In Matthew 3:1-4:11, we find Matthew’s prelude to Jesus’ public preaching ministry. In this prelude, the necessity of the true Gospel will be made evident and Matthew will take the opportunity to, once again, prove that Jesus is the fulfillment of national Israel.
Now in those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
For this is the one referred to by Isaiah the prophet when he said, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Make ready the way of the Lord, Make His paths straight!’”
Now John himself had a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist; and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then Jerusalem was going out to him, and all Judea and all the district around the Jordan; and they were being baptized by him in the Jordan River, as they confessed their sins.
But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Therefore bear fruit in keeping with repentance; and do not suppose that you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham for our father’; for I say to you that from these stones God is able to raise up children to Abraham. The axe is already laid at the root of the trees; therefore every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. As for me, I baptize you with water for repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, and I am not fit to remove His sandals; He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clear His threshing floor; and He will gather His wheat into the barn, but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”
Old Testament connection
In this text, John, Jesus’ ‘older’ cousin, is preaching the exact Old Testament Message of repentance by faith and of the coming of the Messiah. This sort of message would have been common at this time, and the Scripture references that John called to mind would have been as popular to First Century Jews as John 3:16 is in our own culture. Just as John 3:16 is often corrupted and misrepresented in our own culture, it was probably the case that the Old Testament message was corrupted and misrepresented by teachers during John’s time. John was going back to the sources and returning to a true Old Testament message. Here John, who grew up with the Messiah, comes out of the wilderness (he is thought by many to have been a member of the Essenes) preaching this topical-expository message. Like we have already seen in Matthew’s Gospel, we now see John doing systematic theology concerning the coming of the Messiah and practicing the baptism of the Old Testament. In this sense, it seems that John the Baptist was the last Old Testament prophet; not the originator of the ‘Baptist church.’
There are two levels of Old Testament use in this passage. First, Matthew is insisting that John is the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. Matthew uses images present in the Old Testament to prove Christ as Messiah through the prophetic ministry of John the Baptizer. Second, Matthew quotes John as John quotes the Old Testament in preaching about the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven (3:2). We will observe these two levels respectively.
Matthew’s reference to prophecy
Matthew’s inclusion of John the Baptist’s ministry in his Gospel account has to do explicitly with Old Testament prophecy. Isaiah 40:3, which was written before the exile into Babylon concerning the restoration of God’s remnant, says,
A voice is calling, “Clear the way for the Lord in the wilderness; Make smooth in the desert a highway for our God.”
To reaffirm the promise made through Isaiah, Malachi 4:5-6 says,
“Behold, I am going to send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and terrible day of the Lord. He will restore the hearts of the fathers to their children and the hearts of the children to their fathers, so that I will not come and smite the land with a curse.”
According to Isaiah and Malachi, the great and terrible day of the Lord (v. 5) would be a day on which Elijah would come a bring a message of reconciliation so that God would not come and curse the land (v. 6). The great and terrible day of the Lord would be a day of redemption, particularly of God’s people to God and of the descendants of Abraham to Abraham in the faith. Matthew saw all of this as being fulfilled in Christ’s coming, His condescension and crucifixion and resurrection. People have done some horrifying things with this passage in Malachi, the chief of which in our day is assuming that it means one of the two witnesses in Revelation 11 must be Elijah. This cannot be the case. The day of the Lord was to be a day of redemption, the day that the people of God were bought back by God. According to Matthew’s Gospel, this day was fulfilled in Christ’s first coming, not some dispensational time in our future. Elijah would herald the coming of God as God did this work. Jesus taught that John was the Elijah that was foretold (Matthew 11:9-10, Jesus quotes Malachi 3:1). John became the First-Century reformer just as Elijah was the Ninth-Century B.C. reformer in the midst of God’s national people.
So, Matthew described John as the second Elijah. He taught concerning the imminent coming of the Kingdom of heaven, Malachi’s day of the Lord on which God’s people would finally be reconciled to God. All of God’s people in every age and among all peoples would be reconciled to God once for all. The Messiah, according to Matthew’s exposition of Malachi, would come explicitly to reconcile God’s people. That is what we refer to today as limited atonement. This reckoning was God’s explicit fulfillment of His own covenant with Abraham.
In order to affirm what Jesus taught and the heralding ministry of John, Matthew also recorded John’s appearance (which was the appearance of most Essenes). Like the prophet Elijah, John wore Camel hair (2 Kings 1:8). To emphasize God’s providence in His fulfilling of His own covenant, Matthew records that John ate locusts and honey (Exodus 16:31 regarding the Lord’s provision for Israel).
John the Baptist’s ministry was foretold in the Old Testament. Jesus’ redemptive work and His position as the Messiah was affirmed by the prophetic ministry of John. This is another detail in Christ’s life that fulfills the Law and Prophets and Writings. John’s message was a very Old Testament message. Let’s walk through his message together.
- He taught repentance because God was coming to reconcile His people to Himself (Matthew 3:2, 6, Isaiah 40:3, Malachi 4:5-6)
- He taught that true faith bore fruit consistent with repentance and that baptism meant nothing if one did not have true faith (Matthew 3:7-8).
- He taught that true children of Abraham are raised up only by God, not by means or works or merit or choosing of people. God alone would fulfill His covenant (Matthew 3:9, Genesis 15).
- God’s unconditional election of His own people is also established in Deuteronomy (esp. Deuteronomy 7:6-9, which also exposits God’s promise to Abraham in Gen. 15).
- Those without true faith, being reconciled to God by God alone, will be cut down and thrown into the fire (Matthew 3:10, Isaiah 10:34 where the Lord alone is described as separating out the people who pretend to follow Him).
- Jesus’ baptism would not be the same baptism as John’s. John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance or of moral cleansing. Jesus’ baptism would be a new birth altogether (Matthew 3:11). Jesus’ baptism would be a fulfillment of John’s (that is why John would baptize Jesus). The new covenant would be a fulfillment of the old.
- Jesus’ baptism is described of baptism by the Holy Spirit and fire.
- The reconciliation of the Day of the Lord would not be brought about by the act of repentance, or human will or works or means. Reconciliation is only by the Holy Spirit. God alone fulfills God’s covenant.
- This reconciliation would also be by fire (Isaiah 4:4, ). This referred to a purging of sin only possible by God’s judgment or conviction by the Holy Spirit. This means explicitly that we are unable to become holy or better by our own will, work, or means. This is what we mean when we say that we are totally depraved.
- The Messiah would tend to His own fields, separating His people into His barn and will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire (Matthew 3:12, Psalm 1:4, Isaiah 41:16, 66:24).
As John exposited the Old Testament to tell about the Messiah, he shared the truth that God raises up His own people, those who are baptized by the Spirit and by fire, and that God throws those who are not His into an unquenchable fire (whether symbolic or literal).
So we must ask in response to this text. Are we wheat or are we chaff? Are we producing fruit that is consistent with repentance? Christ is harvesting His field, and we will either be gathered into His barn or burned in this unquenchable fire. Do you participate in a religion or church that measures you by your own stature like the Pharisees in this passage? Or, are you measured by the stature of Christ alone by Christ alone? Doctrine matters. The church we go to matters. Our denominational affiliation matters. Have we taken the Bible at its word, or have we added something horrendous and destructive for our own understanding? Jesus is the only worthy one, and not one person reading this (nor the one who wrote it) is worthy. Christ alone.