The Importance of Jesus' Fulfilling All Righeousness For Us
Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, "I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?" But Jesus answered him, "Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness." - Matthew 3:13-15
What an odd passage. Jesus comes to John to be baptized. John, knowing Jesus' identity, tries to stop Him and tells him it should be the other way around. Jesus tells him to do it anyway in order to' fulfill all righteousness'. Huh? What righteousness? Isn't Jesus already righteous, we ask? What actual need would there be to fulfill any more righteousness? While we all acknowledge that Jesus is indeed righteous in His essence, but I propose to demonstrate from the text of Scripture that, in order to become a perfect substitute for us, Jesus also needed to fulfill all righteousness as a man from our side, a man who is 'born under the law' who needed to perfectly keep it in order to be able to impute righteousness to us. Yes we must be quick to acknowledge that our Lord’s atoning death removes sin. Clearly, the curse of the law is removed because Jesus endured the penalty for us. “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Cor. 5:21). “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, "Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree” (Gal. 3:13). Indeed, as the text of Scripture declares, in order for human beings, who are sinners, to have eternal life the guilt and penalty of sin must be removed. But Jesus does this not only by dying the death we justly deserve but by living the life we should have lived. This means, along with punishment for sins, that we must also have a perfect record of obedience to God’s law. When these two conditions are fulfilled people can be justified or declared righteous, before God. Therefore, justification contains one negative and one positive element.
The fact is, if Jesus simply needed to impute the righteousness of God from His essence, there would have been no need for him to live for 33 years. Instead when Herod went to go massacre the infants in Bethlehem, Jesus death as an infant would have sufficed for our justification. But this was not the plan of God because to become a perfect high priest and lamb without blemish, Jesus not only had to die for us but he had to live for us. It is clear then that the Scriptures speak of God's people not only being justified by His death (Rom. 3:25; 5:9) but also as being saved by His life or obedience (Rom. 5:10, 19). Aside from the above obvious passages, where else do the Scriptures teach this? Well if you turn with me to Hebrews chapters 4 and 5 we will find a very precise passage on this very topic:
"we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin ... In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence. Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered. And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him, being designated by God a high priest after the order of Melchizedek. (Hebrews 411, 12& Heb 5:7-8)
The author of Hebrews here emphasizes the necessity of Jesus being without sin. He does not mean that Jesus was merely sinless in His essence as the second Person in the Trinity but that through temptations in the world He overcame, as a man, and His prayers were heard by God because, as a man, He revered and obeyed God. Next it says he was made perfect. Now if only Jesus essence were needed for our righteousness here there would be no need for him to be made perfect since he already was. No, what this is speaking of is the same thing he meant when speaking to John the baptist. He was made perfect as a man (fulfilling all righteousness) so that he could become the eternal source of salvation as a high priest for us in the order of Melchizedek.
The notes in the ESV Study Bible by David Chapman of Covenant Theological Seminary are as follows: .
Heb. 5:9–10 being made perfect. During his childhood, Jesus was not lacking in any godly character quality, but he was lacking in the full experience of having lived a perfect human life, obeying the Father in everything, without sin. The lifelong perfect obedience of Jesus (v. 8; 7:26–28) provides the basis for eternal salvation (2:10; 9:23–28) and for the ultimate “perfection” of those who respond in faith and obedience (10:14; 11:40; 12:23; cf. 7:19; 9:9; 10:1).
Remember, Jesus did not come to destroy the law but to fulfill it. Jesus' fulfilling of the law was done both for God and for us. When the Rich Young Ruler asked what He must do to attain eternal life Jesus told him to obey the commandments and he will live. The question was about eternal life, not just abundant life, so we know Jesus meant that perfect obedience to God's law was the requirement, that if a person were to hypothetically have kept all the commandments they would not need a savior. But Jesus uses this merely as a way of speaking to demonstrate the impossibility to doing so. In the presence of Jesus the Young Ruler soon realizes that he has failed to keep the law against coveting and goes away sad. The disciples rightly ask 'who then can be saved' and Jesus answers that 'what is impossible with man is possible with God'. In other words, Jesus does for us what we cannot do for ourselves. "For by the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in His sight, for by the law is the knowledge of sin.” (Rom 3:19). But " God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us." (Rom 8:3)
Therefore, the problem is not with the law, but that it was weakened by the flesh and therefore could not do what it intended (i.e do this and live). But Jesus came in the likeness of sinful flesh AND for sin without that weakness so that the righteous requirement of the law might be met (fulfilled) in us.
To conclude, Jesus incarnation is important, no, vital to our justification. Those who argue that Jesus active obedience (or living the life we should have lived) is unimportant would appear to be downplaying the importance of the incarnation.