It must have been one of the most startling moments in the life of John. In Matthew 3 we are told that John is in the wilderness, calling for people to make a break with their old way of living, and to repent because the king and the kingdom are about to arrive. People are coming to John from Jerusalem, Judea, and the surrounding region, confessing their sins and being baptized. Remember that God has set John as the new Elijah, calling for the people to be renewed and restored to God. John has been telling the Pharisees and Sadducees who came to him to not be deceptive but to bear fruit worthy of repentance. But John also said that the one coming after him is so much greater and mightier than himself that he is unworthy to carry his sandals. While John is the voice in the wilderness and as people are coming to him, confessing their sins in repentance and being baptized, Jesus comes from Galilee to John. Now this may not seem like a big deal. But the reason Jesus comes is shocking. Jesus does not come for a conversation. Jesus comes like everyone else to John so that he can be baptized. Let’s read what happens in Matthew 3:13-17.
Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. 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 3:13–17 ESV)
Fulfilling All Righteousness
Jesus comes to John for baptism. Rightly, John objects. John notes that Jesus has this backward. Jesus is the one John was talking about. Jesus is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire. Jesus is the one who is so much greater than John that John is unworthy to carry his sandals. John understands that this does not look right. So John says, “I need to be baptized by you.” In short, I should be coming to you. You should not be coming to me. I am preparing the way for you. But Jesus looks like one of the midst of the crowd, identifying with the people he has come to save.
But Jesus responds that John should do this because it is fitting for us for fulfill all righteousness. It is an explanation that causes John to consent to baptizing Jesus. Yet it is an answer that can be confusing to us. What does this mean? When the Gospel of Matthew speaks about fulfillment he is pointing to the fulfillment of prophecy and the fulfillment of scriptures. Up to this point in Matthew’s gospel we have seen Jesus fulfilling all kinds of prophecies. Jesus tells John that this baptism is going to fulfill all righteousness. Righteousness does not only refer to personal morality such as doing right and living rightly. Righteousness in the scriptures also refers to God establishing his right order and his right paths. Here is a prophecy that we know about Jesus from the prophet Isaiah.
For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this. (Isaiah 9:6–7 ESV)
Notice that the picture is that Jesus will establish his throne and kingdom, upholding it with justice and righteousness. His rule will be the setting of things to right. His rule will be just. Jesus tells John to baptize him because this is the start, the fulfilling, of setting all things to right. This is the start of his kingship, the start of his rule, and the fulfilling of all of God’s plan.
The Visible Proof
What happens next is the visible proof of what Jesus just said. Notice this in verse 16. As soon as Jesus came up from the waters of baptism, the heavens opened. Imagine this scene. Person after person comes to John, confessing sins. John then puts that person under the water, lifts them back up, and then the next person comes to John. But when Jesus is put under the water and is lifted back up from the water, the skies open up. We are not going to move on to the next person. The event stops everything. The skies part and the Spirit of God descends like a dove and rests on Jesus. Then a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”
The Spirit of God hovering over Jesus reminds us of how creation began with the Spirit of God hovering over the face of the waters in Genesis 1:2. In Genesis 1:2 the Spirit hovering over the waters was to show that new life and new creation were about to begin. We see in Genesis 8:8-12 Noah using a dove to look for new life and creation after the judgment of the flood. Now the Spirit hovers over Jesus to show that new life, new creation, new hope, and a new way is about to begin. In the beginning there was darkness. The Spirit hovers and then light breaks into the world bringing the new creation. Now Jesus has come and light is going to break into the darkness, bringing new life and a new creation.
The words of the Father are also important at this moment. Think about all the things the Father could have said as Jesus comes up from the waters of baptism. But this was all that needed to be said. “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” These words indicate that it is the time to fulfill all righteousness. These words indicate that everything is about to change. It is in 2 Samuel 7 that we see a promise that God would put his Son who will establish the kingdom and rule on the throne forever. The scriptures tell us the meaning of these words.
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 nations. He will not cry aloud or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not grow faint or be discouraged till he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his law. (Isaiah 42:1–4 ESV)
Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the LORD and against his Anointed, saying, “Let us burst their bonds apart and cast away their cords from us.” He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord holds them in derision. Then he will speak to them in his wrath, and terrify them in his fury, saying, “As for me, I have set my King on Zion, my holy hill.” I will tell of the decree: The LORD said to me, “You are my Son; today I have begotten you. Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession. You shall break them with a rod of iron and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.” (Psalm 2:1–9 ESV)
The declaration of Jesus as the Son in whom the Father delights pictures that this is the anointing of the King. This is the king who will fulfill all righteousness. This is the king who will bring new life and new creation to his people. This is the king who will faithfully follow the Father’s will and his kingdom will be established to the ends of the earth.
But I want us to look at what the baptism of Jesus and the words of the Father mean to us. We noted that this Spirit hovering over Jesus was a picture that new life, new hope, and a new creation had come. Light has now come into the dark world. Isaiah 42:1-4 tells us what this event means. Jesus is going to bring justice. It is repeated a number of times in those four verses. He will not be discouraged or stop until he has established justice and brings his law to the world. But notice what is said about his work in the midst of this. “A bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench.” One of the reasons that the world over time has rejected royalty and kingship is because the kings are a drain on the people. They do not act in justice and righteousness. They act in their own self interests. They are ruthless to the people rather than serving the people. But listen to the character of King Jesus. He did not come to break you. He did not come to snuff you out. His purpose is not to take broken people and finish them off. His purpose is to give new hope to the bruised reed. His purpose is to fan the flame of the faintly burning wick. He came to make your life better, not worse. He came to give you the life you need. People are coming to John proclaiming their sins because they know that they need that new life.
Now look at Psalm 2:1-9 and notice what else the Father’s words regarding the anointing of his Son means. Those who rise up against the Lord and his anointed will experience the wrath and fury of the Lord. The baptism of Jesus is the declaration of his kingship. There are two options to his kingship. Serve the king who has come to serve you and give you the light and life you need for now and for eternity. Or resist the king and experience wrath. To use the words of John, you will either be baptized with the Holy Spirit or you will be baptized with fire. You can be gathered into his barn and receive blessings. Or you can be gathered into unquenchable fire and receive judgment. The arrival of the kingdom is the final opportunity for repentance before judgment. The arrival of the king means if you are bruised, he has come to heal your life. If you are faintly burning, he has come to restore your life. Jesus putting things to right and wants to begin by putting your life right today.