1 In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, 2 “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” 3 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.’”
4 Now John wore a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. 5 Then Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him, 6 and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
7 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? 8 Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. 9 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.” – Matthew 3:1-10 ESV
Matthew has an agenda and he wastes no time on anything that will not support his overall objective. His primary interest is to establish Jesus as the Messiah of Israel, and so, after providing an abbreviated overview of Jesus’ birth, Matthew fast-forwards to His baptism and the beginning of His earthly ministry.
In keeping with his more truncated and sparse narrative style, Matthew provides little details regarding the relationship between Jesus and John the Baptist. Luke’s Gospel contains a much-more detailed account of this seminal character, providing information about his birth, unique lifestyle, and the nature of his God-given assignment to prepare the way for Jesus.
But Matthew eliminates all the background information regarding John the Baptist, introducing him into the narrative in a somewhat abrupt and jarring manner. Matthew fast-forwards from the news that Joseph, Mary, and Jesus had settled in Galilee and brings us to a future point in time when John was baptizing somewhere in the Judean wilderness. He makes no effort to explain who John was, but simply gives us a description of his work and his wardrobe.
John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea… – Matthew 3:1 ESV
John wore a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. – Matthew 3:4 ESV
It’s fairly clear that Matthew saw John as a supporting character in the story. He was vital to the narrative but played a clearly subordinate role to that of Jesus. And John the Baptist had been fully comfortable with his secondary status, having recognized the divine nature of Jesus’ ministry and mission. The apostle John records the words that John the Baptist spoke to his disciples when they expressed concern that Jesus was also baptizing in the Jordan and drawing large crowds.
“You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, ‘I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him.’ The one who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. Therefore this joy of mine is now complete. He must increase, but I must decrease.
”He who comes from above is above all. He who is of the earth belongs to the earth and speaks in an earthly way. He who comes from heaven is above all.“ – John 3:28-31 ESV
Once again, Matthew sees the events surrounding the life of Jesus as fulfilling the words of Scripture. He refers to John the Baptist “preaching in the wilderness of Judea” and calling the people to “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:1 ESV). And these actions by John were in direct fulfillment of a message delivered by Isaiah hundreds of years earlier.
A voice cries:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord;
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” – Isaiah 40:3 ESV
John had been sent by God to prepare the way for the coming Messiah. He had delivered his message of repentance, warning that the Kingdom of Heaven was near. The long-awaited Messiah was about to reveal Himself.
In his Gospel, Mark shares that John “appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1:4 ESV). But what was this “baptism of repentance?” What exactly were these people repenting of? And why was John attracting such large crowds?
Some of John’s attraction might be linked to his rather strange attire and bizarre lifestyle. Matthew describes him as wearing “a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist” and subsisting off a diet of “locusts and wild honey” (Matthew 3:4 ESV). John’s attire linked him with the Old Testament prophet, Elijah (2 Kings 1:8). After the last Old Testament prophet spoke his final words, God went silent for 400-years. There were no prophets. There was no communication from God. And then, suddenly, John the Baptist shows up on the scene, bearing a striking resemblance to Elijah and reminding the people of the words spoken by God to the prophet, Micah, hundreds of years earlier.
“Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.” – Malachi 4:5-6 ESV
John was the fulfillment of this prophetic promise. He came in the spirit of Elijah, accomplishing the same prophetic ministry as his Old Testament predecessor. And God had promised Zechariah, the father of John, that all of this would take place.
“Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, 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. And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, 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 1:13-17 ESV
Once again, Matthew is establishing Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah of Israel. And John the Baptist was sent to prepare for his arrival by calling the people to repentance. But as we asked earlier, what kind of repentance? The Greek word for “repentance” is metanoeō and it means “to change one’s mind.” We tend to think of repentance as exclusively linked to behavior, but it has a much more robust and all-encompassing meaning. Repentance begins, first and foremost, in the mind, not the actions. John was calling the people of Israel to change their minds about everything. They were going to have to radically change their minds about God. They had developed a warped perspective about Yahweh that had allowed them to treat Him with a bit too much familiarity. They were going to have to change their minds regarding righteousness. They were living under the false impression that their status as descendants of Abraham and their relationship with the Mosaic Law made them righteous. But all of that was about to change. They were going to have to change their mind about sin and the means by which the sinner is made right with a holy God. The sacrificial system had never been intended to make anyone righteous.
Years later, the apostle Paul asked the question: “Why, then, was the law given?” and then he answered his own question: “It was given alongside the promise to show people their sins. But the law was designed to last only until the coming of the child who was promised” (Galatians 3:19 NLT). And now, here was John letting the people know that the child who was promised had arrived. He was now a 30-year-old man and, as John would later describe Him, “The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29 NLT).
But John’s ministry included proclamation and immersion. He baptized, which is how he got his nickname, John the Baptist. John was calling the people to prepare for spiritual restoration. The anointed one of God had arrived and they were going to have to confess their sins and prepare their hearts for what God had in store. Just as the prophet, Elijah, had called the Jews of his day to repentance, so was John. The Israelites were guilty of spiritual complacency and, at worst, apostasy. And God had graciously sent His messenger, John, to call them back.
But when John saw the religious leaders showing up to be baptized, he accused them of hypocrisy.
“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance.” – Matthew 3:8 ESV
They were simply going through the motions, attempting to align themselves with the large crowds that John was attracting. But John’s baptism was intended to reveal the heart of the one being baptized. It was a baptism of repentance, symbolizing a desire to be restored to a right relationship with God. But John saw through the charade of the Pharisees and Sadduccees. They were unrepentant because they saw no need for it. They viewed themselves as fully righteous and John knew that their false concept was based on their status as sons of Abraham. Which is why he stated:
“Don’t just say to each other, ‘We’re safe, for we are descendants of Abraham.’ That means nothing, for I tell you, God can create children of Abraham from these very stones.” – Matthew 3:9 NLT
Not exactly PC-language. But John was out to prepare the people for the arrival of the Lamb of God, who alone can take away the sins of the world. The Pharisees and Sadduccees saw themselves as sinless and, therefore, in no need of a Savior. But John warns these self-righteous men that their lack of fruit in keeping with true righteousness was going to result in their removal.
“Even now the ax of God’s judgment is poised, ready to sever the roots of the trees. Yes, every tree that does not produce good fruit will be chopped down and thrown into the fire.” – Matthew 3:10 NLT
There was a change coming. The status quo that had existed in Israel for centuries was about to be rocked. With the arrival of Jesus, everything was about to change. The first would be last and the last would be first. The self-righteous were about to be exposed as unrighteous. The sinners of the world were about to be embraced by the Savior of the world. The weak would find new strength. The spiritually blind would gain their signt. The captives would be set free. And the lost would be found. Because the Messiah had come.
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.