An announcement that calls for response
There is a certain force each January when both houses of Congress
gather for the State of the Union address and a voice booms out
from the center of the House of Representatives, "Mr. Speaker,
the President of the United States." It is an announcement
that pierces the silence and calls for a response. Matthew 3 comes
at us with similar force, only it isn't the president who's being
introduced; it's the king of all creation. John the Baptist, and
God himself, introduce Jesus as king. The announcement calls for
a response. The arrival of God's king calls for relinquishing
our sovereignty and submission to his righteous reign.
Preparation for the king (3:1-6)
(1) Now in those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea, saying, (2) "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." (3) For this is the one referred to by Isaiah the prophet, saying,
"The voice of one crying in the wilderness,
'Make ready the way of the Lord,
Make His paths straight!'"
(4) Now John himself had a garment of camel's hair, and a leather belt about his waist; and his food was locusts and wild honey. (5) Then Jerusalem was going out to him, and all Judea, and all the district around the Jordan; (6) and they were being baptized by him in the Jordan River, as they confessed their sins.
A court herald would "preach," or herald, the arrival of the king. In Isaiah 52:7-8, the messenger is to announce peace, good news of happiness and salvation, proclaiming to Zion, "Your God reigns," which means the restoration of Zion from Babylonian exile. John the Baptist is like that messenger. He is saying that the nation of Israel, though dwelling in the promised land, is still essentially in exile, in an idolatrous state, but that the Lord is returning to restore her. He is heralding a new exodus and a new return from exile.
As the nation of Israel gathered in the wilderness before entry into the promised land and as the exiles returned from Babylon through the wilderness, John is gathering the true people of God in the wilderness in preparation for entry into the kingdom of heaven. This preparation involves repentance, a turning away from idolatry, which involves self-determination and self-rule, leading to a return to the Lord. The reason for repentance at this time is the nearness of the kingdom. The kingdom of heaven is at hand because the king, Christ is coming.
Quoting Isaiah 40:3, John says his is the voice of one crying in the wilderness. This is a desperate, lonely cry for people to heed his message. He calls for the people to "make ready the way of the Lord" and to "make his paths straight." Before the arrival of a king to a city, surrounding roads would be repaired. The reparation of roads is an illustration of repentance. The people were to prepare for the arrival of the Lord, Christ, by turning from idolatry. The title "Lord" in verse 3 translates the name "Yahweh" from Isaiah 40:3, the one true God. The Lord who is coming in Matthew 3 is Christ. In connecting "Yahweh" with Christ, Matthew implies the deity of Christ.
Matthew intends his readers to see John as like the prophet Elijah, who is described in similar terms (2 Kings 1:8), and as the fulfillment of the prophecies concerning the return of Elijah (Malachi 3:1, 4:5-6; Matthew 11:14). Like Elijah, John calls the idolatrous nation of Israel to repent and return to the Lord (1 Kings 18:21).
It is striking that the people forsake Jerusalem and go out to the wilderness to confess their sins. The temple in Jerusalem was the established place where sins were dealt with. The fact that this is happening elsewhere would raise eyebrows. The people left what's comfortable, what's expected and familiar, to go out to an unfamiliar place, the wilderness, to do what may be an uncomfortable thing: confess sins.
The people were also being baptized, which meant death to some way of life and entry into another (Romans 6:3-5). John's baptism involved a confession of sins - the acknowledgment of idolatry. These people recognized their exiled, wilderness state. They heeded John's call for repentance.
Matthew is specific about the location of John's baptism: the Jordan River. When Israel entered the promised land, it went through the Jordan River (Joshua 3). In the promised land, the kingdom was established. In baptizing people in the Jordan River, John is preparing them for the establishment of the kingdom of heaven.
All of this - repentance, reparation of roads, baptism and confession - is a response to John's announcement that the king was on his way. He prepares people to meet Christ. The primary contemporary application is for people who have never met Christ and have never submitted to his sovereignty and therefore need a radical change in thinking in order to do so. There needs to be repentance, death to a way of life, death to self-determination and self-rule, the acknowledgment of one's exile from God. The secondary application is for all people who have met Christ but need ongoing change in thinking, ongoing death to self-determination and self-rule, in order to move closer to him and accept his sovereignty in their lives. For all of us, this means we must "go out" from the place of comfort, forsaking expected and familiar ways of thinking and doing things that have at their heart a commitment to our own sovereignty.
C.S. Lewis writes of his own proclivity toward self-rule that required repentance: "But of course, what mattered most of all was my deep-seated hatred of authority, my monstrous individualism, my lawlessness. No word in my vocabulary expressed deeper hatred than the word Interference. But Christianity placed at the center what then seemed to me a transcendental Interferer. If its picture were true then no sort of 'treaty with reality' could ever be possible. There was no region even in the innermost depth of one's soul (nay, there last of all) which one could surround with a barbed wire fence and guard with a notice No Admittance. And that was what I wanted: some area, however small, of which I could say to all other beings, 'This is my business and mine only.'"
John prepares people for the king. When the king comes, he will separate those who are his from those who are not.
Separation by the king (3:7-12)
(7) But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, "You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? (8) Therefore bring forth fruit in keeping with repentance; (9) and do not suppose that you can say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham for our father'; for I say to you, that God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. (10) And the ax is already laid at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. (11) As for me, I baptize you with water for repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, and I am not fit to remove His sandals; He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. (12) And His winnowing fork is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clear His threshing floor; and He will gather His wheat into the barn, but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire."
Literally, the Pharisees and Sadducees were coming "for the baptism." It is possible that these leaders, ensconced as they were in the established power structure, were not coming to be baptized but to investigate John.
John calls them a "brood of vipers." This means John considered them governed by evil (Matthew 12:34). A viper, a snake, is to be connected with Satan, who takes the form of a serpent in Genesis 3. These Pharisees and Sadducees are not sons of the kingdom (Matthew 8:12, 13:38) but sons of vipers, even sons of the devil (John 8:44). John asks them who warned them to flee from the wrath to come. However else he intended this question to be answered, it is clear that they were not prompted by their own hearts. Perhaps he also means that they intended only to flee wrath but not to meet the king, whom they would later consider a threat. In what sense are they fleeing? They are leaving Jerusalem, where God's wrath would ultimately be expressed.
What is the "wrath to come," which would be more literally translated the "wrath about to be"? In the context of the passage, it is judgment, symbolized by fire. When Jesus uses similar words to pronounce judgment on the scribes and Pharisees (Matthew 23:29-39), he is talking about judgment "upon this generation" that will result in the destruction of their "house," or temple - which occurred when Rome sacked Jerusalem in 70 A.D. The wrath about to be is the wrath of God that will be expressed when he destroys Jerusalem.
John tells the Pharisees and Sadducees, literally, to bring forth fruit "worthy of repentance." John is saying that their repentance is not genuine because it is not validated by the fruit of changed behavior. They were still committed to idolatry, and it was somehow evident.
These leaders were claiming their descent from Abraham, who received God's promises, as validation of their standing before God. Their sin was nationalism. This was the sin of the nation as a whole, which considered the problem to be "out there," with Rome, instead of the idolatry within, a commitment to its own way of doing things. John says that Abrahamic descent counts for nothing. If God is able to turn stones into children of Abraham, he certainly doesn't need the Pharisees and Sadducees to accomplish the purposes inherent in his promises to Abraham.
John uses the imagery of an ax cutting down trees and of trees being thrown into the fire, in order to convey judgment (Isaiah 10:34), which is about to be executed against those who don't repent.
John's baptism is with water for repentance. His baptism represents preparation for entry into the kingdom. John recognizes Jesus' baptism as superior to his first of all by virtue of Jesus' superiority to John. Jesus, whom he for now identifies as "he who is coming after me," is "mightier" than John to the extent that John considers himself unworthy to remove his sandals, the lowly task of a slave. Jesus, on the other hand, will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire.
An outpouring of the Holy Spirit was predicted by the prophets in connection with the restoration of Israel (Isaiah 44:3, Ezekiel 36:25-27, 39:29; Joel 2:28-32). John is preparing people for Jesus, who will restore Israel to the Lord.
Does the image of fire mean purification, as it does in Isaiah 1:25 and Isaiah 4:2-5, or judgment, as it does is Isaiah 26:11 and 65:15 and seems to mean elsewhere in the passage (verses 10, 12)? Although the preposition "with" (literally, "in") is not repeated before the word "fire," which could imply that the Spirit and fire are coordinate ingredients of the same baptism, John's words are addressed to "you" - meaning, the Pharisees and Sadducees. He probably doesn't mean that all of them will receive the Holy Spirit and be purified; he probably means that some of them will be baptized with the Spirit (involvement in the kingdom) and some will be baptized with fire (judgment).
Jesus would employ a "winnowing fork," which would be used to cast wheat in the air. The wind would blow the chaff away, allowing the grain to be gathered. The chaff would be burned. The wheat is symbolic of the true members of the kingdom who Jesus would gather. The chaff is symbolic of people who refuse John's call to repent and Jesus' offer of entry into the kingdom. They will experience judgment, symbolized by "unquenchable fire." This does not imply an eternal judgment, for the chaff will be "burned up," or consumed, by fire that is unquenchably hot. The fire continues, but the chaff doesn't. Although the judgment that Jesus speaks of in this passage is most likely a this-worldly judgment on Jerusalem, it is emblematic of a judgment to be faced after death for those outside the kingdom (Hebrews 9:27, 2 Thessalonians 1:9).
While John is pictured as the one who prepares, Jesus is pictured as the one who separates. John prepares people for the king who is coming, and the king will separate out those who are prepared, those who desire the kingdom of heaven. The question for us, then, is what do we want? Do we want the Holy Spirit, or do we want fire? Do we want to be gathered into the storehouse, or do we want fire? Do we want the kingdom of heaven, or do we want judgment? Through the use of graphic imagery, John makes the choice clear for us.
John prepares the people for the arrival of the king, who will gather his people. Then the king arrives.
Arrival of the king (3:13-17)
(13) Then Jesus arrived from Galilee at the Jordan coming to John, to be baptized by him. (14) But John tried to prevent Him, saying, "I have need to be baptized by You, and do You come to me?" (15) But Jesus answering said to him, "Permit it at this time; for in this way it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness." Then he permitted Him. (16) And after being baptized, Jesus went up immediately from the water; and behold, the heavens were opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending as a dove, and coming upon Him, (17) and behold, a voice out of the heavens, saying, "This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased."
Others came to John from Judea, but Jesus comes from Galilee,
which Matthew later refers to as "Galilee of the Gentiles"
(Matthew 4:12-17). The king's arrival from the land of the Gentiles
shows that God, through his king, was extending his blessing to
all nations. This was Israel's call, all the way back to Abraham
(Genesis 12:2), but its nationalism led it to horde the blessing.
The prophets predicted the gathering of the Gentiles (Isaiah 60:4-9).
Jesus, through his apostles, is going to do just that (John 11:51-52).
John understandably is reluctant to baptize Jesus, for he recognizes the superiority of Jesus, whose sandals he is not worthy to remove. The reason Jesus comes to be baptized by John, and the reason John permits it, is because it will "fulfill all righteousness." What does this mean? It means that it fulfills the righteousness of the Lord. Isaiah constantly links the Lord's righteousness with his salvation (Isaiah 45:21; 46:13; 51:5-8; 56:1: 59:16-17; 63:1). The idea is that the Lord, in his righteousness, saves. Jesus, in taking on human flesh and thoroughly identifying with the sin of humanity by submitting to John's baptism, is carrying out God's righteousness. We often associate God's righteousness with judgment. Here, the paramount expression of God's righteousness is his self-abasement in order to save us.
After Jesus is baptized, the heavens are opened and there is a voice out of the heavens. John said, literally, that the kingdom of "the heavens" was near. The activation of the heavens means that the kingdom is dawning. Then the Spirit of God descends on Jesus. This means that Jesus is king. John the prophet baptizes Jesus as Samuel the prophet anointed David. When David was anointed as king, the Spirit of the Lord came upon David (1 Samuel 16:13). The appearance of a dove is evocative of the story of Noah. The activity of a dove there meant the end of God's wrath. Similarly, the appearance of the dove here means the end of God's wrath, the end of exile, for those who submit to the king.
God calls Jesus his beloved Son. God first called Israel his son (Exodus 4:22), and then the Davidic king was called his son (2 Samuel 7:14, Psalm 2:7). The roles of Israel and of the king, the representative of Israel, have devolved onto Jesus. Jesus would be faithful to God where Israel was not, particularly in extending God's blessing to the Gentiles. So when God calls Jesus his Son, he is saying, "This one is my king."
Jesus not only is the king, he is the predicted servant of the Lord of Isaiah 40-66. In Isaiah 42:1, the Spirit of the Lord is depicted as being on the servant, in whom the Lord delights. The Spirit comes on Jesus, and God is well-pleased with him. The servant figure at times appears to be Israel but also at times an individual. Jesus the individual embodies God's purpose for Israel.
In verse 3, a voice, that of John, was crying in the wilderness for people to prepare for the coming of the king. In verse 17, there is different voice from a different place proclaiming something different. The voice of God from the heavens proclaims the arrival of the king. God's message to us, then, is, "Here he his." This is God's king. God himself says so. Jesus reigns in righteousness. We should eagerly submit to his reign.
Here he is
Can we imagine what this would have been like for a Jew to recognize Jesus as the coming one, who embodied all their dreams that had been built into the fabric of their culture through the centuries? Simeon was such a one (Luke 2:25-35). He was a righteous and devout man of many years, not long from death, but he was longing for "the consolation of Israel." The Holy Spirit revealed to him that he would not die before he saw the Christ. When he saw the child Jesus, he took him into his arms, blessed God and said, "Now Lord, you let your bond-servant depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light of revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel."
Simeon, when he saw the king, took him into his arms. He embraced him. In Matthew 3, John prepares us for the king, and God himself proclaims his arrival. Jesus is the one we have longed for all our lives. Here he is. God himself says so. His reign fulfills all righteousness. He comes to save, and his reign can be trusted. Embrace him, and his righteous reign in your life.
- SCG, 1-18-98
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