Fulfill Not Righteousness

I don’t know about in other parts of the world, but in Ghanaian Adventism the phrase “To fulfil all righteousness” is not a positive one. It hearkens, of course, to Jesus’ words to John the Baptist, when He insisted that the ritual requirement of baptism must be met. But you see, our modern use of the phrase stems not merely from those words, but from the Lord’s preceding explanation.

John, who had earlier said to others that he did not deserve to untie the Lord’s shoe-laces, now said to Christ, “It is I who should be baptised by you.” A close inspection of the Greek texts shows that Jesus did not deny the truth of John’s words. Indeed, implicit in his response is an affirmation of that truth. The Lord essentially says, “That may be, John, but allow us to do so for now.” And why? “Because it is a necessary part of righteousness.”

If by our regular use of the phrase “To fulfil all righteousness”, we meant that something must be done because it is incumbent on us, it would be wholly in keeping with the Lord’s own usage. However, there is a subtle twist… a perversion, shall we say, in our version. A careful listener will note that our meaning is more that something must be done merely because it is incumbent on us. That extra word makes all the difference.

Very often things we do to “Fulfil all righteousness” are done badly, uncommittedly, haphazardly, or half-heartedly. We have no further objective for them that the mere doing of them… than the mere meeting of some expectation on us. It may be an assignment from a superior, a routine but necessary chore at home, or a prepared schedule to be executed for a church program. Sometimes our objectives, if we have any, are entirely removed from the task, albeit dependent on it: Perhaps we won’t get the week’s allowance unless we keep the house clean. When we perform these tasks – even with the best of our effort – with no further aim than that they must be done, we are merely “Fulfilling all righteousness.”

This is not how the Lord used the phrase, or how He approached His baptism. For him it was not merely the requirement of baptism, but the baptism; not merely the law, but the path to a salvation He knew only He could – and chose to – consummate. Our Lord was not so concerned with a checklist of rites He must render to the Father, as with the great cause which necessitated them: a cause He not only designed, but believed in wholeheartedly.

This then is the difference: caring about the thing that we are expected do, and in the result that it will produce if we do it well. What Jesus was really saying to John was, “Let us do this not merely because it is required for righteousness, but because it will be effective unto righteousness.”

Do not merely fulfil righteousness. Rather, “Whatever you do, do it heartily, as to the Lord and not to men.

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Agana-Nsiire Agana is a theologian, communicator and writer. His passion is for communicating eternal truth in a contemporary context which is influenced by postmodern, secular thought. The gospel, though unchanging, can and should be expressed in terms of the challenges, philosophy and language of the present day.