Articles Archive -- Topical Index -- Textual Index

by Al Maxey

Issue #793 -- March 20, 2020
A man who knows that he is saved by believing in
Christ does not, when he is baptized, lift his baptism
into a saving ordinance. In fact, he is the very best
protester against that mistake, because he holds
that he has no right to be baptized until he is saved.

Charles Haddon Spurgeon {1834-1892}

To Fulfill All Righteousness
Solidarity & Substitution Theology:
A Reflective Study of Matthew 3:15

One of the most familiar "Jesus stories" is mentioned in all four gospel narratives, with each providing a somewhat different and unique perspective. "The Synoptists record, and the Fourth Gospel implies, that Jesus accepted baptism at the hands of John" the Baptist [The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, vol. 1, p. 349]. Luke the physician writes, "Now it came about when all the people were baptized, that Jesus also was baptized, and while He was praying, heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon Him in bodily form like a dove, and a voice came out of heaven, 'Thou art My beloved Son, in Thee I am well-pleased'" (Luke 3:21-22). The account of Mark is very similar: "And it came about in those days that Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And immediately coming up out of the water, He saw the heavens opening, and the Spirit like a dove descending upon Him; and a voice came out of the heavens: 'Thou art My beloved Son, in Thee I am well-pleased'" (Mark 1:9-11). The apostle John does not mention the baptism itself, as already noted, but he does provide some very valuable insight into the thinking of John the Baptist on that occasion (John 1:19-36). "And John bore witness saying, 'I have beheld the Spirit descending as a dove out of heaven'" (vs. 32). "And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God" (vs. 34). "Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world" (vs. 29, cf. vs. 36).

It is in Matthew's account, however, that we find a conversation between John and Jesus. "This is the first recorded word of Jesus since He spoke to His mother when He was twelve years old" [R.C.H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Matthew's Gospel, p. 124]. It is during this conversation that Jesus utters a phrase that has bewildered disciples of Christ for centuries. Notice the account as presented in the gospel of Matthew: "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. And after being baptized, Jesus went up immediately from the water; and behold, the heavens were opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending as a dove, and coming upon Him, and behold, a voice out of the heavens, saying, 'This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased'" (Matthew 3:13-17). Clearly, John did not consider himself worthy to baptize Jesus, yet Jesus persuaded him to perform that act at that particular time for the purpose of "fulfilling all righteousness." Whether or not John fully grasped the deep spiritual significance of that statement is unknown. All we can say for sure is that it convinced him to baptize Jesus, who was then declared powerfully by the descending of the Spirit of God visibly in the form of a dove and by a voice from out of the heavens affirming this great truth: that this man who was just baptized was indeed the long-awaited Messiah, the very Son of God, in whom the Father was well-pleased.

In what sense did Jesus and John "fulfill all righteousness"? And yes, I said "Jesus and John." What many fail to realize is that Jesus clearly stated that in this act (baptism in water) "it is fitting for US to fulfill all righteousness." I don't know how many sermons I have heard over the years in which this text was used to show that "fulfilling all righteousness" was done by Jesus alone. It wasn't. "The 'us' is not a royal 'us'; both Jesus and John must 'fulfill all righteousness,' which renders doubtful any theory that ties the 'righteousness' too closely to Jesus' death" [The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 8, p. 107]. "By associating Himself with John in this matter of baptism, Jesus is thinking of their respective offices, and that it was 'proper' they should carry out whatever their respective positions required" [R.C.H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Matthew's Gospel, p. 126]. Both had their "part to play" in the carrying out of the eternal plan of God for His fallen creation. Both men, in this joint action, would be in some way "fulfilling all righteousness." Yet, in what sense they did so has stymied scholars and students alike for almost 2000 years, and this has led to a host of theories and speculations. "Here interpretations are legion" [The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 8, p. 107]. "From earliest ages it has been a question why Jesus went to be baptized" [Dr. Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, p. 279]. "It is clear that the significance of the baptism of our Lord is more complex than is often recognized" [Dr. G.R. Beasley-Murray, Baptism in the New Testament, p. 62]. "The baptism of Jesus has been difficult to interpret" [Dr. Myron S. Augsburger, The Communicator's Commentary: Matthew, p. 45]. "The baptism of Jesus by John raised difficulties in the minds of the first Christians" [The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, vol. 1, p. 349]. Clearly, the "fulfilling of all righteousness" is an important theological statement, "But who shall take upon himself to explain all that is contained in this expression?!" [Robert Hawker, Poor Man's Commentary, e-Sword]. Good question, yet many have taken on this difficult task.

Some, for example, suggest that Mary, the mother of Jesus, was in the habit of seeking to "control" the actions of her firstborn son during these early days of His transition from private life to public ministry. Take, for example, the exchange between Jesus and Mary at the wedding in Cana (John 2) which followed very shortly after His baptism. We see Jesus beginning to "push back" against certain urgings of Mary. Yet, verse 12 tells us He continued thereafter to travel with His mother and siblings. Thus, according to this theory, Jesus behaved righteously before God by remaining in submission to His mother (thus honoring God's command to obey one's parents), who most likely had urged Jesus to go be baptized by John (who was a relative of Mary and Jesus). "The heretical Gospels put into the mouth of the Virgin-Mother an invitation to go to that baptism, to which Jesus is supposed to have replied by pointing to His own sinlessness" [Dr. Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, p. 279]. The text to which Edersheim referred is found in the Apocryphal "Gospel According to the Hebrews," which states, "Behold, the mother of the Lord and His brethren said unto Him, 'John the Baptist baptizeth for the remission of sins; let us go that we may be baptized by him.' But He said unto them, 'In what have I sinned that I should go and be baptized by him?'" [Dr. Charles Ellicott, Ellicott's Commentary on the Whole Bible, vol. 6, p. 12]. Even though Jesus argues that He is sinless, yet "to fulfill all righteousness" He obeys His mother. Needless to say, hardly anyone accepts this explanation.

Another theory, equally ridiculous in my own mind, is that God always intended ceremonial washings, regardless of which covenant within which they occurred, to be sacramental in nature. In other words, the act itself of washing, dipping, sprinkling or immersion in/with water, secured some divine blessing simply by its performance. Some would even go so far as to suggest the water itself had some mystical or magical property (transmitted to it perhaps by priestly prayer) that could literally wash away sin and confer grace (salvation). Thus, in connection with this view, it is supposed that Jesus, by His act of being baptized in water, "blessed" the medium of water with this magical power whenever it was employed within the context of a religious rite or ritual (very similar to the sacramental view of the properties of the bread and wine of the Eucharist). Such theology actually goes back to the days of the early disciples and church "Fathers." The Pulpit Commentary states: "Jesus was baptized, not that He might be cleansed by the baptism of repentance, but rather, as Ignatius of Antioch (35 - c. 110 A.D.) says in his Epistle to the Ephesians (section 18), that He might by His baptism cleanse water and sanctify it to the mystical washing away of sin" [vol. 15, p. 79]. Such a view not only makes baptism sacramental, but it goes even farther by making the medium magical. The sacramental view of such religious washings leads to questions such as: "If Jesus, being sinless, needed not the sacrament that washed sinners clean, why then did He ask for it?" [R.C.H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Matthew's Gospel, p. 125]. Again, that is a very good question!

The German theologian and pastor, Richard C. H. Lenski (1864-1936), by the way, did not accept the view that the baptism of Jesus by John was in any way sacramental in nature. Jesus had no need to repent of anything; He had no need to have sins washed away. Thus, His baptism clearly had some other purpose. He wasn't just following Mary's orders; He wasn't making water magical. "Jesus is choosing baptism by John as the right way by which to enter upon His great office" [Lenski, p. 126]. In essence, it was a declaration of understanding. John the Baptist and Jesus both had been sent forth into the world with a divine mission, and by embracing their calling, especially in this moment when the two men and their individual missions and messages met in time/space, they were bringing to fulness the righteous intent and purpose of the God who had called and commissioned them. Both men were committed to doing their respective parts to bring into effect all that God had purposed with respect to the redemption of mankind. This would prove to be a challenge to both men, for it would require sacrifice on the part of both. It was time for one to begin to sacrifice his role as the herald of a new covenant, and it was time for the other to begin that ministry that would result in a sacrifice that would bring about that new covenant. Thus the "us" of our Lord's words to John: "In this way it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness" (Matthew 3:15). "Jesus affirms, in effect, that it is God's will ('all righteousness') that John baptize Him; and in so doing both John and Jesus 'fulfill' that will, that righteousness, by going through with it: ' is proper for us...'" [The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 8, p. 108].

This act by Jesus (i.e. being baptized by John in water) was not some hollow religious ritual; it was not a required ceremonial duty that had to be performed. Jesus was not obeying some divine LAW so as to be pleasing to His Father. This was no sacrament. Rather, it was an act of Messianic consecration! Jesus was at this time making a visible, powerful public declaration of His personal determination to fulfill the righteous will of God, and in return God made an audible, powerful public declaration of His delight in His Son! "The Holy Spirit descended upon Him in bodily form like a dove, and a voice came out of heaven, 'Thou art My beloved Son, in Thee I am well-pleased'." The Messiah had entered upon His mission, and the herald of that mission, adding his voice to that of God, affirmed it: "I have seen, and have borne witness that this is the Son of God. ... Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world." This was the inauguration of the Messianic ministry of the rescue/recovery, redemption and restoration of relationship between the Father and His fallen creation. In that act is the symbolism of the fall into a state of death and the rise to a restored state of life! In a sense, it is our Lord's first "sermon" (performed rather than proclaimed). The American theologian Dr. Myron S. Augsburger (b. 1929) wrote, "For thirty years Jesus had lived in Nazareth, awaiting the time when the Father would direct Him to begin His public ministry. His act of being baptized by John was a complete and full identification with the Kingdom that John was announcing. Baptism symbolized the turn from the old to the new. Jesus' baptism was His own symbolic act of identification with the new, of participation in the Kingdom of God" [The Communicator's Commentary: Matthew, p. 46].

I believe there is much symbolism in the baptism of Jesus. Those who seek to impose some sacramental significance upon this act not only miss the point, but by so doing actually endanger the point being made. "Here it is needful, in face of current exegesis, to distinguish between the concepts of solidarity and substitution. When the baptism of Jesus is included under the latter category, Jesus is thought of as taking the place of the sinner; when the former category is employed, Jesus is viewed as taking a place alongside the sinner" [Dr. G. R. Beasley-Murray, Baptism in the New Testament, p. 57-58]. These two categories are not mutually exclusively, by the way; our Lord Jesus, in my view, is both. "The baptism of Jesus takes on a fuller significance from this viewpoint. ... It indicates the initiation of the divine intervention, the downfall of the powers of darkness, the dawn of the new creation, the promise of life from the dead! And this, indeed, is the spirit in which Jesus departed from the Jordan" [ibid, p. 61]. Yes, Jesus has taken our place on the cross. It was you and I who deserved to die there, yet He took that sin upon Himself, and He atoned for it with His own precious blood.

In His baptism we find the symbol of His willingness to pay the price for our fallenness. In so doing, we also perceive His willingness to embrace us "while we were yet sinners." By standing with us, and by His love and mercy and compassion, we perceive His solidarity; by dying in our place and dealing with the sin problem once and for all, we perceive the substitutionary nature of His sacrifice. "As Messiah, representative of people needing deliverance, Jesus demonstrates and effects His solidarity with them in their need" [ibid, p. 60]. As Redeemer, He delivers us from sin and death, taking our place; as the Resurrected One, He defeats death, and in so doing is the great Guarantor of Life and Immortality. In the Scriptures "we see Him in the midst of the struggling humanity whom He would relieve -- at the table of Levi the publican with others of his ilk, in the homes and by the lakeside, hemmed in by the ceremonially unclean seeking cleansing -- a Messiah of the common folk, cursed by the learned religious. ... Here is divine life in human form, identifying itself with the irreconciled" [ibid, p. 60]. Solidarity and substitution? Yes! Sacramentalism? No! Thanks be unto the Father for this gift of His grace to fallen men and women! And thanks be unto His Son, our Savior, who on that day affirmed His calling and declared His intent to fully accomplish it by the symbol of baptism, for in that bold, public affirmation we perceive the very promise of our redemption. Thank you, Lord!


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Readers' Reflections

From a Reader in Unknown:

Good Morning. I'm respectfully asking: Your study titled "Absolute Necessity of Change: Reflective Examination of Hebrews 7:12" (Reflections #792) began by examining the change in "sacrificial laws" in context, but then ultimately railroaded into the abominable false doctrine of doing away with all the "Mosaic Law." Why would you teach that Elohim has done away with His laws of morality and holiness just because the sacrificial laws were changed?!

From a Reader in Georgia:

Brother, your article "Absolute Necessity of Change" was an awesome Reflections. I thought I was reading a business manual at first. I live in the realm of change, and I can attest to the reluctance of some to move from one habit to another. Whew!! It is like pulling teeth. I am copying some of your statements in this article for later reference! Good Stuff, brother! Also, the "new priest, new rules" idea is fantastic. Many applications to that. It also allows for the temporary rules God gave to be changed, while allowing the permanent ones (murder, adultery, etc.) to remain. Excellent point. However, you are stirring the pot (LOL) with the "law of silence" vs. specificity argument regarding the "tribe of Judah" declaration. But, of course, you are correct on that. I had to laugh ... then repented! (LOL) Have a blessed week, my friend.

From a Minister in Tennessee:

Al, thanks for your work! I've been attempting to preach for 66 years, and I really appreciate brethren giving me the opportunity to practice on them. In the past 38 years I have gone through the change of life -- in faith. It took a few head-on bumps with friends to open my eyes to some things I was too blind before to see. Each time I thought I would help someone else it backfired on me. However, here lately I have come in contact with fellows like me who have gone through these same struggles of faith, but that change has been so refreshing to see. Today I see myself as "more conservative" than I was forty years ago. However, those who don't agree with me don't see it as being "conservative," but as being "liberal." So, the story rolls on and only eternity will show who was listening and why!

From an Elder in New Mexico:

Al, I tried to go into your web site to research this for myself, but I didn't see a way to search your writings on a specific topic. It's possible that you have a way, but I may have just missed it. I was wondering if you have done any articles on women's roles in the church, particularly on praying. I've studied the New Testament passages on this, and it seems pretty clear to me that women can pray in the assembly, but only if they cover their heads. Many argue that this prohibition was "cultural," but the reasons given (creation order and angels) are anything but cultural. We have so far avoided this question at our congregation by having men only pray, but I don't want to prevent women from praying if the Scriptures allow it. What is your take on this topic? Blessing to you, Al.

From a Retired Army Chaplain in Indiana:

Al, concerning the difficulty of change, which you so aptly addressed in your article "Absolute Necessity of Change," I am reminded of the addressed need for open-minded flexibility in part of President Lincoln's annual message to Congress on December 1, 1862: "The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country." Abe Lincoln humbly sought God's will, and he submitted his own, to prepare and guide our nation through momentous change! We would do well to follow such an example in our own lives! Also, I can't help but think of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who faced down the tyranny of Nazi Germany. The church had failed to push back against Hitler's totalitarianism and in many cases embraced the promises of the "golden" age of the Third Reich. Today, in America, we are facing our own tyranny from political correctness, identity politics, and multiculturalism. We stand at the precipice of losing our nation to the forces of chaos caused by the radical left. How should we respond? Is there hope for the faith community? In response, I highly recommend the following DVD: "Bonhoeffer: From Tyranny to Freedom."

From an Elder in Georgia:

Al, greetings from Georgia, where we have been thinking we were living in the days of Noah. Our rains this year are more than 100% above what is normal, and we have flooding and streets caving in (and more coming this week). Oh well; as the French say, "c'est la vie." In reading over your Reflections today on the necessity of change, I am wondering if there is anything "binding" except for our faith in Christ as the Son of God. I baptized a young woman a while back who was a Methodist. For the Lord's Supper they used potato chips and Coke (I guess because it's contemporary). My father told of a church that baptized by sprinkling rose petals. I'm sure it smelled nice, but...! And then there are the denominations that are ordaining women pastors (and David Lipscomb University is graduating them), as well as married homosexuals. So, where do we draw the line? Or, is there no line?!

From a Reader in California:

Al, many years ago, when I first started preaching in "Churches of Christ," I was discussing with an uncle of mine (a biologist) that if this group didn't open up to some changes in how they did some things, they were going to eventually die. His response to my concern was straight from the heart and soul of a biologist: "Son, the Churches of Christ will never die, because for an organism to die it must expel its last bit of energy, and the Churches of Christ will never expend that much energy." He said it tongue-in-cheek, but I've thought about that for many years. There are some encouraging signs among the "Churches of Christ" (you being one of them!), but the future doesn't look too promising for that religious sect. Blessings to you, my friend.

From a Reader in Texas:

Brother Al, I try to read some of your work every day, and find some of the problems you deal with to be akin to those of John Clayton and his "Does God Exist?" ministry. Atheists and so-called "Christians" hound him constantly on his work that proves real science agrees with real biblical teaching. You and he are both in my daily thoughts and prayers!

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