Matthew 3 Commentary
John came preaching a message of repentance. He came preparing the hearts of the people to hear and receive the Gospel. The lost message of “love God with all of your being” and “love your neighbor as yourself” was once again preached from the Law. The call to embrace justice and mercy in the heart of God went out into Israel.
“Repent for the kingdom of heaven is near.” Fill your heart with sorrow over your sins. It was a simple message, but it resonated with the people because God was in it.
John’s message to the people was not a new message. We have no reason to believe that he preached with great eloquence or charisma.
Instead, the message was blunt and unassuming and the people came in droves to hear him. The people came to confess their sins and to be baptized in the Jordan. They were captivated by this camel-skinned fiery preacher who wholeheartedly loved the Lord. They wondered if he was the Christ, but they soon learned that he pointed to another far greater than he.
John had a singular purpose in life. He did not sacrifice himself for a political agenda. He did not wield a phony humility to gain sympathy or praise from others. John served God simply and humbly in order to glorify him and to earn his favor.
The prophet’s sudden success is also a stark reminder of the one whom God esteems. “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6). Revival in Israel did not begin with a famous priest, or the most esteemed student of the law. It did not come dressed in the finest robes, with scholar possessing the finest eloquence or from a nobleman with a rich pedigree. Revival began with a desert hermit who lived a monastic life. He surrendered himself to God who shaped him to be “the voice of one crying in the wilderness.”
John’s ministry exploded onto the scene from total obscurity, and almost as quickly it faded away. But his preaching and repentance paved the way for Jesus, and is example still shines from the pages of Scripture even today.
People whose livelihood depends on public approval will inject themselves into all kinds of popular causes in order to shape the public’s perception of them. Politicians understand this well. This is why they attend public meetings, hold public hearings for a show and make public speeches about a host of issues that appeal to large groups of people. Playing to large coalitions in order to make voters more predisposed to casting a vote is what politicians do. Such political calculus and maneuvering is used as a means of consolidating power and keeping power, and is often not out of any genuine interest in the people’s welfare.
The Pharisees came to John because they were seeking to win back the hearts of the people, not the heart of God. John had become a sudden, overnight sensation and the Pharisees came out of obligation to make a public appearance with a local celebrity.
The Pharisees also sought to subdue John. Whether by phony overtures of friendship or by finding fault and then intimidating him, they realized that John’s ministry was usurping their relevance. There going out to see him was probably the first step in sizing him up in order to find a way to silence him because at stake were widow’s houses and reputations. In first-century Judea, reputation was paramount in keeping power. Even if it meant oppressing the people under a guise of religion, the Pharisees were willing to protect their reputations to keep the people’s favor. John’s message of repentance and baptism presented a real threat to them. His preaching undermined their authority and the core of their ideology.
So out they came to investigate and while they were at it, they put on a show for the people who loved John.
Through the Holy Spirit’s help, John was able to see through their disguises. Without any greeting or customary pleasantries he sharply accused them, “Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?” Being blind to spiritual realities, John informs his accusers that they are unknowingly under God’s wrath, that unless their hearts were truly changed, they too would be forced to face the full brunt of God’s wrath on the Day of Judgment.
Underneath the Pharisee’s hypocrisy lied the deepest unbelief. It was so deep that it led them to suppress the Scriptures and to twist its meaning in order to retain the approval of the people and to justify their sin. John’s greeting, “You brood of vipers…” reminds us of their father, the original snake in the primordial garden who full of deceit, cleverly cloaked himself in religion to tempt Eve.
It’s not insignificant that religious leaders of God’s chosen people and the teachers of God’s Word were the last ones to come to John. The Lord’s words “the first shall be last and the last shall be first” is on full display here. Only after the masses came to John did the religious elite go out to see him. These men of high learning and high morality should have been the first to recognize that John’s message was inspired by God. They should have been first to follow his message and publicly confess their sins. Their feet should have been the first in line to be baptized in the Jordan. But they were last in line because they were pretenders. They came out only to be praised. And they were exposed by the righteous anger of a holy God speaking through a fiery prophet who owned nothing and claimed nothing for himself.
John’s final warning is very simple. Without God’s grace, each of us will meet the fires of hell. If we do not value and practice humility, justice and mercy through faith in Jesus Christ each of us will suffer the same fate as the religious hypocrite. For everyone born, the “axe has been laid at the root of the tree.” The universal plague of sin is on everyone until Christ removes it by faith. The proof that we have escaped it is to bear good fruit through a true faith. We must do good works in keeping with repentance. Out of the joy of our hearts that Christ has saved us, we must show in our lives that we have turned to Christ’s goodness and away from sin.
The distinction that John draws between himself and his Lord, shows us that water baptism is only symbolic of a deeper cleansing. The sacrament of water baptism publicly signified that the one immersed had undergone a deep remorse and revulsion of their sins. And the act also meant that the sinner had turned from sin to obey God’s law.
But here John tells us that the coming Messiah will baptize with a different baptism. This is a higher baptism. A baptism by the Holy Spirit and with fire that completely rennovate hearts and changes their nature from death to life.
Many could outwardly feign humility and take John’s baptism, but no one could fool Christ into giving the reality for the mere symbol. This is Christ’s “winnowing fork.” He separates the wheat that will be gathered into his barn from the chaff that will burned up with unquenchable fire by the heart’s response to his Gospel. He will separate those who have truly believed in him from those have not; and he will embrace those who have truly repented in his name from those who haven’t.
Counterfeits who pretend to be his will be destroyed. But those who are his are made real through this baptism by fire. They are those who have been born again by the Spirit of God and they are those who have been empowered to believe in Jesus and to turn away from listening to themselves for comfort and guidance.
The Great Gift of reprentance is made possible on account of God’s grace. And this grace was made possible by the work that Jesus performed on the cross. This is why John says that he is unworthy to loosen his Lord’s sandal strap because Jesus’ righteousness is the righteousness of God.
Jesus brought with him the power to overturn hearts that are filled with infinite amounts of wickedness and the promise of eternal death. And in its place he gave his people hearts that lead them to righteousness and comfort them with the promise of everlasting life.
John was right. He certainly did need to be baptized by Jesus. But the prophet misunderstood his Lord’s plan and will.
Jesus was perfect and sinless. He came to John not to be forgiven of sins, but for purification and the fulfillment of Scripture.
Jesus fulfilled the law in his role as a high priest, and levitical law required that all priests be purified by water. The final step of Moses’ preparation of the priests was that they were first to be washed with water (Leviticus 8:6). And this preparation had as much to do with sanctification as it did with purification. Before he began his ministry, Jesus recognized that he first needed to be baptized. Before going to the cross to become our high priest, he subjected himself to this baptism in order to symbolize what he would do for us on the cross. He sanctified himself in preparation of becoming the high sacrifice for the sins of his people.
When John saw Jesus coming he said: “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” This announcement signified that Jesus was not only our great High Priest but the very sacrfice needed to pay for our sins.
And the Great Lamb came to John in order to show us how he would be further perfected.
Jesus’ baptism also symbolized the passing of the Old Covenant as it folded into the new. With his coming, Jesus embodied both the old and new covenants and at his baptism it was as if both Covenants kissed. Since his baptism also symbolized his resurrection. It was also the announcement that the old had been buried like a seed and had sprouted into a new tender shoot.
Whatever symbolisms we can glean, God was pleased put the whole transaction on public display.
Now a common mistake (and a potentially spiritually deadly mistake) is to think that in Jesus the Law was abolished. But the Law still holds power over those who are under it. Everyone who does not put their trust and hope in Jesus is still subject to the Law’s demands, and the Law’s primary demand is moral perfection.
Through faith in Jesus, the requirements of the Law are set aside. They become powerless to condemn those who are his because their life is hidden within his. Jesus’ perfect obedience and righteousness are credited to the sinful soul.
The dove descending upon Jesus was like a smile from God the Father. The long foretold Messiah was humble and ready for his mission. His submission to Scripture pleased the Father greatly. Jesus was being prepared to receive the great mantles of The King of Kings, The Great High Priest and The Lamb of God, but first he would honor his Father with this symbol of commitment, that we also follow in our own faith to please God as well.