Matthew 3:1-12

Matthew 3:1–12 (RSV2CE)
1In those days came John the Baptist, preaching in the wilderness of Judea,
2“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
3For 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.”
4Now John wore a garment of camel’s hair, and a leather belt around his waist; and his food was locusts and wild honey.
5Then went out to him Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan,
6and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
7But 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?
8Bear fruit that befits repentance,
9and do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.
10Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
11“I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry; he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.
12His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the granary, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

There is an interesting repetition here: twice John the Baptist makes allusion to hand tools (an axe; a winnowing fork); twice he makes allusion to the separation of the good from the bad (trees that bear good fruit, and trees that do not; wheat and chaff); and twice he makes reference to fire of destruction (“…cut down and thrown into the fire;” “…burn with unquenchable fire”), in contrast with the other mention of fire – that which will accompany Christ’s baptism of the Holy Spirit (3:11).

Note that repentance is associated with the confession of one’s sins (3:6). Note too that repentance implies a change of lifestyle. Those Pharisees and Sadducees who came to John for baptism were denied, since their lives did not “bear fruits [of] repentance” (3:8). We can infer from this that those others who came to John had already experienced contrition of heart and had examined their consciences before coming to John.

If the Pharisees and Sadducees presumed that their salvation was assured through their lineage (3:9), why did they come to John for baptism at all? John says that they are fleeing “from the wrath to come” (3:7). In Matthew 9:13, Jesus tells the Pharisees that they need to learn not merely the words of Scripture, but what it means; in John 5:39, Jesus says that his persecutors search for eternal life in the Scriptures, but they don’t realize that He is the One who gives that eternal life – the one to whom all Scripture directs our gaze! So the Pharisees and Sadducees were by no means internally assured of their own salvation; they were still trying to decipher God’s law as one would decipher a code – but they were using the wrong cipher, and things weren’t quite clicking into place.

If Scripture is used to point us to anything but Christ, it is being misused. If we follow Scripture to any destination other than Christ, we have gone astray.


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