More than a Prophet
“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, saying, “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 about 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 bring forth 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 God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. “And the axe is already laid at the root of the trees; every tree therefore 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. “And 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.”
As much as I would like to continue reading in chapter three to show Matthew’s aspirations about Jesus being true Israel, there is much to consider in this context. Until now, Matthew has been very literal with his words. However, we now see many metaphors and analogies and even some hyperbole mixed in as John the Baptist enters the scene. How does John the Baptist enter the scene, by baptizing? We’ll get back to this. For now, we’ll start at the beginning.
“Now in those days…” In which days? Once again, Matthew uses the same generic conjunction he uses in the beginning of chapter two, coupled with “in those days.” The reader understands that by the use of a conjunction, which ties this statement with the former and the latter, and by the context, that John the Baptist emerged during the time Jesus was in Nazareth. We are not told what Jesus was doing but we are given a rough time frame. We are not told how long, but we can assume John the Baptist emerged at a fairly young age based on the context and a little digging in Luke.
“Now in those days John the Baptist came…” John the Baptist, we learn from Luke, was a cousin of Jesus about six months older than Jesus. In those days John came not baptizing, but preaching. We usually gloss over this statement. Because of John the Baptist’s name, we assume he baptized from the beginning. We neglect the context and assume that he came baptizing. Problem: look where he was–notice the context. “Now in those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea.” Even if we consider the context, we will often contemperize and appropriate the context to our climate, culture and setting. The wilderness in Judea is not like the wilderness in northern and eastern America. It’s more like the wilderness in Death Valley. The word transliterated from Greek is, “eremos,” pronounced air-ray-moce. It literally means, desolate. John the Baptist came preaching not baptizing, the context states this plainly. The reader also understands this because there is no water in the wilderness of Judea. And if you have not made another assumption yet, let me give you a little nudge. Do we find many people in places where there is no water? We’ll get back to this. John the Baptist came preaching in the desert, with no water, notice Numbers 21:5; “And the people spoke against God and Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water.” In conclusion, why was John preaching in the middle of nowhere, where it’s hot and dry and desolate?
John didn’t come baptizing but preaching–literally, proclaiming. And what did he proclaim? Notice the context once again: Now in those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Repent; literally, “to change one’s mind after being with.” Transliterated from the Greek, “Metanoeo.” Meta, as in, metamorphosis–like a butterfly; “change after,” and “noieo,” “to think.” Many pastors and preachers, theologians and teachers, claim that to repent means to do a 180° turn. While this is partially true, it begins in the mind. John is telling the people in the wilderness to completely change the way that they think–actions will follow. As we have seen in Revelation, we think incorrectly, that is to say, our minds are wrong. We need change from the inside out. Speaking of the people in the wilderness, what are they doing there with no water?
Let’s do what I resist doing and jump ahead to Matthew 11, where Jesus says the following: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? But what did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothing? Behold, those who wear soft clothing are in kings’ palaces. But why did you go out? To see a prophet? Yes, I say to you, and one who is more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written, ‘BEHOLD, I SEND MY MESSENGER BEFORE YOUR FACE, WHO WILL PREPARE YOUR WAY BEFORE YOU.’” God, in his infinite wisdom of which we cannot fathom, sent John to the deserted desert, a desolate destination, to proclaim the need for changing of minds in a place with no water. And the people went to see. Again we see a shift from the “come,” to the “go.” They went, according to Jesus, to see one, who is more than a prophet, proclaiming to repent because the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand. John was preaching that the Kingdom of Heaven has come near. We see this throughout the gospel accounts. We will see it more as we continue. For now, see Jesus in the proclamation–he is near.
“For this is the one referred to by Isaiah the prophet, saying, ‘THE VOICE OF ONE CRYING IN THE WILDERNESS, ‘MAKE READY THE WAY OF THE LORD, MAKE HIS PATHS STRAIGHT!’” Time to take our Vitamin E and consult our Old Testament tutor for expository exegesis of examples. This quote is one of the rare occasions in which Matthew gives us the author–Isaiah. The quote is found in Isaiah 40, notice its context.
“Comfort, O comfort My people,” says your God. “Speak kindly to Jerusalem; And call out to her, that her warfare has ended, That her iniquity has been removed, That she has received of the LORD’S hand Double for all her sins.” A voice is calling, “Clear the way for the LORD in the wilderness; Make smooth in the desert a highway for our God. “Let every valley be lifted up, And every mountain and hill be made low; And let the rough ground become a plain, And the rugged terrain a broad valley; Then the glory of the LORD will be revealed, And all flesh will see it together; For the mouth of the LORD has spoken.” As we saw last time, the genre of Isaiah, like Jeremiah, is different from that of Matthew. The reader is to see the Old Testament context and genre, but then see it again in the aspirations of Matthew. Matthew tells the reader that the passage in Isaiah, that is replete with imagery, analogy and metaphor, is referring to John the Baptist, who is not yet baptizing. Further on in the content of Isaiah, the metaphorical meaning changes to Christ, as we will also see in this chapter of Matthew. The mountains made low and the vaulting of the valleys along with the highway are imagery of John’s calling as a forerunner of the Messiah. Again, we will see these metaphors unfold as we uncover more of the context.
“Now John himself had a garment of camel’s hair, and a leather belt about his waist; and his food was locusts and wild honey.” I am not sure, are locusts even kosher? Leviticus 11, “All the winged insects that walk on all fours are detestable to you…Yet these you may eat among all the winged insects which walk on all fours: those which have above their feet jointed legs with which to jump on the earth. These of them you may eat: the locust in its kinds…” I guess they are. What about the garb of John the Baptist, what is Matthew’s aspiration to his audience in commenting on John’s clothing? The astute observer of Scripture would recall 2 Kings 1:8; “They answered him, “He wore a garment of hair, with a belt of leather about his waist.” And he said, ‘It is Elijah the Tishbite.'” Matthew makes an obvious allusion to Elijah. We will see this again in chapter eleven.
“Then (conjunction, meaning, “after these things”) 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.” After John preached in the desolate desert, he then went to the Jordan to baptize. We don’t know, and have no need to know, how long he preached or how long he baptized. Matthew’s aspiration is for the reader to see the progression. Notice that the average, everyday people went to be baptized, confessing their sins. That’s a change of mind, that’s agreeing with God.
“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?” I suppose it would be reckless not to give a bit of brief background to the Pharisees and Sadducees. They were the two sects of Sanhedrin scholars. They didn’t always agree concerning the interpretation of the Law of Moses but were strict adheres to their respective traditions. In short, they were the leaders of the Jewish religion. Yet we find they were at odds with Jesus consistently. When they approached John to be baptized, John rails against them with reprimanding rhetoric.
“Therefore bring forth 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 God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.“ There it is, the change from the inside out. We now see much metaphorical meaning as John speaks to the Pharisees and the Sadducees. John firmly focuses on not only their minds and hearts, but on their actions as well. Now we see more metaphorical meanings. Romans 4 and Galatians 3 agree wholeheartedly with John’s statement; “do not suppose that you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham for our father’; for I say to you, that God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.” Notice also that John says what they believe, without them confessing what they believe. He knows how they think, and even how some of us think to this day. Being a descendant of Abraham is meaningless other than the genealogy of Jesus. One is not chosen by their blood but through Christ’s blood. It is not by works of the law, but by faith in Jesus. The Pharisees and Sadducees were relying on their blood and their traditions.
“And the axe is already laid at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” This is probably the most difficult metaphor, of which John uses, to understand. I believe it to be the most difficult because it is actually the most simple. Let’s dissect the metaphor using the context–Context is King. We see roots of a tree and we’ve seen a people who claim their roots in Abraham. We see fruits as a sign of changing one’s mind. We have seen a shift from the come to the go. John tells the Pharisees and Sadducees to bring fruit demonstrating a new, inside-out metamorphosis. We see an axe already at the roots of the tree. The word, already, is an adverb indicating something that now is. The axe represents the cutting down of the tree and it’s already there. Their way of doing things, their traditions and hard hearts are facing judgement. John is pointing to Jesus and his atoning sacrifice. The continuing context confirms.
“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. “And 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.”
John’s confession of Christ and his final metaphorical statement leave the reader with little doubt about John’s aspirations to his audience. Jesus has come to fulfill the law and put a permanent end to their traditions and self-righteousness. John doesn’t mince words. He is telling the Sadducees and Pharisees their fate. They are being cut down and threshed by Christ’s winnowing fork. Unless they change their wrong minds, they are going to hell. Abraham can’t save them, their traditions can’t save them and they’re law certainly can’t save them. Jesus is coming and John is paving the way. John the Baptist emphatically explains that they are enemies of the gospel and they, along with their religion, will be destroyed permanently. Matthew records John relaying a similar story to the parable of the wheat and the tares.
God has been very patient for many years but as the prophets, who were ignored, have foretold, the King has arrived. True Israel is in their midst.