Thursday of the Baptism of Our Lord: What Righteousness Did the Lord and John Fulfill?

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But Jesus answered and said to him, “Permit it to be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he allowed Him.

Last devotion we focused on the word “all.” Jesus and John fulfilled “all” righteousness. We meditated on how baptism truly fulfills every salvific intent of our Lord. But what is this “righteousness” of which our Lord speaks?

After reviewing the issue, it’s hard not to issue the verdict, “Luther was right.” Luther emphasized how righteousness in the Bible is completely God’s work, and it’s given to us as a gift. Other Christian views of righteousness see it as something we work, either with God’s grace or by following Christ’s example.

But again, Jesus didn’t say He and John fulfilled the beginning of righteousness – something to be ended by us – but He and John fulfilled all righteousness. But again, what is this righteousness? What does this mean?

Matthew’s Gospel – the Gospel from which the Baptism of Our Lord comes from – nicely reveals what Jesus means by righteousness. What He doesn’t mean is what the Pharisees mean by righteousness. No, our righteousness must “exceed” that righteousness. Pharisee righteousness is not necessarily “good works” righteousness or “rules and regulations” righteousness. It’s actually pretty typical righteousness, the sort many people live by and thereby think of themselves as “good people.” It’s loving those who are good to you, not murdering others or committing adultery, and performing your religious duties.

Jesus’ righteousness is something more. It’s something we hunger and thirst for, seek, and are willing to suffer for. In other words, it’s wrapped up in Jesus, who…well, what’s our verse of meditation today? Jesus and John “fulfill all righteousness.” There’s no room in there for us to fulfill it. No, it’s something completed. It’s something to “hunger and thirst for.” It’s something to “seek.” It’s something to suffer for.

That is, it’s something external to us, something completed, something to be received as a gift, by faith, just as St. Paul taught. But again, what exactly is the righteousness?

Even earlier than Jesus’ use of the term, Joseph His earthly father was described as a “righteous” man. Why? Because he overlooked Mary’s “sin” and was going to divorce her quietly. Here, righteousness is mercy.

Now lets follow the “hunger and thirst for righteousness” thread, because those who do so are “filled,” and being filled happens with bread. Later in Matthew’s Gospel the Canaanite woman hungered and thirsted for mercy, and Jesus said such “bread” was not for anyone but Israel’s children. That’s when the woman begged for just a crumb, and the Lord commended her faith. She hungered and thirsted for righteousness, and she was filled.

The hunger of this gentile Canaanite for such “bread” is the lead-in to the gentile feeding of 4,000, which itself is a foretaste of Holy Communion. In both events Jesus “took” bread, “blessed” it, “broke” it, and then “gave” it to His disciples. Holy Communion is where we are filled with Jesus’ bread, which is His mercy, His righteousness.

Very arguably, every bit of righteousness Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount – all of which exceeded that of the Pharisees – was about mercy. Right after the beatitude about righteousness is the one about mercy. Who could be forgiven so much and then not have mercy on others, Mr. Unmerciful Servant? How do you prevent hatred at the altar of the Lord – which is murder, Jesus teaches – but by having mercy and forgiveness there? What is more lacking in mercy than to subject an ancient woman to having no support, due to you divorcing her? Why would we not have the mercy of Jesus at the cross for His enemies, when we see that such “know not what they do”?

Righteousness is mercy and forgiveness. And that’s what Jesus fulfills at His baptism. Again, He was numbered with sinners there. He was numbered with a fallen world which had inherited the sin of Adam. The only remedy for that situation is for Adam’s old world to die in the waters, and another new world in Christ to emerge from those same waters. That world would be a place not of sinners born unto Adam, but a world of forgiven saints born from above, from the declaration of a Lord who says, “This is my beloved Son.”

What formerly was not so much a beloved son, Adam, is now a beloved son in Christ. Why? Because that son is forgiven in Christ, because Christ fulfilled, by John’s hand, all – all! – righteousness.

Ours is to partake in that righteousness through baptism, to receive it as a gift.

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