eldest was just three and a half years

old, and we came from a small church where the nursery was

just one big room that housed all children up to age 4Cwith

beds for the infants and toys on the floor for toddlers.

So that first Sunday we were at Grace was the first time

Jeremiah had ever been to a Sunday-School class with a

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Bible story and lesson. And this story about Jesus' baptism

was the lesson for that week.

So we picked him up after Sunday school, and he came

out waving this paper he had colored, and I asked him what

he learned. I really wasn't expecting a profound theological

treatise. I figured he would say something like, "We should

be kind to one another," or something really basic like that.

But he said, "We learned about when Jesus' was


So I said, "Tell me about it."

And he said, "Well, John the Baptist was this guy who

dressed funny and ate bugs, and he baptitized people in the


And I thought, Wow! That's a lot for a three-year-old to

absorb. So I said, "Yes, that's right! What else?"

Jeremiah said, "Well, Jesus came to John to be baptitized,

and John the Baptist said, 'I can't baptitize you. You should

baptitize me.' But Jesus said, 'Do it anyway,' and so he did."

And I just thought, Amazing! They're actually teaching

these three-year-olds the Bible. And I was mentally

congratulating myself that my son was such a good listener.

But then Jeremiah lowered his voice in a kind of dramatic

whisper, and said, "And thenCa very strange thing


And I said, "What?"

Matthew 3:15 6

He said, "This big duck came down . . . "

And I looked at the paper he colored. He had drawn a big

duck bill on the dove.

So I had to straighten his understanding of this passage a

little bit. And that had the beneficial effect of provoking me

to look at the passage to try to get a clear and careful

understanding of it for myself.

It's an important passage. R. C. Sproul says "there's [no]

more important text in all the New Testament that defines the

work of Jesus than this one."

And I have to admit that this passage had mystified me

ever since I first read it as a young Christian. I found myself

trying to explain something to a three-year-old that I didn't

fully grasp myself. Why did Jesus insist on being baptized?

Baptism wasn't required or even mentioned in Moses' law, so

this is not a matter of legal obedience.

Furthermore, John's baptism signified repentance, and it

was usually accompanied by a public confession of sin. Jesus

had no need for such a sacrament. He was "full of grace and

truth" [John 1:14]. Hebrews 7:26 says He was "holy,

innocent, unstained, separated from sinners, and exalted above

the heavens." So what's going on here, and why was getting

baptized with a baptism of repentance so important to the

mission of Jesus [Luke 19:10]C"to seek and to save the lost"?

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Even John the Baptist was shocked and confounded when

Jesus came to be baptized. John has just refused these

Pharisees, demanding "fruit in keeping with repentance" (v. 8).

Now He tries to refuse Jesus, but for the opposite reason.

John is not like any Baptist I ever met. He has no interest in

inflated statistics or evangelistic numbers. He will baptize

only those who genuinely repent and confess their sin. And

here's the problem: Jesus has no need to confess sin or

demonstrate repentance, and somehow John understands

that. So this little drama unfolds, and it sheds great light on

what Jesus was doing to insure the justification of His

people, from the moment He began His public ministry.

Notice, in the span of the five verses I just read to you,

three different voices speak, and each one expresses a

distinctive opinion about the baptism of Jesus. Here are the

three voices in this three-part drama: you have John the

Baptist in verse 14; Jesus in verse 15; and "a voice from

heaven" in verse 17 (that, of course, is God the Father). As I

said, each voice expresses an opinion about what's

happening. John objects to it; Jesus insists on it; and all

heaven adds a blessing to it.

So let's look at those three voices one at a time, and we'll

consider what each one says and what it all means. Three

voices, each expressing an opinion about Jesus at his

baptism. FirstC

Matthew 3:15 8


This whole event comes as a great surprise to John. Jesus

shows up where he is baptizing people from "Jerusalem and

all Judea and all the region about the Jordan." That's what it

says in verse 5. Now, it wasn't an easy journey for any of

these people to get where John was baptizing. But Jesus

comes from further yet. Verse 13: "Jesus came from Galilee to

the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him. John [who is clearly

caught off guard by this] would have prevented him, saying, 'I

need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?'"

John instantly grasps the impropriety of this situation.

How can he, a fallen man, baptize God incarnate? And

clearly, John understood something of Jesus' divine

perfection. "You ought to be baptizing me instead of the

other way around." This was not an artificial statement of

deference or humility. He had just said (v. 11), "He who is

coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not

worthy to carry." In Mark 1:7, John says it like this: "The strap

of [His] sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie."

Did John the Baptist fully recognize Jesus' deity?

Perhaps. He was, after all, a prophet. In fact, according to

Jesus, "A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet . . .

Among those born of women there has arisen no one greater

than John the Baptist" (Matthew 11:9, 11).

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Now, sometimes people read a lot into the fact that Jesus

and John the Baptist were related to one another, and they

were born about six months apart. Sometimes you'll hear

someone speculate that they must have grown up together.

They didn't. This might well have been the first time they

ever met face to face.

It's true that according to Luke 1:36, Mary (the mother of

Jesus) was related to Elizabeth (the mother of John the

Baptist). The expression used suggests they were cousins.

That's how it is translated in the King James Version.

Literally, the word means "kinswomen," but they could not

have been closer kin than cousinsCor (more likely) cousins

once removed, or perhaps even second cousins. For one

thing, according to Luke 1:36, they were from different

generations. Elizabeth was already advanced in age when she

bore John the Baptist. Even more significantly, Luke 1:5

says Elizabeth was one of "the daughters of Aaron"Cmeaning

she was from the priestly tribe. And Hebrews 7:14 says, "It is

evident that our Lord was descended from Judah." So Mary

and Elizabeth must have been related through their maternal

lines of descent, which would mean the closest possible

relationship between Jesus and John the Baptist would be if

they were second cousins.

And remember that Mary visited Elizabeth when they

were both pregnant. According Luke 1:39, in order to do

Matthew 3:15 10

that, Mary had to travel "into the hill country, to a town in

Judah." The hill country is south of Jerusalem, overlooking

the southern end of the Dead SeaCa desert wilderness. So

Jesus, growing up poor in Nazareth, and John the Baptist,

growing up in the desert wilderness of the hill country of

Judah, certainly weren't geographically close when they were

children. The last verse in Luke 1 settles the issue for us.

This is the biblical description of John the Baptist's

childhood: "The child grew and became strong in spirit, and he

was in the wilderness until the day of his public appearance to

Israel." So there's no reason to think Jesus or John the Baptist

had ever even met.

That's why in John 1:31, 33 John the Baptist twice says of

Jesus, "I myself did not know him." However, John, because he

was a prophet, recognized Jesus as the One "who baptizes

with the Holy Spirit." That's what he says in John 1:33: "I

myself did not know him, but he who sent me to baptize with

water said to me, 'He on whom you see the Spirit descend and

remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.'"

Therefore by prophetic means, John knew that Jesus was

greater than him, and by a miraculous sign at Jesus' baptism,

Jesus' identity was confirmed to John. He says in John 1:32:

"I saw the Spirit descend from heaven like a dove, and it

remained on him."

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Also, Remember that even as an infant, when Mary

greeted Elizabeth, According to Luke 1:41-42, "When

Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her

womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, and she

exclaimed with a loud cry . . . " a kind of prophetic blessing

for Mary. It's as if there was hard-wired into John the Baptist

the ability to recognize Jesus instantly. That makes perfect

sense, given the role John the Baptist was called to.

So now, as Jesus comes for baptism, John the Baptist

immediately recognizes (by some prophetic means) that this

is the One for whom He has been preparing the way.

And he correctly assesses the awkwardness of the

situation. John is a fallen man. Although John was filled with

the Holy Spirit from infancy, and by Jesus' own testimony,

he was the greatest man ever bornChe was a sinner. Baptism

is more suited for someone like Him than for Jesus.

In fact, John freely acknowledges his own need for a

baptism of repentance (v. 14). He says to Jesus: "I need to be

baptized by you."

Jesus is not only more qualified to perform a baptism than

John the Baptist; John the Baptist has been prophesying that

Jesus would baptize with the Holy Spirit. John wants that

baptism. John knew (and freely testified) that "[Jesus] must

increase, but [John] must decrease" [John 3:30]. So although

our text says, "John would have prevented him," there is

Matthew 3:15 12

nothing in John's response that is doctrinally erroneous,

motivated by pride, sinfully presumptuous, or otherwise

blameworthy. It's hard to fault John the Baptist for this. In

fact, this may be the only time ever when someone tried to

refuse Jesus but didn't sin in doing so.

It's tempting to compare this to John 13:8, where Peter

tells Jesus, "You shall never wash my feet." But we know Peter

was struggling with pride and a desire to be first. There's no

hint of that in what John does here.

Theologically, John is spot on, according to everything he

knew to be true at that time. John's Baptism was a public

demonstration of repentance. Jesus had nothing whatsoever

to repent of. If one of them should be baptizing the other, by

all rights it should have been John repenting and Jesus

performing the baptism. It speaks well of John's humility and

his spiritual insight that he raised this objection (v. 14): "I

need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?"

That's the first voice in this mini-drama, and it's the voice

of John the Baptist. His response to the proposal that he

should baptize Jesus: John objects to it. But John's objection

is answered conclusively by voice number two. This is the

voice of Jesus. Here's our Lord's own opinion of this event:

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Verse 15: "But Jesus answered him." I should pause here

and point out that these are the first words ever recorded out

of the mouth of Jesus as an adult. Luke 2 gives that little

vignette where Jesus as a child gets left behind in Jerusalem,

and they find him in the Temple among the teachers. They've

been anxiously looking for him, and when they find him, he

says, "Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I

must be in my Father's house?" He's about 12 years old at that


The biblical record on Jesus' life is totally silent for the

next 17 or 18 years, and then here, in our text, we have only

the second time ever that the actual words of Jesus are

recorded. This is the very first statement He makes as He

launches His public ministry.

Notice: He didn't scold or argue with John the BaptistCor

even suggest that John was out of line or wrong. John wasn't

wrong, given the facts he was working with. And Jesus

himself tacitly affirms that John's rationale is valid. But he

quietly turns to John and gives him a reason why he should

"Let it be so [for] now"Cin other words, Do it just this once.

"Then [John the Baptist] consented."

Why? the simple reason Jesus gives is laden with

significance: "For thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all

righteousness." Christ has work to do. It His whole life's

Matthew 3:15 14

calling to render perfect obedience to the Father. John 4:34:

"My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish

his work." John 6:38: "I have come down from heaven, not to do

my own will but the will of him who sent me." John 8:29: "I

always do the things that are pleasing to [the Father]."

Everything Jesus ever did was in obedience to the will of His

Father. John 5:30: "I seek not my own will but the will of him

who sent me." Hebrews 10:7 quotes Psalm 40 as a Messianic

prophecy: "Behold, I have come to do your will, O God." So

Jesus' whole life was one long work of obedience, and what

we have here at His baptism is the first public act of

obedience rendered to the Father. And Jesus clearly explains

why He is doing this: "It is fitting . . . to fulfill all


Now think about that statement for a moment. Why would

Jesus need to do anything "to fulfill all righteousness"? He is

God incarnate. He innately possesses the most perfect

righteousness you could ever conceive. His righteousness is

the very righteousness of GodCthe fulness of all that is truly

righteous. So there was no lack of righteousness in Jesus'

character or His person; He was perfect in every way, from

the very start. In and of Himself, He was fully and

consummately righteous before he ever obeyed one jot or

tittle of the law.

To Fulfill All Righteousness 15

Furthermore, as God, He is the Lawgiver. By definition,

He is above the law. "The Son of Man is lord even of the

Sabbath" (Mark 2:28). According to Matthew 9:6, He had

"authority on earth to forgive sins." He is the rightful object of

all true worship. Hebrews 1:6-8 says He is the object of

angelic worship and the recipient of the very highest divine

blessing. He did not need any new obedience to procure

righteousness for Himself. In Hebrews 1:8, God the Father

speaks to the Son, and this is what He says, "Your throne, O

God, is forever and ever, the scepter of [righteousness] is the

scepter of your kingdom."

So Christ by His very character defines what

righteousness is. He didn't become righteous (or somehow

gain more righteousness) by becoming human. It was

impossible for Him in and of Himself to be more righteous

than He is innately. That's the nature of divine righteousness:

it is absolutely perfectCimpeccable. Deuteronomy 32:4: "The

Rock, his work is perfect, for all his ways are justice. A God of

faithfulness and without iniquity, just and upright is he."

Christ, even as a man, did not need to prove anything for

His own sake, or for His Father's sake. That was not the point

of His obedience. This was not a test of Jesus' character. He

had absolutely nothing to prove or demonstrate for His own

sake. When the voice from heaven says in verse 17, "This is

my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased," that expresses

Matthew 3:15 16

the eternal verdict of the Father with respect to the Son. It's

not a statement about this one act of baptism. It's not

contingent on the Son's obedience. This was the Father's

appraisal of the Son before He ever rendered one act of

obedience in the execution of His earthly ministry.

So do you see how amazing this is? By His very nature

Jesus is above the law, not under it. His righteousness is the

impeccably perfect righteousness of the divine Godhead. His

glory, concealed under robes of human flesh, is "glory as of

the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth" (John

1:14). He is perfect in every way.

What aspect of righteousness remains to be fulfilled?

Why in the plan of God was it necessary for Jesus, the

Lawgiver, "lord of the Sabbath," to be subject to the law? And

why would He "who knew no sin" submit to the ritual of

John's baptism? Why did Jesus insist on undergoing this

ritual, which wasn't even prescribed by Moses' law, and

served only as a public testimony of repentanceCa ritual

suited only for contrite sinners? What is the point?

The answer is clear from Scripture. Galatians 4:4-5 says

Jesus was "born under the law, to redeem those who were under

the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons." In other

words, His subjection to the law was not for His own sake,

but for others. His obedience to God was rendered for the

sake of His people. Romans 5:19: "For as by the one man's

To Fulfill All Righteousness 17

disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man's

obedience the many will be made righteous." He obeyed not to

make Himself more righteous, but to procure a perfect human

righteousness under the law for the justification of His

people. He was doing for us what Adam failed to do. His

obedience counts on our behalf. His whole life of obedience

was essential to make full propitiation. Hebrews 2:17: "He

had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he

might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of

God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people."

And the obedience He rendered included even the symbol

of our repentance. That's why He insisted on being baptized.

It was obviously not for His own sake. It cannot signify His

own repentance, because He never had anything to repent

for. And in the words of John Owen, If He wasn't doing this

for Himself, it must be for us, or be useless. There is no other

reasonable possibility: He is doing this as a proxy for His

people. He is fulfilling all righteousness for our sake, on our

behalf. He is already standing in the place of sinners.

Jesus is doing this for His church. Scripture is clear: we

are obliged to perfect obedience. We are in urgent need of

perfect righteousness. In Matthew 5:20, Jesus Himself said,

"For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the

scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of

Matthew 3:15 18

heaven." How perfect must our righteousness be? Matthew

5:48: "You . . . must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is

perfect." The idea is not that we must work harder than the

Pharisees worked. The point is that no amount of human

work rendered by fallen people will ever be sufficient to

please God.

The demand for Godlike perfection automatically would

seem to relegate every sinner to a hopeless state of eternal

doom, because considered by ourselves, outside of Christ,

we are already hopelessly imperfect. But the righteousness

we need is imputed to us, in the very same manner that our

sins were imputed to Christ. Second Corinthians 5:21: "For

our sake [God the Father] made [Christ] to be sin [though He]

knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness

of God." We who lack righteousness are made perfectly

righteous by imputation, through our union with Christ.

Romans 4:6: "God imputes righteousness apart from works."

Apart from any work or merit or legal obedience of our own,

"God imputes righteousness"Ctransfers an alien righteousness

to our account. That's what Paul spoke of in Philippians 3,

where he speaks of tossing a lifetime of fastidious religious

work on the dung-heapCin order to "be found in [Christ], not

having my own righteousness, which is from the law, but that

which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from

God by faith."

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That's the righteousness of ChristCand it is replete with

all the merit we will ever needCnot merely the forgiveness of

our sins (that would give us nothing more than a clean slate).

But the law of God doesn't demand either obedience or

punishment; it demands both. Suffering is not righteousness;

obedience is. Deuteronomy 6:25: "It will be righteousness for

us, if we are careful to do all this commandment before the

LORD our God, as he has commanded us." So the

righteousness of Christ includes a lifetime of meticulous

obedience to the will of GodCnot only all the demands of the

law, but even the baptism of JohnCa public symbol and

expression of repentance from sin.

Reformed theologians sometimes make a distinction

between the active and passive obedience of Christ. His

passive obedience would be His death on the cross. That's

what made atonement for our sins and purchased our

forgiveness. That (of course) fulfilled the penal demands of

the law. But His active obedience speaks of the fact that He

also positively fulfilled all the moral, civil, and ceremonial

demands of the law on our behalf. Remission of our sins

bought us escape from hell; perfect obedience to all the

commandments gave us title to heaven. So both the life and

the death of Christ were essential to the atonement. To quote

R. C. Sproul: "Jesus not only had to die for our sins, but He

had to live for our righteousness."

Matthew 3:15 20

Here's how Wayne Grudem says it: "If Christ had only

earned forgiveness of sins for us, then we would not merit

heaven. Our guilt would have been removed, but we would

simply be in the position of Adam and Eve before they had

done anything good or bad." I don't need a clean slate. I need

a robe of perfect righteousness. And given the fact that "we

are all like an unclean thing, And all our righteousnesses are like

filthy rags" [Isaiah 64:6], no amount of virtue or work on my

own can possibly add up to the righteousness God requires.

That should be self-evident.

But let me add this: the distinction between Christ's active

and passive obedience is merely a matter of convenience and

clarity to help us understand how utterly dependant we are

on the righteousness of Christ. Such a distinction is

necessary only because there are those who deny the

significance of Christ's obedience "under the law." But as you

think this through, don't make the mistake of carving the

obedience of Christ into two parts. Scripture always treats

the obedience of Christ as a seamless garmentCone whole

actCa lifelong habit of unbroken obedience to the will of the


If you don't like the terminology of "active and passive

obedience," that's OK. Neither do I. The important point is

that "the one man's obedience [by which] many will be made

righteous" is not merely what happened one Friday at

To Fulfill All Righteousness 21

Calvary. The righteousness Christ sought to fulfill

encompassed an entire lifetime of devotion to the will of the


Plus, bear in mind that there was nothing "passive" about

Jesus' death. He Himself said (John 10:18), "No one takes [my

life] from Me, but I lay it down of Myself. I have power to lay it

down, and I have power to take it again. This command I have

received from My Father."

But by the same token when Romans 5:19 says, "By one

Man's obedience many will be made righteous," we can't reduce

the notion of His obedience to the single act of dying on a

cross. Consider this: If the cross alone fulfilled all the

demands of righteousness, Jesus' baptism would have been

wholly unnecessary. When Jesus, with His dying breath,

said, "It is finished"CTetelestai! the finished work of

atonement He spoke of included an entire lifetime of faithful

obedience as a man under the law. Listen to Philippians 2:8:

"Being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming

obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross." The

cross was simply the crown and culmination of a whole

lifetime of humble obedience. And we see that fact clearly in

this first public act of Jesus.

To quote John Owen once more: "He needed no

obedience for himself . . . for us it was that He fulfilled the

law in obedience to God." And He did more than fulfill the

Matthew 3:15 22

law perfectly. Christ became the archetype and the perfect

paragon of every fruit of the Holy Spirit, every conceivable

human virtue, every one of the beatitudes, and every

expression of grace and glory that the human frame can

possibly embody.

Again, the baptism of John had no warrant in Moses' law.

This was in no way obligatory under the law alone. This was

a true work of supererogationCgoing beyond what the law

requires. And again, as a demonstration of repentance it

would have been utterly worthless if Christ were doing it for

His own sake alone. But He treated it as an absolute

necessity "to fulfill all righteousness" for the sake of His

church. He was already accruing a lifetime of human

righteousness to be given awayCimputedCto sinners who

had no righteousness of their own. He was doing this for

sinners who have no possibility of gaining the righteousness

required to stand before God.

This is the central lesson of the Law: True righteousness

demands consistent perfection over one's entire life. Adam

illustrates what a difficult requirement that is. He had only

one command to obey, and he failed at the very first

temptation. That's why there needed to be a second Adam.

Christ, representing His people in the same way Adam

represented the entire race, was subject to 613 distinct

positive commandments spelled out in Moses' law, plus 365

To Fulfill All Righteousness 23

negative commandments as wellCand other duties such as

this baptism, not even prescribed in the written law. Yet in

Matthew 5:17 He said, "Do not think that I have come to

abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish

them but to fulfill them." And He fulfilled every jot and tittle

to absolute perfection. He accomplished as the head and

representative of His people what Adam failed to accomplish

as the head and representative of the entire race. "As by the

one man's disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the

one man's obedience the many will be made righteous."

And what we see in Jesus' baptism is that He was already

undoing Adam's failure at the very beginning of His public

ministry; not only at the end.

Look at our text again (v. 15): "Let it be so now, for thus it

is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness." Why now?

Remember, these are the first words ever recorded that were

spoken publicly by the Lord Jesus. This is His first appearing

in public. And thus He launches His public ministry with an

act that is manifestly intended for the benefit of others. He is

already acting as our substitute.

Many reasons are given by various theologians and Bible

teachers for the baptism of Jesus. Though Jesus had no sins

to confess or repent of, this was nevertheless a public

repudiation of all sin. There's certainly truth in that. This was

also an identification with His people and a public

Matthew 3:15 24

declaration of His intention to be their sin-bearer. He thus

identifies with us through John's baptism, just as we identify

with His death and resurrection through Christian baptism.

That is certainly true as well. But more significant than all of

that is the reason Jesus Himself gave: "Thus it is fitting for us

to fulfill all righteousness."

Christ is weaving that perfect garment of flawless human

righteousness that is required for a right standing with God.

First Corinthians 1:30: "Christ Jesus . . . became to us

wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and

redemption." He is our righteousness. Jeremiah 23:6: "This is

His name by which He will be called: The Lord our

righteousness." Isaiah 54:17: "'No weapon formed against you

shall prosper, and every tongue which rises against you in

judgment you shall condemn. This is the heritage of the servants

of the LORD, and their righteousness is from Me,' Says the

LORD." Remember, in Philippians 3, Paul speaks of "the

righteousness which is from God by faith." He says that

righteousness belongs only to those who are found in Christ.

Romans 3:22 says it is "the righteousness of God, through

faith in Jesus Christ, [unto] all and [upon] all who believe."

Second Corinthians 5:21 says believers "become the

righteousness of God [in Him]"Cin Christ. The only

reasonable conclusion is that the righteousness imputed to

To Fulfill All Righteousness 25

believers is a righteousness Christ provided for themCthe

righteousness of a perfect life.

So remember how this drama is playing out. First, John

objects to it. Second, Jesus insists on it. Now, third,


At the end of verse 15, John the Baptist consents; Jesus is

baptized; and (verse 16) as Jesus emerges from the water, a

miraculous display of divine glory unfolds over Jesus. At

this point a third voice is heard, and it is the voice of the

Father, speaking His unqualified approval of the Son.

It intrigues me that though Jesus said John the Baptist

occupied the highest position among men under the Old

Covenant, we're told in John 10:41 that "John did no sign."

John performed no miracles. But here the baptism of Jesus is

punctuated and affirmed by several heavenly miracles. The

fact that people would later say of John the Baptist that he

"performed no sign" makes clear that everyone understood

these were heavenly signsCmiracles wrought by God

Himself apart from any human instrumentality.

"Behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the

Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him."

This was the sign John the Baptist had been told to expect, so

this is first of all for his benefit. And here you have for the

first time all three Persons of the Trinity manifest clearly all

Matthew 3:15 26

at once. This text is impossible for modalists and other

Trinity-deniers to make good sense of. The Holy Spirit, in

the form of a dove, descends and comes to rest over Jesus.

"and behold [verse 17], a voice from heaven said, 'This is my

beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.'"

I said at the start that this is the Father's eternal

assessment of the Son. The same voice from heaven speaks

at the transfiguration of Christ (Matthew 17:5), saying, "This

is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him."

Same verdict.

And may I say: this part of the drama, too, has great

relevance to our justification. This is the very same verdict

God will render in the end as His final judgment, and it

encompasses not only the Son Himself, but also all who are

"in Him"Cunited with Him by faith.

As a believer in Christ, "You have died, and your life is

hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears,

then you also will appear with him in glory." That's the promise

of Colossians 3:4-5. His lifeCHis whole lifeCcounts as your

life, just as He in His death was a proxy for you.

That's the great truth of justification by faith. It's not

merely that we are forgiven. I cringe when I hear people who

should know better define justification as bare forgiveness.

(You know: "To be justified means it's

'just-as-if-I'd-never-sinned.'") Justification is so much more

To Fulfill All Righteousness 27

than that. Christ not only took away our guilt; He provided

us with the perfect righteousness God demands. He did far

more than restore what Adam had lost; He elevated us to the

highest possible position. God has "raised us up with him and

seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus." "He

has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us

to the kingdom of his beloved Son" (Colossians 1:13). All the

merit of Christ's perfect righteousness is ours, and we are one

with HimCso that when the Father says, "This is my beloved

Son, with whom I am well pleased," that verdict applies to all

who believe. That is precisely what the apostle Paul has in

mind in Ephesians 1:6 when he says that God "has blessed us

in the Beloved."

Even at the baptism of Jesus, at the very outset of His

public ministry, "God was in Christ reconciling the world to


Job 9:2 asks the question, "How can a man be in the right

before God?" Job had no clear answer to that dilemma. You

and I, from a totally different time zone, can look back on the

finished work of Christ and give a definitive reply: We have

a God-blessed Savior who devoted His whole life "to

fulfill[ing] all righteousness" on our behalf. Isn't that an

amazing truth? Don't ever lose sight of it and don't ever be

tempted to let go of it or put your faith in anything less.

Matthew 3:15 28

"There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name

under heaven given among men by which we must be saved."