St. Matthew alone records St. John the Baptist’s response to the Lord Jesus’ request to be baptized: "But John forbad Him, saying, I have need to be baptized of thee, and comest thou to me?" (3:15) The same Evangelist tells us how Jesus answered: "Suffer it to be so now: for thus it becometh us to fulfil all righteousness." (v. 16) The point is that this is the only explanation that the Lord gives for His approaching baptism.
Whether the Forerunner fully understood all the implications of the Lord’s answer or not, we cannot know. It was obviously sufficient and persuasive, for he did exactly what was asked. Suffice it to say that it has caused no end of difficulty for interpreters.
While St. John was baptizing "with water unto repentance," (v. 11) and the people "were baptized of him in Jordan, confessing their sins," (v. 6) he recognized that of all who came to him this One had no need of repentance for He had no sins to confess. St. John had begun his preaching with, "Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." (3:2) By this we understand that it had been revealed to him that the long-awaited Savior had come at last. But, it had also been given to him to recognize Him even when he was still in his mother’s womb: "For, lo, as soon as the voice of thy salutation sounded in mine ears, the babe leaped in my womb for joy," (Luke 1:44) said his mother, Elizabeth to her cousin, Mary.
In his preaching, the Forerunner had declared: "He that cometh after me is mightier than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to bear: He shall baptize you with the Holy Spirit, and (with) fire." (3:12) And, according to St. John’s Gospel, the day after he had uttered his confession of faith, he saw Jesus coming to him, and his testimony at that moment shows that it was given to him to recognize the Savior: "Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world. This is He of whom I said, After me cometh a Man which is preferred before me: for He was before me." (1:29-30) He further testified as to how he was to recognize Him: "He that sent me to baptize with water, the same said unto me, Upon whom thou shalt see the Spirit descending, and remaining on Him, the same is He which baptizeth with the Holy Spirit. And I saw and bear record that this is the Son of God." (vv. 33-34) He has already indicated that he knows that his mission to be the Savior’s prophet and forerunner is completed: "He must increase, but I (must) decrease. He that cometh from above is above all..." (John 3:30-31)
Although the Baptist humbly obeyed the command of the One he knew to be the Son of God, he undoubtedly carried out this obligation with great fear and amazement. These feelings are poetically described in a number of the proper hymns and verses for the feast of Theophany. "The hand of the Baptist trembled, when it touched thine immaculate head..." (Feast, Lity, 5th sticheron) "How shall I that am grass touch with my hand the fire of thy divinity?" (Feast, Matins, 1st Canon, Ode 4, 1st troparion) "Sanctify thou me, for thou art my God..." (Feast, Matins, 2nd Canon, Ode 8, 1st troparion)
The reasons for the Lord’s being baptized are likewise the subject of numerous liturgical verses: the sanctification of the nature of the waters and the restoration of mankind (Forefeast, Compline, Canon, Ode 9, 2nd troparion); the deliverance of man from the ancient curse (Forefeast, Matins, Canon, Ode 4, 3rd troparion); to bury our sins in the waters (Forefeast, Matins, Canon, Ode 1, 1st troparion); to lead us to a new birth through water and the Spirit (Great Blessing of the Waters, Prayer of the Litany); and to prepare a baptism for us:
"Christ who is above all purity is baptized with us; He brings sanctification to the water and it becomes a cleansing for our souls." (Feast, Matins, Praises, 4th sticheron)
"By thy holy participation in the waters of baptism, thou makest the baptismal font rich in children through the divine Spirit." (Forefeast, Compline, Canon, Ode 9, 1st troparion)
"Figuring in signs a divine dying by a threefold immersion, we are buried with Christ by baptism, and participate in His resurrection." (Forefeast, Compline, Canon, Ode 7, 3rd troparion)
In the baptism He prepared for us by His baptism, He gave us the way in which we can participate in His death, burial and resurrection, and make them our own. (see St. John Chrysostom, "On Matthew," Homily 12)
The sanctification of the waters of Jordan is then the beginning of God’s reclaiming the world and mankind for Himself. The things He will undergo during His earthly life are for this purpose: "For fearful things must I perform that I may claim my people for mine own." (Forefeast, Matins, Canon, Ode 9, 1st troparion)
At the time of His baptism, we repeat, the Lord Himself gave only one reason: "Thus it becometh us to fulfil all righteousness." Certain expressions in the liturgical texts for Theophany provide us with some insight into the Lord’s will "to fulfil all righteousness." "Thou, O Savior, hast fulfilled all that was appointed, so that thou mightest save the world by thine epiphany." (Feast, Lity, 5th sticheron) And the next sticheron explains even more: "O Lord, wishing to fulfil that which was appointed from eternity." Thus, we understand that this baptism was one part, even the foundation, for the Savior’s carrying out the divine plan or economy for the world’s salvation.
"Righteousness," is a word found many times in the divine Scriptures. We find that there is a "righteousness of God," (See especially the Epistle to the Romans, 1:17; 3:5; 3:21-26; 10:3, 5, etc.) which consists in His absolute faithfulness as Creator to His creatures; this is expressed in the revelation of a plan for mankind, of promises, and in accordance with an essential attribute, He never changes. He will not turn back from the promises He has made to man, with regard to man’s deliverance and to the Deliverer. (Psalm 109/110:4, quoted in Hebrews 7:21) This righteousness of His was further the reason for His acceptance of those men and women who had faith, before and without the Law, as well as after and within the Law, that is, of both Gentile and Jew. This righteousness is communicated to those who have faith, beginning with the father of all faithful, Abraham. There is, then, a "righteousness," proper to man and expected of him, in what we could call the right response of the creature to the Creator.
The Law, with its commandments and requirements, was given so that man as a creature, made in His image, might respond to Him in obedience and faithfulness; this relationship having been designed for Adam. All of the external observances of the Law were intended as signs of an inner, heartfelt return of love in faith to God and of a life consistent with this faith. It is in this sense that the Blessed Theophylact explains the Lord’s reason:
"’And Jesus answering said unto him, let it be so now.’ Permit it now, He says. For there will be a time for us to have the glory that is befitting, even if we do not appear in such glory now. ‘For thus it becometh us to fulfill all righteousness.’ ‘Righteousness’ means the Law. Human nature was accursed, Jesus says, because it was not able to fulfill the Law. Therefore I have fulfilled the other requirements of the Law. One thing remains for Me to do, that I be baptized. When I have fulfilled this, I shall have delivered human nature from the curse. And this is befitting for Me to do."
Apparently, those to whom the Law had been given considered that compliance with its external and ritual requirements was sufficient to be counted as righteous. The Lord’s rejection and condemnation of this type of righteousness and religion is summarized in these simple words: "Ye also outwardly appear righteous unto men, but within ye are full of hypocrisy and iniquity." (Matthew 23:23) St. Paul also gives an adequate description of their religion and righteousness.(Romans 10:3-4)
Thus, the Lord’s mission, expressed in, "for fearful things must I perform that I may claim my people as mine own," (cited above) included His having "vouchsafed for our sakes to become as we are." (Feast, Lity, 1st sticheron) As St. Paul reminds us: "For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin." (Hebrews 4:15) This means that in the incarnation He became man in every sense; He not only began His work by drowning sin in the waters of Jordan and thus providing us with the means for us to be made worthy of forgiveness, but He also kept all the requirements of the Old Law. From the time of His baptism, He proceeds to demonstrate in His life what true righteousness is. He will lead the perfect human life and will teach that righteousness by word and deed.
It was entirely consistent with the divine plan for the God-Man to experience the temptations to which His "fellows," that is, all men, were subjected. When we read that, after His baptism, "then" (or, in Mark "immediately") "was Jesus led up of the Spirit to be tempted of the devil," we understand that it was His will to confront the devil, even provoke him.
St. Ambrose tells us: "Jesus, then, filled with the Holy Spirit, is led intentionally into the desert in order mysteriously to provoke the devil – because if the latter had not fought, the Lord would not have been victorious for me --, in order to free Adam from exile; as a proof and demonstration that the devil is envious of those who strive to be better, and that these must, therefore, be on their guard, lest weakness betray the grace of the mystery." ("Treatise on the Gospel according to St. Luke, Book IV, no. 14)
To imagine that the Father was testing the loyalty of His Son or that the Son Himself was torn between the allurements that the devil offered and the way of holiness or righteousness, as some modern commentators would have it, is purely fanciful, blasphemous, and betrays a defective concept of the incarnation.
We must understand that the Lord did everything for our benefit and for our salvation. He will proceed to reject, one after the other, the chief temptations confronting fallen men. It is obvious that, in this episode, He is teaching us, having won the victory for us, that we too will be given the grace to overcome the devil’s attacks. Because, the devil, although he heard the voice declaring Jesus to be the Son of God, he still sees a man, one who is hungry, and he thinks that in His manhood He will be fair game for his enticements. It is significant that this takes place immediately after the Lord’s baptism, for so it will be with us, either after our baptism, or, in the case of those baptized in infancy or long ago, our renewed commitment or even reconversion and determination to follow Christ and be His disciples, the devil will be ever watchful, hoping to catch us in a moment of weakness or of great need, and make us yield to temptation.
We also learn that the victory cannot be achieved without proper preparation. Jesus fasted for forty days, as did those who prefigured Him, Moses and Elias, "pointing out to us the medicines of our salvation." (St. John Chrysostom, "On Matthew," Homily 13, no. 2) He has told us elsewhere that the devil can be defeated only by prayer and fasting. (Matthew 17:21) So the first lesson for us is that if we would overcome the temptations of this life, we must prepare ourselves for the conflict, for conflict it will be with thedevil himself, and that fasting is of primary importance in the preparation.
As a man, the Lord fasted, and at the end of the forty days, He, as a man, was hungry. In such a state, as we have said, the devil thought He would be easy prey and would give in. So the first temptation is recorded thus: "If thou be the Son of God, command that these stones be made bread." He is saying, in effect, "You shouldn’t have to undergo such hardships; it’s in your power to make bread of anything, even stones." The Lord, of course, could have performed the miracle, but the very fact that it is the devil’s suggestion is enough to make Him reject it. To translate this to a possible experience of our own, we might say this: in the hour of our greatest needs, no prompting of the devil must be listened to, no matter how practical (he is the master of the practical), or even relatively simple or innocent it may seem. The devil would like to see us dependent on him, and forget that we depend on God for everything. Jesus' answer is a simple, yet forceful, reminder to all of us: "Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God."
It is not that we should neglect our bodily needs, but the point is that we should not be tempted to forget God’s care for us, and despair if help is slow in coming. We cannot be over-anxious about the necessities, even such basic ones as food and clothing, because they can easily become gods for us. (see Matthew 6:25) One who is nourished spiritually on the word of God will not be driven to resort to means inconsistent with the life in Christ to satisfy his needs, and even in his moments of greatest privation, he has to try to perceive the will of God for him.
The devil was really attempting to control the Lord Himself, as he does in our cases too. The Lord had no need to prove anything to the devil, and if He had made those stones bread at the devil’s instigation, the devil would have won the "first round." We likewise have only one thing to demonstrate: that we are children of God and we will not sell our souls for a crust of bread or for any material thing.
The devil is relentless and if he suffers defeat at first, he will be back. So it was in the Lord’s encounter with him. Having heard the Lord Himself confess His reliance on God’s word and His care, he decides to test Him on this very matter. "If thou be the Son of God, cast thyself down: for it is written, He shall give His angels charge concerning thee: and in their hands they shall bear thee up, lest at any time thou dash thy foot against a stone." Then Jesus said to him: "It is written again, Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God." It is as if the devil were saying, "if God cares so much for you, let Him prove it."
There are perhaps not too many, even among weak believers, who would attempt to make God prove His providential care by putting themselves deliberately in such a danger, hurling themselves from a tall building, contriving a peril of some kind. On the other hand, the command "not to tempt the Lord your God," which is the Lord’s response to the devil’s second temptation, is quoted from Deuteronomy 6:16; the people were without water during their wandering in the desert (Exodus 17: 2,7), and were tempted to ask, "Is God with us or not?"
Just as the Hebrews did in the wilderness, some of us ask the same or a similar question when we experience some hardship or tragedy. "Where was God?" "Was it His will for this child to be murdered?" "Why did He spare this person and not that person?" We often forget that He has given us free will, that we are not robots and that tragedy is often the result of our own doing, ultimately, to be sure, the outcome of mankind’s sinfulness, and his turning away from God. We sometimes remember Him only when we are in grave difficulty. Sometimes, although not in every case, God does see fit, for our own benefit, to put us to the test. This may be a demonstration of His love for us. "For those whom the Lord loveth He chasteneth...if ye endure chastening, God dealeth with you as with sons...(Hebrews12:6-7)
Finally, the devil drops the initial "if thou be the Son of God," and attempts to entice Him as he often tempts men and women, with power. "He showeth Him all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them; and saith unto Him, All these things will I give thee, if thou wilt fall down and worship me." The Lord answers: "Get thee hence, Satan: for it is written, thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and Him only shalt thou serve."
Now, drawing on his experience among ambitious people, the devil makes this last attempt to entice the Lord, this time addressing Him as he does everyone else. The devil, however, usually makes use of instruments, that is, other men or women, for this kind of temptation. These people, wittingly or no, are already in the devil’s service; they like to dangle tempting prizes in the face of those known to have ambition. Sometimes they simply want to gain control of another person. The devil’s promise to give one "all these things," whether it comes from him or one of his agents, has its price, a loyalty and subservience that one owes to God alone. One may think that this kind of service may not diminish his loyalty to God. Perhaps he thinks that, "Ye cannot serve God and mammon," does not apply to him.
Clearly, the devil has gone too far in this third and final attempt: he has claimed something that is not his, the world. (Blessed Theophylact, "Exposition of the Holy Gospel according to St. Matthew," Chap. 4, v. 10) So, the Lord becomes angry and commands him to go away. He leaves, but, as St. Luke puts it (4:13), "for a season," for this will not be the end of his attempts to thwart the purpose of the Son of God, to save mankind.
Thus we have the description of the beginning of the Lord’s earthly ministry among men. Having already prepared the means for man’s victory, He willingly gives man’s chief enemy, the devil, the occasion to bring out his most powerful weapons, to cause men to be over-anxious about their personal needs, to cause them to doubt God’s care, and to cause them to stop at nothing to satisfy their ambitions. He will use all of these weapons to defeat the one who has come to believe that it is in God alone, as revealed by Jesus Christ, that life has meaning and purpose. The Lord has indeed fulfilled all righteousness, and has shown how all men can follow the path of righteousness, overcoming all of life’s temptations, that is, by nurturing himself on the word of God.