Have you ever wondered that? It's Matthew 3:17. It's only the start of Jesus' ministry. The hard work of calling and teaching the disciples hasn't begun yet. His atoning death is 3 years away.
What was there to be pleased about?
It is all too easy to skim over the whole of 33 years of Jesus' life and to see his saving work focused on just a few hours on the cross. Often we tend to think of his life in this way: for 30 years we are told nothing, so we learn nothing; for 3 years we try to learn from his example and teaching; and from 6 hours we learn about his redemptive work.
This is to slice and dice an event that God intended to be a lifelong event into a little cube of meat that doesn't fill and satisfy the way God intended.
For God designed the whole of Christ's life to be a unit. It is redemptive from beginning to end. To slice and dice is to rob Jesus of the glory due to him for a much greater work, and it is to rob ourselves of much comfort and blessing.
So we need to ask the question: What was Jesus life about? If all he had to do was die for our sins, why was there a delay of 33 years?
What was Jesus doing that provoked the Father's exclamation of pleasure at the Jordan?
For 30 years Jesus has lived carrying out his father's business, following the commands, living a holy life, learning obedience - not because he needed to learn it, but learning to obey in a sin-filled world, where temptation was rife. For 30 years he has carried himself through this hostile world with perfect obedience. And the Father looks at the Son and says, "I am pleased with you."
Right from the start one theme dominates Jesus' thinking. One word can be used to describe all of Jesus' life and ministry. It is the word 'obedience'. Jesus was here, not just to go to the cross, but to obey his father, to do his father's will.
This obedience characterises his whole life:
John 6:38 "For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me."
Christ's whole life was one of obedience, and that obedience wasn't just something incidental, it was a key part of his work as Saviour
Theologians often split Christ's obedience into two aspects: his active and his passive obedience.
These two are like strands in a rope. They go together and they cannot and should not be separated. But we have separated them. We usually focus on his passive obedience. It relates to his suffering throughout his life, and the culmination of that suffering on the cross. It refers to something he had to bear, that was laid on him from outside: his bearing our sins in his body to the tree, and his bearing our punishment. It is where he faces God's just wrath against our sins.
We could sum up Christ's passive obedience with the phrase: Christ's suffering pays our debt.
The term 'active' refers to his obedience to the law of God throughout his life. It is this active obedience that we often fail to consider.
Yet American theologian Gresham Machen's last words were, "So thankful for the active obedience of Christ. No hope without it."
Why is it so important?
We could sum it up with the phrase:
Christ's Active Obedience merits our place in Heaven
Christ's passive obedience releases us from the debt of punishment that we had to pay. But suppose that Christ had done only that for us, where would we be?
The slate would have been wiped clean, but that would be all. However, holiness isn't just the absence of sin, it's the presence of positive righteousness too. So we would be left needing to live a life of perfect obedience to the law of God. And one slip, like Adam, and it would be lost all over again.
But Christ has not done that. He has done abundantly more. He has not merely paid the penalty, but also He has positively merited for us eternal life.
Jesus Christ was your representative, not only on Golgotha's cross, but also throughout his life; in the Nazareth workshop, in the family home, in the conversation with friends and colleagues. For 33 years he was living the life of perfect obedience that God demands, and that we fail to deliver. He was our representative both in penalty paying and in law keeping.
It is this that makes us fit for Heaven. Now you can see why Machen was so thrilled by Christ's active obedience as he lay on his deathbed.
He was looking forward to Heaven and he knew that the door had been opened for him by Christ's obedience.
This is what Paul is saying in Romans 5:19
19 For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous.
We are so used to thinking of Christ's death on the cross in terms of substitution, but Paul is saying here that it was his whole life was the substitution. Adam's disobedience fouled it up for all mankind. Christ's life of obedience gains us the life that Adam lost, except better.
And because we are in Christ, it is his obedience and not ours that God sees when we stand before him.
What implications does this have for us?
Christ's Obedience Covers our Failures
It's so easy to lose sight of this and to focus on our own efforts. We know that salvation is all of Christ, but somehow we can think that some of it depends on us. And often we can think we are doing a pretty good job, and then we fall into sin and we become really disheartened.
Instead we need to look at ourselves more honestly, and realise that all we do is tainted by sin. And then we need to look to Christ who covers every single one of our sin-stained 'righteous' acts with his perfect obedience.
Here is how we should look at the unrecorded years, and the 3 years of his ministry. When you look at your life as a Christian and are discouraged by what you see, take up your New Testament and read.
Start with the words spoken at the baptism of Jesus. They sum up all he has done. For thirty years he has got up, and hour after hour, day after day, month after month, year after year, he has lived a perfectly holy life. He has been holy in his attitude to his parents. He has been holy in his work, in his conversation, in his free time, in his eating, in his laughing, in his friendships, in his use of money.
And when you hear the Father say, "This is my Son, with him I am well pleased," you can praise Jesus that his obedience in all these areas covers your failures. The days that you live which are covered by a multitude of blemishes from beginning to end, they are covered by Christ's perfect days.
Then take your New Testament and read of his holiness in the areas you fail in:
- His resisting temptation
- His dealing with people who tried his patience
- His dealing with people who verbally abused him, and slandered his parents
- His understanding when he had been let down by people
- His patience when he was tired and exhausted and needing to go and put his head down, but people kept making demands.
- His trust when God seems to have abandoned him, or when God's promises seem empty.
- His love for the lost
- His love for the outcast
- His vigour against sin
- His desire to seek God's glory
- His gentleness with those who are all too aware of their sin
- His lack of interest in being well thought of by 'important' people
- His readiness to forgive
- His wholehearted obedience
Each time Christ's obedience stands in the breach. It covers our failures completely. Watch him stand in our stead, and do what we could never do.
This is no excuse for sin, as Paul indicates after Romans 5:19
Romans 6:1 What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning, so that grace may increase? 2 By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?
Instead it is an opportunity for praise.
Christ's Obedience Brings us full assurance
If Christ has obeyed completely and consistently in every area, especially in those areas where I am conscious of my failure, then I have nothing to fear on the Day of Judgment. Even my most righteous acts are stained with the stench of sin. But it does not matter, for Christ has obeyed perfectly.
He has opened the door of Heaven and it will not be shut to me.
The words that were said to Jesus at his baptism, God will say to us because of Jesus' obedience, "This is my son (or daughter) whom I love; with him I am well pleased." And we don't have to wait to hear them; we can hear them now.
This frees me from fear and from lack of assurance. Where am I to look to for assurance? Not to my efforts, but to Christ. He has paid my debt to release me from Hell, and he has bought my entry to Heaven.
Christ's obedience frees us from the performance treadmill
Sometimes the Christian life can seem like a treadmill and we've got to do this and that and the other. And the implication is that if we don't, we'll fall off the treadmill. Somehow our activity has become the all-important factor.
We know that Jesus has saved us, but we somehow feel that the next bit is a 50-50 partnership. As if we've got to keep doing our bit.
We don't - Christ has done it all. It's his obedience that counts. And we are set free to live for and love Christ. We are set free to enjoy our relationship with Christ. We are set free to do these things, not because we must, but because we can. And because we want to, out of love for the one who has done everything.
He has done all that we should have done.
Here is the great truth of salvation - Jesus has paid for it all. There is nothing left for us to pay.
Now I hope you can see why Gresham Machen said, "So thankful for the active obedience of Christ. No hope without it."