Today’s Reading: Matthew Chapter 3
Another Old Testament prophecy comes true in chapter three as John the Baptist begins his ministry – preaching, calling people to repentance, warning them of the “coming wrath”, and telling them that the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand. As the writer quotes the prophecy of Isaiah, the purpose of his ministry is clear: to prepare the way for the Lord.
What a figure! Living in the wilderness, having given up home, hearth, and family, wearing camel-hair clothes (how itchy is that?) belted around his waist, and eating bugs and honey he collects from the wild.
He has quite a following. “Jerusalem, all Judea, and all the region about the Jordan” are coming out to see him. These are some of the same people that in chapter two were “troubled” at the news that a king had been born – now there’s a very different reaction. So why did they come out? Was it for the unusual character of John – the “freak show” aspect? Maybe some of them – but not all. You can tell that in the reaction of the people. Once they’d come out and heard what he had to say, it clearly had an impact, as they confessed their sins and were baptized in the Jordan. Judea was undergoing a revival.
Even the religious leaders – the Pharisees and Sadducees – are going out to see him, but it doesn’t seem that John accepted that their motives are pure, from the confrontational behavior he displays toward them. As a group (though there are individuals that are presented in a better light), they’re typically portrayed as self-righteous, relying more on their rituals and position than on God and their relationship with Him, and threatened and fearful of thoughts that compete with their teaching. That appears to be John’s take, as he calls them a “brood of vipers” and warns them to not put too much stock in simply being “a child of Abraham”, but instead to produce fruit that shows that they’ve repented – or risk being like the fruitless tree that is cut down and thrown into the fire. Being a jew, having the right lineage, the right family, the right training, the right background – none of that matters – what matters is the fruit one bears.
John was pretty tough on them, but they haven’t seen anything yet. He goes on to tell them of one that is coming – we know that it’s Jesus he’s speaking of – who is far, far mightier than John, and that he’s the one that will actually pass judgement. He uses a metaphor of the one that separates wheat from chaff, gathering the wheat into his barn but burning the chaff. In this instance, those that are considered chaff – the useless waste materials gathered in with the wheat during the harvest – will be burned with “unquenchable fire”. Pretty grim news.
It’s interesting what else John says as he’s comparing himself to Jesus. John’s been doing some incredible stuff in his ministry. He’s truly a prophet – pointing the way to the Kingdom, speaking the truth to power, telling it like it is, stark and direct up to the point of being harsh, but provoking a real heart change in people and then ministering to them. He guides them to the point of realizing and confessing their sins, making a decision to change, and demonstrating that resolve to everyone else. He calls for a real change in behavior, and they’re responding. John lets them know, however, that there’s a limit to what he can do. “I baptize you with water for repentance… He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire”. John can only take the people so far. The people themselves can only do so much. The preaching, the confession of sins, the repentance, the change of heart, the desire for a new life is incredible… it has prepared them for Jesus himself. Everything beyond that though, is in His hands.
Then Jesus arrives at the Jordan, and despite John’s protests is baptized himself. It’s a beautiful scene – as he comes out of the water, the heavens open, the Spirit of God descends and comes to rest on him, and God speaks about his love for Jesus and his pleasure in him.
So that’s the summary. I have a lot of questions, though, that I’m wondering about and meditating on – some matter more than others.
- What was the point to John being so different in dress, appearance, and behavior?
- When John talked of the Kingdom of Heaven being at hand, exactly what was the Kingdom of Heaven in his eyes? To the minds of the people he was talking to? Was it simply the coming of the King? Was it simply the church, as some think and teach? What more was it?
- When John tells the religious leaders to “bear fruit in keeping with repentance”, what exactly is he looking for in them? What is that fruit?
- Why did Jesus come to be baptized? Why did he that had no sin need to go through this act? When Jesus tells John he wants to go through the baptism to “fulfill all righteousness”, what does that mean?
- When God speaks after the baptism and says He is “well-pleased” – is that directly related to the scene that has just played out, or just with Jesus in general?
I can guess at an answer to any of those questions, but I think they need more thought than a quick guess.
I suppose the only one I really feel like I have a good grasp on is perhaps the question about “fruit in keeping with repentance”. It’s also the area I’m applying to myself and meditating and praying on today.
What is the opposite of “fruit keeping with repentance”? What would be produced by a life that was continuing just as it always had, especially for the religious leaders that John was directly confronting? A life of reliance on self, reliance on the rules and rituals, reliance on position and birth and having been taught the right things, a reliance on having figured out all the doctrine… a reliance on anything but a heart-change. The behavior that would show would be pride and a judgmental attitude, much as I’m sure these religious leaders displayed towards John and his teaching.
So, if that’s the bad fruit, the good fruit simply is what we see in one that relies on God’s grace and mercy. Knowing that he doesn’t have it all figured out, that his background means nothing, that nothing we do is sufficient to earn his favor, and that we have no right to judge others, he turns himself completely over. The result would be what is called the “fruit of the spirit” in Galatians – a live that shows love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. The result would be the kinds of attitudes and behaviors that Jesus calls blessed in the Sermon on the Mount – poor in spirit, mourning for sin, meekness, hungering and thirsting for righteousness, mercy, heart-purity, peacemaking.
This is terribly important, because its exactly what He is still looking for in us. Fruit in keeping with repentance. A heart-change. Am I more like the Pharisees and Sadducees that John confronted, or more like the ones that followed John, repented, and later began to follow Christ? I think I still have a lot more work to do – or actually, a lot more submitting to do.
2 – “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand”
8 – “Bear fruit in keeping with repentance”