The deepest word in that chapter, He was numbered with the transgressors, is expressly applied to our Lord by Himself at a later period (Luke 22:37); and however mysterious that word may be when we try to define it by relation to the providence and redemption of God—however appalling it may seem to render it as St. Paul does, Him who knew no sin, God made to be sin for us—here in the baptism we see not the word but the thing: Jesus numbering Himself with the transgressors, submitting to be baptized with their baptism, identifying Himself with them in their relation to God as sinners, making all their responsibilities His own. It was ‘a great act of loving communion with our misery,’ and in that hour, in the will and act of Jesus, the work of atonement was begun. It was no accident that now, and not at some other hour, the Father’s voice declared Him the beloved Son, the chosen One in whom His soul delighted. For in so identifying Himself with sinful men, in so making their last and most dreadful responsibilities His own, Jesus approved Himself the true Son of the Father, the true Servant and Representative of Him whose name from of old is Redeemer.1 It is impossible to have this in mind, and to remember the career which the fifty-third chapter of Isaiah sets before the Servant of the Lord, without feeling that from the moment He entered on His ministry our Lord’s thoughts of the future must have been more in keeping with the reality than those which are sometimes ascribed to Him as alone consistent with a truly human career. His career was truly His own as well as truly human, and the shadow of the world’s sin lay on it from the first
1 In The Expositor for May 1902, Mr. Garvie has a notable article on the baptism of Jesus—‘The Vocation Accepted’—in which he connects Matt. 3:15 (‘thus it becomes us to fulfil all righteousness’) with Isa. 53:11. ‘The righteous servant shall justify many because He shall bear their iniquities. It is in His vicarious consciousness and the sacrifice which this would ultimately involve that Jesus fulfilled all righteousness. There is a higher righteousness than being justified by one’s own works, a higher even than depending on God’s forgiveness; and that belongs to Him who undertakes by His own loving sacrifice for sinners to secure God’s forgiveness on their behalf.’ In combination with the argument in the text, this seems to me to make the essential meaning of our Lord’s baptism indubitable. To ascribe Matt. 3:14 f. to the productive activity of the Church, stimulated by dogmatic motives, is perfectly gratuitous. A dogmatic motive would have produced something more obviously and unequivocally dogmatic than a phrase (‘to fulfil all righteousness’) which has baffled most readers by its excessive vagueness.
James Denney, The Death of Christ: Its Place and Interpretation in the New Testament (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1902), 20–22.