Matthew Chapter 3
The third chapter of Matthew introduces us to a character who is the definition of unorthodox: John the Baptist. What was John’s message? “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (verse 2). John’s role was to fulfill the prophecy of Isaiah, “the voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight” (verse 3). John was Jesus’s cousin. Jesus would later say in Matthew that of women, no man born was greater than John the Baptist. John was a foreshadowing of Christ in that his function was to serve as the man who would prepare Israel for Jesus’s ministry. John reflects Christ primary message of repentance. Those who went out to see John bore witness to a man whom must have seemed quite curious. John “…wore a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist, and his food was wild locusts and honey” (verse 4). This must have seemed like quite a shift in the prophets that Israel had seen before, but Samson as a judge had had some similar traits (though John made much better decisions). Yet despite his seemingly unusual appearance and eating habits, John’s call for repentance was very successful, as “…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” (verses 5-6). People came to John to be baptized because John was a part of God’s sovereign plan. Now similar to Jesus, there were those who came to John to confess their sins and be baptized, and there were those who came to John to study him from a distance. Enter the Pharisees. Pharisees were the leaders of the law, but they had failed to take the words of the law to heart, becoming instead judgmental hypocrites who were skeptical of both Jesus and John, along with the message they carried of repentance. John sees this group of Pharisees and Sadducees, and he immediately confronts them with a powerful warning. “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance” (verses 7-8). True repentance leads to our lives changing, or bearing new fruit. It doesn’t mean we don’t struggle with sin, for that is a struggle humans will always deal with in this life. The issue with the Pharisees, as John points out, is that they would outwardly show false signs of repentance while producing no signs of change. Many Pharisees didn’t even see the need for repentance, for that was for the sinners, and the Pharisees in their flawed thinking thought that because they were teachers of the law, they were exempt from sin. John’s words must have stung their pride, but he wasn’t nearly done rebuking and warning them. “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. 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” (verses 9-10). Tradition and custom was (and still is) very important to the Jewish people. Their heritage was crucial for them, but it had become a stumbling point because it made them believe that coming from Abrahams lineage made them exempt from repentance. Now the Israelites were and are God’s chosen people, and He will always have His covenant with them. Jesus was sent for the lost sheep of Israel first, yet there are examples in the Gospel where Jesus interacted with Gentiles. I believe (and this is speculative) that this may be what John is touching on here when he says that God could raise up children of Abraham from stones. The beauty of the message of Christ is that while He could have chosen to just save Israel, he chose to redeem all of mankind instead. Everyone has the freedom to accept Jesus as Savior. Again, this must have been a tough thing for the Pharisees to hear, because of how important their traditions were. In the next section, John warns about the punishment for not accepting Jesus, and it isn’t a light warning. Failing to view Jesus as the Christ and having an unrepentant heart towards His message ultimately leads to death and hell. This message may seem bleak and troublesome to some, but to those who recognize God’s grace and turn towards Jesus will bear fruit and be spared from the horror that is the total absence of God. John’s next words speak praises to Jesus, and we are painted a picture of just how much respect and love John had for his cousin. “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” (verse 11). John was never confused as to who he was in comparison to Jesus. It’s why we can learn so much from John. We frequently want to make our roles bigger in the kingdom of God than our Father has intended. We should always strive to do what God wills for us, but we also need to ask ourselves who we are truly striving for: ourselves or God. Whenever we are praised for doing work in His kingdom, we need to take John’s example to heart and point people away from ourselves and towards Jesus. John played a large role in the kingdom of God, yet he himself said he was not worthy to carry Jesus’s sandals. We must also have this heart, and never forget that it is only through grace that we are able to be a part of the kingdom at all. John next speaks to what Jesus will do on earth. “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 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”. (verses 11-12) John could baptize people, but Jesus could forgive them because He was God. This specific part of John’s speech shows that Jesus is God, because it is ultimately Jesus who acts as our Judge and separates the wheat from the chaff, the believer from the non- believer. John uses parables and metaphors to teach, just as Jesus will soon do. It was a good way to teach people, because they (and we) could not always understand the spiritual concepts, being infants in their faith. In the next section, we see Jesus as an adult for the first time, coming to John to be baptized (verse 13). John tries to stop this from happening, saying “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me” (verse 14). John’s heart truly matched his words; he really didn’t believe he was worthy. And he was right. No one is worthy. But that’s why God’s grace is so amazing; it allows us to serve Jesus in unworthiness. Why did Jesus allow John to do this? According to Jesus, it was to “fulfill all righteousness” (verse 15). And here we have an amazing display of Jesus’s love. Jesus was perfect. He didn’t need to be baptized, because unlike every other person, whether tax collector or Pharisee or prostitute or man or woman or child, Jesus had no sin. And yet he chose to be baptized by John so that He could display Himself as being able to be in the company of those who were baptized and needed to repent. How incredible is that! And how gracious! Pharisees wouldn’t dream of going to be baptized, and Jesus was infinitely more pure than they were. Yet Jesus always showed humility, and what was the result of that humility? Him being lifted up by his Father. “…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.” I love the imagery here. Jesus humbles himself and goes down into the water to be baptized, and he is lifted back up and affirmed by His Father as being loved and pleasing. It may not be made evident in such a tangible way, but our obedience to Jesus’s message of humbling ourselves will always be seen by our Father, as long as we are doing it for the right reasons, to bear fruit rather than to make a show of it. May we take Jesus’s and John’s message of repenting seriously, so that we may bear fruit and be able to act humbly before our gracious God, whose Son gave us the perfect example of humility.
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