What does Jesus’ answer mean?
In his commentary on Matthew, New Testament scholar, D.A. Carson, explains what he thinks Jesus means. Below is my brief synopsis of Carson’s longer discussion:
In the Gospel of Matthew, the phrase, “righteousness” means conformity to God’s will. Jesus’ answer to John the Baptist “affirms that it is God’s will” that John baptize him and furthermore implies that Jesus’ baptism is about Jesus and his complete obedience. Through his participation in baptism, Jesus (in the role of the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 42 who first and foremost obeys God – fulfilling all righteousness”) affirms his determination to accomplish our redemption in obedience to God’s will. Furthermore, Jesus is saying “he must ‘now,’ at this point in salvation history,” be baptized by John in order to “demonstrate his willingness to take on his servant role,” identify with humanity, and obey “every word that comes fron the mouth of God.” Through participation in his baptism Jesus demonstrates that he is fully committed to do the redeeming work God has given him to do.
Praying that these comments add depth to your understanding this Easter season as you ponder Jesus’ death and resurrection in light of his baptism and all that it means.
Carson, D.A.,The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Matthew (Ch. 1-12) (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1995), pp. 107-108. In his discussion, Carson also presents others’ interpretations of the phrase “fulfill all righteousness” The highlights of this discussion are paraphrased below.
- Interpretation #1: Jesus’ offering of himself for baptism “anticipates his own baptism of death, by which he secures ‘righteousness’ for all.”
- Carson’s Criticism: This interpretation assumes that Matthew and Paul mean the same thing by the term, “righteousness” I think Carson would say that Paul uses “righteousness” in the legal, imputed sense – God counts Christ’s righteousness as yours when you are united in Christ through faith. In contrast, Matthew’s use of the word, “righteousness,” always means “conformity to God’s will.”
- Interpretation #2: “Jesus must obey (‘fulfill’) every divine command (‘all righteousness’), and baptism is one such command.”
- Carson’s Criticism: Baptism “relates to repentance and confession of sins, not to righteousness itself.”