“TO FULFILL ALL RIGHTEOUSNESS”
Matthew 3:13-15 “Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John. But John tried to deter him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” Jesus replied, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” Then John consented.
Why is Jesus so adamant about being baptized and exactly what did he mean when he said his reason was “to fulfill all righteousness”?
The answer to this, simply put, was that Matthew was writing to a Jewish audience and they, unlike the Gentile audience being addressed by the other two synoptic writers (Mark and Luke) would be very confused as to why this Messiah would need to undergo baptism; a cleansing rite. Therefore Matthew goes into the details for their comprehension and he quotes Jesus’ stated reason as needing to be baptized “to fulfill all righteousness”.
Those Jewish readers, having the extensive background in Old Testament history and symbolism that they did, would then be able to make connections that Jesus’ life and ministry was to fulfill the Old Testament predictions, prophecies, and foreshadows they’d known and heard since childhood.
Very often Jesus spoke of these concepts related to himself and his arriving kingdom. The definitive example of this occurred on the Road to Emmaus (Lk.24) when the newly risen (and mysteriously unrecognized) Christ walked along with two down-trodden disciples, giving them a startling and concentrated Master’s level “survey class” on the Christological focus of the Old Testament culminating in his death and resurrection.
Let’s not mistake this, for the Jewish readers would have been confused indeed.
So while John the Baptist’s message to the teeming crowds was to repent and be baptized, the Messiah Jesus did not need to repent, and therefore his act of participating in this signifying rite of cleansing was for a different reason altogether: It was “to fulfill all righteousness”.
And, as it turned out, all the previous sacrifices and attempts at achieving righteousness for God were only effective in that they pointed towards Jesus’ sacrifice, and his application of his righteousness on our behalf.
Matthew gets to the heart of this in his gospel. The word translated fulfill, the Greek word “pleroo”, is the same word used by Matthew sixteen times in his gospel biography, mostly related to messianic fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies. This word is most interesting as it appears in 5:17 where Jesus explains he did not come to abolish the Law and Prophets but rather to fulfill them.
Retrospectively, we’ve come to understand that this term “Law and Prophets” is a synecdoche; a part representing the whole. Of the whole Old Testament, in this instance, as it all related to Jesus and his embodiment and fulfillment of all prophecies, symbols, and foreshadows that pointed towards the future purification and righteousness that would only come from him by way of his death on our behalf.
This is why Jesus insisted on being baptized! It was for those lost and helpless crowds, for you, for me; for all of us who need Christ to make us righteous in God’s sight since we cannot do any of it ourselves.