The Gospel of Matthew is teaching us who Jesus is by recording the events about his arrival in the first four chapters. God promised through the prophets that he would send a prophet before the glory of the Lord arrived. Isaiah said it would be a voice calling the wilderness (3:3; Isaiah 40:3-5). Malachi said that the Lord would send Elijah to turn the hearts of the people (Malachi 3:1; 4:5-6). Notice how the Lord prepares the way for the arrival of his king in the first six verses of Matthew 3.
In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when he said, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight.’” Now John wore a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. (Matthew 3:1–6 ESV)
The Message (3:1-6)
First, let us notice the messenger and his message. John comes and he is preaching in the wilderness of Judea (3:1). Is it not interesting that John is not in Jerusalem? John is not preaching in Galilee. John is not preaching the cities. John is in the wilderness. Not only does it seem strange that he is in the wilderness, but it is also strange what he is wearing and eating. Verse 4 tells us that he is wearing clothes made of camel’s hair and a leather belt. Further, he is eating locusts and wild honey. But this is showing him to be the Elijah that Malachi prophesied would arrive because this is what Elijah wore (cf. 2 Kings 1:8). Elijah came to Israel during its darkest period, when Ahab was the king. Now the new Elijah comes to Israel in its darkest times, when Herod is the king.
Now Matthew wants you to know why he is in the wilderness, pointing us to Isaiah’s prophecy. When the glory of the Lord is about to return and the king is about to arrive, God would send a voice who would be in the wilderness telling everyone to get ready for the Lord’s coming. John is in the wilderness, picturing the new exodus. The people need to leave Egypt and go into the wilderness for rescue. Remember in last week’s lesson we noted that Matthew shows that physical Israel has become Egypt because of their rebellion and sinfulness and Jesus going out from Israel is to be called out of Egypt (2:13-15). The picture is emphasized by John. John is not in Israel but in the wilderness so that they will make a break with the nation, leave it behind, and come to the hope that is being preached. Notice that verse 5 shows this happening. People went out from Jerusalem. The people went out from Judea. The people went out from the whole region of the Jordan to see John.
What is John preaching? What did the people see and hear when they came to John? You might be surprised by the message. Verse 2 tells us the message. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” The message is that the king and the kingdom are about to arrive. You need to get ready for the king’s arrival. This is what verse 3 is saying. When a king would come into town, the city would get ready by getting the roads cleared and prepared so he could come. John is saying that the Lord himself is coming. You need to get everything ready for his arrival. How do you get ready for the arrival of the king? The answer is to repent. This section in Matthew is going to give us a full picture of repentance. Notice the first pictures of repentance are seen in verse 6. When people went out to John, they were confessing their sins and were baptized. Repentance is not thinking that we are doing okay before God. Repentance is not a continuation of how we are living life right now. Repentance is not saying sorry. Repentance is pictured as recognizing the need to change our lives (make straight paths for the Lord), confessing our sins, and being immersed in water. Repentance does not say that I am okay. Repentance is a declaration that I am not okay. Repentance means I am a sinner in need of cleansing. This is how they are getting ready for the Lord’s arrival.
The Warning (3:7-10)
Next, we will notice the warning. You will notice that it is not just the people of Jerusalem, Judea, and the surrounding region coming to John in repentance. John sees many Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism (3:7). Now you might think this a good thing. Look at how even the religious leaders and the pious people are coming to John. They also want to confess their sins, repent of their wrongdoing, be baptized, and be part of the new exodus as they await the arrival of the king. But notice what John says to them in verses 7-8.
“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance.”
When John sees them coming to him, he stops them and calls them a bunch of snakes. Being called a snake was no better in their society than it is in our society. Being called a snake means the same thing. You are deceptive. But notice what he tells them. You cannot just come to me, get baptized, and think that everything is good. You need to bear fruit in keeping with repentance. You need to stop and listen to what this is all about. This is not some perfunctory washing. This is not some mere external. What John is doing in baptism is supposed to mean something. You need to change your life. You need to bear fruit in keeping with repentance. Fruit shows repentant people. Repentant people do not refuse to do anything or refuse to change. Too many people view repentance as saying the right words, being sorry about some things, and trying to look good before others. This is exactly what these religious leaders seem to be doing. It is the popular thing to do and they can look good before the people if they go to John also. But John stops them. You are a bunch of snakes. You are a bunch of deceivers. God wants the right heart and the right motivation. To put this another way, there is no point in doing anything like confessing sins or being baptized if your repentance is not real. If it is not your desire to make straight paths then anything else is pointless.
John’s warning continues in verses 9-10. John tells them to not say to themselves that they have Abraham as their father. The point is that they should not think that just because they can trace their physical lineage back to Abraham and call themselves Israelites that they do not need to repent. John says that God will raise up an offspring from Abraham out of stones if he needs to. God was never promising that he would save the people of Israel just because they had physical bloodlines to Abraham. The people should have known that because the scriptures repeatedly said it and God repeatedly showed it by bringing cataclysmic judgments on them. In short, who you are is irrelevant to God. What matters to God is fruit in keeping with repentance. Who you are does not matter. Who your parents are does not matter. What your background is does not matter. Nothing matters except repentance.
This is what John tells them in verse 10. The ax is laying at the root of the tree. The picture is that when the king comes he is going to pick up that ax and cut the tree down, root and all so that it will not return. The nation is not producing good fruit. So it is going to be cut down and thrown into the fire. This is why they need to repent now. The king is coming. The glory of the Lord is coming. When he comes, you need to be ready with repentance because he is prepared to judged.
The Proof (3:11-12)
Finally, verses 11-12 are the proof for what John is saying. John declares that he is baptizing for repentance. But the one who comes after him is far greater and mightier than him. The one coming is so great that John is not worthy to carry his sandals. This is an amazing statement because Jesus will declare that there was no one greater born of woman than John. But John says Jesus is so great that he is not even worthy to carry his shoes around. When he comes, he will baptize them with the Holy Spirit and fire. Now it is important to realize that this is not a new declaration in the scriptures. God promised through the prophets that there would be a day when this was going to happen (cf. Isaiah 32:14-18; 44:3-5; Ezekiel 37:13-14; 39:28-29; Joel 2:28-3:1; Malachi 4:1-3). What does this mean?
The meaning is in verse 12. When he comes he is going to winnow the people and clear the threshing floor. The wheat will be gathered into the barn and the chaff will be burned with unquenchable fire. There is nothing shocking about these words. Malachi promised the same thing before Jesus’ arrival.
For behold, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble. The day that is coming shall set them ablaze, says the LORD of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch. But for you who fear my name, the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings. You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall. (Malachi 4:1–2 ESV)
The point that John is making is not a new teaching. The people knew that when the Messiah came that this would be his work. The scriptures made this clear. The point John is making is that the wait is over. John has come to prepare the way for the king. When he comes, he is going to do exactly what God said. He will baptize you with fire, that is, be set ablaze in judgment. Or he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit, that is, gather you into the barn, avoid the judgment, and enjoy the blessings of the king. In short, the imagery means that Jesus is going to gather those who are his and burn those who are not his. He is bringing everything that the Lord promised. The baptism of the Holy Spirit means that the blessings of God are coming and the promises of God are being fulfilled to give life and healing to the people. But to enjoy God’s blessings and receive life and healing, you need to repent.
Repentance means an acceptance of this truth: we have gone off course with our lives and need to come back. Repentance desires to confess our sins, not proclaim excuses or why others made us do what we did. Repentance says that I need to get my life right and my paths straight for the arrival of the king. Repentance is a declaration of a radical life change, not mere grief or sorrow. We are not doing a person any favors if we lower the bar of repentance to just feeling bad or being sorrow. This is not what God is looking for. We are a brood of vipers if we pretend with our repentance.
Now do you think when people came to John, confessing their sins and admitting that they needed to make straight paths in their lives that John shamed them for their sins? Do you think he was repulsed by sinners coming for repentance? Friends, God wants repentance and proclaimed the necessity of repentance to belong to his kingdom. Therefore, we encourage and rally around repentance. We do not shame it. We are not repulsed by repentance. We are not shocked by the sinfulness of people. In a culture and world where saying something wrong and doing something wrong means you are forever marked, we must be a place of help and hope for people who admit they are sinners and desire to turn their lives around. If we are not welcoming the repentant, then we have dark hearts and we are a brood a vipers because we are deceiving ourselves, as if we are not sinners who need just as much of the grace of God anyone else. Can you imagine a doctor not wanting to see sick patients? Can you imagine a church not wanting to see sick patients? We are here to call people to repentance.
But let your repentance be real. How do I know if I have real repentance? John tells us that real repentance bears fruit. Real repentance is willing to change your life when confronted by sin. Do not just say words. Change your life. Live different. Repentance does not continuing living how we want to live. Repentance changes life to live how God wants us to live. Repentance says I am going to change and you will see it in my life today. True repentance is the preparation needed for Jesus’ arrival. The call of the kingdom and of the king is repentance. To be in the kingdom of God means you are ready to have a new life. This means you have to confess that your ways are not working and you are ready for God’s ways. Only now can you receive the blessings of God and forgiveness and healing you need.