Why did Jesus say it would “fulfill all righteousness” if he were baptized?

This question was originally asked in a comment on my post, “Why did John the Baptist later question whether Jesus was the Messiah?” I thought the discussion would make for an interesting post of its own.

Q. What was the real reason why Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist? “To fulfill all righteousness.” If unrighteousness is sin, then righteousness is no sin. John the Baptist twice called Jesus “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” The Old Testament tabernacle was a mirror image of how Jesus would save us. The high priest would lay his hands on a goat and transfer all the sins of Israel onto it, and then the goat was led into the desert. Now John the Baptist being in the line of Aaron and being the greatest person to have arisen before the coming of the kingdom, what if John the Baptist laid his hands on Jesus and transferred all the sins of the world onto him, and then Jesus was also led into the desert?

The goat did not become a sinner, it only carried the sins; likewise Jesus  carried the sins, but he did not become a sinner. Scripture says that Jesus “came by water and blood” and that “the Spirit, the water, and the blood” testify to who he is. So at Jesus’ water baptism, the Holy Spirit came upon him, and later he shed his blood when he died on the cross.

No death on the cross—no salvation. No resurrection—no salvation. Jesus without being baptized—righteousness not fulfilled—no Holy Spirit descending on Jesus. Does this mean that if Jesus had not been baptized by John the Baptist, there would have been no salvation?

I think you have an interesting idea here and I have reproduced your  comment at length in this post so that readers can consider it. However, I understand the meaning of Jesus’ statement about fulfilling all righteousness a bit differently.

When Jesus came to John the Baptist to be baptized, John asked, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus replied, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” John agreed and baptized Jesus.

I think Jesus was saying, “You’re out here in the wilderness saying that God is breaking into our world to do a new thing and that anybody who wants to be part of it should be baptized to show how they want to join in what God is doing rather than follow sin. Well, I’m ‘all in’ with what God is doing, so I’m here to show that by being baptized.”

This doesn’t mean that Jesus had any sin that needed to be washed away. But our duty to God is not just negative (don’t sin), it’s also positive (obey God and take our part in what God is doing). I think Jesus was saying that even if he didn’t need to be baptized for the negative reasons (to wash away sin), he still wanted and needed to be baptized for the positive reasons.

In other words, Jesus would “fulfill all righteousness” by doing positively what God was asking people to do at that point in redemptive history. John agreed to let Jesus demonstrate his commitment to God’s purposes in that way. And in response, God revealed, through the voice from heaven and the descent of the Spirit, that Jesus was the Messiah (the Anointed One) through whom his purposes would be accomplished. This opened up for Jesus a whole series of positive duties to fulfill in obedience to God as he fulfilled his vocation as the Messiah.

David Zelenka, painting, “The Baptism of Christ,” used by permission, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is an an ordained minister, a writer, and a biblical scholar. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the New International Version (NIV) that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He was also a consultant to Tyndale House for the Immerse Bible, an edition of the New Living Translation (NLT) that similarly presents the Scriptures in their natural literary forms, without chapters and verses or section headings. He has a B.A. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

2 thoughts on “Why did Jesus say it would “fulfill all righteousness” if he were baptized?”

  1. Interesting observations, thank you.

    What had Jesus done at this point, Jesus was only baptized, Jesus had not started his ministry BUT God was so pleased with His son Jesus, as the heavens opened God said “ This is my beloved son whom I am well pleased.” Why was God pleased with Jesus at his baptism? Would the baptism by John not have meant a greater thing than just our duty to be follow Jesus and stop sinning as this was Israel’s law from the beginning (do not sin and know that I am your God)?

    “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (1 Corinthians 5:21). When did God make Jesus to be sin?

    Why did Jesus only receive the Holy Spirit at his Baptism while John the Baptist received it at his birth? How was the Holy Spirit transferred to others? By the Apostles laying hands on them.

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