John the Baptist was the herald who announced the coming of the King. His message had two parts: repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand. The king is coming. It is time to turn back to God and follow His Messiah.
Matthew 1-2 covered the early life of Jesus, explaining how Jesus was born in Bethlehem but raised in Nazareth in Galilee. In chapter 3, Matthew skips ahead many years. Jesus is an adult and about to begin his public ministry.
1In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, 2“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” 3For 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.’” – Matthew 3:1-3
- Matthew quotes Isaiah 40:3.
- Isaiah says someone will come proclaiming a message that people should prepare for the coming of the Lord.
- Isaiah was a prophet to the southern kingdom of Judah during the time of the divided kingdom.
- He dates his ministry to 4 kings who reigned from about 740 – 680 BC.
- In Isaiah 40-66, Isaiah prophesies to the captives in Babylon, but they are not captives yet as he is writing.
3A voice is calling, “Clear the way for the LORD in the wilderness; Make smooth in the desert a highway for our God. 4Let every valley be lifted up, And every mountain and hill be made low; And let the rough ground become a plain, And the rugged terrain a broad valley; 5Then the glory of the LORD will be revealed, And all flesh will see it together; For the mouth of the LORD has spoken.” – Isaiah 40:3-5
- The interpretative question is: What does the phrase ‘in the wilderness’ modify? Is a voice crying in the wilderness, saying “prepare the way of the Lord”? Or is the voice saying, “prepare the way of the lord in the wilderness”?
- Parallelism suggests the wilderness is part of the message:
|in the wilderness||prepare||the way||of the Lord|
|in the desert||make smooth||a highway||for our God|
- When a king wanted to travel, the king’s people would go before him to clear obstacles, so that the king could travel easily and quickly.
- Isaiah is presenting a metaphorical picture, calling for a path to be made in the wilderness, because the king is coming. Make the road straight, easy and level so that God can come to His people.
- Matthew quotes the Septuagint (Greek version of the Old Testament) which reads: In the wilderness a voice cries: “prepare the way of the LORD;” The Septuagint omits that second phrase in the desert and locates the voice in the wilderness.
- When all four gospel writers quote this passage, they quote the Septuagint, which was the version their audience was familiar with.
- Both Matthew and Isaiah make the point: Before the Messiah comes, someone calls out: prepare the way for the coming king. Matthew tells us that voice is John the Baptist.
- Isaiah’s immediate prediction concerns the end of the exile. But John the Baptist is a fulfillment in the fullest sense of the word. He is the herald who announces the ultimate king is coming, and it is time to prepare to meet him.
4Now John wore a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. 5Then Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him, 6and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. – Matthew 3:4-6
- John the Baptist was very popular, even after his death (Matthew 21:23-27).
- He preached primarily in the wilderness of Judea and he baptized in the Jordan river.
- Many scholars argue that his clothes indicate his prophetic role (Zec 13:4; 2Ki 1:7-8; 1Ki 19:19).
- It’s possible that Matthew described John the Baptist’s appearance to highlight that fact that he looked like the prophet Elijah.
- It’s also possible that many of the prophets traditionally wore a hairy cloak, and John the Baptist followed that tradition.
5Then Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him, 6and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 7But 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? 8Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. 9And 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. 10Even 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. 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. 12His 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.” – Matthew 3:5-12
- When the master of the house returned, his servant would remove his sandals and wash his feet. John says, the Messiah is so much greater than he is, that he is not even worthy to be the Messiah’s lowest, most menial servant.
- This idea that Jesus Christ will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire while John baptized with water is found in all four gospels (Matthew 3:11-12; Mark 1:8; Luke 3:16; John 1:26-27).
- Both Testaments use water as a symbol of cleansing. Washing with water symbolizes washing away of the guilt of sins and accepting a new way of living.
- Unlike ritual washing, baptism happens only once.
- Until John the Baptist, baptism was a self-administered rite done only by proselytes (those converting to Judaism). John starts something new.
- Baptism is a ritual that symbolizes your commitment to follow the teaching of the one in who’s name you are baptized.
- John the Baptist’s message is summarized as: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
Kingdom of Heaven
- The “kingdom of heaven/kingdom of God” refers to the rule of God over all the earth.
- In one sense, God is ruling over all the earth in that it all exists at His pleasure. We have rain because He blesses us with rain. We have peace and prosperity because He blesses us with it. He is the king of glory and He reigns now.
- In another sense, because the world does not recognize God’s reign, we are still waiting for the day when every knee bows before Him and recognizes Him as Lord.
- The kingdom of heaven is the time when all sin and rebellion are gone and all God’s people are blessed living under His righteous rule (Zec 14:9; Isaiah 53:7-10).
- The Messiah is the anointed king of Israel, a son of David and a son of Abraham, who will establish the kingdom of God (Isaiah 9:6-7; Jeremiah 23:5-6; Daniel 7:13).
- Like a tree cut off at the base, the throne of David has been toppled, but from that stump, a branch will emerge, a new king who will reign wisely and establish peace and righteousness in the land.
- God will establish His rule through a man, the Christ, the Messiah, the anointed son of David.
- John the Baptist’s message is “the kingdom of heaven is at hand,” because the king himself, the Messiah has come.
Water and 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“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.” – Matthew 3:11-12
- 3:12 explains the fire metaphor: the fire is the fire of judgment and destruction.
- Winnowing is this process of separating the wheat (the part you want to eat) from the chaff (the part you don’t).
- John pictures mankind as divided into 2 parts: those who accept the Messiah (the wheat) and those who reject the Messiah (the chaff). The Messiah will separate those two groups like wheat and chaff.
- Jesus baptizes those who accept him with the holy spirit. Jesus “baptizes” those who reject him with fire of judgment, like the fire that burns the chaff.
- If you want to avoid the fire of judgment and find a place in the kingdom of heaven, what must you do? Repent.
- Repent means more than to be sorry or to change your mind. Repent means to turn around and return to God.
- The arrival of the king forces the choice. The time to decide is now.
- John emphasizes this point with his words to the Pharisees and Sadducees (3:8-9): Don’t think that being a physical descendant of Abraham is enough to save you.
- If you are in fact repentant, your lives will show evidence of that repentance. But their lives show that they are complacent and confident in the fact that they were born Jewish.
- John the Baptist was an important and popular figure. He was widely accepted as a prophet.
- His message had 2 parts, Repent (turn back to God), for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. The King has arrived. Now is the time to make your choice.
- The day of judgment is coming when the king will separate his people from those who are not his people.
- The way to be among his people is to repent. Being Jewish is not enough. The king is coming and it is time to turn back to God and follow his Messiah.