When Jesus comes to be baptized by John, John would have prevented Him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” (Matthew 3:14).
But when Jesus answers John, and in the events that follow, we learn that it was proper for Jesus to be baptized because it’s proper for us to be baptized, and Jesus comes to be treated as, take the place of, and save sinners.
John the Baptist proclaimed, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:2), and Matthew tells us that people were baptized by John as they confessed their sins.
John called all people to repent, saying that God’s kingdom—God’s reign—was about to arrive, and everyone needed to be ready.
In the verses before today’s Gospel lesson, John says, “I baptize you with water for repentance, but 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. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (Matthew 3:11-12).
And so, John means to say that the coming reign of God would bring the judgment of the Last Day.
But is that what we see, in today’s Gospel lesson, when Jesus arrives at the Jordan to be baptized by John?
John’s baptism is for repentance, and people come to him confessing their sins.
If we expect the reign of God—and judgment—we might be surprised that Jesus desires to be treated like a sinner—that He desires to be baptized.
Again, “John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’” (Matthew 3:14).
But Jesus explains it this way, saying, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness” (Matthew 3:15).
Baptism is meant for sinners—that’s why and who John was Baptizing.
And—Jesus needs to be Baptized, but not because He’s a sinner.
“Let it be so now…” Jesus says, meaning not that He needs it, but that we do.
Jesus came not to abolish the Law but to fulfill it.
To take the place of sinners, to satisfy the justice of God, to beat down satan under our feet.
Jesus explains, “…for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness” (Matthew 3:15), meaning that this is part of how God’s salvation is brought and given.
The righteousness of God is God’s salvation poured out and given.
In the Psalms and in Isaiah, God’s righteousness is often set in parallel to God’s salvation.
”The Lord has made known his salvation…” it says in the Psalms. “…He has revealed his righteousness in the sight of the nations” (Psalm 98:2).
This is a quality of Hebrew poetry—to say the same thing in different ways, adding depth and nuance to whatever the topic is. In this case, it’s the righteousness and salvation of God.
”I bring near my righteousness…” Isaiah writes. “…It is not far off, and my salvation will not delay; I will put salvation in Zion, for Israel my glory” (Isaiah 46:13).
”My righteousness draws near, my salvation has gone out, and my arms will judge the peoples; the coastlands hope for me, and for my arm they wait…The earth will wear out like a garment, and they who dwell in it will die in like manner; but my salvation will be forever, and my righteousness will never be dismayed” (cf. Isaiah 51:5-6).
”My mouth shall tell of your righteousness, and of your salvation all day long; For I do not know the sum of them” (Psalm 71:15).
”He put on righteousness as a breastplate, and a helmet of salvation on his head…” (Isaiah 59:17).
The righteousness of God is God’s salvation poured out and given.
So when Jesus comes to John to be baptized, it is to fulfill all righteousness—to proclaim and provide God’s salvation to the world.
They each have a role to play:
John was there, as an instrument, to baptize.
Jesus was there to be baptized, to demonstrate what a good and faithful son looks like.
Jesus enters into the waters of repentance willingly.
He insists upon it.
Where we are reluctant—He is not.
No one wants to confess what he’s done wrong.
You’d rather list the errors of other people.
You’d rather talk in terms of how you’ve been sinned against, listing other people’s sins.
You fulfill not righteousness but sin.
And yet, in mercy, God sends His Son into the world—to fulfill righteousness—to redeem the world—to save sinners.
Jesus takes the place of sinners—to be Baptized—to fulfill all righteousness—to save us.
And then, in what follows, we learn exactly what this means for us.
St. Matthew writes: “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; and behold, a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased’” (Matthew 3:16-17).
The Spirit of God descends upon Jesus.
God the Father says “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17).
Jesus is the good and faithful son.
These words are like those in Isaiah chapter forty-two, where thus says the Lord: “Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the [Gentiles]” (Isaiah 42:1).
At His baptism, Jesus enters into the waters of repentance to bring forth the justice of God, to be your Servant, to take the place of sinners.
Jesus—the sinless One—takes your place.
From you, He takes away your sins.
For you, He fulfills all righteousness.
Jesus is the suffering Servant, wounded for your transgressions and crushed for your iniquities.
He is the One who gives His life as a ransom for many.
But the justice of God—and the righteous salvation of God—doesn’t stop there.
On the third day, God the Father, by the Holy Spirit, raised Jesus from the dead.
God’s righteousness means putting all things right.
That can’t and doesn’t stop at the crucifixion of Jesus, when His life is given as a ransom for all.
When John says that the coming reign of God would bring the judgment of the Last Day—this is how that’s true.
The righteousness and salvation of God includes the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.
For all believers in Christ, that’s what the Last Day looks like.
And this is how we get there.
Just as the path to Jesus’ cross and resurrection began at His baptism, just so, at your baptism, you receive a share in the good and faithful Son, Jesus Christ—a share in His death and a share in His resurrection.
St. Paul says it this way: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his” (Romans 6:3-5).
Through baptism you share in the saving death of Jesus.
Baptism, then, is an immovable feature of the Christian’s life.
When you stumble and struggle against sin—when you fail or fall—hold fast to Jesus Christ the Lord and rejoice in your share with Him.
In repentance, confess your sins to God.
In faith, return to the waters of Holy Baptism.
Return to and remember the day God chose you for salvation.
In the Small Catechism, Luther writes that baptizing with water “indicates that the Old Adam in us should by daily contrition and repentance be drowned and die with all sins and evil desires, and that a new man should daily emerge and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.”
Today—this is fulfilled in our hearing.
Today—we see Jesus in the water of the Jordan.
And we rejoice to know exactly why He’s there and what that means for us.
This is God’s beloved Son.
He takes our place—that we, and all believers in Christ, would have our place with God forever.
In Jesus’ name, Amen!
The Baptism of Our Lord, 2022
Rev. Benjamin Tyler Holt