The Fulfillment of All Righteousness
Baptism of our Lord Sermon| Rev. Rolf Preus| February 18, 2007| St. Matthew 3:13-17
John’s baptism was for the forgiveness of sins. This is why he tried to prevent Jesus from being baptized. He knew that Jesus was sinless. After all, he had already identified Jesus as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. He could not take away sin if He were a sinner. It was John who needed to be baptized by Jesus, not Jesus who needed to be baptized by John.
But Jesus explained to John why He wanted John to baptize Him. He said, “Permit it to be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Jesus was not baptized because He needed baptism. He was baptized in order to fulfill all righteousness. But He was already righteous. He was born without sin. He lived a sinless life. He never did anything wrong. He never left any duty undone. He certainly didn’t need to be baptized in order to become a righteous man. He was already a righteous man. What then did He mean when He said: “for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness”?
In order to answer this question we need to consider what baptism is. Literally, it means a washing. To baptize is to wash. It is to apply water. The water may be sprinkled or poured over the head. The person being baptized may be submerged completely under the water. In either case washing takes place. That’s what baptism is. It is a washing.
But it is more. It is a washing of the Holy Spirit. It is a washing in the blood of the Lamb. It is a washing of rebirth to eternal life. It is a washing that gives us a clear conscience. It is a washing away of sin. It is a washing that drowns the old Adam so that the new man can rise up to inherit everlasting life. It is a washing that covers us with the spotless robe of Christ’s righteousness. It is a washing that fills us with the Holy Spirit and joins us in fellowship with one another. The washing of Holy Baptism is a heavenly washing with the almighty power of God joined to it. And all of these benefits of baptism derive from this: that Christ fulfilled all righteousness.
He submitted to Holy Baptism, not to take away His own sin for He has no sin to take away. He submitted to Holy Baptism in order to take upon Himself our sin. In this way when we receive Holy Baptism we leave in the water all of our sin and we take from the water the very righteousness that our Lord Jesus fulfilled.
The baptism of Jesus is a mirror image of our own. He places into baptism His righteousness so that when we are baptized this righteousness may be given to us. And just as His baptism obliged Him to do battle against the devil – in the wilderness and on the cross – just so our baptism is for us victory over the devil. Jesus bears the sin of the world. He dies. Water and blood flow from His pierced side. Now the water of Holy Baptism is our washing in the blood of the Lamb.
When Jesus was baptized the Holy Trinity was clearly revealed. We are baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. At Jesus’ baptism the Father spoke in a voice that came from heaven. The Son was standing in the Jordan River. The Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus like a dove. Christ’s baptism is thus joined to ours. He placed into Holy Baptism the treasures that we receive from it.
Baptism is God’s gift. It is not our work. True, you see a man pouring water over the head. But God Himself is doing the baptizing. Luther puts in this way in the Large Catechism:
To be baptized in God’s name is to be baptized not by men but by God himself. Although it is performed by men’s hands, it is nevertheless truly God’s own act. From this fact everyone can easily conclude that it is of much greater value than the work of any man or saint. For what work can man do that is greater than God’s work?
This is how we should regard our baptism. When we do everything that we can to live the life of a Christian we must in all humility and honesty admit that we have not done enough. Our baptism remains for us a washing that continues to cleanse us of all our sins. For it is not a mere symbol of an act of human obedience. Far from it! God has joined His own divine majesty and honor to Holy Baptism. Listen once more to Luther’s words from the Large Catechism:
In the same manner, and even much more, you should honor and exalt Baptism on account of the Word, since God himself has honored it by words and deeds and has confirmed it by wonders from heaven. Do you think it was a jest that the heavens opened when Christ allowed himself to be baptized, that the Holy Spirit descended visibly, and that the divine glory and majesty were manifested everywhere?
In a few short days the season of Lent begins. Lent corresponds to the forty days that Jesus spent in the wilderness, fasting, and being tempted by the devil. The forty days of Lent end on Easter Sunday when the church celebrates the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. Just as Jesus’ baptism sent Him into the wilderness to do battle for us, our baptism sets us at war against the one who tempted our Lord. “If you are the Son of God,” is how the devil tempted Jesus. “If you are a Christian,” is how the devil tempts us. He calls our status into question. He tries to convince us to doubt that God is on our side and in this way to rob us of our Christian faith.
In the liturgy for Holy Baptism, the first question asked of the candidate for baptism is this: “Do you renounce the devil and all his works and all his ways?” The Christian life is a life at war. We have tremendous weapons at our disposal. The devil is no joke. He’s not merely a religious myth or a symbol of naughtiness. He’s real. He’s out to destroy us. He kills souls. He does so by lying. The big lie of the devil is to question the Christian’s relationship with God. The greatest weapon we have that we can use against the father of lies and murderer of souls is our baptism.
Nowhere is the Triune God so clearly revealed than at the baptism of our Lord Jesus. And no where is His power in our life so clearly displayed than in our baptism. Consider the power of God’s name and word. His name includes His very essence. He swears by Himself and cannot break His promises. His word is almighty. In our baptism God’s name is joined to our name. In our baptism, God’s word is joined to the water in such a way as to make it a heavenly washing to which we can go and be cleansed of our sins every single day of our lives. St. Paul teaches that in baptism we put on Christ. He says that in baptism we are joined to Christ’s death and resurrection. St. Peter teaches us in today’s Epistle Lesson that baptism saves us by giving us a good conscience before God by Christ’s resurrection.
Did Jesus not die? Did He not rise from the dead? Yes, He did. This must mean that our sins are forgiven. For if He died for our sins and failed to take those sins away He never would have risen from the dead. But He did rise from the dead. This means that He most certainly did succeed in bearing away our load of sin and guilt. And this is not just an historical occurrence separated from us by a couple of thousand years. We were baptized into union with Christ’s death and resurrection, as St. Paul teaches us in Romans 6 and as we all memorize in the Catechism.
So when we find refuge in our baptism we are finding refuge in Christ.
Baptism saves. St. Peter writes (1 Peter 3:21) “Baptism doth also now save us.” The Bible says it and that settles it. Baptism saves because God joins salvation to it. It saves because God has chosen to bind Himself with His honor and might and grace to this holy sacrament. He has purchased the saving power of baptism with His precious blood. How can we despise it?
We are baptized! Tell that to the devil when he would call into question God’s faithfulness to us. We are baptized. This means we have put on Christ and can face any demonic accusation, any temptation of the flesh, any false promises of this world. Consider the Father’s verdict proclaimed for the whole world to hear: “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.” This is His verdict as well on those who have been clothed in Christ in Holy Baptism.
If you want to learn how to live like a Christian you need to know for a fact that you are a Christian. Your baptism is God’s guarantee to you that you stand before God with His full approval and blessing. Only when you know where you stand with God can you live before God with confidence. This is what Jesus had in mind when He told St. John the Baptist that He needed to fulfill all righteousness. He had you in mind. He had your daily life in mind. He knew that you would struggle to live a holy life and that you would fall into sins of pride, lust, malice, and greed. He knew you would face the temptation to give up on living the Christian life you were called to live. He wanted you to know today and every day that you are a righteous saint, clothed with nothing less than His own righteousness. You baptism seals this to you. So claim what God has given to you. You are God’s own child. Amen.