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John the Baptist & Jesus: Matthew 3:1-17

To Fulfill All Righteousness

Following the birth narrative, including the flight into Egypt and return to Nazareth, Matthew is silent about what Jesus did until he was an adult. From Luke we learn of his visit to the Temple at the age of 12. That is also where we learn he was about 30 when he came to be baptized by John.

Some time before that (we do not know how long), “John the Baptist came, preaching in the Desert of Judea and saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near'” (Matthew 3:1-2).

John was a rough-hewn man from the wilderness. Some suggest he came from the settlement that produced the Dead Sea Scrolls, though this is not stated in the Scripture. They did perform ablutions, which some see as pre-dating baptism, but there are significant differences between the ablutions at Q’mran and baptism whether by John or in the early church. The most significant differences are that at Q’mran the ablutions were frequent and self-administered. They related closer to the Jewish washings than they were to baptism. The people saw John’s baptism as something new.

Matthew said of John’s ministry:

This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah:

“A voice of one calling in the desert, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.‘” – Matthew 3:3, from Isaiah 40:3

He prepared the way for the Lord by calling Israel to repentance. The angel who spoke to Zachariah told him that his son would:

…be filled with the Holy Spirit even from birth. Many of the people of Israel will he bring back to the Lord their God. And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous – to make ready a people prepared for the Lord. – Luke 1:15c-17

People flocked to hear him from “Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan.” They came “confessing their sins” and “were baptized by him in the Jordan River.” When the Pharisees and Sadducees came to him, he challenged them, calling them a “brood of vipers.” Why this challenge? Apparently because they would not confess their sins, but expected him to baptize them. To them he said,

Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not think you can say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our father.” I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. – Matthew 3:8-9

He went on to speak of the one coming after him. John was keenly aware from the beginning that he was the “front man” for Jesus. He came to prepare for His coming, not to make a name for himself. He said of Jesus,

After me will come one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not fit to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. – Matthew 3:11.

He spoke of the One to come as one coming in judgment – to cut down and burn every unfruitful tree, to separate the wheat and chaff. The wheat He would put in the barn, but would burn the chaff.

Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John. But John tried to deter him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” – Matthew 3:13-14

See the difference? The people came confessing sins (showing repentance), and John baptized them. The Pharisees and Sadducees came not confessing sins (showing no repentance), and John refused to baptize them. Jesus came neither confessing sin nor repenting, and John said he should be baptized by Jesus! Why this difference? Obviously, John recognized Jesus as being the One for whom he was to prepare the way. How did he know this? Later, he said,

I would not have known Him, except that the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, “The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is He who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.” – John 1:33

That does not explain why John declined to baptize Jesus, as he had not yet seen the Holy Spirit come down on Him in the form of a dove. He did not see that until Jesus was coming up out of the water. How did John know before? We are not told. Presumably, God let him know someway that is not revealed. John and Jesus were related through their mothers. Could John have some “inside family information”? Possibly, but that is speculative.

What we do know is that Jesus insisted on being baptized “to fulfill all righteousness” (Matthew 3:15). What did He mean by this? “All righteousness” would include your righteousness and mine. For us to become righteous, it was necessary for Jesus to stand with sinners, indeed to take our sins on Himself. Here at the beginning of His public ministry, He came and took His place alongside sinners coming to baptism.

He later spoke of His baptism of suffering as a “baptism I am baptized with” (Mark 10:38). As He served God in the flesh, He was being baptized in suffering. This continued to the cross. In being baptized, Jesus was taking up His cross – though it would not be seen visibly until hours before they nailed Him to it. From the time of His baptism, He was carrying His cross.

His words to John, then, suggest that He was accepting the task for which God had sent Him into the world. His baptism was a pledge that He would continue to serve God, no matter what the cost. This is the same pledge we make in our baptism. We recognize our baptism as a turning point in our lives. Before repentance and baptism, we walked in sin; after repentance and baptism, we walk with God.

It is significant that it was at this point that God sent the Holy Spirit descending like a dove to rest on Jesus, and the heavenly voice declared,

This is my Son, whom I love; with Him I am well pleased. – Matthew 3:17

When we are baptized, God also sends the Holy Spirit to live in us as our Comforter and Guide (See Galatians 3:26-27; 4:6; Acts 2:38).


  1. Why was it necessary for people to repent because the Kingdom of Heaven was near? What about the kingdom makes repentance essential?
  2. Why did John refuse to baptize the Pharisees and Sadducees? How were they fleeing “the wrath to come”? How did John describe that wrath?
  3. What does it mean to bring forth fruit in keeping with repentance?
  4. Some explain Jesus statement that it was right for Him to be baptized to fulfill all righteousness by looking at Psalm 119:172, which says “all Your commands are righteous (righteousness in the KJV). Thus, Jesus was baptized only because baptism is a command of God. The inference there is that we should be baptized because God commanded it. This explanation leaves out any reference to the cross. Can baptism as obedience to God’s command mean as much as baptism as participating in the cross of Jesus (see Romans 6:1-4ff)? Why? How does shifting our understanding of baptism to representing the cross change our approach in teaching our need for baptism?

NEXT (4): The Temptations

PREVIOUS (2): The Birth of Jesus


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