Apr 1, 2004

“To Fulfill All Righteousness”

8 Min Read

“Behold, I havecome to do your will, O God,” said the Messiah when He came into the world (Heb. 10:5–7). The writings of the New Testament, especially the four Gospels, testify that Jesus was faithful to that resolve all His life. We see in Matthew how Jesus executed the offices of prophet, priest, and king. In each case His active obedience finds expression. (John 10:18; Phil. 2:8; Heb.10: 5–10

The King Who Serves The Father

The glorious Son of God obeyed the Father in becoming a man (Phil. 2:6–7). Already in Jesus’ childhood, service to His Father took precedence over, and also found expression in, submission to His earthly parents (Luke 2:41–52). At Jesus’ baptism (Matt. 3:17) the Father acclaims Him both His royal Son (Ps. 2:7) and His loyal Servant (Isa. 42:1). In the face of John’s reluctance to baptize Him (Matt. 3:14), Jesus said, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Jesus and John will together do all that God has determined to be right for them. Yet “righteousness” in this text is richer still. The supreme work that the Father requires of the Son (that which above all else is right for the Son to do and which will entail utter submission to the Father’s will) is that He, the Lord’s righteous Servant, save His people from their sins (Matt. 1:21) by Himself bearing their iniquities (Isa. 53:11). Jesus’ death for sinners is foreshadowed Here at the Jordan River, as John the Baptist recognizes (John 1:29). Unlike the others who came for baptism (Matt. 3:6), Jesus had no personal sins to confess. Yet He willingly received “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1:4), a sign that He identifies with the sins of those He came to save (2 Cor. 5:21).

As promised in Isaiah 42:1, the Father endows His Servant with the Holy Spirit, (Matt. 3:16). The Spirit’s power will undergird the Son for His forthcoming ordeal in the desert (4:1–11), where in face of manifold temptations, He remains faithful to the Father (for example, Jesus’ responses to Satan in Matthew 4:4, 7, 10). Jesus’ unfailing obedience to the Father cannot be understood apart from the empowering Spirit.

Matthew uses the term “king” (Greek, basileus) in several ways, but only Jesus is called “king of the Jews” or “king of Israel.” The character of that kingship Matthew describes in 12:18–21 by quoting Isaiah 42:1–4. So secure is Jesus in who He is — the Father’s beloved Son — that He is free to serve rather than tyrannize His subjects, and to deal gently rather than harshly with the lowliest and the weakest of them (Matt. 12:20; 11:25–30). Astonishingly, it is by the very means of His lowly service that all earthly tyrants will be subdued, and all nations made His possession (Zech. 9:9–10).

It is indeed “the King of the Jews” who hangs upon the cross (Matt. 27:37). Here achieving His greatest triumph through defeat. Just as the first Servant song (Isa. 42:1–4) prepares for the fourth (52:13–53:12), so Matthew 3:17 and 12:18–21 prepare for 20:28 and 26:26–28, where Jesus speaks of the Son’s ultimate obedience and of the Servant’s supreme sacrifice. It is love for the fallen world that causes the Father to send His Son upon His mission ( John 3:16; 1 John 4:10). And the Son willingly goes to the cross because He loves the sinners He came to save (John 13:1; 15:13; Gal. 2:20).

The Prophet Who Keeps The Law

Like those prophets who served God in Old Testament times (Zech. 1:6), Jesus is anointed by the Spirit of God to proclaim the Word of God (Luke 4:18–19). He preaches the Gospel of God’s dawning Rule, calling listeners to repentance and faith (Matt. 4:17, 23). With equal authority He expounds the Law of God, requir- ing of His followers personal holiness and social righteousness (Matt. 5:1–7, 29; 19:16–21. He foretells events both near and distant (Matt. 24:1–51).

Jesus is the Prophet foretold by Moses (Deut. 18:15; Acts 3:22). Like Moses, He expounds the Law of God from a mountain (Matt. 5–7). He solemnly declares that “until Heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished” (Matt. 5:18). This text has in view the Law as expounded both by Moses and by Jesus the New Moses. Jesus’ interpretation of the Law perfectly accords with the progress of God’s saving purpose in history (Matt. 11:12–13).

Jesus promises that in the coming kingdom, God will honor those who honor His Law (Matt. 5:19b). Yet Jesus alone perfectly does so. The crowds were astonished at Jesus’ teaching because He spoke with great authority (Matt 7:28–29). One reason for this authority is that what Jesus teaches others, He Himself does. Unlike those Old Testament persons who prefigure Him (for example, Moses, David, Solomon and Jonah), Jesus is consistently faithful to the Father’s will. Unlike the nation’s leaders (Matt. 23:3), He practices what He preaches. He loves the God He commands His followers to love (Matt. 11:27; 22:37), and He commands His disciples to love each other as He has loved them (John 13:34). Not only does He declare people’s sins forgiven, He chooses intimate fellowship with some of society’s worst sinners (Matt 9:1–13; 11:19; Luke 19:1–10). Even the woes upon the scribes and Pharisees (Matt. 23) show His love for His enemies (Matt. 5:44). Before appointing others to be missionaries, He has been one Himself.

Jesus embodies all the qualities He celebrates in the Beatitudes of Matthew 5:3–10. He is poor in spirit: assailed by fierce and unrelenting evil; He trusts in God the Father for protection and power. He mourns — not over personal sins (for He has none), but over others’ hardness of heart, stubbornness of will, and bondage to sin. He identifies Himself as meek (Matt. 11:29; 21:5); God’s Servant is not quarrelsome, and He deals gently with the weak (Matt. 12:19–20). When assailed, He does not retaliate or threaten vengeance (Isa. 53:7; 1 Peter 2:23). Unlike fallen creatures who, appalled by their iniquity, crave to grow in holiness, Jesus hungers and thirsts for righteousness as one whose mission is to establish God’s holy and just rule (Matt. 12:18, 20). Throughout His ministry He is merciful to the helpless and needy. He, the Servant whose singular purpose is to know and to do the Father’s will, is pure in heart. In Him, faithful Israel is reduced to one person (Isa. 49:3; 50:5–8). As the one who supplants Satan’s tyranny with God’s benevolent rule, He atones for His people’s sins and reconciles them to God; He is the peacemaker (Isa. 9:6–7; 49:5–6; Eph. 2:14–17). As His life progresses, He is increasingly persecuted for the sake of righteousness. Matthew 5:10 is especially applicable to Jesus, for He is the uniquely righteous One (Matt. 27:19; Acts 3:14; 1 Peter 3:18).

The Priest Who Gives His Life

Even as a child, Jesus was found serving His Father in the temple (Luke 2:46–49). Throughout His life He faithfully taught the people on a host of sub- jects — a responsibility of priests in the Old Testament (2 Chron. 17:7–9; Neh. 8:7–9). Like the high priest “appointed to act on behalf of men in relation to God” (Heb. 5:1), Jesus offered prayers for others (Matt. 14:19; 26:26–27; Luke 22:31–32; John 17:1–26). He chose to teach and heal in the temple (Matt. 21:14–17; 21:23–23:39; 26:55). Shortly before His death, He, who was not a descendant of Levi but of Judah (Matt. 1:1–2), showed Himself to be Lord of the temple and Judge of its illicit practices (21:12–13). In that same capacity, He prophesied that the temple would be destroyed (24:1–2, 15–21) and replaced by a temple of living stones (John 2:21; Eph. 2:18–22).

However, in some respects, Jesus’ priesthood is vastly different from that of Aaron and his successors. He does not merely assist sinful human beings in securing forgiveness from God; He himself forgives sins (Matt. 9:1–8). The Jewish high priest had to “offer sacrifice for his own sins just as he does for those of the people”; Jesus, the sinless one, addressed the sins of others exclusively (Heb. 5:3; 7:26–28; 4:14–16). Moreover, He saves His people from their sins, not by slaying goats, calves and lambs, but by sacrificing Himself and pouring out His own blood (Matt. 1:21; 20:28; 26:26–28).

Jesus “humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:8). From the time of His birth, the Cross was in view. “He will save His people from their sins,” said the angel concerning the child that Mary would bear (Matt. 1:21). The Bridegroom would be snatched away from the wedding guests, said Jesus early in His ministry, (Matt. 9:15). At His transfiguration, the Father said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him” (Matt. 17:5).

“God sent forth His Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law,” wrote Paul in Galatians 4:4. The Son of God willingly became a man (“born of a woman”) so that He could die as the God-Man. He submitted to God’s commands (“born under the law”) to offer perfect obedience where Adam had failed (Rom. 5:17), and thus He merited eternal life for a sinful people. Moreover, He purchased freedom for a people who stood condemned because of their solidarity with Adam (“to redeem those who were under the law”) (Rom. 5:18–19; 1 Cor. 15:21–22).

The Cross marks the supreme exercise of Jesus’ own will, of His active obedience. “No one takes [my life] from me, but I lay it down of my own accord” (John 10:18). Jesus “was obedient to the point of death” (Phil. 2:8); “by one act of righteousness,” by “one man’s obedience” in His death, “many will be made righteous” (Rom. 5:18–19). The Cross also marks the supreme exercise of Jesus’ passive obedience, of His submission to His Father’s will. In Gethsemane He prayed: “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will” (Matt. 26:39). In his Manual of Christian Doctrine, Louis Berkhof rightly says that Jesus’ active and passive obedience may be distinguished but must never be separated. In both cases, Jesus is obedient.

The Father raised His obedient Son from the dead, bestowed on Him the highest honors and granted Him universal authority (Phil. 2:8–11; Matt. 28:18–20). This great High Priest, “holy, innocent, unstained, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens ... is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since He always lives to make intercession for them” (Heb. 7:24–26).