Matthew 3. John the Baptizer. The Pre-evangelist.
Key Notes: John's mission. Jesus' baptism. Viewing the Trinity. Using John's approach: introduce them to Jesus.
This chapter is devoted to John who preceded Jesus as His “advance-man”. He is the last of the OT prophets, announcing the arrival of the future. He is like an advertiser, preparing the populace for a new product. He is like a civil engineer, cutting a roadway through the wasteland for people to come to a spectacular Temple. He is an ambassador, making arrangements in a foreign country for a visit from the king.
There are four men named John in the New Testament. This John is a relative, probably a second cousin of Jesus. (Lk.1:36). He knew Jesus first as a part of his family. The one most commonly spoken of is the Apostle John, brother of James and son of Zebedee. The third is John Mark (Acts 12:12), the controversial missionary, and the fourth is an unbelieving priest. Acts 4:6.
3:1 “In those days….” How much time has elapsed since the end of Matt. 2? Perhaps 28 years of Jesus’ life is passed over in silence.
3:2 “Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.”
Repent is an important word in Gospel preaching. It is a translation of the Greek “metanoeo”, to change one’s mind. It is different from penitence, which means to feel sorry, and different from penance, which means to do some act of goodness to compensate for some act of evil. (Penance and penitence are not Biblical words.) Repentance involves a reversal of direction, from going in my direction to going in God’s direction, a 180° turn-around.
The Kingdom of Heaven is the same as the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom of Heaven is preferred in Matthew probably because of Jewish sensitivities to using the name of God. It is a major theme of Matthew and we will refer to it repeatedly. The word “at hand” tells us at once that the Kingdom was already a present reality, and not a future dream.
3:3 Isaiah the prophet was speaking of John making a way in the desert when he wrote Isa. 40:1–11.
Please read it.
3:4 John looked like Elijah. He wore the same kind of clothes (IIK.1:8); he lived in the desert eating unusual food (IK.17:4–6); he had the same fiery disposition. He is the last of the OT prophets. (Matt.11:13). His coming was prophesied. (Mal.4:5). He was not the reincarnation of Elijah, but came “in the spirit and power of Elijah.” (Lk.1:17), so that it could be said of him that he was “the Elijah who is to come” (Matt.11:14) and yet he was not the Old Testament prophet. (Jn.1:21–23). Reincarnation is untrue.
3:6, 7, 11. He came baptizing with water on confession and repentance of sin. Baptism was practiced for converts to Judaism, but not usually for Jews. There were ritual baths for other ceremonial purposes, but usually conducted in private. (Lev.15:5–27). John’s baptism was a preparation for Christ. It was a rite of passage, a public acknowledgement of intention to turn away from sin and follow the Christ, whom they had not yet seen. However, it was a preliminary baptism, and would have to be repeated later for disciples of Christ. (Act.19:1–7). Christian baptism of believing adults is a once-for-all confession of personal salvation.
3:7–10 John’s attack on the Pharisees and Sadducees is remarkably blunt and confrontational, quite contrary to modern standards of political correctness. It did not deter the seekers.
Repentance demands evidence of a change of direction, to produce “fruit that befits repentance.”
Jewish dependence on Abraham’s goodness to save them is amazing.
“They said ‘All Israelites have a portion in the world to come.’ They said that Abraham sat at the gates of Gehenna to turn back any Israelites who might by chance have been consigned to its terrors. They said that it was the merits of Abraham which enabled the ships to sail safely on the seas; that it was because of the merits of Abraham that the rain descended on the earth; that it was the merits of Abraham which enabled Moses to enter into heaven and receive the Law; that it was because of the merits of Abraham that David was heard. Even for the wicked these merits sufficed.”
The Gospel of Matthew. W. Barclay. Westminster,’75-p,49.
Jesus will later confront this delusion. Jn.8:33–39
John warned the Jewish leaders using two metaphors of judgment--tree culture and grain harvest.
“The axe is laid to the root of the tree.” Israel’s second dispersion was 40 years away. It would be a national, political judgment and a great catastrophe.
“His winnowing fork is in His hand” Jesus will create a division between disciples and those who rejected Him. Some will certainly be saved.
“Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” The fruit of a righteous life is just and truthful behavior.
“The chaff He will burn with unquenchable fire.” Some will certainly be lost. Hell is the unhappy end of those who reject Christ.
That was the bad news. Then he introduced the good news of Jesus.
3:11–12 Jesus is much more powerful, and much higher in rank than John. He will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. The Holy Spirit is released by His death and resurrection. (Jn.7:37–39). Christ will be the ultimate judge, sifting and winnowing human beings.
3:13–17 Jesus then appeared and was visible to their eyes. In a strange twist, He asked to be baptized by John. John had already said he was not worthy to carry Jesus’ sandals, much less baptize Him.
Jesus’ reply was enigmatic: It is “fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” The meaning was not clear until moments later. Essentially, Jesus told John “We have to do what is right. Never mind the details.”
What happened next would astound anyone who saw it, and it still astounds us today. The word “behold” is used twice. (3:16,17). Jesus came up out of the water. The Spirit of God descended and lighted upon Him, like a dove. The voice of the Father was heard from Heaven,
“This is My Beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”
Jesus allowed them to observe the Trinity, with eyes and ears, and His place in it. He is Son of the Father. He has a unique relationship to the Holy Spirit, who proceeds from the Father. (Jn.15:26). We can see the “three-ness” of the Trinity, their distinct personages and roles. It is better than any diagram we might invent. We can tell the story to anyone who asks. It spoils the arguments of Modalists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Ebionites and the many others who deny the Trinity.
The second goal of Jesus’ baptism was to give John the conviction that he needed as Jesus’ forerunner.
“The next day he (John) saw Jesus coming toward him and said ‘Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world’. This is He of whom I said ’After me comes a man who ranks before me, for He was before me.’ I myself did not know Him but for this I came baptizing with water, that He might be revealed to Israel….I myself did not know Him; but He who sent me to baptize with water said to me ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is He who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.'" "And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God. “ Jn. 1:29–34
Before the Baptism, John could speak of Jesus as one far above himself, the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit and fire. After the Baptism, he spoke of Jesus’ pre-existence (“before me”), and called Him the "Lamb of God", and the "Son of God". He pointed people to Jesus with authority and conviction. His work was essentially done and God cut his life short to prevent him from being a distraction, another Messiah. He was expendable and he knew it. (Jn.3:30). Even at that, some of his followers persisted for another 20 years. Act.18:25;19:4
John’s work was pre-evangelism, preparing people to receive Jesus. His approach demands our attention. Pre-evangelism is the task of getting people close enough to Jesus that they can be confronted with salvation through His atoning work. Do we have any methods, any strategies?
Note that John did not use theology or apologetics. He did not talk about:
The authority of Scripture.
The Deity of Christ.
The OT prophecies about Christ.
Creation and intelligent design
Other prophets and other religions.
If people want to discuss these questions, we should oblige, but we should not make them the point of our discussion. We should not try to persuade people to believe the Trinity, or the deity of Christ. I try to steer away from arguing these points. We want to bring people in close enough so that they can consider coming to Christ personally and to be reconciled to God through the Cross.
When introducing people who have no previous knowledge of Christ we use Gospel stories, assuming but never talking about the authority of Scripture, for example. We talk about morality and human sin. We read the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount, and Ecclesiastes. Then there are stories of Jesus ministering to sinners like
The Woman at the Well,
The Woman who Came to Simon’s Party,
The Rich Young Ruler,
The Man Born Blind,
The Ethiopian Eunuch,
Cornelius the Centurion,
Saul of Tarsus,
Peter the Denier,
Mary and Martha.
John’s basic message was sin and righteousness and judgment.
That is exactly the Holy Spirit’s work, to convict the world. (Jn.16:8–10).Then John showed them Jesus.
The bad news must come before the good news. The Law comes before grace.
Work with the conscience. What people need is to get rid of their own guilt, and to find forgiveness.
Point people toward Jesus.
Theology comes later.