Matthew 3:1 – In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea…
Matthew introduces John the Baptist rather abruptly in his narrative, but fortunately the gospel of Luke gives us a much fuller picture of this prophet.
John was the son of the priest Zachariah and his wife Elizabeth. Interestingly, Elizabeth is a relative of Jesus’ mother Mary, which makes John the Baptist a relative of Jesus; possibly a cousin.
Luke also reveals to us that John is 6 months older than Jesus. Since we know that Jesus began his public ministry at around 30 years of age, we can surmise that there is a gap of about 25-28 years between Matthew chapter 2 and chapter 3. John the Baptist and Jesus are both about 30 years old during the events of Matthew chapter 3.
John’s ministry did not take place in the city of Jerusalem, but out in the ‘wilderness’. What do you picture in your mind when you hear that word? Do you picture thick forests with wild animals where no one lives? Or do you perhaps think of a barren desert plain? Both of those descriptions would fit our modern understanding of the word, but it meant something a bit different back in the time of Christ.
Back then, a wilderness was an area that was thinly populated and somewhat mountainous. Although it had trees, it was not an impenetrable forest. It was better suited for pasture than growing crops. For the most part, the land was unsettled. Today, we would say that John ministered in the ‘country’ or ‘countryside’.
Matthew 3:2-3 – …and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when he said, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight.’
John was the last Old Testament prophet. God used him as the transition between the old covenant of the law and the new covenant of grace. He clearly proclaimed that the kingdom of heaven and the coming of the messianic age had arrived; as a result of that transition, people should repent.
What is meant by the phrase ‘the kingdom of Heaven’?
First, we must remember that John was speaking exclusively to a Jewish audience. Based on Old Testament scripture, [Daniel 7:13-14, Jeremiah 33:14-18, 1 Kings 2:4 and many others] the Jews expected that the Messiah would be the successor to the throne of David and that he would be a great national deliverer. They believed that his coming would usher in judgment, that the dead would be raised to life, that the enemies of the Jews would be destroyed and that the Jews as a nation would be elevated to a place of great national honor. They were expecting big changes here in the physical world.
In light of this, we can see why the Jews, who had long been under the rule of ruthless Gentile powers, were eagerly looking for the coming of this messianic age.
But were the Jews correct in their views? The answer is both ‘yes’ and ‘no’. Or perhaps a better answer is that they had a limited understanding of what God had planned to do.
The bible does speak of the literal reign of Jesus on earth in many different passages, like these:
Jeremiah 23:5 – Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.
Revelation 20:4 – …I saw the souls of those who has been beheaded for the testimony of Jesus…they came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years.
But the reign of the Messiah actually began in the spiritual realm. We find evidence of this when Jesus spoke to Pilate just before his crucifixion:
John 18:36 – Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.”
So we see that God first establishes his spiritual kingdom, and when that comes to full fruition, he will establish his earthly kingdom where he will reign for a thousand years, as stated in Revelation chapter 20.
This explains why John preaches a message of repentance. Instead of gathering an army and practicing military exercises, which would have been in line with the Jewish expectations, John called them to a change of life – repentance – which was in complete alignment with the spiritual kingdom of heaven coming to earth.
This is probably a good time to look at the concept of repentance. What exactly is repentance? It means that you acknowledge that you have sinned against a holy God and that you are sorry for the offences you committed. It also means that you make a conscious effort to turn from your transgressions and seek to live a holy life.
In other words, repentance has two aspects or parts: sorrow/regret that you have sinned and a change of your conduct.
Matthew 3:4 – Now John wore a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey.
A lot can be said about John’s manner of dress, his food and his lifestyle. But all of these are secondary to the most important thing – fulfilling the task or purpose that God intended for his life.
What about you? Do people judge you on your clothes or your weight or the car you drive? Remember this: other people don’t determine your true value; God does and you are priceless to him! Man can only look on the outward appearance, but God is looking at your heart. He created you with a purpose in mind. Are you seeking his direction in life? If so, you can be sure you will find the awesome plan he has for you!
Matthew 3:5-6 – Then Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
These verses show that there was a constant stream of people coming out to the Jordan to be baptized by John. What is baptism?
Baptism means to cleanse or wash by the application of water. Did John invent the concept of baptism? No; it was a rite already used by the Jews, especially after the Babylonian captivity. The Jews would administer the rite of baptism or washing to any Gentile who became a convert (proselyte) to the Jewish religion. The purpose of the baptism was to signify that they renounced their errors/sins and worship of pagan gods. By being baptized, they were purifying and committing themselves for service to Jehovah.
So, the Jews used baptism to call the Gentiles into a new dispensation of religion, namely Judaism.
Likewise, John used baptism to call the Jews into a new dispensation of religion, namely the kingdom of heaven under Jesus the Messiah.
When John baptized people in the Jordan, it signified the repentance from their sins and the putting away of impurity. It was a commitment to change the way they were living and to ready themselves for service to the Messiah.
Have you been baptized since confessing your sin and accepting Christ as your savior? If not, please consult your local church. God places a high priority on obedience and since Jesus was baptized we should follow that example. If you were baptized as a child by your parents, you might want to consider being baptized a second time so that you can reaffirm the rite of baptism as a consenting adult.
Matthew 3:7-8 – But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance.”
The Pharisees and the Sadducees were sects or subgroups of the Jewish religion (there were actually three subgroups, the two listed above and the Essenes who are not mentioned in the scriptures).
The Pharisees devoted themselves to strictness in the practice of their religious beliefs. They not only adhered to the law but to many ancient traditions. Unfortunately, this did not bring them closer to God. Instead, it made them proud/haughty and self righteous. They thought of themselves as better than ordinary Jews. They were very big on external cleanliness and ceremonial washing. They were also very ‘showy’ in their religious acts. In other words, they would wait until a large crowd gathered before giving a big offering, or they would pray loud prayers while standing on street corners, so all the world could see.
Meanwhile, the Sadducees rejected all tradition and believed only in the law. They were not as concerned with public displays of worship nor did they practice great amounts of ceremonial washing. They are mostly remembered for their belief that the soul dies at the same time the body does, and there is no resurrection of the dead. This sect was much, much smaller than the Pharisees, but it had a very great number of wealthy men. The Sadducees, like the Pharisees, believed that they were righteous before God because they were offspring of Abraham.
It’s easy to imagine that John and his ministry would be on the lips of all the Jewish people.
They were excited to think that the Messiah was coming and they were all about repenting and getting ready. Therefore, we are not surprised when the Pharisees and Sadducees also come to see John, although their motivation may not have been to repent, but rather to see what all the fuss was about. They were probably ready to pass judgment upon John and his message.
When they arrived, I don’t think they received the welcome they were expecting! Instead of addressing them with a title of respect like ‘Rabbi’, John addresses them as a generation or brood of snakes! John recognized that they were full of the poison of self righteousness, pride and wickedness. They loved to serve God on external matters, but their hearts were hard and full of sin.
John wasn’t being mean; he was attempting to break through their hard hearts with a message of truth – they too needed to repent. All of their external works were not enough to make them righteous before God. They needed to comply with the two parts of repentance – sorrow over sin and a change of ways – just like everyone else.
Matthew 3:9 – And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham.
Here John ‘touches a nerve’ so to speak. The Pharisees and Sadducees knew that they were descendants of Abraham, who was the father of the Jewish nation. This was one of their main sources of pride. They felt that because they were physical descendents, they would automatically inherit or obtain the kingdom of Heaven.
However, John is telling them that physical genealogy meant nothing. God is looking for people who are spiritual descendants of Abraham, that is, people who will inherit the kingdom through faith in God and the blood of Jesus.
Matthew 3:10 – Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
John is giving a word picture. The unrepentant religious leaders are like trees that bear bad fruit and as a result of that, they are about to be cut down/destroyed. The meaning of the picture is that God is offering a chance for repentance and mercy, but you must accept his offer quickly and repent, or destruction will overtake you.
Matthew 3:11 – I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.
Here John is comparing his ministry to the ministry of the Messiah. John baptized people with water, which was an external rite. It was a symbol or pledge of repentance.
Jesus, however, would soon baptize people with the Holy Spirit which was an internal baptism. This baptism was first bestowed on the followers of Jesus on the day of Pentecost. You can read about that astonishing event in Acts chapter 2. Through the blood of Jesus, people could repent and be truly cleansed from sin.
Matthew 3:12 – His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.
Here is another word picture from John, which would have been easily understood by those who were listening.
A winnowing fork was a tool used to separate grain from its stalk.
The worker would use the fork or shovel to throw the strands up in the air. Since the stalk was light and useless, it would blow away in the wind while the grain would fall to the ground in a pile. The grain was then gathered up and stored for use, while the stalk was lost.
John was using this agricultural illustration to demonstrate a spiritual truth. Jesus was coming to preach the gospel. The effects of the gospel would separate the spiritually worthless people from his true followers. These saints would be ‘stored up’ or be admitted to his kingdom, but all those who practiced empty religion would be lost or burned up, meaning that they would be utterly destroyed.
This has not changed in the last 2000 years. The gospel of Jesus is still being actively preached today. There will always be people who accept the gospel message, repent and place their faith in Jesus. These are the ones who are admitted to the kingdom of Heaven.
Sadly, there are also people who hear the gospel and refuse to believe it. What have you done with the gospel message? Have you trusted Christ as your Lord and Savior? If not, don’t delay! Stop right now and pray for Jesus to be Lord and Savior of your life!
Matthew 3:13-15 – Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented.
Jesus was sinless and did not need to repent. So why did he come to be baptized by John? Jesus tells us the answer – he submitted to the rite of baptism to fulfill all righteousness. Here are a couple things to consider:
The book of Hebrews tells us that Jesus is our perfect High Priest. All of the things that pertained to the Old Testament priesthood were a foreshadowing of the perfect priesthood of Jesus.
Hebrews 2:17 – Therefore he (Jesus) had to be made like his brothers in every respect so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God to make propitiation for the sins of the people.
When the Old Testament priesthood was established, the priests were washed before assuming their office:
Exodus 29:4 – You shall bring Aaron and his sons to the entrance of the tent of meeting and wash them with water.
So, by submitting to John’s baptism, Jesus was fulfilling the Old Testament law by being ‘washed’ before he assumed his public ministry.
Another reason to be baptized is found in that same verse in Hebrews. He was identifying with us, sinful man, and showing us that baptism (and repentance) were commanded for those who would be a part of the kingdom of God.
Also, baptism was a perfect bridge to his public ministry. John had been recognized as a prophet of God with a single message – repent for the kingdom of Heaven was at hand; the long awaited Messiah was coming! Therefore, it made sense for Jesus to be a part of John’s ministry; it connected Jesus to the role of Messiah in the minds of the people.
Matthew 3:16-17 – And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”
And here we see that God sanctioned all that Jesus did regarding baptism. The appearance of the Holy Spirit and the voice of Father God were signs of his approval. Jesus had started his Messianic work.
He entered into the work with the Holy Spirit upon him; the Spirit qualified and equipped him to perform his duties. If Jesus needed the Holy Spirit, how much more do we need to be baptized by him? Fortunately, on the day of Pentecost Jesus made the Holy Spirit available to all of us! All we need to do is ask him for this great blessing to assist us in doing all that God has called us to do for him!
Let me give you some encouragement: If you have neglected to be baptized, why don’t you just go ahead and submit to this act of righteousness? God will be pleased by your obedience.
Let me give you some relief: You don’t have to walk alone in this life! God has given us the gift of his precious Holy Spirit. The Spirit’s work in our lives is invaluable. He guides us, reveals the word to us, helps us pray and many, many other things. You can talk to the Holy Spirit the same way you talk to Jesus or the Father. Invite him in today and find out what a help he can be!
Let me give you some strength: The kingdom of Heaven has come and if you have accepted Jesus as Lord and Savior, you are a part of it! So take heart – our king has overcome the world and through him, you are also an over-comer. One day, Jesus will return to earth to establish his earthly kingdom, just like the Jews pictured. It will be a glorious time for all who belong to Christ. Lets vow to work for the master here on earth while we still can!