To Fulfill All Righteousness

As I noted yesterday, the baptismal back and forth between Jesus and JBap in Matthew is well worth studying.  Clearly, John has some issues about his doing the baptizing of his Lord and Savior, but Jesus is quick to allay his fears.  “Let is be so now,” Jesus says to John, “for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.”  What a peculiar response.  If it has to be this way for “now,” then what will it look like later?  And how is it that John’s baptism, the one that is expressly for the washing away of sins, will “fulfill all righteousness”?

My handy-dandy HarperCollins Annotated Bible defines righteousness as “right conduce in accord with God’s will as revealed in scripture” (Note of Mt. 3.15, p. 1863).  It then references several verses:

  • Mt. 1.19 – [Mary’s] husband, Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.
  • 5.10 – Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
  • 5.17-20 – Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.  For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not on stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.  Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.  For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceed that of the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

Aside from taking solace in the fact that even sinners and teachers of sin will have a place in the Kingdom (a post for another day), I’m having a difficult time wrapping my mind around how the righteousness of Joseph, of those who are blessed, righteousness that exceeds that of the Pharisees has anything to do with why John had to baptize Jesus “now.”  My equally handy and equally dandy, HarperCollins Single Volume Bible Commentary, notes that this phrase, “to fulfill all righteousness” is “an adjective that not only applies to this baptismal scene, but will govern his ministry as a whole:” pointing the reader again to Mt 5.17 (p. 873).

So this scene sets the stage for all that is to come.  Jesus is following the rules in order to be able to speak from under the law.  He’s living into his full humanity, in order to restore every bit of our fallen nature.  He’s got a plan, to fulfill all righteousness, and that plan isn’t going to fail here on the first day of his public ministry.

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