John the Baptist took his place on stage just before Jesus’ birth. John was born six months before Jesus. He was a kinsman of Jesus––a cousin, perhaps––or an uncle (Luke 1:36). But John and Jesus were close in age, and would be close friends as grown men. I think that they grew up together––and played together as children.
John’s parents, Elizabeth and Zechariah, were elderly––too old to have a baby. But the angel Gabriel appeared to Zechariah, announcing that Elizabeth would soon have a baby (Luke 1:13, 19).
Did you catch the name of the angel? It was the angel Gabriel, appearing to Zechariah, Elizabeth’s husband, (Luke 1:5ff) just as Gabriel would later appear to Mary (Luke 1:26ff)––in both cases announcing the birth of a baby.
Elizabeth first, then Mary. John first, then Jesus.
The old woman, Elizabeth, did get pregnant (Luke 1:57ff)––just like Sarah of old (Genesis 21). Six months later, when Elizabeth was getting uncomfortably pregnant, the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary to tell her that she was next (Luke 1:26ff).
Elizabeth first, then Mary. John first, then Jesus.
There were problems with both pregnancies, of course. Elizabeth was too old to have a baby––and Mary was too young. Mary didn’t even have a husband. She was a virgin. How could she have a baby? So both Elizabeth and Mary would require a miracle to get pregnant. But they did get pregnant––both of them.
First Elizabeth, then Mary.
So we’re starting to see a pattern––first Elizabeth, then Mary––first John, then Jesus. John started his life one step ahead of Jesus––and he lived his life one step ahead of Jesus––and John died one step ahead of Jesus (Matthew 14:1-12).
We don’t know much about John’s childhood––or Jesus’ childhood. Except for the story of Jesus visiting the temple as a boy (Luke 2:41-51), we know nothing.
The next that we hear about either John or Jesus is when John emerges as God’s messenger––preparing the way of the Lord––making (Jesus’) paths straight (Mark 1:2-3). That was “the beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1).
So it was John first––preparing the way for Jesus. Once John had set the stage, Jesus would begin his ministry. First John, then Jesus.
John began preaching “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!” (Matthew 3:2). Listen to that one more time. John preached, “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!” Jesus followed shortly afterwards, preaching, “Repent! For the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17). Did you get that? First John preaches repentance––then Jesus preaches repentance––John first, then Jesus.
But even though John the Baptist was first in sequence, he was never first in importance. John said of Jesus, “I indeed baptize you in water for repentance, but he who comes after me is mightier than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you in the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 3:11)
When I read about John and Jesus, one of the things that jumps out at me is the way that both men were doing what God had called them to do––they were operating according to plan––God’s plan. Another thing that jumps out at me is the fact that God’s purpose was salvation. Both John and Jesus preached repentance. The Greek word was metanoia, which has to do with turning your life around and going in a new direction.
MATTHEW 3:1-3. REPENT, FOR THE KINGDOM OF HEAVEN IS AT HAND
1In those days, John the Baptizer came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea, saying, 2“Repent (Greek: metanoeite—from metanoeo), for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!” (Greek: engiken) 3For this is he who was spoken of by Isaiah the prophet, saying,
“The voice of one crying in the wilderness,
make ready the way of the Lord.
Make his paths straight.”
“In those days” (v. 1a). Many years have elapsed between the infancies of John and Jesus (Matthew 1-2) and the inauguration of John’s ministry (Matthew 3). The phrase, “In those days,” suggests that a kairos moment has arrived—one of those moments that forever shifts our history and changes our lives.
“John the Baptist came” (v. 1b). Only Matthew and Luke begin their Gospels with the birth of Jesus, but all four Gospels introduce Jesus’ ministry with an account of John the Baptist (Mark 1:1-11; Luke 3:1-22; John 1:6-9). Luke emphasizes John’s importance by devoting most of his first chapter to John’s birth and the relationship between the families of John and Jesus. Later, Jesus will say of John, “Most certainly I tell you, among those who are born of women there has not arisen anyone greater than John the Baptizer” (Matthew 11:11).
The prophet Malachi, who lived four hundred years earlier and was Israel’s last prophet (until John the Baptist appeared on the scene), prophesied John’s appearance. He said, “Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me; and the Lord, whom you seek, will suddenly come to his temple; and the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, behold, he comes!” says Yahweh of Armies” (Malachi 3:1). He also said, “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and terrible day of Yahweh comes. He will turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the earth with a curse” (Malachi 4:5-6). In this Gospel, Jesus identifies John as Elijah—the fulfillment of these prophecies (11:11-14; 17:10-17).
“in the wilderness of Judea” (v. 1c). “This is the region of rugged gorges and bad lands in the eastern part of Judah where the land slopes off toward the Jordan Valley. In ancient times, this area was infested with wild animals. Except for a brief time during the spring rains the wilderness is arid” (Pfeiffer, 202). It is a place where few humans choose to live.
John begins his ministry in the wilderness, perhaps in part to escape the distractions of the city. The wilderness is also the birthplace of the nation Israel, and holds a holy place in its history. Hosea spoke of the wilderness as the place where God speaks tenderly to his people and brings them hope (Hosea 2:14-15).
“Repent” (metanoeite—from metanoeo) (v. 2a). Jesus will begin his preaching with these same words (4:17). Teshubah, the Hebrew equivalent of the Greek metanoeo, “was used frequently by the prophets to urge Israel to return to a right relationship with God (cf. Deuteronomy 30:2; Jeremiah 4:1; Ezekiel 18:30-32; Hosea 14:1). When John (appeals) for repentance, therefore, he (is) inviting his hearers to make a radical break with their sinful past and to turn afresh to the God who (will) soon come in judgment” (Gardner, 61).
Repentance is more than turning away from sin—it is also a turning to a fruitful life (v. 10)—”a fundamental turnaround involving mind and action and including overtones of grief, which results in ‘fruit in keeping with repentance'” (Carson, 99). “To repent is not to feel bad but to think differently” (John Howard Yoder, quoted in Hauerwas, 46)—and therefore to act differently.
There has been no prophet in Israel for four centuries, and people are anxious to hear a prophet. John fits the bill, calling the people to repentance in preparation for the coming of God’s kingdom—for the Day of the Lord (Isaiah 13:6)—for a day when “The loftiness of man shall be bowed down, and the haughtiness of men shall be brought low;
and Yahweh alone shall be exalted in that day” (Isaiah 2:17)—for a day when the Lord will come “with wrath and fierce anger; to make the land a desolation, and to destroy its sinners out of it” (Isaiah 13:9)—for that great and awesome day (Joel 2:11).
John denounces evil wherever he finds it, including within Herod’s family (14:4). He summons people to righteousness. “Wherever the gospel is heard in its depths it is preceded by the law in its seriousness. Without law there is no gospel…. John is the law of God in person; Jesus is the gospel of God in person” (Bruner 69-70).
Repentance involves turning around—a new direction—a change of heart—a new commitment. John calls for people to repent, because only when we face sin squarely and renounce it can we be freed from it. Today, we are sorely tempted to call sin by other names and to blame other people for our problems rather than accepting responsibility for our sins. Such an attitude denies the reality of sin, and thus offers no escape from it.
“for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand” (engiken) (v. 2b). “Kingdom of Heaven” means the same as “kingdom of God,” which is the phrase used by Mark and Luke. Matthew is writing to Jewish Christians, and he uses the phrase “kingdom of heaven” to honor their reluctance to use God’s holy name lest they somehow profane it. The kingdom of God/kingdom of heaven is that realm in which God is king.
John justifies his call to repentance by announcing that the kingdom of heaven has come near. John is calling them to turn away from the world that they have known so that they might see the Kingdom of Heaven in their midst.
John is announcing that a great page in human history is in the process of being turned. The day is coming when history will come to a close and God will make all things right. The way to prepare for that day is to repent.
John does not call people to repent so that the kingdom will come—the coming of the kingdom is not their work but God’s. He calls them to repent because the kingdom has come near—is upon them (engiken is perfect tense, which suggests that the coming of the kingdom has already been accomplished).
Jesus will repeat John’s statement that the kingdom has come near (3:2; 4:17; 10:7). He will also say, “But if I by the Spirit of God cast out demons, then the Kingdom of God has come upon you” (12:28)—his miracles demonstrate his God-given authority over earthly powers. He will also point to his Second Coming as the time when God’s kingdom will be fully established (Matthew 24-25).
In his teachings, Jesus will not only warn us that the kingdom is imminent, but will also help us to understand the “rules of the road” for kingdom living—and will encourage us to adopt a kingdom lifestyle in the here and now. In their statements that the kingdom has come near, John and Jesus are telling us that we do not have to die and go to heaven to begin kingdom lives. We begin to live kingdom lives the moment that we allow God to be our king—the moment we begin, however imperfectly, to try to do what God wants us to do—the moment that we adopt Christ as Lord of our lives.
“Make ready the way of the Lord. Make his paths straight” (v. 3). Matthew cites Isaiah 40:3, a verse quoted in all four Gospels (Mark 1:2; Luke 3:4; John 1:23). In its original context, it spoke of preparing the way for the people of Israel to return from exile to their homeland. It constituted a joyful vision of a God-blessed and God-facilitated journey through an otherwise deadly wilderness. Now Matthew tells us that, while Isaiah’s prophecy pointed to that historic journey, its ultimate fulfillment is taking place now as John prepares the way for Jesus (v. 3)—calling people to repent (v. 2) and baptizing those who confess their sins (v. 6). The earlier exile and the return to Israel had the purpose of redeeming Israel from its sin. John’s preaching and Jesus’ coming have a similar redemptive purpose.
Preparing for the Lord is a perpetual task. Repentance is not a one-time action, but must take place daily. Neither our world nor our lives are suitable for the presence of God. We face a Herculean task to make them suitable—an impossible task except by the grace of God. Our work of preparation will not be complete until the day that Jesus comes again, at which time he will complete it.
MATTHEW 3:4-6. THEY WERE BAPTIZED BY JOHN
4Now John himself wore clothing made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey. 5Then people from Jerusalem, all of Judea, and all the region around the Jordan went out to him. 6They were baptized by him in the Jordan, confessing their sins.
“Now John himself wore clothing made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist” (v. 4a). Elijah wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt (2 Kings 1:8). Jews expect Elijah to return prior to the coming of the messiah (Malachi 4:5), and John’s dress identifies him as the fulfillment of that prophecy. Later, Jesus will make these connections even more explicit, saying, “this is Elijah, who is to come” (11:14) and “I tell you that Elijah has come already, and they didn’t recognize him, but did to him whatever they wanted to” (17:12). Matthew explains, “Then the disciples understood that he spoke to them of John the Baptist” (17:13).
“His food was locusts and wild honey” (v. 4). Leviticus 11:22 establishes locusts, crickets, and grasshoppers as ritually clean foods. In a desert setting, poor people must live off the land, and locusts are one of the few sources of food. John’s garb and diet indicate that he has adopted wilderness ways. His modest lifestyle also serves as a sustainable model for us to adopt as a witness against the materialism and selfishness that keep us and our world enslaved.
“Then people of Jerusalem, all of Judea, and all the region around the Jordan went out to him” (v. 5). The people flock to hear John, just as they will later flock to hear Jesus (4:25).
“They were baptized by him in the Jordan, confessing their sins” (v. 6). John baptizes them with a unique baptism:
• Prior to John, baptism served as an initiation rite for Gentile proselytes who wished to become part of the Jewish faith. It was also practiced as a washing among Jews at Qumran—but as a frequent washing rather than a one-time rite.
• John’s baptism appears to be a one-time rite, and is associated with people confessing their sins (v. 6). A one-time baptism implies death to an old way of life and rebirth to a new way of life (Romans 6:3). This was true in proselyte baptism, in which Gentiles were initiated into the chosen people of God. But John is calling, not proselytes, but Jews to repentance and baptism. Jews are already members of the chosen people. Why would they need to be baptized?
• In Mark 1:4, John proclaims “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,” but Matthew does not mention forgiveness of sins.
• “It is clear that John’s baptism was by immersion in the Jordan, and was probably limited to adults” (Hultgren, 13). “The term ‘baptize’ evokes images of being dipped down in water and even drowning” (Harrington, 51).
• Christian baptism differs from John’s baptism in its triune formula and the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38).
MATTHEW 3:7-10. THE AXE LIES AT THE ROOT OF THE TREES
7But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming for his baptism, he said to them, “You offspring of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8Therefore bring forth fruit worthy of repentance! 9Don’t think to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham for our father,’ for I tell you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones.
10“Even now the axe lies at the root of the trees. Therefore, every tree that doesn’t bring forth good fruit is cut down, and cast into the fire.”
“But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming for his baptism” (v. 7a). We are surprised that Pharisees and Sadducees come for baptism. They think of themselves as righteous, so why would they come for John’s baptism? Perhaps, as religious leaders, they want to establish a connection to this powerful new prophet’s ministry. Perhaps they, too, see his authenticity—or perhaps they are only jumping on a popular religious bandwagon. Later, Jesus will say to the chief priests and elders (most of whom are Pharisees or Sadducees) “For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you didn’t believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him. When you saw it, you didn’t even repent afterward, that you might believe him” (Matthew 21:32).
We are also surprised to see Pharisees and Sadducees lumped together. They represent very different viewpoints, and are often at odds with each other. Pharisees are known for their adherence to the law and resistance to pagan culture. Sadducees are more likely to be wealthy and friendly to the Romans. Sadducees dominate the priesthood, and most members of the Sanhedrin are Sadducees (Myers, 902). The Pharisees accept oral law and resurrection, both of which the Sadducees reject.
“You offspring of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come” (v. 7b). The picture is that of snakes fleeing a spreading fire.
We are surprised at John’s vigorous denunciation. We accord religious leaders respect, even if we do not always agree with them. But John is having none of it! He calls these esteemed clerics a “brood of vipers.” They maintain the temple and perform the required rituals, but their religious observance has calcified and their hearts have grown hard. Matthew can accord them no respect, because their lives do not reflect adherence to the will of God.
“Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” (v. 7b). John expresses a wrath that we are loath to express today. In our preaching, we fail to balance Law and Gospel—judgment and grace—wrath and blessing—sin and repentance. The result is an answer in search of a question. Christ offers to save us—but from what?
• From sin? People no longer feel guilty of sin but think of themselves as victims of impersonal forces that shape their lives.
• From God’s wrath? People do not believe that a loving God can also be wrathful. As a result, they trivialize salvation—equating it only with God helping them through a personal crisis. It is no wonder that churches with such a stunted view of salvation have lost their ability to draw people to Christ. If there is no sin, who needs Jesus? Who needs the church? Who needs salvation—other than from illness, unemployment, poverty, and other “this world” problems. Who needs Christ when we have the safety nets provided by pensions and insurance and investments and government programs?
“Bring forth fruit worthy of repentance” (v. 8). In Christian theology, there is always a healthy tension between grace and works. John does not tell us that our works save us, but he does say that repentance produces good fruit.
“Don’t think to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham for our father'” (v. 9a). At its core, the sin of Pharisees and Sadducees is presumption. They are among God’s chosen people—the religious elite—at the very apex of the religious pyramid. John warns that their Abrahamic connection will not save them.
“God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones” (v. 9b). In the Aramaic language, the words for “stones” (benayya) and “children” (abnayya) are similar, so John is using word play here. We can learn from him. The stylistic use of language can make preaching more memorable. Stylistic use of language is no substitute for faithful exposition, but it can make it easier to remember faithful exposition.
The God who makes humans from the dust of the earth can create children of Abraham from the stones that litter the wilderness in abundance. God has already demonstrated this power by bringing forth Isaac from an old man and woman well past their childbearing years (Genesis 18:1-15).
While Matthew does not mention Gentiles in this verse, he includes many favorable references to Gentiles in this Gospel that he is writing to Jewish Christians (8:5-13; 15:21-28; 27:54)—and he concludes this Gospel with Jesus’ commission to “make disciples of all nations” (28:19).
“Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees” (v. 10a). The picture is that of an ax that the owner has taken from the tool shed to cut down unproductive trees. His plan to take his ax to the tree is a final solution. There will be no turning back–no way to redeem the fallen trees.
We can imagine the sadness with which the owner goes about this task, having planted the trees in great hope. We can imagine the alarm with which the trees regard the ax lying at their roots. What appeal will persuade the owner to spare them? Unfortunately, the time for action was yesterday, and it is now today!
“cut down, and cast into the fire” (v. 10b). The picture is of a fearsome judgment. In this Gospel, Jesus’ frequently speaks of fearsome judgment (7:22-23; 10:15; 11:22; 12:36-42; 13:30, 40-43, 49; 22:11-13; and the whole of chapter 25).
MATTHEW 3:11-12. HE WILL BAPTIZE YOU IN THE HOLY SPIRIT AND FIRE
11I indeed baptize you in water for repentance, but he who comes after me is mightier than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you in the Holy Spirit and fire. 12His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will thoroughly cleanse his threshing floor. He will gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn up with unquenchable fire.”
“I indeed baptize you with water for repentance, but he who comes after me is mightier than I” (v. 11a). In verses 7-10, John was addressing the Pharisees and Sadducees, but now he is speaking to those who have come for baptism.
It is not clear that John understands that Jesus is the one who is coming. Even late in his life, he will ask, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” (11:2).
“whose shoes I am not worthy to carry” (v. 11b). John is a powerful figure and even better known than Jesus. He will not, once Jesus begins his ministry, close up shop and join Jesus. Instead, Jesus will have his disciples and John will have his. Even long after John’s death and Jesus’ ascension, some of John’s disciples will not have received Christian baptism (Acts 19:1-7). Writers of all four Gospels are careful to distinguish between John and Jesus and to establish Jesus’ primacy. John is not worthy even to carry Jesus’ sandals (v. 11)—i.e., to serve as his slave.
“He will baptize you in the Holy Spirit and fire” (v. 11c). John performs a baptism of repentance—a beginning only. Jesus will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire. We will see the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost (Acts 2:38). Today some Christians distinguish between water baptism and baptism in the Holy Spirit, but that is not a Biblical distinction. Water baptism confers the Holy Spirit.
Jesus’ baptism also serves as a refiner’s fire, removing (destroying—incinerating) impurities and leaving only that which is pure.
By the time of the writing of this Gospel, the church has already experienced the reality of which John spoke (Acts 2). Christians are baptizing in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (28:19).
“His winnowing fork is in his hand” (v. 12a). The winnowing fork is used to throw grain into the air, where the wind can carry away the lighter chaff while the heavier grain settles back to the floor.
“He will gather his wheat into the barn” (v. 12b). Farmers prize wheat, which they use to feed their families. They carefully gather it from the exposed threshing floor and move it to a granary—a sheltered, protected place where it will be safe.
“but the chaff he will burn up with unquenchable fire” (v. 12c). Chaff is useless for food, so it is burned as waste. The Jewish scriptures include a number of references to the wicked (or Israel’s enemies) as chaff (Job 21:18; Psalm 1:4; 35:5; 83:13; Isaiah 17:13; 29:5; Daniel 2:35; Hosea 13:3; Malachi 4:1).
“unquenchable fire” (v. 12c). The Jews of John’s day are divided regarding the fires of hell. Most think that the wicked will be quickly consumed, but John holds out the prospect that the agony of hell will be ongoing.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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Copyright 2018 Richard Niell Donovan