John the Baptist

Matthew 3:1-12

Dale Carnegie once wrote a book entitled “How to Win Friends and Influence People.” It was quite a book, selling millions of copies. The point of the book was how to ingratiate yourself along with other people, building bridges to them, considering their point of view, rather than being a bully trying to get your own way. It is quite a useful book, I might add. However, the book has its limitations. It cannot do what John the Baptist needs to do. John the Baptist has obviously never read this book. This kind of a book would be the furthest thing from his mind. What is John the Baptist all about, anyway?

Well, first we have to notice just how important he is. All four gospels have an account of him as being the one who comes before Jesus. He is a forerunner, someone who prepares the way for the one coming after him. So we need to get a grip on what exactly his ministry means, if we are to have a clear idea of what Jesus came to do.

The words “in those days” indicate that a particular era has come. These are important words. They mean that a new age has come. Matthew emphasizes John’s preaching. In fact, in Matthew, the fact that John preaches is more important than the fact that he baptizes.

Notice where John preaches. “In the wilderness.” The wilderness was a very important place in the thinking of Jews. That was where the people of God had done much wandering. It was a place of trial and temptation. Jesus will also go into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan. People also thought that there would be a new Exodus of the land of Egypt, and that a new wilderness people would re-enter the land. We saw that chapter one of Matthew describes a new Genesis, and chapter two describes a new Exodus. Right here, we have the fulfillment of Israel’s hopes and dreams. So the wilderness was a perfect place to preach about repentance, and that a new kingdom was coming out of the wilderness back into the promised land. Of course, the promised land that Jesus entered would be a better promised land: heaven itself. The wilderness would also be a perfect place to preach about repentance, since Sodom and Gomorrah were probably near, giving John a perfect visual aid.
What is repentance? The prophets talked again and again about repentance. The word in Hebrew meant to “turn one’s way around,” or “to return to God.” But the Hebrew prophets talked about a repentance that needed to be repeated again and again, because the people kept turning away from God. Therefore, they needed to be turned back to God. However, this type of repentance happens only once. It is a turning away from sin once and for all, and entering the kingdom of heaven, “for it is at hand.” That is why John offered a once-for-all baptism of repentance. So, someone who has truly repented would be someone who, when faced with the same temptation in the same circumstances, does not do the same sin. Someone else has said that repentance means being sorry enough to quit. Repentance does not mean being sorry for sin’s consequences. Often, though, that is exactly what we feel. We say that we are sorry, but what we really want is to avoid sin’s consequences. It is like a little child, whose hand has been caught in the cookie jar. The mother comes to spank the child, and the child says, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” frantically, in order to try to placate the wrath of the mother. The child is often anything but sorry for trying to take the cookie, but is only trying to avoid punishment. We are just the same way with our sin. We should be sorry for the sin more than for sin’s consequences.

The reason why John preaches about repentance is that the kingdom of heaven is at hand. The kingdom of heaven refers to everything over which Jesus will rule. It is a kingdom not of this world. That is, it is a spiritual kingdom. John says that it is at hand. That means that it is very close, but not quite there yet. It is as close as Jesus is close to John in time. It is that close. In terms of judgment, it is very much like verse 10 (“the ax is laid to the root of the tree”). The ax has not cut the tree down yet, but is waiting for signs of fruit.

Again we have another fulfillment passage: from Isaiah 40 we learn that someone is going to be a voice in the wilderness preparing the way of the Lord. Now, the background is important. Roads in those days were not kept in very good repair. They did not take their tractors and drag the gravel roads, such that cars can go reasonably quickly down them. No, roads were horrible in those days. The only time they were repaired was when the king decided to use that road. A messenger would be sent ahead of the king, telling the people to repair the road, such that the king could travel in reasonable comfort. But this was only done for kings. John therefore is the messenger of the king. John was preparing for the true king.

Next we see some seemingly insignificant details about what John wore. These details are not trivial, however, because these clothes are exactly the same clothes that Elijah wore. We can read about that in 2 Kings 1:8: Some men were asking about Elijah, and the reply was that he was a man who wore a garment of hair, with a belt of leather about his waist. The belt was worn when one was going on a journey. John’s journey was to prepare the way for the Messiah. Matthew is telling us in no uncertain terms that John the Baptist was the new Elijah. Jesus confirms that later in the Gospels. Jesus says that John was the Elijah who was to come.

John had a very interesting diet. He ate locusts and wild honey. A very spare diet. Locusts are allowed by Jewish food law, being a clean animal. They are high in protein. He would have needed protein for all the preaching he did! Honey gives lots of energy. All in all, it was a fairly balanced diet, though extremely plain. Locusts are the only edible clean animal that can be found in plentiful supply anywhere in the desert. What this tells us is that John staked everything on the kingdom of heaven. He did not look after worldly things, but regarded the kingdom of heaven as that pearl of great price, which he sold everything in order to possess.

John’s ministry was successful. He made some converts. This is undoubtedly the reason why the Pharisees and Sadducees came to pay him a visit. Now the Pharisees were a group of Jews who were devoted to studying the law. They loved the Scriptures. They made fences around the law, meaning that they were so afraid of breaking the law, that they made rules such that one could not even approach the law to break it, at least according to their thinking. They wanted purity of life. The name means “those who separate themselves.” They were more pure than the rest of the people. This is probably some of the sting in the originally slanderous epithet “Puritan.” The name “Puritan” was not originally meant as a term of respect. It was a term of ridicule. Of course, the Puritans knew about the doctrines of grace, whereas the Pharisees did not. But the idea is somewhat parallel. The Sadducees were very different from the Pharisees. They were all about the temple. They were aristocrats. They were high society. They wanted only to do sacrifice and ritual. They did not read their bibles much. In many ways, they were opposed to the Pharisees. The Pharisees believed in resurrection, whereas the Sadducees did not. However, in one thing they were agreed: they came to criticize John, and they were both opposed to Jesus.

John knows what they are about. That is why he gives us this remarkably harsh statement. This statement is not calculated to win friends and influence people! He calls them a brood of vipers. This is a really loaded insult. Of course, the term vipers connotes that they are crafty (rather like another serpent that we know of), they are dangerous to other people. Furthermore, by calling them a BROOD of vipers, John heaps insult on injury. When the young of vipers are born, according to the historian Herodotus, the young eat their way out of the mother’s womb, killing the mother in the process. What John is saying is that their practices make them mother-killers. John asks them a very rhetorical and sarcastic question. John is not curious about who warned them. He is saying that he knows that the Pharisees and Sadducees did not come to be baptized and receive repentance and forgiveness of sins. However, the Pharisees and Sadducees should have known that now was the time. Thus John ridicules them for their lack of wisdom. There is further background to this question of John’s , however. When a fire swept across the brushlands of Israel, all the animals would scurry to get out of the way, including snakes. So John is really saying that they should know that judgment is coming, but they don’t, and they come to John’s baptism for the completely wrong reason. He is saying that they are hypocrites.

Then John gives us a statement about fruit and repentance. Trees are judged by their fruit, not by their root. That is why John is comparing repentance to the root, and good works are compared with the fruit.

Verse 9 is a parenthesis. He interrupts the metaphor of fruit tree to address a concern that they might have had. John anticipates their thinking. John’s statement is based on pun. The Hebrew word for “sons” is banim. The Hebrew word for stones is ebanim. The Jews will not escape by their nationality. In God’s economy, there will no longer be a favored nation clause. God does not have grandchildren, only children. The Jews thought of Abraham as having stored up merits for his children. All one had to be was a child of Abraham, and all the benefits of Abraham would be theirs. But the Jews needed to be reminded that Abraham himself, as well as Sarah were physically barren. God need to work in their lives to produce children. But the barrenness of Abraham and Sarah is as nothing compared to the barrenness of the Pharisees and Sadducees. God would again bring children for Abraham out of the most unlikely source: Gentiles! To raise up children for Abraham from the Gentiles was just as difficult and miraculous as bringing up children for Abraham out of stones. Indeed, we need to have our hearts of stone changed into hearts of flesh. That is exactly what happens in conversion.

Notice that the trees that do not bear good fruit will not be pruned. Rather, they will be cut down and thrown into the fire. It is not a question of pruning, but of judgment. Ultimate judgment. Only if the tree bears fruit will it be spared, and even then it will be pruned so that it will bear more fruit. That is what Jesus says in John 15:1-2.
This baptism of John’s is a baptism that prepares the way for a greater baptism; one of judgment. Jesus is coming. Jesus is someone whose sandals John is not worthy to carry. Now rabbinical law said that the disciple should do absolutely anything for his master except carry the sandals. Carrying the sandals was a menial job for slaves to do. Therefore, disciples were not to do that. Only slaves were to do that. John is saying that he is not even worthy to do what a slave would do. That is how much greater Jesus is than John the Baptist. And Jesus said that of those who have arisen among men, none has been greater than John the Baptist.

Now what Jesus brings is a baptism. This is a greater baptism of the Holy Spirit. There is only one baptism of the Holy Spirit. Baptism is not simply some delightful confirmation that a child is worth it. We should not get excessively sentimental about baptism. Baptism puts obligations upon the parent and upon the child. If the child grows up to know God, then blessing will result, great blessing. That is why we should baptize our infants. However, if the child does not grow up to know God, but throws away the faith, then curse will come upon him. Baptism means that there are only two possibilities for the child: faith or apostasy. There is no middle ground between those options. You are either wheat or chaff.

So do we repent? Are we really repentant? Are we so sorry for our sin that we don’t do it anymore? We have to have the Holy Spirit in us in order to do that. It is not something that we can do ourselves. We cannot be a Christian because our parents were. That kind of thinking is exactly the same kind of thinking that the Jews did. God does not have grand-children, only children. Each one of us has to come to believe in Jesus Christ. That is when we will be gathered.

We should not delay to come to Christ. The ax is already laid at the root of the tree. If you are debating in your mind whether or not Christianity is a good thing, remember that your life hangs by a slender thread always. There is no guarantee that you will live out the rest of the day. Come to Christ now. Don’t wait until the judgment comes, and it is too late. When you come to Christ, you will find out that God has changed you from being chaff to being wheat, of the finest grade.

Do we have those sins that continually bog us down? Maybe we have some sins that we cannot seem to master. That is exactly the point. We cannot, in and of ourselves. We need the power of the Holy Spirit. We all have the Holy Spirit, if we belong to Jesus Christ. But sometimes we think that if only we can win a victory in this one area, then we will be perfect. Wrong. We have to strive in the power of the Holy Spirit. Only with his help do we have any chance of victory. But it must be stressed that if we have the Holy Spirit, then we have something far more powerful than any sin. So let us confess our sin, and trust that Christ will cleanse us from all our sin. He has promised it.

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