As we move from Matthew 2 to 3 keep in mind many years have passed. Following the death of King Herod, Joseph moves his young family from Egypt back into Israel. That said, instead of returning to Bethlehem, he decides to settle down in Galilee — specifically he and Mary’s hometown of Nazareth where Jesus would grow up and remain into His 30’s. According to Luke 3:23, we’re told Jesus “began His ministry at about thirty years of age.”
Matthew 3:1-6, “In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, and saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!’”
In Luke 3, we’re provided a more specific timeframe… “Now in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, Herod Antipas being tetrarch of Galilee… While Annas and Caiaphas were high priests, the word of God came to John the son of Zacharias in the wilderness.” Historically, this places us in the year 26 A.D.
With regards to the identity of John the Baptist, Matthew adds… “For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah (quotes Isaiah 40:3), saying: ‘The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord; make His paths straight.’” (It’s interesting this is one of the few instances you’ll find the same quotation used in all four Gospels.)
Matthew continues… “Now John himself was clothed in camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist; and his food was locusts and wild honey. (According to Leviticus 11 “locusts” were considered to be clean and as such were often a source of protein for the poor.) Then (the reaction) Jerusalem, all Judea, and all the region around the Jordan went out to him and were baptized by him in the Jordan, confessing their sins.”
Of all the characters you’ll come across in the New Testament, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more colorful person than John the Baptist or more accurately John the Baptizer…
What’s interesting is that, unlike Luke who was writing to a predominately Gentile audience, on account Matthew was writing to the Jew he feels no need to provide any background on John largely because the vast majority of the people reading his Gospel were already well acquainted with the man. In fact, in his histories, Josephus wrote extensively on the life and ministry of John the Baptist. You see John the Baptizer had created quite a stir in his day!
Let me give you one example as to his lasting impact… In Acts 18:24-26, we read, “A Jew named Apollos, born at Alexandria, an eloquent man and mighty in the Scriptures, came to Ephesus. This man had been instructed in the way of the Lord; and being fervent in spirit, he spoke and taught accurately the things of the Lord, though he knew only the baptism of John. So he began to speak boldly in the synagogue. When Aquila and Priscilla heard him, they took him aside and explained to him the way of God more accurately.”
In case you aren’t familiar with John’s backstory… According to Luke 1, his birth was not only predicted but was supernatural! In spite of the fact his mother Elizabeth had been barren and both she and her husband Zacharias were beyond childbearing years (Luke says they were “well advanced in years”), God stepped into their lives, performed an amazing miracle, and Elizabeth conceived a son they name John just as they’d been instructed!
As an aside, Luke tells us Mary and Elizabeth not only knew each other, spent time together during their pregnancies but were related making Jesus and John cousins and close in age.
According to the account provided by John’s father Zacharias, as he was tending to the Altar of Incense in his priestly capacity inside the Temple, the angel Gabriel appeared to him, said Elizabeth would conceive a son, and that God had a very special plan for his life.
In Luke 1:15-17, we have the record of what Gabriel said to Zacharias concerning John… “For he will be great in the sight of the Lord, and shall drink neither wine nor strong drink. He will also be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother's womb. And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God. He will also go before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah, 'to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children,' and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”
In Malachi 4:5-6 the Old Testament closes with the following prophecy… “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the LORD. And 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.”
According to this prophecy, Jewish scholars believed the prophet Elijah would physically return to Israel in order to prepare the people for “the great and dreadful day of the Lord” — which was seen as the day the King would finally appear, destroy the enemies of Israel, liberate the people, and establish His kingdom. Even today, Elijah’s appearance remains a Messianic expectation as an empty seat is left around the Passover table each year.
Tragically, one of the things the religious scholars failed to understand then as well as today was that the Old Testament prophecies concerning the Messiah indicated two advents and not just one. While many of the prophets spoke of the coming King and His Kingdom, others like Isaiah wrote of the Messiah’s first coming to be a Suffering Servant.
While I believe Elijah will likely be one of the Two Witnesses described in Revelation 11 coming to prepare the people for Jesus’ Second Coming, the angel Gabriel revealed to Zacharias that his son John would be a fulfillment of this prophecy with regards to the Messiah’s first appearing. Keep in mind, John was not the reincarnation of Elijah but would “go before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah.” In John 1:21, John will be asked by the religious leaders if he was Elijah — a question he answers with an emphatic, “No!”
While it’s safe to reason Zach and Lizzy loved their son, sought to raise John in a Godly home, and believed he’d prepare the way for the Messiah, we really know very little of his upbringing. All we’re told of John’s developmental years in Luke’s Gospel was that “the hand of the Lord was with him... he grew and became strong in spirit, and was in the deserts (literally John lived in an uninhabited place) till the day of his manifestation to Israel.”
One of the things that contributed to John’s popularity was the timing of his ministry. Since Malachi the prophet left the scene, God had been silent to Israel for roughly 400 years! When you consider America is only 245 years old you realize how long that really was! In fact, Israel had experienced the rise and fall of both the Persian, Greek, and Roman Empires.
Imagine the moment when John “clothed in camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, came preaching in the wilderness of Judea.” There is no question John the Baptist had an Old Testament prophet vibe! Though educated in a religious family, John “was a man from the desert with naps in his head, the sand that he walked was also his bed.”
I have no doubt “with skins on his back and hair on his face, they thought he was strange by the locusts he ate.” Aside from this, as we’ll see, “the words that he spoke made the people assume, there wasn’t too much left in the upper room.” John was so radical “the Pharisees tripped when they heard him speak, until the king took the head of this Jesus freak.”
Though unlikely, there was even a Jewish legend during that time that John’s “camel’s hair coat” was actually the same one the prophet Elijah had bequeathed to his protege Elisha.
While Matthew says John “came preaching in the wilderness of Judea,” according to John 1:28, we know he specifically preached “beyond the Jordan” in a place called “Bethabara.”
Geographically, this was an area where pilgrims traveling south down the Jordan Valley from the Sea of Galilee would pivot west into the Judean wilderness on their way up to Jerusalem. Sure, Bethabara was wilderness but it was a main artery feeding the city.
How strange it must have been that first day when John saunters out of the wilderness wearing this camel-haired satchel held into place with a massive leather belt looking all wild and disheveled with locust legs plastered in his beard with honey, proceeds to come down to the banks of the Jordan, and begins preaching to the pilgrims walking by…
Again, Matthew is clear John’s core mission was to prepare the people for the arrival of the King. John was called to be the forerunner sent to prepare the way for Jesus! Not only had this calling been articulated to his father and embraced by John, but, in light of Luke 3, it seems John initiated his ministry because he knew the time had finally come.
There was an undeniable urgency to John’s message that struck a chord with the masses. As Matthew writes, John would cry out to those passing by, “The kingdom of heaven is at hand!” For a people under the thumb of Rome, this was revolutionary. John was saying the King was in their midst. The time had come! They needed to ready themselves now!
In order to accomplish his mission of preparing the people for the ministry of Jesus, John’s message centered on their need for repentance. As the people of God, the nation had strayed. John was a lone voice crying out for the nation to repent of their sins!
It’s been rightly said that repentance is the first word of the Gospel. Without repentance salvation is impossible. Please realize that repentance is so much more than confessing sin or feeling sorry. In fact, the Greek word “repent” describes three interrelated actions…
First, repentance begins as a changing of the mind. A person becomes intellectually convinced of a reality that then impacts the will. This is what made John’s preaching so essential. Because the Jews had been exiled to Babylon on account of their disobedience years earlier, those who returned were serious about not repeating the mistakes of the past.
And yet, their religious dedication hadn’t led to holiness but rather self-righteousness and hypocrisy. It had fostered a dead religion and silence from God. They thought they were on good terms with God. John wanted them to realize they really weren’t. In order to ready the people for the coming of their Savior, John needed them to first acknowledge their need to be saved for a person who will never admit their lost cannot possibly be found.
Secondly, a true changing of one’s mind will result in an immediate ceasing of one’s current motion. How do you know if a person really believes that what their presently doing is wrong? They stop doing it! You see if a person truly comes to the point in which they intellectually acknowledge that what they’ve been up to is not right and, in turn, destructive, the first thing they will do is cease that current activity!
Lastly, repentance is more than simply ceasing one’s current motion… It also requires an about-face and change of direction. Think of it this way… Repentance doesn’t mean you only cease doing the wrong thing, but it demands you begin doing the right! In the end, true repentance isn’t just a turning from but it’s a turning to something else entirely…
As any parent can testify, true repentance demands a change in behavior! This is why John emphasized not only the “confession of sins,” but utilized water baptism as being the outward expression of this internal decision. You see if a person wanted to truly repent in response to John’s preaching, they’d enter the Jordan, confess their sins, and be dunked under the water. The Greek word for “baptism” means to submerge or completely immerse.
Though completely true what John was doing was unorthodox, the act of water baptism wasn’t entirely a foreign concept to the Jewish people. For example, if a Gentile wanted to convert to Judaism, two things were required: circumcision and water baptism. In fact, similar to the ministry of Elijah, in 2 Kings 5, a Syrian named Naaman had to dunk in the Jordan seven times in order to be healed of his leprosy. Even within the various procedures related to the Temple, water baptism was synonymous with a person’s purification.
With these things in mind, John’s choice of baptism in the Jordan River as a response to his message is really fascinating. When the people entered the water and confessed their sins they were communicating to the world, “I’ve been living like a pagan, godless, condemned, lost Gentile unfit to be considered a child of God and I repent!” At this point, John would then immerse them into the water as a symbolic sign of their rededication to the Lord.
Again, it’s hard to overstate the impact of John’s ministry. Here was a man who performed zero miracles and was known as the baptizer for obvious reasons; and yet, it was his message that resonated. In verse 6, Matthew notes, “Then Jerusalem, all Judea, and all the region around the Jordan went out to John and were baptized by him in the Jordan.”
According to the historian Josephus, over the course of John’s roughly one-year ministry somewhere between 300,000 to half a million people came out to the Jordan River to be baptized. This means John was performing about 1,000 baptisms each day for a year!
On account of John’s growing popularity, it wasn’t just the commoner who came out to hear him preach… Matthew 3:7, “But when John saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism (these were the two political and religious parties of the day), he said to them, ‘Brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?’”
This phrase “brood of vipers” can be translated as those begotten of vipers. Needless to say, this wasn’t a compliment. Instead, John was publicly calling them out! You see the character of these men was corrupt and what they taught the people poison. They were snakes dawning the garments of religion. They were cunning, malignant, and dangerous.
Though these men had made the trip down to Bethabara from Jerusalem in order to see what was happening for themselves, they weren’t ready for John the Baptizer. After calling them children of snakes, John asks, “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”
In a brazen and rather shocking manner, John was saying to these men that they were in grave danger of experiencing the wrath to come — the righteous judgment of God! In that day, no one would dare speak to the religious establishment the way John was doing!
John continues… Matthew 3:8-9, “Therefore (because the wrath of God was coming, John advises them to) bear fruits worthy of repentance (John is telling these religious men they needed to repent of their sin and that their repentance needed to manifest in a real change in behavior), and do not think to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I say to you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones.”
One of the great challenges the Hebrew people faced and what was blinding them to their own sin and shortcomings was a belief they were good with God simply because they were the “children of Abraham.” It would be akin to the false but common belief that you’re a Christian because you grew up in a Christian home. As if righteousness was hereditary.
Not only is John cautioning against these men making this terrible mistake, but his warning that “God was able to raise up children of Abraham from these stones” takes on a much deeper significance knowing he’s in this part of the Jordan known as Bethabara.
Back in Joshua 4, following an awesome miracle whereby God’s parted the Jordan River in order for His people to finally enter the Promised Land, the twelve tribes were instructed to pile up stones as a memorial to the reality they’d been able to enter the land not through a work of their own but by a miraculous work of God. In making this reference, John was reminding them faith and not family heritage is what mattered most to God.
John adds… Matthew 3:10-12, “And even now the ax is laid to the root of the trees. Therefore every tree which does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire (note “the fire” is “the wrath” John was warning them to avoid). I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance, but He who is coming after me (the One John was preparing the way for) is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry.
He will baptize you (literally immerse or overwhelm you) with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fan is in His hand (this was a tool used by the farmer to shift the wheat from the chaff during the harvest), and He will thoroughly clean out His threshing floor, and gather His wheat into the barn; but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”
With regards to the coming Christ, John says, “He who is coming is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry.” In that day, it was completely normal for rabbis to have disciples and for these disciples to serve the practical needs of their rabbi.
And yet, there was a limit to the rabbi’s authority and what he could ask of a disciple. For example, in this culture, the act of washing feet was a task reserved for only a slave.
You see by invoking this image of being unworthy to carry the sandals of the Coming One, John is saying even the role of a slave was too honorable a position for him to fill!
As to the essence of what John is articulating, don’t miss it… In contrast to the fact he “baptized with water unto repentance,” he says of Jesus, “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” Regrettably, some have interpreted this as one baptism fulfilled on the Day of Pentecost when a manifestation of the outpouring of the Spirit was tongues of fire.
The problem with this reading is that it fails to take into account the context already established by John for what he’s referencing with fire. Back in verse 7, John warns the religious leaders, “Who warned you from the wrath to come?” which was the judgment of God. In the verses that follow, John then advises them to repent and bear fruit because “every tree which does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” Clearly, John is connecting “the fire” with “the wrath” of God poured out on those who fail to repent.
What this means is that John is telling his audience they will experience one of two different baptisms from Jesus the King. There will be a baptism of the Holy Spirit unto salvation, and there will be a baptism of an “unquenchable fire,” or judgment known as the wrath of God!
In its specific application to the religious leaders of Israel, John was correcting a major misconception. They believed the Messiah was coming to judge Israel’s enemies. Instead, John is telling them the Messiah would come to judge Israel. Again, John says, “He will thoroughly clean out His threshing floor, and gather His wheat into the barn; but He will burn up the chaff (which was the worthless part of the stalk) with unquenchable fire.”
When you examine the fact the ministry of John the Baptizer centered on the reality it was his job to prepare the way in the life of an unbeliever for the transforming work of Jesus, an important truth arises very applicable to you and I. Note: The reason it’s applicable is that ultimately we all share John’s calling… As representatives of Jesus, it’s not our job to save anyone but to minister in such a way that we prepare that person to accept their Savior!
Again, this is why John came “preaching” repentance! Sure, he’d become known as the baptizer, but this was secondary to his primary purpose. You see John was called by God to herald the truth of God. He was a preacher of the message God had given him. He was willing to call sin sin even when it pitted him against the powerful and created enemies.
Understand, John’s job was not to make friends, build bridges, or develop consensus. His job was to prepare the way in the hearts of the lost for them to ultimately accept Jesus. To do this John preached God’s Word and he didn’t shy away from the difficult realities like sin, the need for repentance, and the fact Jesus either saves or He’ll stand in judgment!
I know this is going to sound antithetical to the Church’s generally post-Christian approach to reaching a post-modern, secular culture whereby we seek (on a myriad of issues ranging from sex, marriage, and gender) to avoid offense, bend over backward to prove ourselves tolerant, and avoid any accusation of being considered judgmental…
But we must never ever forget the core truth that a person cannot accept Jesus as their Savior if they don’t first come to see themselves as being a sinner! Yes, the truth should always be articulated in a spirit of love. And yet, the Gospel message apart from repentance of sin is not the Gospel! A person must first come to terms with the truth of their own brokenness if they’re ever to experience the transformation Jesus provides.
John was successful in his mission. Many people were ready to accept Jesus because they understood their need for a Savior. As the forerunner, the Baptizer left behind an incredible legacy in this regard. And yet, in the end, we must never forget those who rejected John’s message would ultimately grow hostile towards the messenger! John’s testimony was that he embraced his calling, effectively pointed his world to Jesus, spoke the truth even when it was dangerous, was martyred when his mission was completed and entered glory!
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