I know there are many believers that will answer “yes” to this question. I also know there are many who would answer “no.” I’m sure if I asked them why, I could see possible merit in both of their explanations. I’m also sure there are scriptural references they could use (and we would hope so) to back up their assertions or convictions. But, they can’t both be right. I have recently heard on the radio and elsewhere questions about different biblical topics and, many times, what I hear in response begins with “I think that…” or “I believe that…” Though the use of these verbs doesn’t necessarily invalidate their positions, it is indicative that these answers, or even opinions, aren’t authoritative. The Word of G-d IS authoritative; what I think, believe or reason isn’t. There is weight, power, jurisdiction, sovereignty, supremacy, finality and infallibility in that true authority. So without any preconceived mindsets (and possibly even strongholds) belying our examination, let’s see what the Bible has to say about this. And let’s at least allow the Spirit of G-d to teach us, if we are willing, to put our held beliefs behind us and to accept what He speaks to us—and that includes me!
When the Lord put this on my heart and mind, the actual scripture He gave me was our Lord Jesus’ response to John the Baptist’s comment in Matthew 3: 13-15, “Then Jesus came to 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.’ Then he consented.”
Now, what jumped off the page at me when I read this, that the Father was drawing my attention to were the words, “…fitting…to fulfill all righteousness.” Since I want to be and to remain unbiased and transparent, my mind substituted the word “necessary” for “fitting” which many word-for-word translations use. Fitting is used by my ESV, the NASB, the Berean Bible and others. The Greek word here is PREPO, and it means “proper or suitable.” So for me to presumptuously insert or substitute the word necessary may be incorrect. However, since the original language uses proper, suitable and right—then “must” is really a better, implied English rendering. Since it is proper and suitable and right, it doesn’t actually leave the matter to choice. As part of our natural learning process, then, it is quite apt to ask, “Why is it proper? Why is it suitable? Why did our Lord, ultimately, come to His cousin to be baptized? Why was it done “to fulfill all righteousness”? To begin with, many preachers and teachers often over-simplify the act of baptism by calling it “an outward sign or expression, and public declaration” of the cleansing that takes place in our hearts when we confess our sins and turn to the Lord (see Matthew 3: 6). While this is certainly true in a very basic sense, it doesn’t do doctrine or the new believer justice to stop there. There is actually a lot more going on here that a seeker must be aware of before giving their committedness to the Lord Jesus Christ. When we look at the book of Colossians, chapter two and verse twelve, it emphasizes, “HAVING BEEN BURIED with Him IN BAPTISM…” And Romans 6: 3-4 says, “…Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were BAPTIZED INTO HIS DEATH? We were BURIED therefore with Him BY BAPTISM UNTO DEATH?” So you see that baptism, in its truest sense, involves death and burial. It is no wonder that these two acts go hand-in-hand in the natural realm since they do primarily in the spiritual realm as well. We need to take our decisions for, and our commitments and devotion to, Christ the Lord, and our choices to get baptized seriously. An important exclamation point is Luke 3: 3 punctuating that John “went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a BAPTISM OF REPENTANCE for the forgiveness of sins.” So the Word of G-d tells us that in order to become born-again, forgiven, saved and transformed believers, and submitted and obedient disciples of the Messiah, we must confess our sins (acknowledge and take ownership of them), repent of them (have a conscious, personal and intentional change of heart and mind over our lives), die to ourselves and our ways (make Him- not us- Lord and Master) and be buried (nail the coffin shut and roll the stone over the tomb of our sinful nature) in order to be alive in Him and made new (2 Corinthians 5: 17). Please let all of this scriptural gold sink in.
My eyes were further opened as the Lord Jesus began revealing to me about the exchange that takes place between Him and me (as well as Him and each of you) during all of this. And this, to me, really gets to the heart of why He said that it is a must “…to fulfill all righteousness.” And FULFILL is another key word that plays a central role here. What does “fulfill” mean in this paramount passage? This time we look to the Greek word “PLEROO” which means “to make full, complete, amply supplied.” This certainly is purposefully used to imply that to not be baptized is to somehow be less than full, less than complete, insufficiently supplied.” To me, it speaks in a parallel manner to the disciples in Luke 24: 49, “And, behold, I am sending the promise of My Father upon you. But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.” The Lord is telling His followers that everything is not yet complete. A lot of preparation and instruction have been made and given, but had they gone in knowledge only—without power—it was still lacking. And when Jesus says to John, “it is fitting [for us] to fulfill all righteousness,” He is communicating that without the baptism (their metanoia and death and burial) their salvation was not yet perfect or complete.
Now, having read that, many of you may deem it almost scandalous or heretical. You may quickly retort with a ready reference to the thief on the cross. Let me take you on a brief, but relevant, sidebar. Probably close to two years ago as I was in a close-by neighborhood handing out some door-hangers about sin and grace, I met a man who seemed to be a believer, and we got to talking. He told me that he and his wife had been leading a cell church in their home and that it had recently grown to the point that they needed to, and were, meeting elsewhere. He even graciously and unexpectedly offered me the opportunity to join him in ministry there; he and I leading the church. I prayed and sought the Lord’s guidance and agreed to at least attend a service there. After that, I had my doubts but decided to meet him a couple of more times to study the Word together. During those two meetings– and no more– we found ourselves in polite yet firm disagreement over this very issue; more specifically, over water baptism. We agreed on the need for baptism, on the need for water baptism, but disagreed on the methodology and doctrine. It was a matter of conviction and our personal understanding of the scriptures. I had told him that on one occasion in prison ministry, G-d had spoken to and moved on an inmate’s heart and that this young man had surrendered his life to the Lordship of Jesus. Knowing that he should be baptized but that there was no baptistry there, nor was there any possibility of being immersed as Jesus had submitted to, I secured a cup of water and prayed as I gently poured its contents over his head. My new pastor friend – rather insistently, but kindly—asked me to produce the “chapter and verse” in the Bible which would authenticate my action. (I applaud his wanting to be scripturally accurate, and I share it.) Of course, I couldn’t in the way he all but demanded; yet I did ask him in return, “Would it have been better for me not to have baptized him at all?”
In another example, I told him of a more recent time where my wife and I had traveled to a newly-congregating group of seekers and believers in a small church a couple of hours south of us. That church was planted by some friends of ours, and they had blessed us by asking us to fill in for them that evening. We were excited! On this particular occasion, after the service and as we were getting ready to leave, a young man came up to us in the hallway and wanted to surrender his life to the prompting the Holy Spirit had given him (we had little, if not nothing, to do with it). We decided and explained to him that we were totally behind him and would pray for him, with him, and guide him (with his own words and in his own understanding), but that we would like our friends to have the honor of baptizing him. My aforementioned and new friend disagreed again. I explained to him that it was nearly nine at night, dark outside and that neither we nor the young man lived close-by or were familiar with that area. His serious but insisted response was that we should have driven around until we found a pond, a lake or other aptly-sized body of water in which to baptize this new brother-in-the-Lord. While I applaud his enthusiasm and tenacity, and don’t take the circumstances lightly at all, I don’t think that was the way to go then and there.
That brings me to a point that needs to be raised and addressed. We spoke of baptism being “fitting” and that it is needed to “fulfill all righteousness.” Yet we haven’t discussed righteousness and its part in this equation. First of all, what is meant by this all-important term? This time we’ll go to the Hebrew just to balance our understanding of the Bible’s two original languages. In the Old Testament, the word righteousness– which is used by G-d when He credited it to Abraham’s amazing faith—is the word TSEDAQAH. It signifies fairness, justice, what is right, acquittal, vindication and justification. These all speak to a change in a man’s or a woman’s standing before our holy and perfect Judge and G-d. It indicates one’s guilt being taken away and that he or she is now clean and free. The death sentence our sins had incurred have been paid for, satisfied by and suffered by another. Why is baptism necessary—or, rather, a must? Because if the righteousness belonging to Jesus Christ alone is to be imputed to us (which is necessary for our entry into the eternal kingdom of G-d), we must die to ourselves. Once again, we emphasize that baptism, at its core, involves both death and burial of the individual seeking true repentance and forgiveness. Two great and compelling truths of the Christian life are Galatians 2: 20, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the body I live by faith in the Son of G-d, who loved me and gave Himself for me.” And that verse is inextricably linked with Luke 9:23 which says, “And He said to all, ‘If anyone would come after Me, let him deny himself’ (die) ‘and take up his cross’ (instrument of death) ‘daily and follow Me.’” In baptism we die; to ourselves, to our former ways of thinking, speaking and living. It is not symbolic. It is a purposeful, intentional decision and act. If Jesus did not take our sin (which we give Him when we die and make Him Lord of every area of our lives), we cannot receive His righteousness, our keys into G-d’s holy dwelling place. We must die in baptism in order to receive His fulfilled righteousness. It is fitting and suitable.
Getting back to the argument about the thief on the cross. Was he baptized? Yes or No? He was not water-baptized, but let’s let Scripture talk once again. Look at the passage in question (Luke 23: 39-43), “One of the criminals who was hanged railed at Him saying, ‘Are You not the Christ? Save Yourself and us!’ ‘But…’ (signifying a contradictory heart or attitude) ‘…the other rebuked him, saying, ‘Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And indeed justly…’ (acknowledging his sin) ‘…for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds’ (confession of sin). ‘But this man has done nothing wrong.’ And he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into Your kingdom’ (belief in his heart). And He said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise.” So, this man next to our Lord confessed his sin by taking responsibility for it openly and signaled his belief in Jesus’ divinity when he asked to be admitted into the kingdom of G-d. He was a sinner before he was nailed to the cross alongside Jesus. He was a forgiven man not long after. What changed? Let’s refer to the key found in the Gospel of Mark (1: 4), concerning the ministry of John the Baptist. The answer is contained here. It reveals, “John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a BAPTISM OF REPENTANCE for the forgiveness of sins.” Our baptism is one of repentance—turning away from sin and turning to G-d Almighty. That’s what the thief did! So, was he baptized with water? No, not according to the few details in Scripture. Certainly not by immersion. But was he baptized? Yes, he was. He acknowledged, confessed and took responsibility for his transgressions against the Father, and he signified his need for forgiveness by asking to be allowed entrance into the kingdom. And Jesus cleansed him and implied his salvation by telling him he would, later that same day, be with Him in Heaven. The thief repented (he had a change of heart and mind, and acted on it), a death and burial to self ensued, and he was spiritually, internally baptized. Had this taken place just a day before (his metanoia), he most certainly would have been in the Jordan with the rest, being immersed—not only in water—but in the righteousness of the Lord Jesus Christ, the Savior of mankind! So, as our Master was baptized, so must we be. He is holy. We are sinful. But He had a human side He had to contend with. Hebrews 5: 8-9 says, “Although He was a Son, He learned obedience through what He suffered. And being made perfect” (in the flesh) “He became the Source of eternal salvation to all who obey Him.” He submitted to baptism. So should we. Praise His holy name and Him for His Word!