Calling In The Desert
Matthew 3: 1 — 12
As we take our first steps into St Matthew's Gospel we need to take the greatest care that we get the real gist of his account, and do not project onto it current popular attitudes or any particular bias. Let us therefore take time to observe carefully how Matthew has been inspired to present this magnificent account. (As part of our introduction we refer to notes from "A commentary on the Holy Bible", edited by J. R. Dummelow, Macmillan and Co., 1946. Click here for the appendix "John The Baptist's Ministry".)
Some Notes On the Text
Our reading commences with an expression like, "In those days". This refers to the time of the beginning of the ministry of Jesus, which is the main topic of the Gospel. It does not refer back to Joseph's arrival in Nazareth, since several years (perhaps up to 30) had elapsed since then. We might say something like, some years later or some time later. (Translator's Guide. UBS)
So, John the Baptist came preaching in the desert of Judea. By "desert" is meant a wilderness tract about 10 miles wide to the West of the Dead Sea, including also the West bank of the Jordan near its mouth. There it is hot and arid, but not without some pasturage, and is therefore not unpopulated.
The term "desert" had ancient prophetic overtones. The Law was given (proclaimed) in the desert wilderness. Here the new Word is also proclaimed in the wilderness.
Notice how John the Baptist suddenly appears on the scene. He seems to be so well known that he needs no introduction. His message is succinct and piercing. "Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven has (already) come near." There are three points of special; note:
John the Baptist's proclamation is, indeed, loaded with the full power of Scriptural prophecy and divine authority.
Matthew now adds a comment about the Baptist, saying, "This is he who was spoken of through the Prophet Isaiah:
This is a call to be ready for the Lord's coming. It is also a call to provide the necessary conditions or circumstances that would make it possible for the Lord to come to his people. (UBS)
We are warned here not to be distracted by temptations towards a preoccupation with seeking endless miracle sessions or spiritual titillation but to take on and persevere in the hard preparation of building foundations for "straight paths" for the Lord to come to his people. This is not the popular religious pursuit of some Christians today; but is nevertheless the declared required preparation forcefully announced from Heaven through John the Baptist. And it demands our meditation on all that it means to us individually and collectively.
John's appearance in camel's hair etc. and his way of life, were like that of the prophet Elijah (2 Kings 1: 8 ).
Verses 5 and 6
Interestingly, people took the trouble to leave their townships throughout the Jordan region, and go out to listen to his preaching. The devout responded there and then by confessing their sins and asking John to baptise them, an act normally self-administered.
Verses 7 — 9
Among the people coming to John were members of two very different groups: the "Sadducees and the Pharisees" (Click here for the appendix). John discerned that they were only receiving his baptism in case it protected them from punishment for sin. John calls them a "brood of vipers", meaning they were as clever as snakes. He cuts immediately to the core of his message since they simply have not taken it in:
Before they can open their mouths he gets in first:
(The Apostle Paul will later point out in Romans 9: 6 — 8 etc. that all those who share Abraham's faith are his true descendents. This is an extremely important understanding which the infant Church treasured).
In an oral tradition, without the aid of modern teaching resources, John makes a very vivid illustration:
A sober warning indeed, intended not only for the Pharisees and Sadducees, but for any person or group who down through the ages evolve the attitude that the warnings are for anyone else but them!
John went on to distinguish between his baptism and that of "one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not fit to carry".
His baptism was to be coupled with repentance before and after. It was to prepare a way for the Lord by calling people to repentance, to see the need for repentance and to turn their lives around to conform to the revealed Law of God.
John continues his comparison of baptisms:
Baptism in the Holy Spirit, Donald Carson reminds us, is not a specialised term in the New Testament. Its Old Testament . background includes Ezekiel 36: 25 — 27, and 39: 29, as well as Joel 2: 28. The Baptist would have been very familiar with these and sensed the moment of their fulfilment. The One who was to follow would administer Spirit-fire baptism that would both purify and refine. After a long, apparent absence of the Holy Spirit active in Jewish affairs, John's announcement must have been greeted with excited anticipation. (Carson).
Continuing his graphic warning the Baptist presents a clear and uncomplicated image. The Messiah will gather the repentant into his presence and the unrepentant will be sentenced to indescribable punishment. As moderns we may think of this as scare tactics, but John is so aware of the horror of being deprived of God's presence that he makes the strongest possible plea for people to listen and act.
We are so accustomed to decrying all the evils in the world that we easily overlook the essential message of John. He taught, as Jesus was to continue, that the true enemy was a person's own sinfulness, and not the evils of others; not Rome but the impure Jewish or Christian heart! Christian groups who label other Christians as "the anti-Christ" and so on, have looked in the wrong place for the enemy. The Gospel accounts insist on the principle of putting your own house in order before you dare to criticise others. How much we need the Baptist to stir us up.
As Christian culture collapses all around us, we have some very good advice from the Baptist who spoke the truth with clarity and great courage. The challenge will be for us to listen to it in like manner, and act accordingly.
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