Fulfilling All Righteousness
Grace to you and peace from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Why did Jesus have to be baptized? He wasn’t a sinner, and if baptism washes away sins, then why did Jesus submit Himself to baptism by John? It’s a good question, and it is one that Christian churches of other denominations often misuse. For some churches, baptism is kind of a promise that we make to God. For these churches, baptism is what the believer does when they decide they are serious about being a Christian. By the way, that’s why those churches don’t baptize children; after all, babies can’t decide that they want to believe in Jesus. But that’s all wrong. Baptism is not our work; it is God’s work. Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River shows us in plain words that Baptism saves us and gives us all of Christ’s perfect righteousness for lost sinners like you and me.
So let’s look at the text. Jesus comes to John to be baptized, and John can hardly believe it. I need to be baptized by You, and are You coming to me? John knows that the purpose of Baptism is the forgiveness of sins. So he asks Jesus why He needs to be baptized. Jesus had no sin of His own. He had no reason to repent. He was perfect and righteous before God the Father in every way. And yet He comes to be baptized like a common sinner.
Jesus’ answer is very instructive for us: Permit it to be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness. Notice that little word us. It is fitting, it is proper for us to fulfill all righteousness. Who is the us Jesus is talking about? Whose righteousness are we talking about here? Jesus is the Son of God and the perfect image of the Father. His relationship to His Father is complete; His own righteousness doesn’t need fulfilling. So whose righteousness is it?
The answer, of course, is that Jesus is speaking of your righteousness. Christ our Lord comes to earth to take on our sin in Himself so that we might be saved. Saint Paul put it this way: He [that is, ‘the Father’] made Him [that is, ‘Christ’] who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him. This is what John the Baptizer confesses so well when he proclaims, Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!
In His Baptism, Jesus Christ became the greatest sinner on earth. He took on the sin of the whole world. He went into the water as the pure and innocent and sinless son of God; and He came up out of the water bearing the sins of the whole world. It was as if all the sins that had been washed away by the baptism which John performed were waiting in the water for Jesus to come in, and those sins then clung to Jesus as He came out. He took on your sin and mine. The rebellion and apathy we all have toward God was laid upon His shoulders in His Baptism. This is the time when Jesus publicly takes on His office as the Messiah, the Savior of the world.
All of that is contained in the little word, us. Jesus says, It is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness. Jesus identifies with us. He is one of us. He takes on our grief and pain and sin. He makes it His own. And by taking that sin upon Himself, He then clothes you with His perfect righteousness and holiness before God. It is all His work. All of that wrapped up in this great treasure we call Holy Baptism. In your baptism, you are linked to Christ. Our Scriptures use language like buried with Christ, clothed with Christ, new creation, and the like. But the bottom line is that because of Christ’s baptism in the Jordan River, and because of your Baptism into Christ, His life and work now becomes yours.
This is why Holy Baptism is the foundation upon which the Christian faith is built. We can truly say with St. Peter that baptism now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Hear what St. Peter is saying there. In Baptism we go to God with a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.
That is why Jesus says for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness. Us. Jesus so connects you to Himself that when He fulfills all righteousness by keeping the Law perfectly AND paying the penalty our sin, we reap all of the rewards. Us. Jesus and you go together, linked by water and blood. As our catechism says of Baptism, It works forgiveness of sins, rescues from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to all who believe this, as the words and promises of God declare.
So if God gives so many great blessings in Baptism, why is it that Baptism is so maligned and ignored and disdained by so many? How many even know the day of their baptism? What is your baptismal anniversary? How is it that there are times when parents make baptism into more of a family event than the beginning of a child’s eternal life in Jesus Christ? Why is it that we think there must be something more?
The answer is that we all want it to be something we do. We all by nature want to make salvation into our work. But Baptism is so very much God’s work that the world finds it offensive. That is why some churches reject the teaching that Baptism saves; others call it an initiation; and still others say that baptism only washes away certain sins, while there are other sins you are responsible for yourself. All of these false teachings lead the sinner away from Christ and His work on the cross, and point the sinner back upon himself and his own works, prayers, or whatever else the spirituality of the day may demand.
This is the miracle of Baptism: Let him who boasts, boast in the Lord. Your glory as a Christian is not in your good works. Your boast is in your Baptism into Christ. Your glory is in the Lord. God uses the simplest, most common thing in all of this world to bring about your salvation. He uses water; but not just water. It is water included in God’s command and connected with God’s Word; for when that water with the Word touched your head, you became a child of God and heir of eternal life.
Cling to your baptism. Hold on to it for all everything, and do not let the devil or the world tear you away from God’s grace. God’s Word and work is complete. You are righteous and holy in His sight, for you are baptized. In the name of the Father and of the Son (+) and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The peace of God which passes all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus always. Amen.