1In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the Desert of Judea 2and saying, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near." 3This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah: "A voice of one calling in the desert, `Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.'"
4John's clothes were made of camel's hair, and he had a leather belt round his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey. 5People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan. 6Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.
7But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. 9And do not think you can say to yourselves, `We have Abraham as our father.' I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. 10The axe is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.
11"I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me will come one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not fit to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. 12His winnowing fork is in His hand, and He will clear His threshing-floor, gathering His wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire."
Having related the events surrounding Christ's birth and infancy, Matthew jumps to many years later, to the days leading up to the beginning of Jesus' public ministry: "In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the Desert of Judea and saying, `Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near'" (vss. 1-2). The ministry of John the Baptist was prophesied in the Old Testament: "This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah: `A voice of one calling in the desert, `Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him'" (vs. 3). Matthew here is citing Isaiah 40:3 as a prophecy concerning John the Baptist. Significantly, all four Gospels cite this prophecy: see Mark 1:3; Luke 3:4; John 1:23. In fact, in the Gospel of John, John the Baptist himself cites the prophecy: "John replied in the words of Isaiah the prophet, `I am the voice of one calling in the desert, "Make straight the way for the Lord"'" (John 1:23).
John the Baptist was well aware of God's purpose for him. He was to "Prepare the way for the Lord." In those days (and also in these days as well, if you think of it), whenever a king visited a city, men would be sent ahead of him to prepare the way. In those days, that required not only diplomatic preparation, but also physical preparation of the roads so that the journey for the king would be comfortable. The advance-men would be required to "make straight paths" for the king. Now, if earthly kings had advance-men who prepared the way, how much more should the King of the Universe, the Promised Messiah, have an advance-man to prepare the way?
The primary role of the Messiah's advance-man was to be "a voice...calling in the desert." Note the emphasis is on the message, not the messenger: the "voice", not the man. This is just as John the Baptist would want it. He realized that he was only valuable in the service of God to the extent that he communicated the message of God, to the extent that he was the "voice...calling". This was the case for all the prophets of the Old Testament. God did not look for the strongest men, or the smartest men, or the most handsome men to be His prophets. No, He looked for those who had the ability and desire to communicate His message to the people. That is the role of prophets.
John the Baptist was the last in the line of Old Testament prophets (even though he appears in the New Testament!). As Jesus taught: "The Law and the Prophets were proclaimed until John" (Luke 16:16). John's coming broke a long silence by God to His people. It had been hundreds of years since God raised up a prophet to the Jews. Finally, God broke His silence with the "voice of one calling in the desert." By fulfilling this prophecy of Isaiah, John was signaling the coming of God's kingdom to earth. John's purpose was to prepare God's people for this kingdom. Thus, he cried out: "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near" (vs. 2).
The word "Repent", means to have a "change of mind". In our context, this change of mind is a change concerning how one views sin and a sinful lifestyle. John is exhorting the people to go from a love of sin to a hatred of it, from living in sin to taking refuge in the salvation of God. This is an appropriate message for the forerunner of the Messiah, because the Messiah was coming to "save His people from their sins" (Matt. 1:21). Such a salvation was only valuable to those who had a sense of their sin. As Jesus said: "For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners" (Matt. 9:12).
John's plea to "Repent" was no different than the Old Testament prophets who preceded him. The Old Testament prophet Joel cried out: "`Even now,' declares the LORD, `return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning.' Rend your heart and not your garments" (Joel 2:12-13); and Isaiah: "Let the wicked forsake his way and the evil man his thoughts. Let him turn to the LORD, and He will have mercy on him, and to our God, for He will freely pardon" (Isa. 55:7); and Ezekial: "Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Why will you die, O house of Israel?" (Ezek. 33:11). John's message, though similar, was more urgent than the prophets who preceded him, because "the kingdom of heaven [was] near." The "kingdom" was near because the coming to earth of the King of Kings was near. John wanted the people to be ready for their King. This entailed repentance. Contrary to contemporary popular belief, the King was not coming as a military leader that would conquer the Romans, but as a spiritual leader that would save the people from their sins. Thus, John's message was not to take up arms and armor to prepare their bodies for the King, but to repent from sin to prepare their souls for the King.
John had the appearance and diet of one who apparently was not too concerned with worldly comforts: "John's clothes were made of camel's hair, and he had a leather belt round his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey" (vs. 4). His dress was reminiscent of the Old Testament prophets, especially Elijah (see II Kings 1:8). His food was not as outrageous as it may sound to those of us in America. To eat wild honey is not all that strange today. And the eating of "locusts" is practiced even today in many countries (especially in the Middle East and Asia). Interestingly, the eating of locusts was expressly permitted in the law of God, as given to Moses: "Of these you may eat any kind of locust, katydid, cricket or grasshopper" (Lev. 11:22). Given all this, the thrust of this description of John was not that he wore strange clothes and ate strange food, but that he lived off the land.
Despite his appearance and diet and despite the fact that he ministered in the desert, John was renown for his ministry: "People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan" (vs. 6). Such success in a ministry such as John's would be a surprise to many today. He was hardly what we would call today a motivational speaker. One would not think (on the face of it) that a strong message of repentance would be all that popular. But John's message had one very important thing going for it: it was truth of God. These days, we must strive, not to please men with our preaching, not to strive merely to be great orators, but to speak the truth of God.
Moreover, John did not merely preach, he called his listeners to accountability to what they heard by urging them to be baptized. They did respond: "Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River" (vs. 6). Their confession of sin was the fruit that demonstrated that their repentance was true. To confess sin is to acknowledge before God that it is sin. Many in their sin refuse to admit that what they are doing is sin. Needless to say, one cannot repent from sin if he does not admit to it. Confession of sin before God is urged in both the Old and New Testaments. Solomon taught: "He who conceals his sins does not prosper, but whoever confesses and renounces them finds mercy" (Prov. 28:13; see also Lev. 5:5; Lev. 26:40; Num. 5:6-7). The Apostle John taught: "If we confess our sins, [the Lord] is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness" (1 John 1:9).
It was the repentance and the confession of sin that gave the baptism meaning. Baptism is an outward rite that confirms an inward change. Baptism means nothing without the inward change. As Peter taught, it is "not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a good conscience toward God" that saves you through Christ (see I Peter 3:21). Baptism is a symbol of a repentant life, a symbol of putting the old body of sin to death (symbolically drowning it in the waters of baptism) and emerging from the waters with a new life lived for God. Paul explains baptism: "[D]on't you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? We were therefore buried with Him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life" (Rom. 6:3-4). Thus, the decision to be baptized is a serious one. It means that you have decided to put to death your old way of life, and live a new life for God.
John certainly took baptism very seriously. He did not want anyone just "going along for the ride." He did not want to baptize anyone who had not first experienced the inward change of heart. He did not want to baptize anyone who had not decided to put to death their old way of life. "[W]hen he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: `You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance'" (vss. 7-8). John could tell that the Pharisees and Sadducees had not truly repented because their lives had not "produce[d] fruit in keeping with repentance." Some see John as being very harsh here. They say, "How could he turn away people who wanted to be baptized?" But rather than being harsh, John was merciful. He turned them away for their own good. He knew they had not repented and so he knew that the baptism would not be valid in the eyes of God. The baptism would only have served to appease the consciences of the Pharisees and Sadducees, and given them a false sense of confidence that they had pleased God. A meaningless baptism would have actually encouraged them to continue in their lives of sin.
Apparently, the Pharisees and Sadducees felt that they had no need to repent. They were resting in the fact that they were Jews, descendants of Abraham. They felt that this heritage was enough to save them from the wrath that sin brings. Sensing this, John says to them: "And do not think you can say to yourselves, `We have Abraham as our father'" (vs. 9). Our heritage will not save us from wrath. The fact that we live in a (so-called) "Christian" nation will not save us. A godly mother will not save us. Salvation comes individually through faith in Jesus.
It seems that the Pharisees and Sadducees believed that God needed them. They reasoned that God would need His people to help Him reign with the Messiah. They thought that this would be the job of the sons of Abraham. John, however, negates this idea, saying to them: "I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham" (vs. 9). Never think as you serve the Lord, "Oh, God really needs me." God can raise up stones at any time to do His work.
To drive home to the people just how important repentance is, John alludes to the wrath of God that will be poured out upon the unrepentant: "The axe is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire" (vs. 10). God is holy. God hates sin. He will one day pour out the full measure of His wrath upon it. We don't like to hear of God's wrath. Many deny it. They say, "How could a loving God pour out His wrath upon His creation?" Yes, God is loving, but God is also holy. God shows His love by giving us the opportunity to repent from our sins. God has greatly shown His love by sending His son to die for our sins, so that we do not have to experience His wrath. But God must also, eventually, show that He is holy, and that He hates sin. Those who choose not to accept the gift of God's love in Jesus Christ are left to themselves face the punishment for their sin.
We would all rather speak of the love of God, than the wrath of God. But as has often been said, there is no good news without there being some bad news. None of us enjoys speaking of the wrath of God, but it must be preached: the world must not go unwarned. "It is no real kindness to keep back the terrors of the Lord: it is good for us all to be taught that it is possible to be lost forever, and that all unconverted people are hanging over the brink of the pit."
John speaks here of the wrath of God symbolically (as is often done in the Bible): "The axe is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire" (vs. 10). We are not sure exactly what the wrath of God specifically will entail. That it is often referred to in the Bible through the use of symbols implies that our words cannot exactly express, or our minds cannot exactly fathom the exact means by which the wrath of God will manifest itself against sin. "So leaving aside speculations, over which vain men weary themselves without benefit, let it suffice that by these expressions, as far as our simple minds may grasp, a dreadful torment is indicated, beyond men's ability to understand, beyond the power of words to express."
John goes on to speak of His role as forerunner to the Messiah: "I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me will come one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not fit to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire" (vs. 11). John contrasts the baptism he brings with the baptism that the Messiah will bring. John baptized "with water for repentance." Again, John's baptism was merely an outward sign of confirmation that an inward change had taken place. In contrast, the baptism of the Messiah will be "with the Holy Spirit and with fire." The wording in the original Greek implies that, when John speaks of the baptism of the "Holy Spirit" and "fire", he is not speaking of two different sorts of baptisms, but rather two aspects of the same baptism. While "fire" is often used as a symbol of destructive wrath in the Bible, it is also often used as a symbol of constructive purification, the symbol of a fire used by one who refines silver (see Isa. 1:25; Zech. 13:9; Mal. 3:2-3). So here, John (I believe), when he speaks of the baptism of the "Holy Spirit" and "fire", he is speaking of the "fiery character of the Spirit's operations upon the soul: searching, consuming, refining, sublimating." So, John's baptism is inferior to the baptism of the Messiah in that the baptism of repentance is passive (a reaction to a change that has already taken place), whereas the baptism of the Holy Spirit is active (having the ability to bring about a change in one's life).
13Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John. 14But John tried to deter Him, saying, "I need to be baptized by You, and do You come to me?"
15Jesus replied, "Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness." Then John consented.
16As 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 lighting on Him. 17And a voice from heaven said, "This is my Son, whom I love; with Him I am well pleased."
In the previous verses, John the Baptist had been telling the crowd about the coming Messiah and the superiority of His baptism to John's own: "I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me will come one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not fit to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in His hand, and He will clear His threshing-floor, gathering His wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire" (Matt. 3:11-12). Imagine John's surprise, then, when one day he looks up and sees the Lord coming to him: "Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John" (vs. 13).
John's response to Jesus' coming to him reflected his surprise: "But John tried to deter Him, saying, `I need to be baptized by You, and do You come to me?'" (vs. 14). The word "deter" used here implies a strong protest by John. John knew Christ was too worthy for baptism; John knew that he himself was unworthy to baptize Him. There is a bit of irony here. John had just refused to baptize the Pharisees and Sadducees, the self-proclaimed religious leaders of the day, because they were unworthy for baptism (see Matt. 3:7ff). Now John is trying to refuse to baptize Jesus because John's baptism was not worthy of Jesus.
John's response reminds me of Peter's response to Jesus when Jesus sat down to was the disciples' feet. Peter said: "Lord, are You going to wash my feet?" (John 13:6). And indeed, these two episodes are similar. Both reflect Jesus' mission to be a humble servant to His people, and to be an example to His people of what He desires them to be. Both John and Peter were surprised by Jesus' behavior because, in each case, Jesus was doing something that, as sinless Son of Man and Lord of the Universe, He really (from a human point of view) had no business doing. As stated, John had just declared the greatness of the baptism with the Holy Spirit and fire that Jesus was going to bring, and so what need did Jesus have of John's inferior baptism? In Peter's case, Jesus had just been hailed as King as He rode into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday (see John 12:12ff), and so why would the King sit down to wash His followers feet?
Jesus tells John why He should be baptized by him: "Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness" (vs. 15). Jesus did many things for our sakes "to fulfill all righteousness", to be an example to us of how a righteous life should be lived. If Jesus passed through the waters of baptism, how much should we? Many say, "Oh, I don't need to be baptized. It is not necessary for salvation." Quite true. It is not necessary for salvation, but it is necessary for obedience. As John declared: "Whoever claims to live in Him must walk as Jesus did" (I John 2:6). God desires that we be baptized. Proof of this is that His Son (who truly did not need to be baptized) allowed John to baptize Him. Moreover, through Christ's humility in receiving the baptism, He has made baptism a highly honorable ritual. Our Lord was baptized. We should delight in being baptized, to follow in His steps.
Baptism is a necessary step of preparation if one wants to serve God effectively. It is a symbol of putting away the old life lived for oneself, and emerging from the waters of baptism with a new life that will be lived in the service of God. For Jesus, the baptism inaugurated His ministry. This is why He said to John: "Let it be so now." "Now" was the right time for Jesus' baptism because Jesus was "now" embarking on His ministry.
God's approval of the baptism, and support of Jesus as He embarked on His ministry was immediately displayed: "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 lighting on Him. And a voice from heaven said, `This is my Son, whom I love; with Him I am well pleased'" (vss. 16-17). All three persons of the Trinity share in the inauguration of the ministry of Christ: the Son in the baptism, the Spirit "descending like a dove", the voice of approval by the Father. Again, Jesus is an example to us in this. I guarantee that, after your baptism, all three Persons of the Holy Trinity will be present. You will feel renewed as you are filled afresh with the Holy Spirit. You will feel the comfort of the Father as He declares His pleasure that you are His child. You will emerge from the waters with Jesus, guiding you in His path of service.
Yes, indeed, Father, we praise You for sending Your Son to be an example of how we should obey You. May we be led to walk in His steps, by Your Spirit. And we ask that we would not only receive the baptism of John, but also that we would receive the baptism of Jesus: the baptism with the Holy Spirit and with fire. Fill us and purify us. Lead us in Your path of service, and chasten us when we go astray. Be glorified in our lives. We ask these things in the name of Your Son, Jesus, who indeed, fulfilled all righteousness, Amen.