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After John the Baptist objects to Jesus coming to him for baptism, He replies:

Matthew 3:15 NASB

But Jesus answering said to him, “Permit it at this time; for in this way it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.”

What is “all righteousness,” and how is it fulfilled by John baptizing Jesus?

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Matt 3:15 says:

“Let it be so now,” Jesus replied. “It is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness in this way.” Then John permitted Him.

Ignatius almost quotes this passage when he says in the letter to the Smyrneans, 1:1,

… The Son of God was … baptized by John in order that all righteousness might be fulfilled by him

BDAG suggests that word translated "righteousness" here, δικαιοσύνη (dikaiosuné), means (#3b) the quality or characteristic of upright behaviour, uprightness, righteousness; … of specific action, righteousness in the sense of fulfilling divine expectation not specifically expressed in ordinances, eg, Matt 3:15, 5:20, 6:1, 2 Cor 9:9 (the concern and care of the poor).

I think this is essentially saying that here is one place that righteousness must exceed that of the written code (Matt 5:20) of the Torah - to do all things, even those not written down! The commentaries also reach a similar conclusion:

Barnes Notes:

All righteousness - There was no particular precept in the Old Testament requiring this, but he chose to give the sanction of his example to the baptism of John, as to a divine ordinance. The phrase "all righteousness," here, is the same as a righteous institution or appointment. Jesus had no sin. But he was about to enter on his great work. It was proper that he should be set apart by his forerunner, and show his connection with him, and give his approbation to what John had done. He submitted to the ordinance of baptism, also, in order that occasion might be taken, at the commencement of his work, for God publicly to declare his approbation of him, and his solemn appointment to the office of the Messiah.

Pulpit Commentary:

All righteousness (πᾶσαν δικαιοσύνην). Not the whole circle of righteousness (πᾶσαν τὴν δικαιοσύνην), but every part of righteous ness, as each is presented to us (similarly, Acts 13:10; cf. also δικαιοσύναι in Ecclus. 44:10; Tobit 2:14, where, although Neubauer and Fuller explain it as "alms." this is improbable after the preceding ἐλεημοσύναι), and that not merely every part of the righteousness included under the Mosaic, Law (cf. Alford, "requirements of the Law' and especially Lowe. 'Pesach Fragm.,' p. 100: 1879), but of that wider righteousness of which that was itself only a part and a type. "Let me be baptized by thee now," our Lord says to John, "for it is fitting for us, in this spirit of submission, to fill up every part of righteousness."

Thus, Jesus is pointing to a greater righteousness that transcends and exceeds the written law of the Torah - He is describing a righteousness not from without but a righteousness that God creates within us that is planted and becomes innate by a miracle of the Holy Spirit - a change of heart and attitude. It is described in various ways such as "the mind of Christ", the law of love", "the law of Christ", etc.

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  • What Jesus hints at, without disclosing what is not yet, and cannot yet be, pre-empted is 'the righteousness of God', which was then, not yet fully revealed, until Paul expressed it in Romans and more. The righteousness of God is not a legal matter, for it is divine and divinity does not live by law, nor is governed by it. If it were so, then Law would be Above All which contradicts the first commandment : thou shalt have no other gods before me. – Nigel J Jun 12 '20 at 8:49
  • I partly agree. But I understand that 'righteousness of God' is seen by God in the believer - in his faith. He that believes (with an Abraham kind of faith) has within him the rightness of God : it is in his faith. Seeing his own righteousness (reflected in the faith of the believer) God sees rightness within him. (For he is right to cease from his own works and have faith in God.) Thus God, who sees all, justifies such a person. It would not be right to not justify such a person. So God is just and the Justifier of him which believeth in Jesus. I do not see your 'innate' argument, myself. – Nigel J Jun 12 '20 at 8:57
  • @NigelJ - I understand your concern. I fully agree that God is just and the one who justifies (Rom 3:25-28, etc). However, merely forgiving someone is not enough, else heaven would be a rerun of earth. There must be a transformation of character that changes the heart where people "growing into Christ", "not conforming to the pattern of this world", "imitating God" (Eph 5:1, 2), etc. – Dottard Jun 12 '20 at 9:07
  • I fully agree. But you are talking about sanctification, which is of the Spirit who is Holy. His presence is given as a consequence of justification. And his Holy Presence is that which sanctifies. Nobody was ever sanctified by the deeds of the law, nor were they ever justified by it. By the law is the knowledge of sin : and nothing else. The Westminster Confession (the so-called 'subordinate standard' to scripture) puts believers back under law. And it should not do so. – Nigel J Jun 12 '20 at 9:12
  • @NigelJ - again, I fully agree - Justification is always accompanied by a transformation. We come to Jesus as we are but do not stay as we are. There can be no transformation without justification and there can be no justification with subsequent transformation. Both are the miraculous work of God and not us. – Dottard Jun 12 '20 at 9:23
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I looked at the commentaries on Biblehub and most of them wander into what I consider to be an error, supposing that Christ 'kept the law' on ' behalf of others' (something I have never found in any verse of scripture in the bible).

Redemption, and therefore justification, is by suffering, by death and by bloodshed, I understand from the bible. (Not by law-keeping in proxy.)

Thus, say most commentators, 'all righteousness' is to be fulfilled by (they say) some legal means by Jesus of Nazareth.

But one commentary stood out, to me, as having something better to say on the text - the Expositor's Greek Testament :

The Baptist had a passion for righteousness, yet his conception of righteousness was narrow, severe, legal. Their ideas of righteousness separated the two men by a wide gulf which is covered over by this general, almost evasive, phrase: all righteousness or every form of it. The special form meant is not the mere compliance with the ordinance of baptism as administered by an accredited servant of God, but something far deeper, which the new era will unfold. John did not understand that love is the fulfilling of the law. But he saw that under the mild words of Jesus a very earnest purpose was hid. So at length he yielded—τότε ἀφίησιν αὐτόν.

The Expositor's Greek Testament : Biblehub

What Jesus hints at, without disclosing what is not yet - and cannot yet be - pre-empted, is 'the righteousness of God', which was, then, not yet fully revealed ; until Paul expressed it in Romans and elsewhere.

The righteousness of God is not a legal matter, for it is divine and divinity does not live by law, nor is governed by it. If it were so, then Law would be Above All which contradicts the first commandment : thou shalt have no other gods before me.

To 'fulfil all righteousness' necessitates a death. And, in token, by ordinance, down into the waters of baptism did Jesus descend.

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