Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John. But John tried to deter him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”
Jesus replied, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” Then John consented.
As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” –Matthew 3:13-17
Before Jesus started working miracles, before he began calling disciples, before he started preaching, Jesus first went down to the river to be baptized. People from all over were coming to John the Baptist to be baptized as a sign that they were sorry for their sins and wanted to obey God now. Jesus, of course, had never sinned even once, so he had no sins to be sorry for. That’s why John the Baptist was so surprised to see him there. “I need to be baptized by you!” John protested. But Jesus insisted; he wanted to be baptized too.
Jesus insisted on being baptized, even though he didn’t have any sins to be sorry for, for a very important reason: Jesus didn’t just come to pay the debt for all the bad things we’ve done; he also came to do all the good things we haven’t done. On the cross, Jesus paid the punishment for every sin you’ve ever committed: every time you were angry, every time you were selfish, every time you told a lie, every time you loved something else more than God. He paid the price for all of them, in your place on the cross, so that you could be forgiven.
But Jesus also did more than that: he also did all the good things you haven’t done, in your place, so that all the good things he did could count for you. He loved people perfectly, and trusted his Father perfectly, and obeyed perfectly—everything we haven’t done, even though we’re supposed to. So if you trust Jesus, God doesn’t look at you and see all the ways you fail; he looks at you and sees all the ways Jesus succeeded, and treats you as if you did all those good things. It’s as if your teacher gave you a test, and you failed miserably—like, epic fail—and got every single question wrong. But Jesus got 100% on the test, and wrote your name on his test, so that his perfect grade could count for you.
We don’t love people like we should; but Jesus loved people perfectly in our place, so that God can be happy with us anyway. We don’t trust God very much; Jesus trusted his Father perfectly in our place, so that God could reward even our tiny faith. We only obey God halfheartedly (if at all), but Jesus did obey perfectly in our place, so that God can rejoice over us just like he rejoices over Jesus. We’re not even sorry for our sins the way we should be; but Jesus went to be baptized and repent in our place, so that God can still forgive us even though we could never be sorry enough.
All the good things Jesus did can count for you; you can have his 100% grade. You don’t have to earn it (as if you could even try!). You don’t have to be “good enough” (because Jesus was already “good enough” for you!). The free gift of forgiveness and a perfect grade with God is just that: a free gift. All you have to do is ask for it.