John the Immerser
Meet the new Elijah!
Alright, so we’ve spent the last few weeks in chapters 1 and 2 of Matthew. We’ve spent quite a while, I think three weeks in chapter 1 and a couple weeks in chapter 2, and there are still some things we haven’t really covered fully…BUT we’re going to keep moving forward today, and we’re going to get into chapter three of Matthew. Go ahead and find your place in chapter 3, we’ll be starting there.
Chapters 1 and 2 introduced us to several people in the story.
#1 of course is Jesus - the very first verse makes it clear that the whole book is about him.
But we were also introduced to his parents, Mary & Joseph, and King Herod, who Mike gave us a good sketch of last week, as well as several other groups of people, who aren’t named, but are mentioned as a group: the scribes and priests, the people of Jerusalem, the magicians from the East.
Matthew Chapter 3
Chapter 3 is going to introduce a new character, a very important one! Probably second only to Jesus in importance. He doesn’t get very many pages dedicated to him, but his role is very significant. The famous historian Josephus actually mentions him a few times as well, mostly in reference to his affect on Herod, but we’ll get to that later. Let’s read how Matthew introduces John in chapter 3, verse 1:
Matthew 3:1 CSB
1 In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea
I’m just going to stop right there for a minute. This is a total scene shift from the last chapter. It’s a shift in time, in location, and it’s a shift to a new character.
We’re going to talk about this guy John, to whom Matthew, but first let’s clarify the context in which he’s introduced.
“In Those Days”
The first contextual clue is this transitional phrase “In Those Days.”
Let’s back up and refresh our memories as to what the last information Matthew gave us was:
Matthew 2:19–23 CSB
19 After Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, 20 saying, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, because those who intended to kill the child are dead.” 21 So he got up, took the child and his mother, and entered the land of Israel. 22 But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And being warned in a dream, he withdrew to the region of Galilee. 23 Then he went and settled in a town called Nazareth to fulfill what was spoken through the prophets, that he would be called a Nazarene.
CSB Study Bible: Notes Chapter 3
In those days means “during the time of Jesus’s residence in Nazareth” rather than “during the reign of Archelaus.” After all, Archelaus reigned from 4 BC to AD 6, too early for John the Baptist to have begun his ministry since he would have been under age twelve. In OT usage, “in those days” often refers to a time of prophetic fulfillment (Is 10:20; Am 9:11; Zph 1:15; Zch 12:3–4). Matthew probably used the phrase in conjunction with his references to fulfilled prophecy to emphasize that God’s promises were being fulfilled through Jesus and John the Baptist, herald and predecessor of Messiah.
So, “In those days” refers to the time when Jesus was living in Nazareth, but it wasn’t literally in the next few days after chapter 2, we’ve jumped forward quite a few years. This becomes obvious too, when Jesus enters the scene later in the chapter, as an adult. We’ve skipped forward from Jesus as a baby and a young child, to suddenly he’s a grown man. In Luke’s gospel account he tells us that Jesus was about 30 years old when he began his ministry, so we’ve jumped ahead at least 25-30 years in Matthew.
That’s the “when,” the context of time.
Let’s look at the “where” for a moment - the context of place, of space.
“In the Wilderness”
Matthew says that John was preaching “in the wilderness of Judea.”
I’m curious, what do you think of when you hear the word “wilderness?”
You might think of the desert, or of mountains or forests.
The Judean wilderness as a whole is a pretty arid climate, there is a lot of desert in that area. There are also cliffs, and rocks, and in some places there are shrubs and patches of trees where there is enough water for them to grow.
But in this case, we know he was right at the bank of the Jordan River, so there’s water and trees, not the desert. The river brings water, brings life, and the landscape is a bit more lush along the river.
The Jordan river is pretty long - about 156 miles long, but it’s very narrow. And depending on where you are on the river, you may be surrounded by trees or just by dirt and stones. Of course, rivers and ecosystems shift and change over the course of thousands of years, but you can still get a rough idea of what the region might have looked like.
So this is the specific wilderness in which we find John. But regardless of what type of wilderness it is, the defining feature of a wilderness is a total lack of civilization. It’s away from the influence of people, and the establishment of buildings, machines, governments and societies. It’s land that has not been cultivated for agricultural purposes. It’s a place where nature runs its course and reigns free.
To some of you that might sound nice…that sounds like heaven. For others, it might sound like the opposite.
Now, when I think “wilderness” I think of a “wilderness adventure” or “wilderness survival” … some of you might be into that kind of thing and that sounds exciting… or maybe you just like watching TV shows about from the safety of your couch. Maybe you have no interest in anything that has to do with the wilderness. You like being around civilization, with people and buildings and McDonald’s and Netflix. I get that! I love a good hike in the woods, and in the mountains, but it’s also really hard to get off the couch sometimes.
Anyway, my point is most of us have some kind of association with the word “wilderness” whether it has a positive or negative connotation to you. I guess some people might never have thought about it. But if you’re here, now you have!
And for the Jews, who Matthew was writing to, the wilderness would have had some specific connotations, besides it being the familiar territory which surrounded them.
First of all, John’s ministry being in the wilderness is reminiscent of Elijah’s ministry. Remember, Elijah ran and hid in the wilderness after confronting Ahab, and during the drought, for some time was sustained by a water source near where it entered none other than…the Jordan river! And later, he went into the wilderness when he was discouraged and begged to die, but it was there that an angel came and provided food which strengthened him for the journey through the wilderness to Mount Sinai. And then finally it was in the wilderness that his ministry came to an end, and God took him away in a whirlwind.
The association with Elijah is significant because it was Elijah who many Jews believed would appear again to prepare the way for the Messiah. Remember Malachi 4:5, at the very end of the Old Testament, says this:
Malachi 4:5 CSB
5 Look, I am going to send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes.And this will get brought up again later on in Matthew chapter 17, where Jesus himself makes the connection between John and Elijah:
Matthew 17:12–13 CSB 12 “But I tell you: Elijah has already come, and they didn’t recognize him. On the contrary, they did whatever they pleased to him. In the same way the Son of Man is going to suffer at their hands.” 13 Then the disciples understood that he had spoken to them about John the Baptist.
We’ll get into the context of that conversation later on; for now the point is just that the connection to Elijah is very clear. And part of that connection is made even with the location of his ministry being in the wilderness.
But that’s not even the only significance to the wilderness.
The wilderness was also associated with the giving of the law, back in Exodus:
Exodus 19:1 CSB
1 In the third month from the very day the Israelites left the land of Egypt, they came to the Sinai Wilderness.
It was in the wilderness of Sinai that Moses received the law, and where Yahweh established a covenant with Israel. And a generation later, led by Joshua, it was at the Jordan River where Israel crossed over, miraculously, into the land which God had promised to Abraham, ending their wilderness wanderings
And finally, the wilderness is associated with God’s final redemption of Israel at the end of history. This is perhaps the least obvious, most obscure association, that probably wasn’t at the forefront of most Jewish people’s brains, but that’s probably why John himself draws this connection by quoting from Isaiah 40:3, and why Matthew makes sure to include that quote in his excerpt of John’s message.
Isaiah 40:3 CSB
3 A voice of one crying out:
Prepare the way of the Lord in the wilderness;
make a straight highway for our God in the desert.
This verse is quoted in Matthew, and the context of that passage is the great and final “day of the LORD” which we talked about when we studied Isaiah together. John is recognizing and proclaiming, prophesying himself that they were entering into a time of fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecies from ancient times.
Pretty cool. And we’re going to talk more about John’s message in a minute, but before we get further into his message, I want to look at a couple other things.
I want to look at his origin. And then I want to talk a little bit about his title.
So first, where did this guy John come from? Matthew just introduces him out of the blue, and dives right into John’s message and ministry.
The first two chapters were an origin story for Jesus, telling us about the circumstances of his birth and the first couple years of his life.
But Matthew doesn’t tell us anything about where John the baptist came from. Matthew’s not telling John’s story, he’s telling Jesus’s story, so he only brings John up when he intersects with Jesus, and reinforces the message of Jesus being the messiah.
Luke, on the other hand, wanted to paint as full of a historical picture as possible, with as many of the pieces of the story as he could find, so we do get a few more details about John’s origins from Luke. And for our purposes, I think it’s worth bringing that piece of the story in. Luke also has more details about Jesus’s birth that Matthew doesn’t include, and we didn’t get into those, but I’m going to read what Luke says about John’s beginnings. In fact, Luke begins his narrative with John’s parents, in chapter 1:
Luke 1:5–25 CSB
5 In the days of King Herod of Judea, there was a priest of Abijah’s division named Zechariah. His wife was from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. 6 Both were righteous in God’s sight, living without blame according to all the commands and requirements of the Lord. 7 But they had no children because Elizabeth could not conceive, and both of them were well along in years. 8 When his division was on duty and he was serving as priest before God, 9 it happened that he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and burn incense. 10 At the hour of incense the whole assembly of the people was praying outside. 11 An angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing to the right of the altar of incense. 12 When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified and overcome with fear. 13 But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, because your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. 14 There will be joy and delight for you, and many will rejoice at his birth. 15 For he will be great in the sight of the Lord and will never drink wine or beer. He will be filled with the Holy Spirit while still in his mother’s womb. 16 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 fathers to their children, and the disobedient to the understanding of the righteous, to make ready for the Lord a prepared people.” 18 “How can I know this?” Zechariah asked the angel. “For I am an old man, and my wife is well along in years.” 19 The angel answered him, “I am Gabriel, who stands in the presence of God, and I was sent to speak to you and tell you this good news. 20 Now listen. You will become silent and unable to speak until the day these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their proper time.” 21 Meanwhile, the people were waiting for Zechariah, amazed that he stayed so long in the sanctuary. 22 When he did come out, he could not speak to them. Then they realized that he had seen a vision in the sanctuary. He was making signs to them and remained speechless. 23 When the days of his ministry were completed, he went back home. 24 After these days his wife Elizabeth conceived and kept herself in seclusion for five months. She said, 25 “The Lord has done this for me. He has looked with favor in these days to take away my disgrace among the people.”
So, like Jesus, John was a very special child. He wasn’t conceived in a virgin womb, but his conception was nearly just as miraculous. From there, the scene cuts over to Mary and the angel Gabriel, and towards the end of that encounter Gabriel says this:
Luke 1:36–38 CSB
36 And consider your relative Elizabeth—even she has conceived a son in her old age, and this is the sixth month for her who was called childless. 37 For nothing will be impossible with God.” 38 “See, I am the Lord’s servant,” said Mary. “May it happen to me as you have said.” Then the angel left her.
So Mary and Elizabeth are related; Elizabeth is either Mary’s aunt or her cousin. Which means John and Jesus are cousins to some degree or another! Now, Matthew didn’t deem it necessary to point that out for the purposes of his book, but I think it’s a pretty cool detail, so I’m glad we have the diversity of 4 different authors to draw from!
I want to keep reading for just a few more verses, because what happens when Mary visits Elizabeth is just so cool, and it sets the precedent for John’s adult ministry later on:
Luke 1:39–45 CSB
39 In those days Mary set out and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judah 40 where she entered Zechariah’s house and greeted Elizabeth. 41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped inside her, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. 42 Then she exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and your child will be blessed! 43 How could this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? 44 For you see, when the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby leaped for joy inside me. 45 Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill what he has spoken to her!”
And from there, Mary goes into her beautiful song of praise, known as the Magnificat.
How cool is that, though? That even while still in the womb, John was filled with the Holy Spirit and LEAPT for joy at the presence of Jesus, the son of God. Again, this was no ordinary child, and he would grow to become no ordinary man.
Eventually, when the child was born, Zechariah still was unable to speak, but he insisted that the child be named John, as the angel had instructed, and because of that he was finally allowed to speak again. And not only did he speak, but he was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied! And it’s a prophesy of praise and joy and hope in the salvation that would later be proclaimed by his son John and provided through Mary’s son Jesus.
That’s all in Luke chapter 1! Then, in chapter 2 he tells the story of Mary & Joseph going to Bethlehem, and the birth of Jesus, and the shepherds, and all that.
But we’ll go back to Matthew now, I just thought that with the introduction of this major character, he deserved some of that backstory.
But returning to Matthew chapter 3, the way Matthew introduces John is very unusual. He doesn’t say John, the son of Zechariah, does he? That would be the normal way to identify someone. Either by their father or the region they came from. But no, this guy is known by a specific title: John “The Baptist.”
Now, “Baptist” is kind of a funny word to use here, because in modern usage it has taken on a different kind of meaning than it originally had here.
Nowadays, “Baptist” generally refers to a Christian denomination, whether it’s a specific denomination like the Southern Baptists, or the general doctrines which define “Baptist theology,” like the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith.
But obviously, that’s not what’s meant here by “John the Baptist” because that definition or even the idea of “Baptist” theology didn’t come about until hundreds of years after Christ. It’s a branch of “Christianity” but there was no such thing as “Christianity” yet. So, this title is referring to something else, and is not meant to denote any specific doctrine or theology.
In fact, it’s a very literal descriptor of John and what he spent his time doing. If we’re going to use the word “Baptist” or “Baptize” I think a better translation would be “John the Baptizer.” It would be similar to saying “John the Hunter” or “John the Wood Carver” or “John the Goat Herder.” It’s an adjective, but it’s a literal, action-based adjective describing what he does. Not something he believes. And I think that’s an important distinction between Baptist and Baptizer.
But regardless of whether you use the word Baptist or Baptizer, that word “Baptize” is still not really an English word. I mean, it is now, but only because it wasn’t translated in the first English translations, and that tradition stuck. Instead of translating, they transliterated, which means they used English letters to approximate the pronunciation of the word in the original language…in this case, the Greek word Baptistes, or Bapto. But translated, it’s a verb that literally means to dip or immerse.
So, a literal translation, as opposed to a transliteration, would be “John the Baptist.”
Though, of course, even his name, John, is not what his Hebrew name would have sounded like. Hebrew doesn’t even have a “J” sound in the language. Just like “Jesus” was originally “Yeshua,” and became “Jesus” through the Greek and Latin.
But there is an English translation of the bible, both Old and New Testaments, that I’ve mentioned a couple times before, called the Complete Jewish Bible. It’s a very interesting translation, because it’s translated by native Hebrew speakers with a Jewish background. And it’s pretty similar to other dynamic translations in most ways, except that it transliterates the original Hebrew names, rather than using the Greek and Latin permutations of them, and it does transliterate and incorporate some common Hebrew terms instead of translating them, like Adonai instead of LORD and Tanakh instead of “The Scriptures” but it does not use any of the Greek transliterations, so you won’t find the word “Baptize.” Here’s how the first 3 verses of Matthew 3 read in the CJB:
Matthew 3:1–3 CJB
1 It was during those days that Yochanan the Immerser arrived in the desert of Y’hudah and began proclaiming the message, 2 “Turn from your sins to God, for the Kingdom of Heaven is near!” 3 This is the man Yesha‘yahu was talking about when he said,
“The voice of someone crying out:
‘In the desert prepare the way of Adonai!
Make straight paths for him!’ ”
So, obviously it can be difficult to read if you’re familiar with the more common English versions of the names, but I think it’s kind of cool to see the Hebrew names closer to what they sounded like originally, plus you get a slightly different perspective from the Jewish translators, native to the Hebrew language.
And in this case, I just like the phrase “John the Immerser” so much better than “John the Baptist” because it’s more descriptive, more accurate, and gets us to the original meaning of the phrase. The difference in pronunciation of the name I find interesting, but it doesn’t really matter…it doesn’t change the meaning of it. But the difference between “Baptist” and “Immerser” I think is pretty significant. And it’s not even to say that “Baptist” is inaccurate, or wrong, I just don’t think it’s as helpful.
Anyway, that’s the end of my biblical language rant and ramblings for the day.
Let’s move on and, in a minute, we’ll talk about John’s message, which we’ve now read in verse 3 but I do want to address verse 4 first, to complete our portrait of John. We’ve looked at his origin, his name, his title, and now in verse 4 we’re given a description of his appearance:
Matthew 3:4 CSB
4 Now John had a camel-hair garment with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey.
This is rare information for a Biblical portrait. We don’t often get much, if anything at all by way of physical descriptors for characters in the Bible, whether it’s old or new testaments. So, when we are given physical details about a person, it’s because those details have some significance or bearing on the story.
In this case, Matthew is yet again drawing a parallel between John & Elijah.
In 2 Kings 1:8, Elijah is described as a man with hairy garments, and a leather belt around his waist. It’s almost verbatim! And in both cases, they were was known and identified by that unique appearance.
And beyond just his clothes, the mention of his food being locusts and honey…those were not actually strange things to eat…locusts were not that uncommon of a food, but they were not a delicacy; they were more of a food of necessity, and because of their abundant availability. In fact, Leviticus 11:20-23 specifically lists locusts as an acceptable food in the Jewish diet. Look it up if you want to, but it basically says not to eat any winged insects other than those which have jointed legs on their feet for hopping on the ground. That includes locusts, katydids, grasshoppers, and crickets. Those four only. So yes, John’s diet seems strange to us, and it was a little strange to them too, but still kosher.
Ultimately, the point of him eating locusts is that it’s a rather austere diet! And in that sense, his whole lifestyle and ministry paralleled that of Elijah’s, who was also known for an austere lifestyle, devoid of luxury.
John the Immerser, in Matthew’s portrait, is being portrayed in no uncertain terms as the new Elijah, who was promised in Malachi 4:5.
And as the new Elijah, not only will John’s appearance and location and lifestyle reflect that of Elijah’s, but his ministry and message will too.
Like Elijah, his message was first and foremost a call for Israel to repent. And like Elijah, John would also come to have a confrontation with an evil king and his wife.
How cool is that?
Well, it’s not really cool for John, it doesn’t end well for him, but the obvious parallels are cool. And even the end of John’s life is a foreshadowing of what Jesus would endure, so, like so many other prophets before him, John’s own life itself served as a prophecy.
But, I’m getting ahead of myself now, we’ll get there eventually, several chapters down the road.
For now, let’s continue reading in chapter 3 and find out more about John’s message and methods, and the response from the people. Actually, I’m going to start over from the beginning, and read the first 12 verses:
Matthew 3:1–12 CSB
1 In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea 2 and saying, “Repent, because the kingdom of heaven has come near!” 3 For he is the one spoken of through the prophet Isaiah, who said:
A voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
Prepare the way for the Lord;
make his paths straight!
4 Now John had a camel-hair garment with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. 5 Then people from Jerusalem, all Judea, and all the vicinity of the Jordan were going out to him, 6 and they were baptized by him in the Jordan River, confessing their sins.
7 When he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “Brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8 Therefore produce fruit consistent with repentance. 9 And don’t presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that God is able to raise up children for Abraham from these stones. 10 The ax is already at the root of the trees. Therefore, every tree that doesn’t produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.
11 “I baptize you with water for repentance, but the one who is coming after me is more powerful than I. I am not worthy to remove his sandals. He himself will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 His winnowing shovel 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 fire that never goes out.”
Alright, so he’s proclaiming this message of repentance, and he’s quoting Isaiah, and it’s drawing a crowd.
Now, the call to repentance is not itself unique; if you were with us through the prophets, you know that’s the most common theme in the messages of any prophet.
But this whole baptism, this immersion in water thing was what really set him apart.
It’s not that he invented the concept - the Jews had customs of ritual washings, whether it was to purify a person, or even an inanimate object, so this idea of a “baptism,” dunking someone or something in water, was a familiar concept. It’s a physical washing with water, to depict a spiritual cleansing.
In fact, the Jews required Gentiles to immerse themselves in water in order to convert from paganism to Judaism!
But in this case, John’s audience would have been mostly Jewish already, and yet he’s still demanding that they submit to baptism as a sign of their repentance.
Later on, this practice would be adopted as a sign of following Jesus, but Jesus hasn’t even showed up yet. But even before Jesus, making Jewish people get baptised as a sign of repentance was a bold implication and foreshadowing of the truth Christ would reveal - that Jews did not belong to God merely by virtue of their descent from Abraham. Like anyone else, ethnic Jews needed to repent in order to enter the coming kingdom.
Alright, so that’s what the baptisms are all about. What about these vipers, in verse 7?
These pharisees and Sadducees are the leading priests of the Jews.
The pharisees controlled the synagogues, and had a great deal of control over the Jewish population. They were the biggest, most important Jewish religious group. The group was started with good intentions! To be God-fearing, law-abiding people, opposing syncretism with Greek culture and religion, and making Jewish law accessible and practical to people seeking to be obedient Jews. However, in their meticulous observation of the “law” - which included rules and regulations which extended far beyond the actual Torah, became a religion unto itself in a way. Their legalism became an idol, and Jesus will later accuse them of hypocrisy for their perversions of doctrine and practice.
The Sadducees were a smaller group, but still very influential. They were an elite aristocratic party of high priestly families. They controlled the temple, and had some doctrinal variance from the pharisees. For example, they only accepted the books of Moses, the first 5 books, as authoritative. They also didn’t believe that people would ever be resurrected after they died, unlike the Pharisees who firmly believed in the resurrection of the dead.
So, these two groups were opposed to each other in some ways, but they we see them seemingly united here in opposition to a common enemy. In this case, it’s John, and later Jesus.
Together, they represent some of the wealthiest and most influential people in Jewish society. And they cling to power, pompously wielding their control and influence to their own gain and self-aggrandizement.
Remember how Mike pointed out that, back in chapter 2, the chief priests and scribes were able to identify the place of Christ’s birth, but made absolutely no effort to actually find him? They showed no interest in worshipping him! At least Herod pretended that he wanted to worship him; it’s like Herod knew what the expected, proper response would be, whereas the chief priests didn’t even feign an interest.
So, it’s not really a surprise that this same group of people continues to be painted in a rather negative light in chapter 3, and this is a theme that will carry throughout the rest of the book.
John calls them out point-blank, and calls them a “brood of vipers” and later, Jesus will use this same expression. It’s not meant as a compliment. It’s an insult. An accusation. A judgment.
Whatever their motives for being there, John is not willing to baptize them, and accuses any show of “repentance” on their part as being hypocritical. He warns them that they are not secure in their eternal destiny just because they are descended from Abraham, and prophesies judgment against them. And this goes not just for the pharisees and Sadducees, it really applies to any unrepentant listener in the crowd.
Again, Luke gives a few different details and actually expounds more on what John said and taught. We’re not going to read it together, but I would encourage you to compare Luke chapter 3 with Matthew chapter 3. Mark chapter 1 also begins with a similar
What Matthew is really driving home is that John IS the second Elijah, and that, while he’s not the messiah, he is a precursor, a forerunner, preparing the way for Jesus.
Jesus shows up in the next paragraph to get baptized himself! Which is a bit of a shock for John! It’s a very powerful and captivating moment, so I’m not going to try to cover the baptism of Jesus today. We’ll look at that next week, the baptism and temptation of Jesus, which together serve to mark the beginning of his ministry. It’s like up until now he’s been a sleeper agent, and suddenly he’s been activated.
But for now, I want to leave you to ponder the message and ministry of John the Immerser, and how significant it is that a prophet, speaking with authority, has suddenly shown up on the scene, in the spirit of Elijah, after 400 years of silence.
Imagine how the people who heard about him felt and responded. Like we saw last week with the various responses to the birth of Jesus, there were a variety of responses to John. Some heard his message and took it as a beautiful opportunity to repent and cling to the hope of the coming Messiah. Others heard his message and felt their power being threatened. In fact, Herod is so threatened by John that he has him arrested, and it’s after John is out of the picture that Jesus begins preaching in his place. And he preaches, at its core, the same message that John preached, and teaches the same morality that John taught.
But it all started with John!
So how do we apply this passage to our lives?
Well purpose of his message and his baptisms were specialized for a pre-Jesus crowd, and slightly different from the purpose of baptism today and the post-Jesus, gospel.
And I think the primary purpose of this passage is simply to advance the narrative and tee-up the next couple passages, as well as provide context for the comments Jesus later makes about John. So I don’t want to force “application” when that’s not the purpose, or inherent to the text.
That said, the message of repentance, as well as the moral principles you’ll find in Luke chapter 3, are always applicable. I think the key verse, or at least one key verse that summarizes John’s message is verse 8:
Matthew 3:8 CSB
8 Therefore produce fruit consistent with repentance.
In Luke, you can read more about what that fruit looks like: sharing with those who have none, treating each other fairly and with equity. But it boils down to this: you must first repent in your heart, the roots of your being, and true repentance will bring about healthy fruit…your words and actions.
And for us, we know that it’s by the power of the God’s spirit in us that we are able to produce any good fruit at all. Though we must humble ourselves to repentance, it is only by God’s grace and power that our hearts and minds can be renewed and redeemed for good works, good fruit. It’s not by our own power or our own merit.
That’s where the Pharisees and Sadducees found their pitfall. They thought their value and their standing with God came from two things: first, their ancestry…their blood relation to Abraham. And second, their meticulous attention to their so-called “lawfulness.”
Look at John’s response to that mindset again in verse 9:
Matthew 3:9 CSB
9 And don’t presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that God is able to raise up children for Abraham from these stones.
That is such a slap-in-the-face to the Pharisees and Sadducees, and yet it’s also such a beautiful statement of God’s power to raise up anyone and anything for his purposes. When John says this, I think it’s meant on one hand to be a hyperbolic, absurd-sounding statement, but at the same time he’s saying it because he knows that it is, quite literally true.
A stone has no intrinsic value, or standing with God. But, if he wants to, the all-powerful God of the universe can transform a worthless rock into a person and include them in his covenant people. All the more can he transform the hardest and most sinful of hearts in people who are already living and breathing.