Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.  Amen.  According to one preacher, “The Christian church has never been comfortable with the baptism of Jesus.”[1]  After all, John the Baptist preached “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1:4, ESV).[2]  Jesus was the sinless Son of God.  He’d never done anything wrong and had nothing for which to repent.  Why should he need to be baptized?

John the Baptist (or Baptizer—he wasn’t Southern Baptist) was just as perplexed.  His reticence to baptize Jesus resonates with us.  Earlier John had declared that he was not even worthy to untie the thong of the Messiah’s sandals.  If he was unworthy to do such a menial task as to remove the Messiah’s shoes, then how could he baptize him?

“I need to be baptized by you,” John protested, “and do you come to me?” (Matt. 3:14).

But Jesus told him, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness” (Matt. 3:15).  Let it be so now—not for all time, but for now.  For in baptizing Jesus, John and he would together “fulfill all righteousness.”

When we first hear the word righteousness, we probably think of the active righteousness, or obedience of faith, that comes in response to the Gospel.  We think of righteousness as doing good things, and righteous people are the ones who do good things.  And certainly, that is a particular meaning of righteousness in the Bible, but it’s not the main one.

Here we must think of righteousness in the way that the Psalms and Prophets present it in the Old Testament.  There righteousness is often put in parallel with salvation, indicating that they are synonyms.  For example, in the wedding text I preached on yesterday from Isaiah 61, we read, “for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation; he has covered me with the robe of righteousness” (v. 10).  See?  Salvation and righteousness are in parallel.  They are one and the same.  Righteousness is what God does when he carries out his plan for our salvation.  And so the reason that Jesus says he needs to be baptized in order “to fulfill all righteousness” is because his baptism is part of God’s plan to save us from our sins.

This was almost too much for John to handle, but he obeyed his Lord’s command and relented.  You see, everything about Jesus’ baptism defied John’s understanding of right and wrong and who Messiah would be.  John the Baptist liked to draw lines in the sand, demarcating the differences between the wheat and the chaff, the righteous and the wicked, the good and bad fruit, and the saved and sinners (3:10-12).  John preached repentance: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (3:2).  But Jesus didn’t have anything of which to repent!  So when Jesus came to be baptized, he confounded John’s categories.  Jesus is the only sinless person who ever lived.  Yet he wanted to undergo John’s baptism of repentance—a sinner’s baptism?!  John didn’t consider himself worthy even to untie Jesus’ sandals, yet Jesus wanted John to Baptism him.  Something didn’t add up!  As Luther writes, “Christ, God’s Son, is holier than baptism itself, and yet he allows himself to be baptized.”[3]

You see: Jesus crossed the line and blurred the edges of John’s neat ways of thinking about and judging people.  Rather than bringing to bear God’s holiness in order to burn and bruise people, Jesus came to doff his holiness and become like us.  “A bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench” (Isa. 42:3).  Jesus is gentle with sinners, and by seeking baptism, Jesus stood in the water with sinners.  He identified with us in all of our ugliness and sin.  It was almost as if he was saying, “If I will be your Savior, I must first dive into the cesspool of sin with you so that I can rescue you.”  St. Paul puts it this way: “For our sake [God] made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21).

This is what Luther calls “the glorious exchange” of the Gospel.  Jesus takes our sin—and even becomes sin for us—in order that we might become the righteousness of God.  He takes our badness and gives us his goodness in return.  He dies our death and gives us his life.  It sounds like an unfair deal, but Jesus permitted it for our sake and our salvation.  “Let it be so now,” he told John.

It wasn’t enough for Jesus to wear our skin or walk in our shoes.  He wanted also to walk in our sin so he could carry our sin to the cross and nail it there.  At his baptism, Jesus took his stand with sinners.  He cast his lot in with us.  At the beginning of his ministry, he wore a badge of shame and underwent a baptism of repentance so that we would know he came to save sinners like us.

Later in his ministry, Jesus would suffer ridicule from the religious leaders because of his love for sinners.  “And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, ‘This man receives sinners and eats with them’” (Luke 15:2).  They called Jesus “a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners” (Matt. 11:19).  And when a “sinful woman” came to wash Jesus’ feet with her hair, the host griped: “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner” (Luke 7:39).

Supposedly holy people don’t like sinners.  Yet even though they act all “holier-than-thou,” the sad truth is that they themselves are just as much a sinner as the next person.  But in their self-righteousness and blind hypocrisy, they cannot see themselves for who they are.  And so they cannot see Jesus for who he is.

But on Jordan’s bank, Jesus shows his true colors.  He is the beloved Son of God and the friend of sinners.  In the muddy water of the Jordan, Jesus takes his place with sinners—and in place of sinners.  Listen to the wonderful words of our opening hymn:

Now rise, faint hearts, be resolute;

This man is Christ, our substitute!

He was baptized in Jordan’s stream,

Proclaimed Redeemer, Lord supreme.[4]


No wonder that God was so pleased with his beloved Son (Matt. 3:17).  Jesus gave up what nobody else ever had and made himself nothing so that we could have everything in his kingdom of grace.  After his baptism, Jesus traveled Galilee and Judea on foot as an itinerant preacher and healer for nearly 3 ½ years.  But no matter where Jesus “wandered,” his road from the Jordan River went straight to the cross and empty tomb.  On the cross, Jesus declared, “It is finished” (John 19:30).  In this way, he fulfilled all righteousness for you.  In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

[1] Barbara Brown Taylor, “The River of Life,” in Home by Another Way (Lanham, Maryland: Cowley, 1999), 34.

[2] All Scripture references, unless otherwise indicated, are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version.

[3] Luther, House Postils, 217.

[4] James P. Tiefel, “To Jordan’s River Came Our Lord,” in Lutheran Service Book (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2006), 405:6.