American Journal of Biblical Theology, www.biblicaltheology.com
What is it like to live in darkness? Such a question might inspire us to think about those who live north of the Arctic Circle, an area on the earth where the sun, rather than rise in the east and fall in the west, cruises over the horizon in a never-ending circle. In the summer the sun is always present: over the Eastern horizon in the morning, and moving across the Southern horizon during the day, at the Western horizon in the evening and coursing across the Northern horizon during the night. In mid-summer this circular journey is well-above the horizon, and provides significant warmth to what we think of as a very cold part of the earth since there is no cooling taking place during the nighttime hours.
However, the winters are quite different. Rather than course above the horizon giving light and warmth, during the winter the sun remains below the horizon, and in mid-winter there is very little, if any, light peeking over that horizon where the sun is oriented. The land is very dark and very cold for months. Often those who move to this region from the temperate areas of the earth find enduring the darkness more of a challenge than the cold.
One who lives in this region knows one fact that is certain: cold is the absence of heat. It is the sun and heat that gives warmth, and when the warmth is taken away only the cold remains. Cold does not overtake heat. Darkness does not overtake light. It is light and heat that have all of the power, and come springtime, the heat and light return to this cold, dark land.
From the time that Adam was created,
the LORD interacted with mankind in various ways, revealing
Himself through creation, through angels and messengers, and
even in the incarnation of Himself. Though the first created
people knew God, they turned from Him, and by the time that Noah
lived, his was the only family of faith. The LORD then
“restarted” civilization with a family of faith when He brought the world-wide flood. Noah passed his faith down to his children, who did the same. Yet this legacy of faith remained narrow. It was not until Abraham passed this faith down to Isaac, who passed it to his twelve sons and their families was there a significant increase in people who placed their faith and trust in God: Israel.
However, even the nation of Israel turned away from their faith in God, substituting for it a system of religious ritual and law. Just as the LORD “reset” civilization in the Great Flood, He “reset” Israel with the destruction of Jerusalem by Babylon, preserving the faithful remnant in Babylonian exile. When the remnant returned to Jerusalem when the 70-year exile ended, they attempted to re-establish a community of faith. However, the post-exilic period was, like the Alaskan winter, a dark and cold one. The Shekinah Glory that shone over the temple and consumed the sacrifice on the annual Day of Atonement was gone. Malachi, a member of the early post-exilic community was the last of the prophets who brought a word of God to the people. A period of spiritual quiet, or darkness, ensued. This period of about 400 years saw no overt demonstrations of the presence of God. There were no prophetic writings. This period of about fourteen generations was characterized by an intense interest in religion on the part of the Israelite leadership, but was quite devoid in their seeking the LORD or the power of the Holy Spirit. They substituted faith in God with a religion of works, and replaced the lordship of God with their own. The religious leadership lorded over the nation.
During this period Israel was never able to establish sovereignty. They came out of exile under the authority of Persia, whose power was later replaced by Alexander the Great, whose power was later replaced by Rome. The religious leaders kept their positions of power by maintaining peace in the region and assuring that Rome would receive the required taxes. Yet this was a time of peace. Rome had built roads and provided some measure of security so that people could travel. The time was now right.
Matthew 3:1. In those days came John the Baptist, preaching in the wilderness of Judaea,
Like the expected sunrise in an Alaskan Spring, the Son of God, the promised Messiah was about to bring light and life to the dark world. The 400 years of spiritual darkness, a time during which the LORD was preparing the hearts of His people, was coming to an end. God’s promise to bless the entire world through his descendants was about to take place. Just as the LORD has done in the past, He made His purpose known through a prophet, John the Baptist, the first man to receive the Word of the LORD since Malachi.
Matthew 3:2. And saying, Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.
John’s prophecy was two-fold. First, he brought a message that was consistent with all of the prophets who came before him: repent of your sins and turn your heart to faith in God. This call to repentance, spoken by John the Baptist, was (and is) consistent with God’s purpose for the people He created, and the need for repentance is universal among a population who has turned away from God and followed the powerless and dark world.
John’s second prophecy, however, was unique among all of the prophets. Where all of the others knew of a coming Messiah, none of them stated that the Messiah was coming now. They knew that He was coming at some future time. Consequently, prior to the coming of Jesus, salvation was still found through faith in God. However, prior to the coming of Jesus, the faithful looked with expectation towards the coming of the One who would provide a final and ultimate means for the forgiveness of sin, opening the way for all to enter the kingdom of God, both those who waited for His coming, and those who now look back at the events that took place when John’s prophecy was fulfilled.
Matthew 3:3. For this is he that was spoken of by the prophet Esaias, saying, The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.
Repeated in all four of the gospels, John is the prophet of whom Isaiah was referring, the one who would prepare the way for the coming Messiah. The wording used by Isaiah is instructive, as his prophecy was two-fold. First, the prophet who would come would be preaching his message from the wilderness. He would not be one of the religious elite that tended to reside in the cities, and would certainly not be from Jerusalem. This would not be a popular prophecy among the religious leaders who thought themselves to be the most pious and faithful people on earth.
Second, the words, “prepare ye the way” are from an ancient middle-eastern idiom that refers to preparing a venue for a visit by a conquering king. This, coupled with “make His path’s straight” identifies that the King will not be making a surprise visit, but one that has been announced far enough in advance that the people have the time to properly prepare for His coming. After generations of foreign rule, Israel was ready for the coming of the new King, the Hope of Israel.
In ancient near-eastern tradition, this preparation would include the clearing and cleaning of the road on which the coming king would pass. All of the buildings and people would be dressed in a fashion that would demonstrate respect for the king. John’s prophecy was one of preparation, calling the people in and around Jerusalem to repentance, the turning away from their commitment to this sinful world to a commitment to the LORD in faith and trust. Just as the entrance of the conquering King would find those who are subject to Him, John is calling for the people to become prepared because the King is coming.
Matthew 3:4. And the same John had his raiment of camel’s hair, and a leathern girdle about his loins; and his meat was locusts and wild honey.
The description of John the Baptist may seem to be entirely eccentric by today’s cultural standards. If one holds to this idea, his message could be minimalized by such modern prejudice. However, there is nothing unusual in John’s description when considered through ancient near-eastern culture. First, the description is a direct allusion to the description of the prophet Elijah. Elijah was well-known to the ancient Israelites, and this description would have immediately brought images of the prophet to the mind of the hearers or readers of this description. A diet that included locusts and wild honey was both an idiomatic and reasonable description of those who live in the desert. Like Abraham, who preferred the harder life of the desert to the more sensual and secure life of the cities that attracted his nephew LOT, John avoided the urban city culture and remained in the desert where there were fewer distractions and temptations.
Matthew 3:5. Then went out to him Jerusalem, and all Judaea, and all the region round about Jordan,
When news of the presence of a prophet of God spread throughout the region, people came to hear his message. The period of spiritual darkness that the LORD provided following the exile of Israel in Babylon prepared the people’s hearts to hear a word from God. Though the Roman government had provided tremendous improvements to travel, it still took a significant investment of time and resources to travel more than a few miles. People came from all Judea to hear John’s sermons. This is another indication that the time was now right for the Messiah to come, as there was now a sincere hunger for a Word from God in Israel.
Matthew 3:6. And were baptized of him in Jordan, confessing their sins.
Though there was a significant resistance to John’s teaching by Jerusalem’s religious elite, there was little resistance among the people. John preached a message of truth, illuminating people’s understanding of their personal sin. Baptism was a common rite among ancient near-eastern thought and religions. However, John used the rite of baptism in a new way: as a public expression of repentance. Those who were baptized did so in order to proclaim their acknowledgement of their personal sin and their commitment to turn away from it, and by so doing, acknowledge the authority of God in their lives, and turn to Him in faith and obedience.
Note that there is no inference here that John’s baptism was intrinsically a tool of forgiveness. People were not forgiven of their sins through the rite of baptism. In fact, the word for sins that is used here refers to sins that one deliberately commits, a form of sin for which there was no remedy through any of the forms of legalistic sacrifice. It is the word for sin that enraged the religious leaders when Jesus proclaimed His power to forgive.
As is the meaning in most Christian churches today, the ordinance of “believer’s baptism” is, like that of John, a baptism of repentance: a public profession of one’s intention to turn away from a lifestyle of sin and turn to God in faith and trust. John’s baptism, indicated by the use of the Jordan River and by the Greek word for “immerse,” indicates that this was a baptism by immersion.
Matthew 3:7. But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees come to his baptism, he said unto them, O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come?
The Israelite community had several sects, and two of these were the Pharisees and Sadducees. The Pharisees tended to be teachers of the Law of Moses and in their effort to assure its adherence, created a dense network of rules and regulations that would keep the people from approaching its violation. The Sadducees rejected this treatment of the Law and only considered the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Hebrew (and Christian) Bible to have authority. However, the leaders of both sects felt threatened by John’s teaching. The people were coming to John, who was neither a Pharisee nor a Sadducee, but simply an itinerant desert-dweller. Consequently, when they came out of Jerusalem to John their motives were not ones to submit to his doctrine. John could easily perceive their hypocrisy and was well-aware of how their teachings drew people away from the truths of God’s grace into their own webs of power and authority.
His rebuke of their hypocrisy was significant. The word that he uses for “vipers” is an allusion to the serpent in the Garden of Eden, a reference to the manifestation of Satan. Considering themselves to be the most righteous of all Israel, John fully recognized their rejection of the Lordship of God over their lives.
His last statement is a direct testimony to their hypocrisy. Those who are coming to John for Baptism are learning that their repentance is necessary to obtain the favor of God who will bring to Himself all who place their faith and trust in Him. However, those who fail to place their faith and trust in God are subject to God’s wrath. Those who come to John in sincerity are “fleeing” that wrath. John knows well that the religious leaders already think that they are not subject to the wrath of God. Therefore, for them to come to John is contrary to their basic beliefs. Parasitical baptism is an oxymoron, one that exposes the Pharisees and Sadducees for who they really are.
Matthew 3:8. Bring forth therefore fruits meet for repentance:
John is certainly ready to witness the repentance of any person, whether they are pagan, Israelites, or even Pharisees. The LORD’s offer of grace is open to all who will place their faith and trust in Him. However, knowing the hypocrisy of the religious elite, John gives them simple, truthful, and non-threatening advice: if you have come to me to profess repentance, then, like the others here, demonstrate your sincere intention to do so. Feeling no need for repentance, the Pharisees and Sadducees would be at a complete loss on how to respond to John’s imperative.
Matthew 3:9. And think not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham to our father: for I say unto you, that God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham.
One belief that was common to both of these religious sects was that their righteousness was imparted upon them by God because they could trace their lineage back to Abraham. However, there is literally no biblical basis for this claim, as there is no promise to Abraham that his descendants will be considered righteous. In fact, the unrighteousness of Abraham’s descendants is one of the most prevalent themes in the biblical narrative following Abraham’s death.
The promise that God made to Abraham was predicated upon the legacy of faith that was represented in Abraham, one passed to him by his fathers, and he passed on to his children. God’s promise was referring to a legacy of faith that would include all who place their faith and trust in Him. Though the primary source of that legacy would come through Israel, it would broaden to include all people who place their trust in God. The Pharisees and Sadducees despised others, thinking that they were the righteous ones, but John notes correctly that the LORD can bring anyone to Himself that He chooses, and blood lineage to Abraham has no relevance to God’s offer of grace.
Matthew 3:10. And now also the axe is laid unto the root of the trees: therefore every tree which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire.
The sects of the Sadducees and Pharisees was formed around the second century, B.C. They had grown in identity and profession over a period of about two hundred years to what they were now, self-appointed examples of righteousness. They had grown to this point unchallenged by the Word of God, free to create their own system of belief apart from the truths that are illuminated by the Holy Spirit. However, all of that is about to change. The system of belief that was formed by the religious elite is likened to a great tree that seems to have roots that run deep and can withstand any force. However, John notes that the axe that will fell the tree that fails to bear sincere, godly fruit, is already in motion. John likens the teaching of the religious elite to a fruitless tree that has no value other than to be chopped down and burned for firewood, and the destruction of this fruitless tree is imminent.
This is the first time that the hypocrisy of the religious elite faced such exposure. Everyone knows, deep in their heart, that they are not without sin. This includes the religious elite who, knowing their true unrighteousness are forced by their peers to put on a mask of righteousness. This is a conflict that, if publically exposed, would destroy their sect. The exposure of their hypocrisy would bring the authority and respect that they knew to a sudden end. Therefore, there was nothing sincere about the presence of the religious elite among John’s adherents. Later history would prove their hatred for him and for the One whom John “anoints” as the King. They would dedicate themselves to the destruction of both John and Jesus Christ.
Matthew 3:11. I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance: but he that cometh after me is mightier than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to bear: he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost, and with fire:
John clearly notes the limits on his ministry. He is not seeking any form of power over the people, though the religious elite perceived the respect that John received as a threat to the power they held over the people. His ministry was simply to preach a doctrine of repentance from sin, a repentance that is a choice to turn away from sin to obedience to God, a repentance that is illustrated in the ordinance of baptism by immersion, an ordinance administered by John.
There is no message of judgment in John’s basic purpose. John does not claim to have the power to judge, nor the power to save people from their sins. He is only teaching people to “flee from the wrath to come” by repenting form their sin and placing their trust in God. However, John’s message is also a declaration of the imminent coming of the Messiah. John was not a stranger to the person and personality of Jesus. The people were beginning to celebrate John the Baptist as the reincarnation of Elijah, or even the Messiah, himself. John and Jesus were cousins, and though they were raised in different communities, and probably had little or no interaction prior to Jesus’ coming to John, the combined testimony of his parents, Elizabeth and Zechariah, and Jesus’ parents, Mary and Joseph, left no doubt as to John’s understanding of God’s purpose through Jesus. John is described as “leaping in the womb” of his mother when she is visited by the pregnant Mary, and he is also described as filled with the Holy Spirit from birth. Though John did not know Jesus well, he had been taught his entire life, both by his family and by the Holy Spirit that Jesus is the Messiah.
John states that the one who is to follow, Jesus, will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. The idea of immersion is demonstrated by water baptism. John understands this same idea concerning baptism in the Holy Spirit, and baptism in fire. The New Testament speaks of immersion in the Holy Spirit six times, with five making reference to this statement by John. The seventh defines salvation itself by the immersion of all Christians in the Holy Spirit.
Though many would hold that the “baptism in fire” would hold to the eternal immersion in fire that characterizes the nature of an eternal hell as a judgment upon those who reject faith in God, the grammar of the statement suggest otherwise. There is only one baptism referred to in this sentence. Furthermore, the word for “fire” refers to that which is used by the refiner to purify ore. Immersion in the Holy Spirit, brought by the coming Messiah, serves as a refiner’s fire to purify that which is stained with sin. This is a direct reference to the hypocrisy of the religious elite to whom he is speaking. Wherein their self-proclaimed righteousness is a fabrication of their own doctrine, the One who is coming will bring true refinement, true righteousness to those who are baptized in the Holy Spirit.
Matthew 3:12. Whose fan is in his hand, and he will thoroughly purge his floor, and gather his wheat into the garner; but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.
However, John does not stop at the blessing of righteousness that is found in the immersion in the Holy Spirit. He continues to describe what the Promised One will bring for those who remain in unrighteousness. It is instructive to be reminded at this point that the religious elite to whom he is speaking are acutely aware of their own true unrighteousness, and their need for repentance: a deliberate act that would be contrary to their basic teaching. John has never implied that he has the power to judge the wicked, but clearly teaches that the Promised One who is coming does have that authority. Using the metaphor of the threshing floor, John describes the complete separation of the wheat from the chaff, saving all the wheat for future use, and relegating the useless chaff to an everlasting fire that is never extinguished.
This statement by John the Baptist requires the hearer, whether it is the religious elite of the first century or every person today, to stop and consider whether they are characterized by the wheat or the chaff. The very nature of who Jesus is, and His death on the Cross of Calvary that will serve as the atonement of sin for all who place their faith in God, clearly identifies His act as one of judgment. One is judged by God for their faith in Him, and forgiveness is found by all who place their trust in God by the work of Jesus on the Cross. If we reject faith in God we will find ourselves facing the judgment of God without forgiveness, and be relegated to separation from Him for eternity, a judgement that John describes as “unquenchable fire.”
John is preaching the basic gospel to the religious elite, the same gospel that is taught today to bring people to salvation, to number them among the wheat when the final threshing takes place.
Again, John refers to the imminence of the culmination of his teaching. This is a message that the religious leaders have never faced before. The baptism that John is conducting has never been done this way before. The religious leaders are facing a crisis of belief that they are forced to share with every other person who comes to John, a decision that every person still faces today.
Matthew 3:13-14. Then cometh Jesus from Galilee to Jordan unto John, to be baptized of him. 14But John forbad him, saying, I have need to be baptized of thee, and comest thou to me?
It is not clear how much time elapsed from verse 12 to verse 13 in Matthew’s narrative, but the Gospel of John notes that one day had passed. The previous narrative was entirely engaged in the conversation between John and the religious elite. However, we do get the impression that even John the Baptist was caught by surprise at Jesus’ arrival. He had been teaching everyone that He was coming, and now He was here with John. The writer of the Gospel of John includes the pronouncement made by John the Baptist when Jesus appeared, stating “Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sins of the world.”
John’s understanding of the nature and purpose of the Messiah defends his status as the greatest of the prophets. Where the Nation of Israel was looking for a Messiah who was a military leader who would relieve them of foreign domination, John makes no such inference. Like Elijah and the other Old Testament prophets, John clearly states that the purpose of the Messiah is to bring about forgiveness of sin, the true bondage that keeps all people in a prison, separated from a faith relationship with God.
John is profoundly humbled by the presence of Jesus. John understood that he is not the incarnation of YAHWEH, but merely a messenger who would proclaim YAHWEH’s presence. To meet Jesus face-to-face was likely something that John was not entirely prepared for. Consequently, when Jesus requested to be baptized by John, the Baptist felt entirely unworthy to do so.
It might be reasonable for us to question why Jesus would submit to John’s baptism. John taught a baptism of repentance, and Jesus did not come to John to confess sin and demonstrate His repentance by immersion in water. Even John did not understand why Jesus would do this and he initially refused to administer the ordinance. Recognizing YAHWEH in the flesh, John could only state that he should be submitting himself to Jesus.
Matthew 3:15. And Jesus answering said unto him, Suffer it to be so now: for thus it becometh us to fulfil all righteousness. Then he suffered him.
The usage of the word, “suffer” has changed in the four-hundred-plus years since the King James Version of the scriptures was written. We can confidently and appropriately replace the word with “permit” or “allow.” Jesus told John that this baptism was necessary to “fulfill all righteousness.” His explanation to John is that this is the right thing to do, and John relented. John had baptized many people, but this was certainly one baptism he would never forget.
Jesus submission to John’s baptism accomplished at least two purposes. The first, yet the least important, was the validation it brought to John’s ministry. Jesus’ ministry was entirely one of submission as He, holding all of the attributes, authority, and identity as YAHWEH came to earth as a servant. He submitted Himself to John’s baptism, he submitted Himself to the service of all of the people He encountered, and He submitted Himself even to those religious leaders who would conspire to have Him crucified. John would be encouraged and know that all of what he had been teaching was true, and that his ordinance of baptism was appropriate.
The second, and more paramount purpose in the baptism surrounds the tradition of anointing. The correct procedure for the identification of a new king over Israel included the anointing of a prophet. For example, the prophet Samuel anointed Saul and David prior to their acceptance of the throne. By submitting to the anointing by John the Baptist, Jesus was following the Law concerning the anointing of a king. By starting His ministry with this anointing, Jesus served to validate the anointing of every king that preceded Him, and would also stand apart as the last king to ever be so anointed.
Matthew 3:16-17. And Jesus, when he was baptized, went up straightway out of the water: and, lo, the heavens were opened unto him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and lighting upon him: 17And lo a voice from heaven, saying, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.
The Greek word that is rendered “straightaway” implies an action that took place quickly, or without delay. The idea is that upon coming out of the water (note the literal reference to immersion), Jesus immediately saw the nature and context of heaven itself, as if a door was opened and he could look directly in, and immediately Jesus recognized the authority of heaven, the Holy Spirit of God which came to Him gently. The scripture uses a simile, “like a dove,” rather than referring to a physical bird. We often use the image of a dove to represent the appearance of the Holy Spirit in our midst, and it is this passage that inspires this appropriate metaphor.
When Jesus came up out of the water, the Holy Spirit was immediately made manifest, and His appearance was one of gentleness and peace. The gospels, when describing this event clearly note that Jesus is a witness to the manifestation of the Holy Spirit and is silent concerning the witness of others, except John himself who later testified that he also saw the Spirit of God descend.
As a further testimony to the anointing of Jesus by John, a voice was heard coming from heaven that declared Jesus’ status as the Son of God whose anointing is fully within His will.
With this event, the anointing of Jesus by John the Baptist, the ministerial work of Jesus Christ began. With this event, the darkness that was so pervasive since the Babylonian Exile would end. The darkness was first broken when there were “in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them:” The Shekinah Glory of God had returned 400 years after leaving the Temple in Jerusalem, announcing the presence of God among His people, a presence in the form of a Baby, born of Mary in a stable in the village of Bethlehem of Judea.
Jesus did, indeed, bring the Light of the Shekinah Glory to the world, a Light that would both expose sin and provide a means for its forgiveness. The Light of the World is Jesus, yet prior to His ascension to heaven following His resurrection, He proclaimed that person of faith is now the light of the world, submitted to the work of the Holy Spirit as God seeks to bring His love to a lost world through the heart, the works, and the fruit of every believer.
This truth empowers every person to look into their own heart and ask the question, “Am I wheat to be brought into the storehouse, or chaff to be discarded and burned in everlasting fire?” If you were to die tonight and find yourself subject to God’s judgment and He asked you “why should I let you in?” what would you say? Access to a relationship with God is only found through faith and trust in Him. Consequently, satan himself who believes in Jesus’ person and purpose, is denied heaven because he lacks faith and submission to God. The only means by which we can be saved is to place our faith and trust in God, and upon so doing we can have the confidence in knowing that, though we are vexed by sin, that sin is forgiven, paid for by Jesus, by YAHWEH Himself on the Cross of Calvary.
If you do not know whether you are wheat or chaff, whether you are saved, or destined for eternal separation from God, you can deal with that question this very moment, doing so “straightaway” by simply turning from the sinful attractions of this world and turning to God in sincere faith and trust, a faith and trust that accepts Him for who He truly is: the LORD. If we accept Him as our LORD, that implies His Lordship over us, a Lordship that calls for our obedience to Him. If you can make that choice, you can be assured that you are forever saved from the eternal fire, the eternal separation from a relationship with God. With that assurance you can continue to live every day seeking to be obedient to Him, to learn more of His purpose in your own life, finding ways that the LORD can make use of you to spread His love and grace to this lost world.
 C.f. Mark 1:3; Luke 3:4; John 1:23.
 Isaiah 40:4.
 Jeremiah 14:8, 17:3; Joel 3:16.
 2 Kings 1:8.
 Genesis 13:12.
 Matthew 9:6; Mark 2:10; Luke 5:24.
 Romans 3:23.
 Luke 1:41.
 Luke 1:15.
 When faced with the imminence of his own death, even John the Baptist struggled with doubts, and needed assurance that Jesus was, indeed, the promised Messiah. Matthew 11:2-3.
 1 Corinthians 12:13.
 John 1:29.
 Luke 7:28.
 1 Samuel 10:1; 1 Samuel 16:13.
 John 1:32.
 C.f. Mark 1:11; Luke 3:22;
 Luke 2:8-9a.
 Ezekiel 11:23.
 John 8:12, 9:5, 12:46.
 Matthew 5:14.