Righteousness and Baptism in Matthew

Matthew 3:13-17

When John objected to baptizing Jesus, Jesus said, “Allow it for now, because this is the way for us to fulfill all righteousness.” What does Matthew understand this enigmatic reply to mean?

I used to think Jesus was saying that his baptism wasn’t really important. I thought that Jesus was saying, “It’s OK. I’m just dotting the I’s and crossing the T’s on my way to being the perfect sinless sacrifice for all humankind.”

More recently, I’ve looked at Matthew’s gospel again, and tried to let Matthew tell me himself what he means.

I looked at three things:

  1. What does Matthew mean by the word “righteousness”?
  2. What did John’s baptism have to do with righteousness?
  3. What does Matthew say about baptism throughout his gospel?

Righteousness in Matthew

We will encounter the words righteousness (dikaiosune), righteous (or “right”) (dikaios) and related words throughout Matthew’s gospel. Matthew uses the word more than twice as frequently as Luke, the gospel that is most like Matthew. It is an important word for Matthew.

The ordinary sense of the word is found in Jesus’ parable of the vineyard (Matthew 20:4):

and to those he said, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and whatever is dikaios [right or just] I will give you.’

The righteous include those who, like Joseph, do the right thing. They make right choices. They seek to live as God intended. They have right relationships with God and other people.

“Righteousness” and “righteous” and “right,” by the way, could also be translated “justice” and “just.” The Greek words are the same. The word “righteousness,” describes something that is not purely personal, but also pertains to relationships within the community of faith and within the community of humankind.

The first thing you need to know about righteousness in Matthew is that Jesus mercifully calls to himself not just those who are not righteous (or just), but sinners.

But go and learn what this means: ‘I DESIRE COMPASSION, AND NOT SACRIFICE,’ for I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners. (Matthew 9:13)

That’s good news for us who don’t always do the right thing, make the right choices or live as God intended.

Matthew’s gospel repeatedly confirms the truth Jesus’ saying in Matthew 21:32.

For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him; but the tax collectors and prostitutes did believe him; and you, seeing this, did not even feel remorse afterward so as to believe him. (Matthew 21:32)

The Pharisees and other leaders of God’s people reject the way of righteousness that God has revealed, but repentant sinners accept it.

Yet the unrighteous whom Jesus calls cannot remain unrighteous. Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7 says a lot about righteousness.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, because they will be filled. (Matthew 5:6)

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness, because the kingdom of heaven is theirs. (Matthew 5:10)

For I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:20)

But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be provided for you. (Matthew 6:33)

The people Jesus calls, then, must hunger for righteousness – seek righteousness – and be willing to suffer for the sake of righteousness – until their righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees.

True righteousness, furthermore, has an inward dimension. There is consistency between the inner disposition and the outward acts of the righteous.

Jesus said, “Beware of practicing your righteousness before men to be noticed by them; otherwise you have no reward with your Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 6:1)

Speaking to the Pharisees, he said, “So you, too, outwardly appear righteous to men, but inwardly you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.” (Matthew 23:28-29)

Matthew’s sense of righteousness is found in Matthew 5:48: “Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

One of the most important elements of righteousness pertains to how one receives Jesus and his disciples. The righteous are those who offer hospitality to Jesus’ little ones.

Then the righteous will answer Him, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, and feed You, or thirsty, and give You something to drink? ‘And when did we see You a stranger, and invite You in, or naked, and clothe You? ‘When did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’ “The King will answer and say to them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.’ (Matthew 25:37-40)

It’s also important to note that although Matthew certainly believes in the cleansing grace of God and forgiveness that Jesus won on the cross, “righteousness” is not the word that he uses to talk about that aspect of salvation. For Matthew, righteousness is not primarily a state of being, but a way of living. Matthew’s version of justice is visible in words and deeds.

… wisdom is [shown to be just] by her deeds. (Matthew 11:19)

For by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned. (Matthew 12:37)

The righteous will receive eternal life in the age to come, while the unrighteous will not.

The Son of Man will send forth His angels, and they will gather out of His kingdom all stumbling blocks, and those who commit lawlessness, and will throw them into the furnace of fire; in that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. “Then THE RIGHTEOUS WILL SHINE FORTH AS THE SUN in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears, let him hear. (Matthew 13:41-43)

These will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life” (Matthew 25:46)

So this is a brief overview of how Matthew uses the word righteousness. Jesus calls sinners, but real change must take place in their lives so that their righteousness reflects their heavenly Father’s character, interests and actions.

So how does baptism fit into Matthew’s understanding of Jesus and baptism?

John’s Baptism

First, let’s take a brief look at John’s practice of baptizing at the Jordan. John proclaimed that the wrath of God was coming on the world. In preparation for the coming crisis of judgment, John called the Jewish people to repent and be baptized.

The Judaism of Jesus’ day used ritual washings for two distinct purposes: periodic purification of those who belonged to the covenant when they became ritually unclean, and the conversion of Gentiles in what scholars call “proselyte baptism.” Even though the recipients of John’s baptism are Jews, John’s baptism is more like the latter than the former.

Proselyte baptism is one aspect of the traditional Jewish ritual of initiation for converts from idolatry. Converts to Judaism were instructed in the faith, exorcised, baptized by immersion to cleanse them from the pollution of idolatry, circumcised with the sign of the covenant (if male) and required to make a sacrifice at the temple (prior to 70 CE). Some rabbis said that it was as if those who were thus converted were “born again.” The new convert was literally starting a new life.

John puts native-born children of Israel on the same plain as Israel’s adopted children. He believed that the crisis of the coming judgment required Jews to approach God with the same intensity and seriousness as Gentile converts. This was no time for business as usual or presuming upon one’s privileged place with God.

And don’t presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that God is able to raise up children for Abraham from these stones! (Matthew 3:9)

In fact, John’s choice of the Jordan River as the venue for his baptism suggests that God is reconstituting his people. It was at the Jordan River that the people entered the land of promise. Those who passed through the waters of the Jordan constituted the people of God; those who passed through the waters of baptism constituted the renewed people of God.

Like righteousness, then, baptism is not concerned with purely with one’s individual relationship to God. In baptism, converts to Judaism are joined to the people of Israel. Those baptized by John are joined to the renewed people of Israel who will be saved in the coming time of trial.

And like righteousness, baptism is also concerned with a change in behavior. John says that his baptism is about: repentance. That repentance, he says, must bear fruit in real change in people’s lives.

Therefore produce fruit consistent with repentance. (Matthew 3:8)

And while John can offer a baptism for repentance, only the one who is to come can effect true purification. The one who is to come will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire. The coming one will separate the wheat from the chaff, preserving everything that is of value and blowing away everything that is worthless.

That, then, is John’s vision of baptism. It involves three things: repentance, changed behavior, and the rebirth of a purified people of God to which those who are baptized belong.

Baptism in Matthew’s Gospel

Matthew makes two references to baptism:

  1. John’s baptism of Jesus (Matthew 3:1-17)
  2. The Great Commission (Matthew 28:16-20)

Matthew’s second discussion of baptism, then, comes in the final five verses of his gospel. Its position in the gospel reveals its importance. It’s what everything else has been leading up to.

Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age. (Matthew 28:19-20)

Jesus’ “therefore” verse 19 refers back to Matthew 28:18:

All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.

The command to make disciples by baptizing them is rooted in Jesus’ post-resurrection authority.

Matthew’s story of Jesus’ baptism also lifts up Jesus’ authority:

And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased,” (Matthew 3:17).

When God announces that Jesus is his “son,” the announcement is not primarily intended to describe Jesus’ divine spiritual essence. “Son of God” is a royal title; the “son of God” is the king. Psalm 2:7 says of the king:

I will surely tell of the decree of the LORD: He said to Me, ‘You are My Son, Today I have begotten You.

That Jesus’ status as “son” is a reference to authority becomes even more clear in Matthew’s Transfiguration narrative. In the Transfiguration story, the voice from heaven repeats the baptismal words verbatim and adds one demand:

This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him! (Matthew 17:5).

Both the baptism narrative and the Great commission, then, contain references to baptism and Jesus’ authority. Jesus’ baptism reveals his authority; the disciples’ baptism is built upon it. The disciples of the earthly Jesus must listen to the Son whose authority has been revealed from heaven; the post-resurrection community of disciples must be taught to “obey everything I have commanded you.”

Jesus’ own baptism “fulfills all righteousness” (Matthew 3:15) in the sense that it prefigures the Christian baptism that Jesus commands in Matthew 28:19. In Matthew’s vision, to belong to Christ means to learn Jesus’ teachings and apply them to our lives. Christian baptism unites us to Christ as “disciples” [learners]. Jesus is the teacher of righteousness, and those who receive Christian baptism constitute the community of those who righteousness exceeds that of the Scribes and Pharisees (Matthew 5:20) because they follow his teaching. They listen to him. And so should we.

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