The Call to Repentance.

1 In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when he said,\

The voice of one crying in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord;
    make his paths straight.’”

Now John wore a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then 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.

But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. 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. 10 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.

11 “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. 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 and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” Matthew 3:1-12 ESV

In compiling his Gospel, Matthew chose to leave out any mention of Jesus’ childhood, skipping straight to the beginning of His ministry which was inaugurated by His baptism by John. Matthew’s intent was to prove Jesus’ claim to be the Messiah, the legitimate king of the Jews and the Savior of the world. So, he picks up the story of Jesus’ life with His arrival in the wilderness of Judea and His encounter with John the Baptist. Unlike Luke, Matthew provides no background regarding John’s birth or his relationship with Jesus. He simply states that John showed up on the scene, “proclaiming, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near’” (Matthew 3:1-2 ESV). He was the God-ordained forerunner of Jesus, preparing the way for the one who was to come. But we also know from Luke’s gospel, that John and Jesus were somehow related. According to Luke 1:36, Mary, the mother of Jesus and Elizabeth, the mother of John were relatives. In some translations, they are referred to as cousins. But regardless of the exact nature of their relationship, John and Jesus would have known each other, having grown up at the same time and in relative close proximity to one another.

John’s birth, which Matthew ignores, was significant, because like the birth of his relative, Jesus, John was born under divine circumstances. Luke tells us that John’s parents were advanced in years and his mother was barren. Zechariah, the father of John, was a priest, and he received a visit from an angel, telling him the good news that he and his wife would have a child.

15 “for he will be great before the Lord. And he must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. 16 And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, 17 and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.” – Luke 1:15-17 ESV  

And God fulfilled that promise, miraculously allowing Elizabeth to conceive and give birth to a son, whom they named John. And on the day of his son’s circumcision, Zechariah prophesied over John, stating:

76 “And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
    for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
77 to give knowledge of salvation to his people
    in the forgiveness of their sins,
78 because of the tender mercy of our God,
    whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high
79 to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
    to guide our feet into the way of peace.” – Luke 1:76-79 ESV

Matthew picks up the story some 30 years later, when John had begun his ministry of prophecy and preparation for the coming of Jesus. And, like Luke, Matthew ties John to the earthly ministry that Elijah had performed.

For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when he said,

“The voice of one crying in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord;
    make his paths straight.’” – Matthew 3:3 ESV

Like Elijah, the Old Testament prophet, John just suddenly appeared on the scene, almost as if out of nowhere. He had been silent for nearly 30 years, and then showed up in the wilderness preaching a message of repentance and offering baptism as a sign of that repentance, all tied to the coming of the kingdom of heaven. Everything about John was strange, from his choice of attire and lifestyle to the content of his message. But he attracted a crowd. Matthew tells us:

Then 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. – Matthew 3:5-6 ESV

John was calling the people of Israel to repentance, and it is essential that we understand the meaning behind his message. His call to repentance involved a change in mind, a radical realignment of their understanding of God and His ways. The Greek word is metanoeo and it means “to change one’s mind or purpose.” It is far more than sorrow over sin. It is a a complete change of attitude towards God, involving one’s spiritual and moral perspective. John was calling the people of Israel to rethink their attitude about everything, including their relationship with God, the nature of their own sin, and the reality of their so-called status as God’s chosen people. The Jews had been living under the delusion that, as descendants of Abraham, they were somehow right with God. In spite of the literally hundreds of years their ancestors had spent in open rebellion against God and their suffering defeat and eventual exile at the hands of God, they had never fully returned to Him. Even at the time John began his ministry, Israel was a place of spiritual darkness. In his Gospel, John describes Jesus as the light that came to penetrate the darkness of the world, particularly that of His own people.

In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light. – John 1:4-8 ESV

The spiritual climate of Israel was dark and John came to call the people of God back to a right relationship with God. But they were going to have to change their minds about everything. Their long-awaited Messiah was coming and they were not ready for His arrival. Their hearts were full of sin, but they saw themselves as the chosen people of God. They placed high value in their status as Israelites and in their possession of the temple of God. They were overly confident in the forgiveness made available to them through the sacrificial system. But John was letting them know that all of that was about to change. This was a new day. There was going to be a new plan of salvation made available that was no longer tied to the law or dependent upon men attempting to live in perfect obedience to that law.

John’s words were attracting huge crowds made up of all kinds of people from all walks of life, including the religious leaders of his day. But when these Pharisees and Sadducees showed up, John confronted them, saying, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matthew 3:7-8 ESV). These two groups of individuals, the Pharisees and Sadducees, represent the hypocritical religious leadership of John’s day. The Pharisees were the religious rule-keepers, the experts in the law who prided themselves on their knowledge of the law and adherence to it. The Sadducees were the liberals of their day, who denied the supernatural and rejected everything from the existence of angels to the future resurrection of the body. These two groups showing up to be baptized was nothing more than a show on their part. They had no intention of changing their minds about anything. They were marked by arrogance and pride and John demands that they bear fruit in keeping with repentance. In other words, he calls them out for their unwillingness to see themselves for what they really were: religious hypocrites.

Their status as descendants of Abraham was not going to be enough to save them from the wrath of God, and John the Baptist makes that point painfully clear.

“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.” – Matthew 3:9 ESV

Their current relationship with God was not going to be enough to save them. Their Jewish heritage was not going to keep them from suffering the consequences of God’s wrath against sin. God was looking for fruit in keeping with true repentance. No more hypocrisy and play-acting. No more lip-service and false professions of sorrow over sin. God was about to introduce a brand new way for men to be justified, made right, with Him. Self-righteousness had never worked. Religious law-keeping had never earned anyone a right standing with God, because no one had been able to keep the law perfectly. But with the coming of the Messiah, God was going to change all that. While John was able to baptize with water those people who were willing to come with an attitude of true repentance, he made it clear that the baptism they would receive from Jesus was going to be radically different. His baptism would involve the Holy Spirit and fire. It would supernatural in scope and cleansing in nature. It would be a baptism of purification and radical transformation. It would be far more than a ritualistic act meant to symbolize a change of attitude. No, the baptism of Jesus would be completely transformational in nature, leaving the one baptized radically changed forever. And His baptism would eventually be the means by which those who truly belong to God can be distinguished from those who don’t.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)  Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson