Sabbath School Today
With the 1888 Message Dynamic
The Book of Matthew
Lesson 2: The Ministry Begins
The rite of circumcision was given as a sign to Abraham and his descendants of their inability within themselves to produce the Heir of promise. Abraham and Sarah's bodies were essentially dead. Isaac's birth was a miracle promised by God. Without that promise, they could not produce the ultimate Heir, which was Jesus.
THE CEREMONY OF BAPTISM
The ceremony of baptism is a sign that the believer identifies with the death of Christ, so they can say with Him, "of mine own self, I can do nothing." We are utterly incapable to produce righteousness by our own works because we are dead in trespasses and sin.
Jesus wasn't dead in trespasses and sin so why did He submit to the ceremony of baptism? John wondered why Jesus requested baptism, and His response is intriguing. "Permit it at this time; for in this way it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness" (Matt. 3:15, NASB). Jesus didn't say it was to fulfill the law, but to fulfill "all righteousness."
Baptism was not unknown to the pre-Christian world. The book of Leviticus contains many ritual and hygienic washing requirements. The works-loving Pharisees perverted God's reasonable requirements into impossible burdens. Although baptism's origin is uncertain, it may have been derived from the Jewish custom of ritual immersions or "mikvehs." Before the devout Jew could attend worship or other ceremonies, they would perform the ritual of immersion not necessarily for hygiene or cleanliness, but for spiritual purity. Presumably, because of this symbolism, no one thought it strange that John was baptizing.
Generally, the explanation of why Jesus participated in baptism is that He is our example, and that is true. But He told John to baptize him to "fulfill all righteousness." The word Jesus used in Matthew 3:15, dikaiosune, is the Greek word for imputed righteousness. This is the righteousness which Christ, Who came in the likeness of our sinful flesh, accomplished for us.
It is always only the righteousness of Christ—He is always its ultimate value. He is the only One in the universe who possesses genuine righteousness because He went to the cross and died the "second death." His free will choice to die the second death was motivated by genuine love (agape) and that alone is genuine "righteousness."
The wages of sin are death, the second death. While humans can (and many will) die the second death, it does them no good as there is no resurrection without divine power. Since we don't have divine power and thus cannot resurrect ourselves, Christ did it for us and imputes this "judicial verdict of acquittal" (Rom. 5:16, REB) to us, but He is always the value, or surety of that righteousness.
MADE LIKE HIS BRETHREN
In order to qualify to do this for us, He had to be made like His brethren (Heb. 2:17). He laid aside the prerogatives of divinity (Phil. 2:5-8) and was made in the likeness of sinful flesh so that He could do what the law could not do, as an offering for sin He condemned sin in the flesh (Rom. 8:3). None of the inhabitants of the vast unfallen universe possesses real righteousness, for none except Christ has died the "second death." No unfallen angel possesses "righteousness." They have only "holiness."
A. T. Jones, one of the 1888 "messengers," expressed it this way: "All our sins which we have actually committed were laid upon Him, were imputed to Him, so that His righteousness may be laid upon us, may be imputed to us. Also our liability to sin was laid upon Him, in His being made flesh, in His being born of a woman, of the same flesh and blood as we are, so that His righteousness might be actually manifested in us as our daily life. ... And to keep us from sinning, His righteousness is imparted to us in our flesh; as our flesh, with its liability to sin, was imparted to Him. Thus He is the complete Saviour. He saves from all the sins that we have actually committed; and saves equally from all the sins that we might commit, dwelling apart from Him."  This 1888 message concept is based on the then-prevailing belief in the Seventh-day Adventist Church of "God sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemning sin in the flesh."
Imparted righteousness is a different word in the original language—dikaiomata. It is the gift of Christ's righteousness finally appreciated, received into the heart so that the soul can never be moved; it now hates sin with such total hatred that he or she would rather die forever than yield to a sinful temptation; it is sharing that self-emptying agape with Christ, becoming a partaker with Christ of the divine nature (see 2 Peter 1:4).
The work of the Holy Spirit is to administer, or impart Christ's righteousness into our hearts and minds as Jesus ministers in the Most Holy Place of the heavenly sanctuary. This work is specific to the individual as each participates and gives permission to the cleansing process. Revelation 14:1-5 describes a people at the close of time who "are without fault before the throne of God," who "follow the Lamb whithersoever He goeth." Not part way, but totally. They will refuse "the mark of the beast" and will receive "the seal of God" (Rev. 13:16, 17; 7:1-4). This process results in the righteousness becoming part of each believer, but this is possible only through faith.
When Christ died for the entire human race, He gave value to His sacrifice which benefitted all mankind. There is no need for anyone to die the second death because Christ has already done that.
We can conclude that when Jesus told John to baptize Him in order to fulfill "all" righteousness, He was including everything fallen humans need, both imputed and imparted. The Father expressed His approval by speaking, "This is my beloved Son, in Whom I am well pleased." The Holy Spirit manifested Himself in the form of a dove to anoint Jesus for the ministry mission He was starting. So it is with us. We are empowered to accept by faith that the Godhead worked this out, and if we accept we will receive all power heaven has to reflect the righteousness of Christ. Pray that none of us reject this wondrous Gift.
 A .T. Jones, The Consecrated Way to Christian Perfection, pp. 48, 49; Glad Tidings ed.