v.1 Matthew pays no attention to the years that separate the end of chapter 2 from the beginning of chapter 3 in which Jesus will appear as an adult.
So far as we know, John’s baptism was something new. There is no other baptism like it in first century Judaism. A once-for-all baptism to be administered to Jews and carrying the note of urgent preparation for the day of judgment is unknown except in the case of John the Baptist. So his baptizing was an immensely significant innovation. No wonder then he should be known as the Baptist.
v.2 You will note the exact repetition of the summary of John’s preaching in 4:17 where a summary of Jesus Christ’s early preaching is given. There is continuity between the ministries of the two men. Far from being rivals, their message was the same. In Matt. 10:7 the disciples are given a commission to preach and once again the message to be preached is put in the same words: “the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
v.3 All four Gospels cite Isa. 40:3 to describe the ministry of John the Baptist. Once again Matthew shows a special interest in demonstrating that the circumstances of Jesus’ life and ministry, even its preparation in the ministry of John, were foretold in the ancient Scriptures. John was the preparer of the way for the Messiah. Here is one of many places in the NT where an OT quotation referring to Yahweh, the Lord God, is applied to Jesus.
v.4 John’s clothing is that worn by Elijah, both in regard to the garment of hair and the leather belt (cf. 2 Kings 1:8 where the words are virtually in verbatim agreement with Matthew’s description). Matthew won’t identify John with Elijah, in the sense of Malachi’s prophecy of Elijah coming as the forerunner of the Messiah, until chapter 11, but the identification between the great prophet and John the Baptist would not have been missed by any Jewish Christian reader.
Every Jew knew that centuries of prophetic silence had descended after Malachi. John, clearly, is the man who broke that 400-year silence and his resemblance to Elijah, the representative prophet, symbolized that.
v.5 There was a great response to John’s preaching.
v.7 The Pharisees and the Sadducees were deeply divided at a number of points of theology and bore a mutual hostility to one another, but here is an example of the principle that the enemy of my enemy is my friend. Both groups expressed a similar interest in John’s preaching – some, no doubt, at first curious; others annoyed or offended from the beginning. For all their differences these groups would unite in their opposition to Jesus and John the Baptist obviously saw them as enemies of his message and of the salvation Jesus came to bring. The harshest language in the Bible is always reserved for church leaders who have betrayed the gospel and deceived the people. John saw them already as corrupters of the true faith in their preaching of a legal righteousness obtained through the observance of the rabbinical traditions rather than salvation by grace through faith alone. John was a consistent critic of reliance on ceremony or status.
v.8 Outward acceptance of John’s baptism is not enough. The only finally persuasive evidence of repentance is a righteous life.
v.9 “We have Abraham as our father” is, in effect, a summary of the typical Jewish objection to John’s message. We don’t have to follow your teaching, “we have Abraham as our father.” That is, descent from Abraham guaranteed them immunity from God’s wrath. It is the very thinking that the prophets protested against so vigorously, as, for example, when the Jews of Jeremiah’s time refused to heed his call to repentance because they were sure that the presence of God’s temple among them would protect them from God’s wrath as a kind of talisman.
In reply, John says, in effect, you are not as important to God as you may think. He can find a people anywhere; it doesn’t have to be you.
v.10 The imminence of the coming judgment is stressed as it was in v. 2. The kingdom of God is near, right at the door. And the kingdom of God will bring with it the judgment of sinners.
v.11 Jesus did not baptize with water, though his disciples did. But he did baptize with the Holy Spirit, a far greater thing. John’s baptism was a symbol, an outward sign. Jesus’ baptism would be the life-changing power. But, again, the emphasis falls on the judgment that will be brought in the Messiah’s ministry.
It is a purifying judgment, separating the wheat from the chaff, but what it does not purify it will destroy.
John was a great man in his own right. He created an immediate and immense sensation. What a colorful and powerful man he was! In his rough appearance, his mysterious aloneness, living in the wilderness as he did. This one man’s coming out of the desert to preach was an epoch in the life of the world. His followers, for a time, represented a significant group within Judaism and even the Pharisees and Sadducees, as we learn later in the Gospel, had to respect John’s popularity among the people, even after he had been executed. Josephus records his ministry in greater detail than he does that of Jesus. But for Matthew, as for John himself, the significance of his ministry lay wholly in its relationship to Jesus. [France, 89] Whenever John is mentioned in the Gospel of Matthew it is to throw some light on the person and work of Jesus. Here, his preaching prepares the way for the message that Jesus himself would bring.
And what was that message? Well, the first word out of John’s mouth, and, the first word later out of the Lord Jesus’ mouth, was “Repent…” Turn away from your sins. Confess them to God, seek their forgiveness by his grace and redemption. That is the message these two greatest men came preaching. That is what they wanted first to say to their contemporaries and to all mankind. “Repent, for the kingdom of God has come near.”
It was a hard message in some ways. It confronted people with their moral defects; it warned them of a judgment that would consume them on account of their sins were they not forgiven and forsaken; and it demanded that they acknowledge their sin and their sins, confess their sins to God and, apparently, even to John – for John was wise enough to know that it is easy merely to think oneself truly penitent. The reality of penitence is proved not only by righteous living, as John says in v. 8, but in a willingness for others to know one’s sins and to hear one’s confession of them. There have been, no doubt, many among us through the years, who have recited with us our prayers of confession in morning worship, but who would have been highly offended had someone accused them of one of the very sins that they had confessed together with the church. It was all very well to say in general that one was a sinner, especially when everyone else was saying the same thing. It is another matter altogether to have to fess up to actual sins and to do so in the presence of others!
“Repent” may have been the first word of both John the Baptist and the Lord Jesus, but it does not take much time listening to Christian preaching today to learn that a message about the sin and guilt of men, their need to repent of their sins, the impending judgment of God, and the absolute necessity of a changed life does not loom large in the contemporary pulpit.
I hear that preaching myself from time to time and am always struck by how far removed from the preaching of John and Jesus it is. The modern, even the modern evangelical pulpit, has a great deal to say about how to live so as to be happy and healthy, how to manage one’s relationships, to rise above life’s problems, but hardly ever do you hear the audience confronted with the reality of its sin, warned of the reality of divine judgment, commanded to repent and to walk worthy of that repentance. Indeed, you hardly hear the words sin, or repentance, or wrath, or judgment, as if, somehow, you could understand Jesus and his life and work without such words and concepts being front and center. John didn’t think you could. That stern message was good enough for John and Jesus but not for today’s congregations. I don’t deny, of course, that there are many exceptions to that characterization of modern preaching, happily, very many in our own Presbyterian Church in America.
I do not say, of course, that through the ages all “fire and brimstone” preaching was faithful to the spirit or the example of Jesus and his apostles. It certainly was not in many cases. I don’t mean to imply that there was not also in John and Jesus’ preaching the tender note of invitation, hope, and promise of eternal life. There certainly was: “Come to me all you who are weary and burdened and I will give you rest.” That too was Jesus’ preaching. But to have a steady diet of preaching utterly devoid of the fire and the winnowing fork, utterly devoid of the command to repent and obey the law of God cannot be faithful or right. To seek to improve on the message or the preaching of John the Baptist and Jesus Christ is no business of a Christian preacher. Many have sought to do just that however!
The argument is that one must preach softly and preach subjects that unbelievers find encouraging and relevant in order not to drive them away. It will do no good to offend your hearers at the outset with a message that condemns them and demands hard things of them. They will leave you and listen no more. Such is the thinking.
Neither John nor Jesus apparently thought so. Theirs was a straightforward, hard-hitting message spoken directly and artlessly to the conscience of those who heard them. One popular seeker-friendly and positive-thinking preacher said in a television interview that he never threatened his hearers with the promise of judgment because, if they did not believe in the Christian gospel, he didn’t want them to be psychologically damaged for having listened to him. John and Jesus seemed rather to have the view that they could do no good to anyone unless they told them the truth and that human beings, whatever their religious or spiritual orientation, should be shown proper respect, which is done only when they are told the truth, the truth they must believe to be saved, the truth without which there can be no real psychological health.
What is more, Jesus did not fear the fact that many would not believe. He knew that and John did as well. You can hear that as John’s remarks to the Pharisees. His business was not to suit his message to the tastes of his hearers. It was to proclaim the word of God which alone can set men free. No man can turn unless God turns him. Both men understood that as a first principle. Therefore, there was no need to shave the truth. Rather to proclaim it boldly and to await the Spirit of God. The truth, even the hard truth, is God’s means of turning a sinner. And the Spirit is able to drive that truth home more easily and to greater effect than some pale imitation of the Christian gospel of deliverance from sin and guilt.
This is not the modern theory, alas. As J. Gresham Machen saw already in the 1920s:
“The fundamental fault of the modern church is that it is busily engaged in an absolutely impossible task calling the righteous to repentance. Modern preachers are trying to bring men into the church without requiring them to relinquish their pride; they are trying to help men avoid the conviction of sin…. But it is entirely futile. Even our Lord did not call the righteous to repentance, and probably we shall be no more successful than he.” [Christianity and Liberalism]
For John and Jesus the fact was that the kingdom was coming! It had drawn near. In the Bible and, especially in the Gospels, the kingdom of God is a dynamic idea. It is not used in the Bible quite like the way we use the word “kingdom.” It does not primarily mean a “realm” or a “place” where a king rules – though it sometimes means that. It more often refers to the Lord’s rule itself, as in the phrase used here “the kingdom of God has come to you.” In the Lord’s prayer, for example, we pray that “the kingdom will come.” While the Lord often speaks of people entering the kingdom, there is also a sense in which people don’t go into the kingdom of God, it comes upon them! It draws near to you. It forcefully advances and forceful men lay hold of it. As one evangelical scholar puts it in his commentary on this passage: “The kingdom is something that happens rather than something that exists.” [Morris, 53]
Think of the similar idea in Isaiah’s great 55th chapter: “Seek the Lord while he may be found; call on him while he is near. Let the wicked forsake his way and the evil man his thoughts. Let him turn to the Lord, and he will have mercy on him, and to our God, for he will freely pardon.” That message is very similar to that of John and Jesus in this especially: salvation does not lie in a man’s hands. God must draw near to him. So when he does, when God draws near; when the kingdom comes near, the reign and the rule of God, as it did in the person and the life and work of Jesus Christ in a once-for-all kind of way and as it does when the truth about Christ and salvation is proclaimed, then one must respond in faith and repentance. Or else; certainly, or else. This is the Lord God and his rule that is drawing near! What becomes of the man or woman who ignores him?
But, let me leave you with this thought. This is still the Gospel. This stern preaching of John and then of Jesus after him is no less the gospel, the good news. It may be hard for us to see immediately how it is, but it is. Preaching for repentance, or, better the announcement that God is near to summon one’s repentance and to respond in mercy and forgiveness is absolutely the good news, the best news of all! In Isa. 40:9, in the same text from which the citation here in v. 3 is taken, twice the message of the “voice calling in the desert” is called “good news.”
It is very interesting and important that in Luke 3:18, after a similar report of John’s preaching, about the necessity of repentance, about vipers and their false assurance, about the ax being laid to the root of the tree, about every tree that does not produce good fruit being cut down and thrown into the fire, and about the Messiah with his winnowing fork ready to burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire, I say, after all that we read in Luke’s summary:
“And with many other words John exhorted the people and preached the good news to them.”
We may wonder how that can be the good news. We think, no wonder so many opposed John. No wonder he ended his life in prison, preaching as he did, confronting sinners as he did. No wonder the religious leadership sought to undermine his ministry, when he addressed them as a “brood of vipers.” But, then, all of that is called “the good news.” How can that be?
Well, this isn’t the only place by any means where a message that seems to concentrate so much on human sin and God’s judgment is called “the gospel.” In Rev. 14:6-7, for example, we read:
“Then I saw another angel flying in midair, and he had the eternal gospel to proclaim to those who live on the earth – to every nation, tribe, language, and people. He said in a loud voice, ‘Fear God and give him glory, because the hour of his judgment has come.”
There again the message of God’s impending judgment is called “the eternal gospel” or “good news.” The summons to fear God is the preaching or proclamation of good news.
But, of course, John is preaching for salvation. He is speaking about sin and repentance because that is the way of salvation. Here we are reminded, as so many times in the Bible, that the height of the mountain is measured by the depth of the valley. You cannot know or grasp how unspeakably good the good news is unless and until you know full well in your heart the terrors of God’s law, the fear of his judgment, and the fearsome truth about your own sin and guilt before God.
As Joseph Hart, the great hymn writer put it, “What comfort can a Savior bring to those who never felt their woe?” Or to put it another way, you cannot have heaven without hell. For that is what John is really talking about with his trees and his chaff being thrown into unquenchable fire. You cannot know heaven without some knowledge of and honest reckoning with hell.
As C.S. Lewis wrote in one of his Letters to Malcolm [p. 76]
“Servile fear is, to be sure, the lowest form of religion. But a god
such that there could never be occasion for even servile fear, a
safe god, a tame god, soon proclaims himself to any sound mind
as a fantasy. I have met no people who fully disbelieved in Hell
and also had a living and life-giving belief in Heaven.”
That is, there is no gospel, no good news, without bad news. You cannot bring the one without the other, you cannot preach the one without the other. They are two sides of the same coin and neither John the Baptist nor Jesus ever made any effort to hide that fact.
If there is no Hell, if there is no judgment for sinners, then all roads lead to the same place and it makes no difference what road you take. But, if the roads lead to infinitely different places, then it makes an infinite difference which road we take. And then it becomes good news beyond belief that a way has been made for us, a road to heaven, and someone has come to show us that way, even to force us with stern warnings to look for that way until we find it and are sure we are upon it.
John came out of the desert to convince men that they are sinners needing forgiveness so that when the Savior appeared they would recognize him as their Savior and trust themselves to him.
And when Jesus comes after John preaching the very same message, we know that the news John brought, his straight speaking to sinners, is a message as desperately important for us to believe and to heed as it was for those who came out of Jerusalem to hear John and be baptized by him in the Jordan River.
Such is our native pride and our rebellion as sinners, such is our natural fear of God’s nearness, that nothing short of a hard slap across the face is likely to make us awaken from our dream and take the step we must take if we would live. As Richard Trench put it:
If there had anywhere appeared in space
Another place of refuge, where to flee
Our hearts had taken refuge in that place,
And not with Thee.
For we against creation’s bars had beat
Like prisoned eagles, through great worlds had sought
Though but a foot of ground to plant our feet,
Where Thou wert not.
And only when we found in earth and air,
In heaven or hell, that such might nowhere be –
That we could not flee from Thee anywhere,
We fled to Thee.
[Poems, 1885, vol. 2, 217]