Summary: Jesus baptism helped him fulfill all righteousness. Likewise, our baptism helps us to fulfill all righteousness, that is, to become the righteousness of God through Jesus Christ.
Fulfilling All Righteousness
John was a wild and wooly evangelist preaching “hell fire and brimstone” to all who would listen. He was the very personification of Elijah in his garment of coarse camel hair and leather belt. This is how Elijah was identified by King Ahaziah in II Kings 1:8 when he asked his servants about the man they had met on the road. They answered, “He was a hairy man with a leather girdle about his loins.” Ahaziah knew immediately, “It is Elijah the Tishbite.”
Malachi prophesied that Elijah would come before the Messiah. Malachi 4:5, “Behold, I am going to send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and terrible day of the Lord.” Although John would deny that he was Elijah reincarnated, In Matt. 11:14, Jesus identified John the Baptist as Elijah that was promised to come. That is, John the Baptist fulfilled the role of Elijah as the forerunner of Jesus.
John as the forerunner of Jesus was prophesied in Isa. 40:3. Matthew quotes that prophesy in Matt. 3:3, identifying John as “The voice of one crying in the wilderness, ’Make ready the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’”
John was preaching repentance and was baptizing as a sign of repentance. John prophesied in verse 11, that “One greater than me” was coming. When Jesus arrived on the scene, John recognized him physically because they were cousins and within six months of being the same age. No doubt they had spent many hours together.
However, John apparently did not fully recognize Jesus as the Messiah until after he was baptized. In John 1:33-34, John the Baptist states, “I did not recognize him, but he who sent me to baptize in water said to me, ‘He upon whom you see the Spirit descending and remaining on him, this is the one who baptizes in the Holy Spirit.’ I myself have seen, and have testified that this is the Son of God.”
John did recognize Jesus as being greater than he and this is why he was taken aback when Jesus asked John to baptize him. This is why John responded with “No way Jose.” “You are the greater, I need to be baptized by you.” But Jesus insisted. “Permit it.” - “John, let it happen.” “At this time.” - “Let’s do it now, we cannot delay.” “It is fitting.” Or as Martha Stewart would say, “It is a good thing.” “To fulfill all righteousness.” “John, let it happen. It is the right thing to do right now so that we can fulfill all righteousness.”
So the primary reason Jesus was baptized was to fulfill all righteousness. “Fulfill all righteousness” What does that phrase mean? John knew exactly what Jesus meant but to us it is a rather cryptic phrase.
It is significant that these are the first words of Jesus that Matthew records. Righteousness is a major emphasis in Matthew. We read in 5:6, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness.” In 5:20, Jesus says, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.” And in 6:33, Jesus says that we are to “strive for God and his righteousness.”
To understand the purpose of Jesus’ baptism, we must understand the meaning of righteousness. Righteousness originally meant to be straight or right. In essence, righteousness is “the state of him who is as he ought to be” (Thayer). That is God.
In the bible, righteousness presumes a covenant relationship between to participants. The one who upholds, or is faithful to the covenant is termed, “righteous.” The one who is unfaithful to the covenant is termed “unrighteous.” God’s righteousness is revealed in his faithfulness to his covenant. Man’s unrighteousness is revealed in his unfaithfulness to the covenant. He is no longer in a “right relationship” with God.
God’s righteousness is closely related to his salvation, mercy and lovingkindness (covenant love). We see this association in many places in the Old Testament. For instance, in Jer. 9:24, God says through Jeremiah, “ . . . I am the Lord who exercises lovingkindness, justice and righteousness on earth for I delight in these things.” And in Isa. 51:5, “My righteousness is near, my salvation has gone forth . . .”
The righteousness of God revealed in salvation must be understood within the context of God’s covenant relationship with Man. In fact, righteousness means “covenant keeping.” What is right is always stipulated in a covenant. In Gen. 12:1-3, God made a covenant with Abraham and his descendants. In the covenant, God promises, among other things that “all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” This is an allusion to the Messiah through which all men will be blessed with righteousness.
The sign of the covenant with Abraham was circumcision. Through circumcision, Abraham established a covenant with God and through his faithfulness to that covenant, God declared Abraham to be righteous. Gen. 15:6 states, “Then Abraham believed in the Lord and he reckoned it to Abraham as righteousness.” God declared Abraham righteous, not because of his perfect behavior but because of his faith within the covenant relationship.