Does the Bible tell us that John's baptism of Jesus fulfilled the law, and that it was completed by Jesus' baptism? What does it mean that Jesus' baptism fulfilled “all righteousness”?
In Matthew 3:13-15 we read,
Then Jesus arrived from Galilee at the Jordan coming to John, to be baptized by him. But John tried to prevent Him, saying, “I have need to be baptized by You, and do You come to me?” But Jesus answering said to him, “Permit it at this time; for in this way it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he permitted Him. (NASB) Matthew 3:13-15
The key phrase in this passage says that Jesus wanted to be baptized in order to “fulfill all righteousness.” The Greek word for “fulfill” is pleroo which means “to fulfill” or “to complete.” It is important to understand the two senses of this Greek word. Jesus was fulfilling and completing all righteousness. Now in what sense does Jesus’ baptism fulfill and complete all righteousness? Before we answer that question, we need to examine several points.
John’s Baptism Symbolize Repentance & Preparation
First, John the Baptist’s baptism was for those who sinned – sinners! Baptism symbolized a man’s and woman’s sorrow over his or her sin and the desire to be cleansed from their sin. The cleansing act is God’s forgiveness of sins. The cleansing act is not accomplished by immersion into water or the pouring of water over a person.
John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. (NASB) Mark 1:4
. . . and they were being baptized by him in the Jordan River, as they confessed their sins. Matthew 3:6 (NASB)
John’s baptism was not for Jesus. Jesus was sinless and He did not need to be forgiven. Some believe that Jesus came to fulfill some Old Testament law or prophecy. But this is difficult to accept, since religious washing symbolized the cleansing of sin. Again, we must remember that Jesus was sinless! So then why did Jesus want to be baptized? The answer is that John’s baptism also symbolized preparation for the coming kingdom of heaven.
Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Matthew 3:2 (NASB)
That is why Jesus was baptized. Jesus was identifying Himself with John’s ministry. John was the forerunner for the coming Messiah or Christ (Luke 1:17). Was this a handoff of ministry from John to Jesus? The answer is yes!
Jesus’ Baptism – Proved to John that Jesus Was the Messiah
The first reason that we can confidently give for Jesus wanting to be baptized was to prove to John the Baptist that Jesus was the Messiah. God had promised to show John who the Messiah was by giving him a sign.
And John bore witness saying, “I have beheld the Spirit descending as a dove out of heaven, and He remained upon Him. And 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 upon Him, this is the one who baptizes in the Holy Spirit.'” John 1:32-33 (NASB)
Since John was given a sign, Jesus needed to be baptized. Jesus was and is the Righteous One (Acts 3:14; 7:52).
Jesus’ Baptism – Symbolized His Ministry
Jesus’ baptism symbolized His coming ministry as the suffering servant (Isaiah 53) who would die for the sins of the world so that others could become righteous. Thus He “fulfills all righteousness.” It symbolized His future death. During Christ’s ministry He used the figurative language of immersion as a symbol of His coming death and resurrection.
But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking for. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” And they said to Him, “We are able.” And Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you shall drink; and you shall be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized. Mark 10:38-39 (NASB)
But I have a baptism to undergo, and how distressed I am until it is accomplished! (NASB) Luke 12:50
That is also the reason why Christians are encouraged to be baptized. For the Christian baptism symbolizes death to our old self and being raised up to new life.
Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, in order that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. (NASB) Romans 6:3-4
Jesus’ Baptism – Symbolized The Path We Would Follow
The New Testament tell us that we died to self when we were saved. The Holy Spirit regenerated us (Titus 3:5). We died to sin and have become slaves to righteousness (Romans 6:7, 18, 20). He made us a new creation (Galatians 6:15). We are a new self (Ephesians 4:24; Colossians 3:10).
Grant Osborne summarizes the meaning of the phrase “to fulfill all righteousness” with this comment,
In short, he “fills to the full” the “right” requirement of God in “the OT pattern and prediction of the Messiah.” He does not need to repent, but by submitting to baptism Jesus begins His messianic work by identifying with the human need and providing the means by which it can be accomplished.”
John’s baptism identified Christ as the coming Messiah – the Righteous One. Baptism was a symbolic preparation for the coming King and kingdom. Baptism symbolized Christ’s coming death and resurrection for our sins. His baptism instituted the symbol that His future saints would submit themselves as a sign of identification with Christ.
Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit . . . Matthew 28:19 (NASB)
1. Grant Osborne. Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. Zondervan. 2010. pp. 123-124.