Dear friends in Christ Jesus:
Ever been in a disagreement with a kid or employee where they just kept arguing and arguing even though you already made it clear exactly what you expected and that you weren’t going to budge? “It’s bed time NOW. I mean it.” “You need to do the project. I don’t care if you have to stay late.” And finally, after you’ve had enough, you tell them, “Just let it go! Do it!”
Today we take a look at a puzzling text where Jesus comes to be baptized. Have you ever wondered why Jesus needed baptism? After all, baptism is for the forgiveness of sins. But Jesus didn’t have any sins. If it seems strange to you, you’re in good company. John the Baptist struggled with this very question himself. In fact, he refused to do it. He argued with Jesus and stopped him from being baptized. Finally, Jesus told John, “Let it be so now.” or literally, “Let it go!” “Just do what I tell you, John, and baptize me.”
And in this account of Jesus’ baptism there’s much for us to learn as Jesus Says, “Let It Go.” Because we too often argue with God, refusing to do what he tells us, he encourages us to let go of thinking you know better than God. And when we see our sinful folly, he comforts us reminding us that he came to be baptized so we could let go of our sins in his righteousness. Listen now to the account of Jesus’ baptism recorded for us in Matthew 3:13-17:
Then Jesus came from Galilee to be baptized by John at the Jordan. But John tried to stop him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and yet you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, because it is proper for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then John let him. After Jesus was baptized, he immediately went up out of the water. Suddenly, the heavens were opened for him! He saw the Spirit of God, descending like a dove and landing on him, and a voice out of the heavens said, “This is my Son, whom I love. I am well pleased with him.”
If you think about it, John really shows a lot of nerve here, doesn’t he? He just told the people, “The one who comes after me is mightier than I. I am not worthy to carry his sandals.” (v.11) But now the forerunner who’s not worthy to carry the Messiah’s shoes, tells that Messiah that his plan is backwards, it’s wrong. What nerve! The Son of God comes to John and tells him what to do and he flat out disobeys. In fact, in the Greek the words, “tried to” aren’t there. John deterred, prevented, stopped Jesus from doing what he came to do.
Why? Because Jesus’ plan didn’t make any sense to him. John figured that Jesus didn’t need baptism. Baptism was for repentance, for the forgiveness of sins. But Jesus had no sin. He had nothing to repent of! He was perfect in every way. God the Father would admit as much in a moment: “This is my Son, whom I love. I am well pleased with him.” God certainly couldn’t have said he was perfectly pleased with John the Baptist. As great as he was, John was still a sinner. But not Jesus. You can almost see John’s jaw drop at this request: “Me baptize you, Jesus? “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”
But just because John didn’t understand gave him no right to disobey Jesus. He didn’t need to know why to obey. Maybe because Jesus was human like us John forgot who was talking to him. This was the eternal God standing before him giving him a command.
And though Jesus could have thundered, “John, don’t forget who you’re talking to! Do as I command now, or else!” he didn’t. He gently said, “John, let it go.” “Let it be so now.”
Now, I don’t mean to pick on John, but I have to point out how foolish he is here, because I find myself acting like John too often. And don’t you sometimes do the same? Don’t we all sometimes argue with God thinking that we know better?
God tells us to be kind and compassionate, to let go of the grudge and forgive from the heart just as he’s forgiven us. But we foolishly argue, “God, did you see what that person did to me? How am I supposed to forgive that?” God promises to work all things for our good. But we argue, “No, God, this pain, this problem, this struggle is not for my good! I’d be much better off if you made me healthy and wealthy with problem-free relationships all the time.” God promises that his Word will work. But we argue, “Don't be so naïve, God. The simple preaching of the Word is not enough. We need other gimmicks and tricks if we really want to change hearts and lives.”
And I’m sure you can think of countless other examples in your own life where you tell God his way is dumb, his law is outdated, or his methods are ineffective. And if not by our words, certainly by our actions we tell God that we know better than he does. We do things our way and we disobey what he tells us to do and not to do.
For ignoring God’s commands, for thinking we know better than him, for complaining to God that he’s not as smart as we are, we deserve hell. Thank God that Jesus didn’t let John deter him.
Jesus lovingly told John to let it go. “Just trust that I’m God and know a little bit more about my baptism than you do.” And though he didn’t owe it to John he even gave an explanation as to why he needed to be baptized. But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, because it is proper for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then John let him. Clears up all the confusion, right? What exactly does Jesus mean when he says he needs to be baptized “to fulfill all righteousness”? That’s the key to understanding this text. What does that mean?
Is Jesus saying he had to do this in order to be righteous, as if he weren’t righteous yet? No. Jesus had been sinless for the past 30 years, obeying God in every way. Is he saying he had to obey God’s command to be baptized to follow the law and maintain that righteousness? Well, at this point there had been no command to be baptized. Jesus himself would later give the command. And besides, the command to be baptized isn’t a law, like “You shall not murder,” It’s a gospel imperative, “Receive the blessings I offer. Be baptized and have your sins washed away.” So, if baptism is receiving forgiveness, the question remains why did Jesus need to be baptized?
The answer lies in the work that Jesus came to do. He had been righteous with perfect obedience to the Father up to this point in his life already, but now the focus of his ministry was changing. Now he would enter his public ministry and begin the rest of his work of taking the place of sinful human beings. Now he would fulfill that part of God’s plan to give his righteousness to mankind as their substitute and take the fall for their sin.
John was right: Jesus didn’t need to be baptized—not for himself. But John did need Jesus to be baptized for John. Jesus said, “Let it be so now, because it is proper for us to fulfill all righteousness.” He said, “For us.” That’s what Jesus was doing: stepping in to take John’s place, acting as if he were a sinner in need of God’s forgiveness, getting right down in the muck and mire of sin, right there in the river in line with real sinners to take their place. He was baptized to fulfill all righteousness not for himself, but for us.
Ecclesiastes 7:20 tells us, “There is surely not a righteous man on earth who does good and does not sin.” We were doomed to hell for arguing with God, for disobeying him, so Jesus stepped in to take our place: “But now completely apart from the law, a righteousness from God has been made known. The Law and the Prophets testify to it. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all and over all who believe. In fact, there is no difference, because all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified” that is, made righteous, “freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 3:21-24) By being our substitute Jesus fulfilled all righteousness for us. It began with his Baptism.
You see, righteousness is not something we do, but something we receive. For a long time, Martin Luther struggled with this confusion. He heard that phrase, “the righteousness of God,” and hated the God that demanded he be righteous when he knew perfectly well that Luther could never be righteous. But when he read these verses from Romans he understood: The righteousness that God demands, he gives—in Jesus.
And now, the righteousness that Jesus fulfilled is yours. Your baptism connects you to that righteousness Jesus won. Paul says in Romans 6, “All… who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death…For the person who has died has been declared free from sin.” When you were baptized, you didn’t do something for God. God did something for you. He gave you faith that clings to the righteousness of Jesus.
And now, when God looks at you, he can say the same thing of you that he said of Jesus. “This is my [s]on [or daughter], whom I love. I am well please with him or [her].” You are perfect and holy his sight. So, let go of your sins. They’ve all been placed on Jesus and have been paid for. No punishment is left. Let go of the guilt. Your sins are gone!
In thanks for that forgiveness, that righteousness that’s yours, live to thank him for what he’s done—taking your place, in the Jordan river, on the cross, and in hell. Let go of your plans to sin and live the new, righteous, life he’s given you. Let go of questioning God’s plan for you. Let go of thinking you know more than God. And trust that if he loves you enough to leave heaven to come to earth, to the cross, to hell and to the grave in your place to fulfill your righteousness, he will certainly take care of you in the smaller things you struggle with. Let go, and let God be in charge as you be what he’s made you—righteous in Jesus. Amen.