"For Thus It Is Fitting"
(Delivered Sunday, April 18, 2004 at Bethany Bible Church. Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture is taken from the New King James Version, unles.)
In his Gospel, Matthew is presenting Jesus to us as our promised King of kings and Lord of lords. Let's take a moment to review what he has shown us so far in this Gospel.
In the first two chapters, Matthew has described the origin of our King - with the focus being on Jesus' genealogy, birth and childhood years. And in the section we've been studying, Matthew has been showing us the King's preparation for public ministry. In our last study of Matthew's Gospel, for example, we saw how John the Baptist - the herald of the King - announced His coming to the world and called people to prepare the way for Him (3:1-12). And in the passage that ends this section, we will see how the King was tested and tried in the wilderness by the temptations of the devil (4:1-11). It's after all this that Matthew will finally present to us the actual beginning of the public ministry of King Jesus (4:12-17).
But in the midst of this "preparation" section - nestled between the story of His announcement and the story of His temptation - is the passage we'll be looking at this morning. It's a very important passage in our study of the King, because it deals with a crucial problem: What kind of a kingdom could the righteous King Jesus possibly have when it is a Kingdom peopled by sinners? How can the subjects of His Kingdom be made as righteous as He is?
In this morning's passage, Matthew gives us the solution to that problem. And what's more, I suggest to you that, in giving it to us, Matthew - under the guidance of the Holy Spirit - presents us with one of the most profound pictures of God's deep love for us in all the Scriptures! As I read this passage to you, I urge you to give your fullest possible attention to it in a spirit of sincere worship. I don't see how we could possibly examine it without coming away with a deeper love and appreciation for the Jesus who has so loved us! We're truly treading on holy ground this morning!
Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan to be baptized by him. And John tried to prevent Him, saying, "I need to be baptized by You, and are You coming to me?" But Jesus answered and said to him, "Permit it to be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness." Then he allowed Him. When He had been baptized, Jesus came up immediately from the water; and behold, the heavens were opened to Him, and He saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting upon Him. And suddenly a voice came from heaven, saying, "This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased" (Matthew 3:13-17).
The key words to this morning's passage are the ones spoken by our Savior: ". . . For thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness." His coming to John for baptism was not to fulfill His own righteous, because He Himself is eternally righteous and has never needed to be made righteous. But do you notice that, in speaking to John, He didn't say that it was fitting for 'Himself' to fulfill all righteousness? It's a marvel of God's grace that Jesus said, "us".
He told John that thus was it fitting for "us" to fulfill all righteousness. John the Baptist - a man born under the curse of sin - was included in this work of the fulfillment of all righteousness. And so are you and I, and all who believe upon Him. What Jesus does in this passage, you see, is to step into our sin problem with us, become numbered with and united to "us" in such a way as to make our problem His own, and to then do what is fitting for "us" to fulfill all righteousness.
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To share with you how this was done, I'd like to emphasize three things about Jesus as they are presented to us in this passage. First, I'd like to emphasize how this passage expresses to us Jesus' own righteousness. Second, I'd like to emphasize how Jesus, in His full righteousness, is presented in this passage as being identified with us in our sin. And third I'd like to emphasize how both Jesus' righteousness, and His identification with us in our sin, receives the divine approval of heaven itself in this passage. What a picture this passage gives us of God's saving grace through Jesus Christ - showing us our need, Jesus' fitness to meet our need, and heaven's approval of His uniting Himself with us to meet it.
First, look with me at . . .
1. THE RIGHTEOUSNESS OF JESUS WITH RESPECT TO SIN (vv. 13-14).
Matthew begins by telling us, "Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan to be baptized by him." The last time Jesus appeared in Matthew's Gospel, it was in the second chapter; where we read of how, while our Savior was still an infant, God protected Him from the murderous hand of Herod Archelaus by commanding Joseph to settle his little family in the region of Galilee. We're told, "And he came and dwelt in a city called Nazareth . . ." (2:23).
Jesus grew up in the humble little town of Nazareth. Matthew is silent with respect to twenty-eight years of our Lord's life on earth - much of which was spent laboring with His hands as a carpenter. But now, the Gospel writer presents Jesus to us in His adult years, as He finally leaves the regions of Galilee and enters into the beginning of His earthly ministry.
The Bible gives us very little details about those twenty-eight years. We are told just a little about them though. Luke tells us the story of how, when He was twelve, He was found by His mother and Joseph in the temple - talking to the teachers and scholars who were astonished at His understanding. And even then, His own testimony was that He was 'about His Father's business' (Luke 2:49).
Though we may not know the details of those twenty-eight years, we can be sure that those words characterize how Jesus was occupied in them. He was always about His Father's business. He lived a life of constant and complete righteousness. He said, "As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world" (John 9:5). He testified, "The Father has not left Me alone, for I always do those things that please Him" (8:29).
Never once, in all those years, did Jesus ever sin. Not once! He never violated His Father's wishes. He never transgressed His Father's commandments. Throughout all those years that He walked and worked upon this earth, it was always His "food" to do the will of the Father (John 4:34). He was able to challenge His opponents with a question that you and I would never dare to ask; "Which of you convicts Me of sin?" (John 8:46). In fact, when they picked up stones once to stone Him, He mocked them by asking, "Many good works I have shown you from My Father. For which of those works do you stone Me?" (John 10:32).
And that wasn't just His own testimony that He lived a sinless life. That is the testimony we find of Him throughout the Scriptures. The prophet Isaiah spoke of Him some seven centuries before He was born into the world, and said that He "had done no violence, nor was any deceit in His mouth" (Isaiah 53:9). The writer of Hebrews. looking back upon His earthly life, says that He was "in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin" (Heb. 4:15); and says that He is a High Priest "who is holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners" (7:26). The apostle Peter said that He was "as a lamb without blemish and without spot" (1 Peter 1:19). The apostle John plainly said that "in Him there is no sin" (1 John 3:5). Even Judas, the Betrayer of our Lord, had to admit, "I have sinned by betraying innocent blood" (Matthew 27:4). Even Pilate was able repeatedly to testify, " I find no fault in Him at all" (John 18:38; see also 19:4, 6), and that He was a "just person" (Matthew 27:24). And even the thief that was crucified next to Him was able to say, ". . . This man has done nothing wrong" (Luke 23:41).
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That was the character of the One who came to John to be baptized that day. And it explains what Matthew tells us happened when Jesus came. Matthew says, "And John tried to prevent Him, saying, 'I have need to be baptized by You, and are You coming to me?'"
You see; as we read in Matthew 3:2, John had come preaching in the wilderness of Judea the message, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!" And we're told that Jerusalem, all Judea, and all the regions around the Jordan went out to John and were baptized by him in the Jordan, "confessing their sins" (v. 6). John, as he himself said, baptized with water "unto repentance" (3:11). As the Scriptures tell us, "John indeed baptized with a baptism of repentance, saying to the people that they should believe on Him who would come after Him, that is, on Christ Jesus" (Acts 19:4).
But what was John to do when that that very One on whom they should believe Himself came to participate in the baptism of repentance? Such a baptism implied that the one coming had sin to be repented of. How could it possibly be appropriate that He who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, and who walked upon this earth without once ever committing a single sin - one who always did the will of the Father perfectly - should be baptized with the baptism of repentance?
In fact, John wonders how he - himself guilty of sin - could possibly be the one to baptize Jesus! John, you'll remember, received a marvelous endorsement from the Lord Himself. Jesus called John a prophet; but added, "Yes, I say to you, and more than a prophet . . . Assuredly, I say to you, among those born of women there has not risen one greater than John the Baptist . . ." (Matthew 11:10-11). John stands out, in the testimony of Jesus, as the greatest man who was ever born from among fallen humanity. But, in spite of all this, John was still one born from among fallen humanity. He could no more claim to be without sin than you or I.
Now; just how much of Jesus' identity John understood at that point, we can't know for sure. Many have suggested that John met Jesus for the first time in this story; but that doesn't seem likely. Jesus was, humanly speaking, John's relative (see Luke 1:36); and he certainly must have known of Jesus through the testimony of his own mother. He certainly also must have known the stories of Jesus' conception. But however much John knew of Jesus' character and true identity, his own testimony was this:
"I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and He remained upon Him. I did not know Him, but He who sent me to baptize with water said to me, 'Upon whom you see the Spirit descending, and remaining on Him, this is He who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.' And I have seen and testified that this is the Son of God" (John 1:32-34).
My conviction is that John clearly knew to expect someone who was coming after him who is "preferred before" him, and who was "before" him (John 1:30). That, after all, was why he baptized the people. And I also believe that John knew Jesus before He came to him to be baptized by him that day. I suspect that it wasn't until after the events of this passage we're studying that John truly "knew" - with a sense of divine conviction upon his heart - that Jesus really was the Son of God who came to the earth to be our Savior.
But however much John really knew of Jesus at this point, he definitely knew that He stood in the presence of someone who was sinless. Perhaps he felt like Peter felt when the fisherman first came to understand who Jesus was - and when he said, "Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!" (Luke 5:8). John felt unworthy to baptize Jesus in the baptism of repentance. In fact, John thought it more appropriate that he be baptized in the baptism that he said Jesus would perform - "I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire" (Matthew 3:11). That, no doubt, is why John tried to prevent Jesus from entering into the waters of baptism; saying, "I have need to be baptized by You, and are You coming to me?"
I hope that all of this underscores for you the very important point being made in these first two verses: that Jesus - this one who was entering into the waters of the baptism of repentance - needed no repentance Himself because He was absolutely righteous. He was completely without sin before the eyes of God.
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And grasping Jesus' own sinlessness leads us, next, to consider . . .
2. THE IDENTIFICATION OF JESUS WITH US IN OUR SIN (v. 15).
There was a story told to us in the Scriptures of when Jesus rose up from dinner with His disciples one evening, took a towel around Himself - as a common servant would do - and began to wash the disciples' feet and dry them with the towel. He later explained that He did this in order to show them that, just as He - their Lord and Master - served them, so they should serve each other. But Peter didn't understand why Jesus was doing such a thing. In fact, he tried to prevent Jesus from doing it. But Jesus said to Him, "What I am doing you do not understand, but you will know after this" (John 13:6). The significance of Jesus' actions were unclear to Peter at the time; but they would become clear to Peter later on if he would only allow the Lord Jesus to do as He intended. Sometimes, the significance of something that the Lord intends to do to us will not really become clear to us until after we let Him do it.
I believe something similar was happening in the case of John, as Jesus came to him to be baptized. Why would Jesus - one who was utterly righteous with respect to sin - come to have a baptism of repentance from sin performed upon Himself? The full implications of Jesus' action might have been unclear to John at the time; but it would become clear if John permitted the Lord to do as He intended. The significance of what Jesus was doing is hinted at by His words to John; "Permit it to be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness."
Consider, first, that the actions of Jesus - though seeming to be inappropriate - very much needed to be done right then. Jesus urged John, "Permit it to be so now . . ." There's something of both a gentle assurance and a sure command in those words. The word Jesus used is the same one that we translate "forgive". It's a word that basically means "to loose" something; and it's as if Jesus were saying, "Allow this thing that you feel uncomfortable doing - this seeming 'irregularity' - to be done at the present time, John. You may not understand it now - but nevertheless, permit it now. Don't try to hinder Me in it; because it's an action that is very much needed."
Jesus' actions at that moment were not only needed, but were very purposeful and appropriate. He said, ". . . For thus it is fitting . . ." Jesus' action of coming to John to be baptized in a baptism of repentance was "proper". It was "right". It was "suitable for the need". And note what Jesus said it is "fitting" for: "For thus it is fitting for us to fulfill" - that is, bring about to a full completion - "all righteousness." This is like when Jesus sought to wash Peter's feet and told him, "If I do not wash you, you have no part with Me" (John 13:8). Jesus was, in effect, saying, "I know that I am sinless, John. I know that it seems inappropriate for Me to enter into the waters of baptism for repentance - just as if I were a sinner like all the others. But if I do not enter into the waters of the baptism, and identify Myself with those who truly need to repent of sin, we cannot bring about a full completion of righteousness."
Thus, our King had to stand in the waters of baptism in order to bring about the righteousness of those over whom He would reign. In doing this, Jesus - the one who was completely righteous with respect to sin - identified Himself with sinners so that He could atone for their sins and make them righteous. In coming to John, He was doing exactly what the Scriptures promised He would do. The prophet Isaiah, in Isaiah 53 - that prophetic passage that speaks so clearly about the sacrifice of Jesus our Savior - said, "By His knowledge My righteous Servant shall justify many, for He shall bear their iniquities." And how was it that He could bear their iniquities? As Isaiah says, it was because, "He was numbered with the transgressors" (Isaiah 53:11-12).
Jesus didn't stand far off from us in all our fallenness and sin. He couldn't have done so and still be the bearer of our sins on His cross. Instead, the holy Son of God lovingly and mercifully left His heavenly glory - laying His majesty aside - and became born into the human family through the virgin Mary. And though He lived in sinlessly in the human family, He condescended to step into the fallenness of our sin with us in order to take our sins upon Himself. As the writer of Hebrews says, "Therefore, in all things He had to be made like His brethren, that He might be a merciful and faithful High Priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people" (Hebrews 2:17).
Perhaps the clearest expression of this is in 2 Corinthians 5:21; "For He [the Father] made Him [the Son] to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him." That's why this act - His entering into the waters of baptism for repentance from sin - was "fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness".
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One of the practical lessons I believe can be legitimately implied from this is that every believer in Christ ought to be baptized. Jesus - the sinless Son of God - Himself submitted to baptism; and after He rose from the dead, He gave this commission to His disciples, "Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit . . ." (Matthew 28:19). If you have placed your faith in Jesus Christ, you ought to be baptized as a matter of obedience to Jesus' great commission.
I believe that it also argues for a particular mode of baptism - immersion. We're told that Jesus went to the Jordan River; and that, when His baptism was completed, He "came up immediately from the water". I tend to agree with the great Baptist preacher and commentator John Gill, when he said that the idea that Jesus would "go down into the river, more or less deep, to the ankles, or up to the knees, in order that John should sprinkle water on his face, or pour it on his head" is ridiculous.
But saying all that, I need to stress that Jesus was about to undergo a baptism that is fundamentally different from the ordinance we submit to in the church. When we're baptized in a church, we are in effect publically saying that we have trusted what Jesus did on the cross for us - that we have become permanently identified with His death, burial and resurrection; and are thereby saved from our sin. The part that we bring in the exchange is our sin and the penalty of death that those sins deserve. But the part that Jesus brings is His own sacrifice on the cross; and that's what He Himself referred to as His "baptism".
Do you remember the time when two of Jesus' disciples came to Jesus to ask that they be allowed to sit with Jesus in His kingdom - one on the right and the other on the left? Jesus said to them, "You do not know what you ask. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?" (Mark 10:38). They may have thought that He was speaking of a baptism in water; but the baptism that Jesus was going to be baptized with was that of His suffering in dying for our sins - the "cup" that He prayed to His Father that, if it were possible, would pass from Him (Matthew 26:39).
Similarly, on another occasion, He told His disciples, "I came to send fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! But I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how distressed I am till it is accomplished!" (Luke 12:49-50). He said this after He had been baptized by John. In looking ahead to this "baptism", Jesus was speaking of the trial that awaited Him - that of His suffering on the cross and bearing our sins with Him unto death. That was what He called His "baptism".
His "baptism" was not the same as our "baptism". But they were connected in that He stepped into the waters of our "baptism" in order to identify with our sin unto His own "baptism". And, dear brothers and sisters in Christ, I believe it would be very hard to find a greater way for Jesus communicate to us how much He is "for" us! It's as if the glorious Son of God looked down upon us from heaven, seeing us in all the filth and grime of our sin; and then, laying His glory aside, got down in the mud-hole with us. put His arm around us, and declared, "Now I can rescue you; because we're in this together. Now I am identified with you, and can pay the price for your sin."
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Given that understanding of these events, I feel that the next thing that happened is marvelous beyond words. It's here that we now see . . .
3. THE DIVINE APPROVAL OF JESUS AS OUR SIN BEARER (vv. 16-17).
Matthew tells us, "When He had been baptized, Jesus came up immediately from the water; and behold, the heavens were opened to Him, and He saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting upon Him."
Many have argued that this was the moment of Jesus' "anointing" for public ministry; and I certainly won't argue that point. It was something quite visible and striking. I have a friend who raises doves; and he has told me that when they fly, they make quite a bit of commotion about it. The flap loudly and violently; and they send feathers all over the place. The Spirit's decent in the form of a dove would have been something that would have been plainly visible to everyone.
But why did the Holy Spirit descend upon Him "like a dove"? In the Scriptures, it was a dove that demonstrated that the waters of the great flood had receded and that God's wrath for sin upon the world was over (Genesis 8:11). Doves were also symbols in the Scripture for innocence and harmlessness. Jesus once sent His disciples out to be His witnesses in a very hostile world; and He commanded them to be as "harmless as doves" (Matthew 10:16). In the Song of Solomon, doves are used as a metaphor for something beautiful and precious and lovely; as when Solomon spoke of his bride and said, "My dove, my perfect one, is the only one, the only one of her mother, the favorite of the one who bore her" (Song of Solomon 6:9). Doves were also referred to in the Scripture as offerings - the most humble offering someone could make. If someone had a child, and they were too poor to offer the usual offering for their newborn child, they were commanded to offer "two turtledoves or two young pigeons" (Lev. 12:8). You may remember that Mary and Joseph were so poor that that's what they had to offer for Jesus (Luke 2:24). And Jesus, as you may recall - when He drove out the money changers and animals from the temple - also ordered those who sold doves to remove them (John 2:16).
Could it be that the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus in the form of a dove intentionally - in order to clearly mark Jesus out as approved by God as our sin bearer? I believe He thus marked Jesus out for us as "dove-like" - innocent and harmless in that He had no sin; beautiful and precious in the sight of His Father; a sign that peace has come and that God's wrath for sin was satisfied; and the humblest and most available of all the sacrifices for sin that could be made.
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Matthew then goes on to tell us more about what happened after Jesus' baptism. He writes, "And suddenly a voice came from heaven, saying, 'This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.'" Here, God the Father gives public approval - before the whole world - of Jesus the Son.
Many scholars point out that the Jewish people would have immediately recognized the significance of those words. They reflect very clearly what God said in Isaiah 42 about the Messiah:
Behold! My Servant whom I uphold,
What a picture this is! There's nothing quite like it in all the Bible! Here we see all three members of the triune Godhead together in one scene - Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And they are all in agreement. They had all counselled together in eternity past to plan the salvation of the elect; and now that the Son has come forth as our Redeemer, and has come forward to step into the waters of baptism and become identified with sinners, the Father and the Spirit both declare divine approval upon Him.
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We have no other redeemer than Jesus! Indeed, there is no other like Him! No other is so righteous as to bear our sins on our behalf. No other is so gracious as to stoop down to the level of entering into our fallenness with us. No other is so clearly graced with divine approval! He truly has become sin for us so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him. He truly now can be a righteous King over a righteous kingdom - with us as His redeemed subjects, if we believe on Him!
And let me close with this thought. If all this is true, then how outragiously foolish it is to reject Him! How foolish we would be to reject the only righteous One in order to try to earn God's favor by our own pathetic efforts at righteousness! How foolish we would be to reject Him who united Himself to us in His righteousness, all so that we could stand instead before God alone in our sin! How foolish we would be to reject Him whom heaven itself so clearly approved! May no one in this room today insult the grace of God by even trying to do such a thing!
Instead, may we embrace this One who so lovingly and graciously embraced us - "for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness."
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