Matthew 3:1-17 – May 9, 2021
Faith Presbyterian Church, Tacoma, WA
Pastor Nathaniel H. Gutiérrez
Matt. 3:1 In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea 2 and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” 3 This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah:
“A voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.’”
4 John’s clothes were made of camel’s hair, and he had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey. 5 People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan. 6 Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.
7 But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8 Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. 9 And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. 10 The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.
11 “I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”
13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John. 14 But John tried to deter him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”
15 Jesus replied, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” Then John consented.
16 As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17 And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”
Silence is uncomfortable. The words following silence grab our attention. Consider how the Jews felt the impact this letter provoked.
After thousands of years “of redemptive history, recorded for us in the prophecies of the Old Testament, the voice of God [had gone silent,] and there was not a single word from God in prophetic utterance for a period of four hundred years.” [Sproul, 24] That silence for those four hundred years must have been deafening.
Then, after that void, a rough man named John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness. Who was this man? We are given strange details about him. We read a description of his clothing, his diet, and his message. Dressed in camel’s hair, he wore a leather belt and ate locusts and wild honey. His message was passionate and critical – it was a message of repentance from sin and looming judgment.
To the Jews reading over these scrolls, the depiction of John the Baptist would have prompted them to remember the images of OT prophets, and specifically that of Elijah, who in 2 Kings 1:8 was described to be dressed in animal hair and a leather belt, while bearing the prophetic message of repentance.
Matthew, the author of this gospel, planted those unique pieces with intention.
As we follow along in his message, we begin to understand why these details were important. The last prophecy given by God before the four-hundred-year silence was given from the lips of Malachi’s. Hear his words in Malachi 4.
“For behold, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble. The day that is coming shall set them ablaze, says the LORD of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch.
2 But for you who fear my name, the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings. You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall.….
….4“Remember the law of my servant Moses, the statutes and rules that I commanded him at Horeb for all Israel.
5 “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes. 6 And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers….”
According to this centuries-old prophecy, a day of fire and brimstone was approaching. Elijah the prophet, however, would precede the day of judgment.
For that reason, Elijah’s coming was crucial.
So put yourselves in the sandals of these Jewish readers, whose only experience with religious leaders were strict men with lavish white robes and imagine what it would be like to learn that this unrefined John the Baptist, was the man Jesus declared “the Elijah” who was to come. (Matthew 11)
John the Baptist enters the story with a message similar to that of Malachi’s.
And what was this message that John the Baptist was carrying?
The same message that Malachi carried. Both messages conveyed total condemnation for the arrogant and the evildoers, and on the other hand, mercy, and joy for those who feared God’s name and remembered his laws.
John the Baptist, as God’s prophet and mouthpiece, was calling all people to obedience and faithfulness.
And his message conveyed the undeniable reality that the judge was standing by. John the Baptist shows us that the winnowing fork of judgment was already in God’s hand – signifying that he is ready to sift out all the chaff. He would separate the true grain from the husks that were to be burned.
A winnowing fork was what “the Jewish farmers used to separate the good wheat from the chaff. With the fork, farmers tossed the wheat into the air. The chaff was so light that even the slightest current of wind would carry it away, but the good wheat would fall to the floor.…” [Sproul, 27] The chaff, of course, had no value and would be gathered up and burned.
The same fate awaited the useless trees in an orchard. The tree that did not bear good fruit would be axed at its root and thrown into the fire.
The message was simple: Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.
There were two responses to all prophetic messages –
- Obedience followed by mercy, or
- Defiance followed by condemnation.
In the account of Nineveh, Jonah hoped for defiance and fire and brimstone. His hatred for Nineveh consumed him. But instead, we find that they repented and obeyed. Though they were known by the world as the most ruthless and evil of the nations, God showed his mercy to an undeserving people, because they repented. The key to their salvation was to humbly confess their utter sinfulness and live out true repentance.
In this passage, we see another prophet preaching certain wrath for all who do not repent. And we see two responses. Two postures seen in this passage. A posture of humility and a posture of presumption.
Two postures that are demonstrated in Jesus’ parable found in Luke 18.
The passage opens telling us that Jesus designed this parable to teach some who thought themselves to be righteous, and who would treat others with contempt. He says:
“Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’
13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’” Jesus says, “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other….” [Luke 18:9-14]
In this parable we see a posture of humility and a posture of presumption. A repentant man, beating his chest because of his sins, and a proud man beating his chest in pride. These two men represent the postures we see in this story with John the Baptist as well.
First, we see a posture of humility.
Upon hearing John the Baptist’s message, in v. 5, we read that “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.”
We see in this first group a sense of humble conviction. They hear JB’s call to repent, and they respond earnestly. They know they have failed in being faithful to God’s command and beyond admitting they’ve sinned; they CONFESS their sins.
And not only did they confess their sins, but they were baptized. This seems to be an even further step of humility. You see, in Jewish thinking, baptism was used for admitting Gentiles as converts. [Morris, 56]
“Gentiles were considered unclean, so they were required to participate in a symbolic washing of their filth so as to become worthy to join the community of Israel.” [Sproul, 24]
“The sting in John’s practice was that he [was applying baptism] to Jews!” [Morris, 56]
He was showing the people that their Jewish heritage was not enough. They too were unclean and needed to be washed from the filth of their sins.
Incredibly, people came from all over the area in humble submission. A posture of repentance from their sins in order to be baptized.
Much like the tax collector in Jesus’ parable, these people beat their chests and cried out for God’s mercy. They knew they were sinners in need of God’s grace and mercy.
Posture of Pride and Presumption
But others responded with a posture of pride and presumption.
As we see throughout the gospels and even moments ago in Jesus’ custom-made parable, the Pharisees and Sadducees often looked down at others since they considered themselves the elite of the community. They were leaders and believed themselves to have achieved a level of holiness that surpassed those around them.
And yet John the Baptist had a sharper impression of them. And without hesitation, he called them a “brood of vipers.” Now, if you hadn’t picked up on it already, one commentator helpfully notes that this phrase is, and I quote, “scarcely complementary.” [Morris, 58]
It is scarcely complementary because John the Baptist is calling these religious leaders snakes. A family of snakes or perhaps even a nest of deadly snakes. He sees them as precisely the opposite of all that was good and holy. He connected them with the very animal that tempted Eve in the Garden of Eden! Scarcely complementary, indeed!
JB’s reaction indicates that these religious leaders were present in this account either as spectators or were there under false pretenses. JB immediately singles them out from the rest of the crowd and warns them of their impending judgment for their hypocritical lifestyle.
He knew that they believed themselves to be privileged. Believing themselves entitled to the kingdom of heaven, surely, they believed their connection with Abraham would save them from God’s wrath.
But JB rebukes this presumption. “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 ax 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.” [v.9-10]
John is confronting the idea that somehow belonging to a religious group or family is enough. That somehow because they are part of the religious elite that they have no responsibility to live out their faith. He calls them to repentance – they too must bear fruit in keeping with repentance.
Which group do we associate with?
When we see these two groups, do any of us associate ourselves with the proud religious people? Do we instinctually think that we belong in the “brood of vipers” group rather than in the group that humbly confesses their sins and are baptized?
I doubt many, if any of us, tend to think of ourselves as the hypocritical type. I think we all think far too highly of ourselves to think that we fall in that category. It would be difficult to consider ourselves as part of the “brood of vipers,” wouldn’t it?
No doubt, even the Pharisees and Sadducees were confused by John’s criticism. Who, us? They probably considered themselves to be on the right path!
We can take away from this that presumption is dangerous. The fact that you have grown up in the church, that you haven’t known a day in which you didn’t know Jesus, the fact that you have attended morning and evening services all your life, and Sunday school does not secure our salvation.
A call to a living faith
John is rebuking the presumption that mere activities, or associations, or attendance is enough. His call is to a living faith, a living repentance. A posture of humble repentance and teachability, of sanctification and growth in the Lord.
As the Apostle James explains in James 2:14 “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?… faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.”
James sees a faith that does not produce fruit as a useless faith. But alternatively, he sees a genuine faith as one that exhibits fruits in keeping with God’s word.
In other words, our lives must exhibit a living and active faith. A faith that kills sin daily and a faith that positions us in such a way as to repent from sin continually.
We who are known as the frozen chosen, know that nothing can separate us from God. We know that we have been chosen and elected by God. We believe in the perseverance of the saints. Our doctrine is solid and sound.
But a common problem in our denomination is that we often focus on knowing over practice. It is understandable, because after all, learning about holiness is much less difficult than practicing holiness. Talking about the proper way to evangelize is much easier than going out and doing it. Listening on how to repent from our sins is much less threatening than reengaging someone with whom you have conflict.
But following Jesus is more than knowing our doctrine. We are also called to live out our doctrine.
Following Jesus means we humble and die to ourselves daily. It means being faithful in the small, seemingly insignificant things and also in the big things.
So, if we were to target one area, where would we start?
Often the areas we need most help in are the areas we don’t realize we need help in.
Log in the Eye
Do you remember Jesus’ teaching about the log in our eyes? He says, “Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? [Mt. 7]
You see what is happening there? The problem isn’t that we are trying to get the speck out of another person’s eye while realizing that we have a log in our own. The problem is that we don’t even realize that we have a log in our eye to begin with!
We are blind to our horrible and ugly sins!
Are there areas in our lives where we think we are acting rightly, and that everyone else is sinning, but where we are actually a big part of the problem as well?
What are we blind to? What are our blind spots?
As I thought through the different issues that impact us as a congregation here at FPC there seemed to be one common thread. One common issue: that of broken relationships and unresolved conflict. Conflict among spouses, families, children, siblings, and friends. Conflict with others within the church and conflict with people outside of the church.
And it is important to note that conflict will always exist, this side of heaven – that is not what we are talking about. What we are talking about is how we deal with conflict when it arises. How we respond to conflict.
In a broken world, full of sinful people, we will always face problems. The issue we face as believers, that I would like to pose to all of you is:
The other day I remember getting into an argument with my wife. I believed I was right in getting upset because I felt that she had hurt me. She believed that she was right. (We all know that she was wrong, but anyway that is not the point.)
But when we fight at home, I think we often do quick mental calculations to see who bears the greater responsibility in a given argument. Once we do that, we know who is responsible for taking the first step of repentance.
Then we expect that person to apologize, and then all things will work out and there will be peace. Right?
Well, I don’t think we are the only ones who think this way. I think we all do this mental math and decide in our hearts that anyone who has harmed us will need to bear responsibility for their actions. They will need to apologize. They will need to make things right or there will be no peace.
The problem is, according to Jesus’ parable, our mathematical calculations are always wrong. We will always see the speck in the other person’s eye before we see the log in our own eye. We will always see someone else’s sin as greater than our own.
And according to JB’s calling here, we are called not to be presumptuous and prideful, but to have a posture of repentance. Even if it costs us something. Even if it costs us everything.
Paul had it right when he rebuked the Corinthian church for their fighting. He rebuked them and said, “Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be defrauded?” [1 Cor. 6]
Paul couldn’t believe that people in the church were fighting at such extreme levels just because they wanted to maintain the upper hand and the moral high ground. They did not want to humble themselves and so they had major conflicts that were dividing the church.
Paul says, just be defrauded! Just be wronged! It is as RC Sproul once famously said, “What is wrong with you people!” Humble yourselves.
Would you bring division into the church and into your families and marriages because you believe you are right?! How dare you! Just be defrauded, be wronged! Take the hit. Sacrifice your pride. Apologize, repent, and confess your sins for the kingdom of God is at hand.
Brothers and sisters, the problem with the religious people in JB’s day was that they saw themselves as righteous and everyone else as the problem.
That is the same problem we face in our conflicts. We think we are righteous, we think we are right. But we aren’t. We are all unrighteous. We are all at fault, we all have logs in our eyes. We all bear the responsibility to repent to one another.
Look at Jesus in this passage. He who had no sin, became sin for us. He came and fulfilled all righteousness for us.
And Jesus says, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. John 15:12
- Jesus paid the price for our reconciliation though he was faultless.
- Jesus carried the burden of our reconciliation though he was faithful.
- Jesus showed us mercy when we did not deserve it.
- Jesus forgave us while we were still sinners.
- Jesus forgives us repeatedly for the same sins.
- Jesus’ love was unconditional and sacrificial.
- Jesus loved us without repayment, demands or conditions.
Jesus did not wait for us to come to him, he humbled himself and came to us.
Brothers and sisters, may we not presume that we are right in our righteousness, but may we, as Jesus humble ourselves and life out our faith in obedience to God’s word. Loving others as Jesus loved us.
This sermon draws on material from:
Beale, G. K., and D. A. Carson. Commentary on the New Testament use of the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007.
Calvin, John. Harmony of Mt., Mark, Luke. Calvin’s Commentaries. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Pub.Co., 1996.
Carson, D.A. “Matthew.” In EBC, 3-599. Vol. 8. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1984.
Hendrickson, William. NTC: Matthew. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1973.
Keener, Craig S. The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary. Grand Rapids, Michigan. William B. Eerdmans Company, 2009.
France, R.T. The Gospel of Matthew. NICNT, Grand Rapids, Michigan. William B. Eerdmans Company, 2007.
Morris, Leon. The Gospel according to Matthew. PNTC, Grand Rapids, Michigan. Eerdmans Company, 1992.
Nolland, John. The Gospel of Matthew. NIGTC, Grand Rapids, Michigan. William B. Eerdmans Company, 2005.
Ryle, J.C. Expository Thoughts on the Gospels: Matthew. London: James Clarke & Co. Ltd., 1965.
Sproul, R.C. Matthew: An Expositional Commentary. Sanford, FL: Reformation Trust Publishing, 2019.