In chapter 2, Matthew recorded for us the visit of the Magi to see the new king who had been born. Then there was the escape to Egypt to get away from Herod who wanted to kill the new king who had been born. Then there was the killing of the children around Bethlehem. And finally there was the return to Nazareth. Matthew doesn’t tell us anything else about the Lord’s childhood or about the time before he began his public ministry. And so, between the end of chapter 2 and the beginning of chapter 3, which we’re studying this evening, years have passed.
Chapter 3 can be divided into two parts. Verses 1 to 12 tell us about John the Baptist and his preaching ministry in the Desert of Judea. And verses 13 to 17 tell us about the Lord’s baptism by John in the river Jordan. Once again there are several connections with the Old Testament which make clear that God was fulfilling his Old Testament promises.
Verses 1 to 12
In those days, Matthew says in verse 1, John the Baptist came, preaching in the Desert of Judea. If we only had the book of Matthew, and didn’t also have Luke’s gospel, then we wouldn’t know anything about John’s family background and the miraculous circumstances surrounding his conception and birth. But Matthew doesn’t tell us anything about that: John just appears, fully formed, in the desert.
Like one of the Old Testament prophets, John came to preach. And his message was a simple one which is summarised for us in verse 2. He told the people to repent. This, of course, implies that they had gone astray. Like God’s people in the Old Testament, who frequently forgot the Lord and turned from his ways, and who needed to turn back to God in repentance, so the people in John’s day had done the same. Therefore, they needed to repent: to turn away from a life of sin and unbelief and to turn back to God.
And John not only told them to repent, but he told them that the kingdom of heaven was near. The kingdom was near because Christ the King had come. And his kingdom is a heavenly kingdom, because the King has come from heaven and his kingdom is greater than every earthly kingdom. Whereas the kingdoms of the earth come and go, Christ’s kingdom is an everlasting kingdom which will never end.
And having introduced us to John the Baptist, Matthew tells us in verse 3 that John is the fulfilment of what God said through the prophet Isaiah. He then quotes Isaiah 40:3, a verse about a voice calling in the desert, telling God’s people to prepare the way for the Lord and to make straight paths for him. The image, of course, is of how people would prepare the actual road which a king would travel along. They would try to remove all the bumps and potholes which might make the king’s journey difficult. But Isaiah used that image to call on God’s people to prepare their hearts and lives for God who was coming to punish his enemies and to save his people. Of course, in its original context, the verse refers God: God is coming to his people; and therefore they should prepare for his arrival. But Matthew applies that verse about God to the coming of the Lord Jesus. He’s telling us that the man Jesus is also the Lord God Almighty. The Lord Jesus is God and man in one person.
In verse 4, Matthew refers to John’s appearance and diet. He wore clothes made of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist. And his diet was simple, because he ate locusts and wild-honey. While there may not be anything significant about his food, his clothing may be significant, because, according to 2 Kings 1:8, Elijah dressed in the same way. Not only does that tell us that John looked like a prophet, but it recalls what we read at the end of the book of Malachi, where God announced that he would send Elijah to prepare the people for his coming. So, before God comes to save his people, Elijah the prophet would come. And Elijah has come, in the sense that John came in the spirit and power of Elijah to prepare the people for the coming of Christ the Lord.
And according to verse 5, people from Jerusalem and from all Judea and from the whole region of the Jordan went out to John. And they paid attention to his message, because they confessed their sins and they were also baptised by him in the Jordan River. According to John 1:33, God sent John to baptise. Therefore, John’s baptism, like our baptism today, was instituted by the Lord. Since it was linked to the message of repentance and to the confession of sins, then it was, like our baptism today, a sign of God’s willingness to cleanse his people from the guilt of our sin. Those who were baptised wanted God to wash away their sins and to make them clean; annd by giving us this sign, God made clear that he is willing to cleanse us. And therefore, not only is baptism a sign of God’s willingness to cleanse us, but it’s a seal of his willingness to cleanse us. Through baptism, God guarantees and certifies his promise to forgive all those who believe.
Matthew then tells us that among the crowds who came out to John in the desert were some Pharisees and Sadducees. As we get into the gospel, we’ll see that the Pharisees and Sadducees typically did not believe in the Lord Jesus and they opposed him continually. And though they came to be baptised by John, John’s words to them indicate that he did not think their repentance was genuine. Look what he says to them. First, he calls them a brood of vipers. He then asked them who it was who warned them to flee from God’s wrath. The point of that question might be that they only wanted to be baptised because they were afraid of God’s wrath and not because they were sorry for their sins. And John then told them to produce fruit in keeping with repentance. In other words, if you’re really repenting, prove it by changing your behaviour and by living a new kind of life. Don’t just say you’re sorry, but turn from your evil ways. And if they were relying for peace with God on their being descended from Abraham, then they should bear in mind that God can easily replace them by making new children of Abraham from the stones around them. And in verse 10, John uses the image of an axe at the root of the tree. The farmer is ready to swing his axe and topple the tree. And every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. It’s an image which conveys his readiness to punish those who do not truly repent.
To those who refused to repent, or whose repentance was not genuine, John’s message was a message of judgment to come. But to those whose repentance was genuine, and to those who were truly sorry for their sins and who confessed them before God, John’s message was a message of comfort and peace, because by baptising them he was making clear God’s willingness to wash their sins away and to cleanse them from all their unrighteousness.
And John’s message was a message about the Saviour. So, he went on in verse 11 to speak about the one who was coming after him. The one who was coming after him was far more powerful than John. In fact, John was not fit to carry this person’s sandals, because this person is so much greater and more glorious than John will ever be. And, of course, he’s referring to the Lord Jesus. The one who was coming after John is the Lord Jesus, who is far more powerful and greater and glorious than John, because the Lord Jesus is God the Son in human flesh. And John compares his own baptism with Christ’s baptism. John baptised with water for repentance. That is, he baptised those who repented of their sins, but all he could do was wash them with water. And baptism today is the same. Whenever I baptise someone today, all I do is pour a little water over the person’s head. Like John, I baptise with water, which is the sign of God’s promise to cleanse and forgive whoever repents and believes the good news. But, like John, all I can do is give the sign and I’m not able to give forgiveness, which is the real thing. But Christ can give the real thing. He alone can pour out his Spirit upon his people; and it’s the Spirit who enables his people to receive the forgiveness of sins which Christ has won for us by his death on the cross.
John says about Christ that he baptises with the Spirit and with fire. Some commentators think that fire here refers to the purifying effect of the Spirit in our lives. As metal is purified by fire, so we are purified by the Spirit. Other commentators think that fire here refers to God’s judgment. And given the references to God’s wrath and to judgment by fire in what John has already said, it’s perhaps more likely that he’s still thinking of the judgment. The coming of Christ the King means salvation for his people, but judgment and condemnation for his enemies. And that thought continues into verse 12, because John tells us that Christ’s winnowing fork is in his hand and he’ll clear the threshing floor. The wheat will be gathered into the barn while the chaff will be burned up. The farmer would toss the grain into the air with his winnowing fork to separate the good wheat from the worthless chaff. And so, one day Christ the King will separate his people from his enemies. His people will be gathered into eternal life, whereas his enemies will be sent away to be punished with unquenchable fire.
And so, this is John’s ministry. He summoned sinners to repent and to receive baptism as a sign of God’s willingness to wash away their sins. And he warned those who refused to repent that the day of judgment is coming. And he taught the people that the Saviour was coming who would pour out his Spirit upon his people and send fire upon those who refused to repent and believe.
Verses 13 to 17
And then, according to verse 13, Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptised by John. At first John tried to deter him, because why would the sinless Saviour need to be baptised? But the Lord Jesus insisted, saying, ‘it is proper for us to do this to fulfil all righteousness.’ We often think it means that being baptised was the right thing for him to do. But the word ‘fulfil’ is used in Matthew’s gospel to show how events in the life of Christ are related to things from the Old Testament. And there are at least two ways his baptism fulfils what we read about in the Old Testament.
Firstly, his baptism fulfils what God said about the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 53, because, like the Suffering Servant, the Lord Jesus was numbered among the transgressors. He lined up with all the sinners who had come to confess their sins and to receive baptism from John. He therefore identified himself with them. And not only did he identify with them, but he would go on to suffer and die for them in their place.
Secondly, I said last week that the Lord Jesus is depicted as the new Israel. So, just as God called the people of Israel out of Egypt, so God called the Lord Jesus out of Egypt, where they had gone to escape Herod. And what happened after the people of Israel left Egypt? They went through the waters of the Red Sea, which was a kind of baptism. And since the Lord Jesus is the new Israel, and since he’s retracing the steps of the people of Israel, then after he left Egypt, he too went through the waters of baptism. But unlike the people of Israel, the Lord Jesus was perfectly righteous, because he always did what his Father wanted. And so, after he was baptised, the Holy Spirit descended on him in the form of a dove. And a voice from heaven said about him, ‘This is my Son, whom I love. With him I am well pleased.’ Israel was God’s disobedient son; and God was not pleased with most of them, so that their bodies were scattered over the desert. However, the Lord Jesus is God’s obedient Son and God was well pleased with him. Therefore we can say that the Lord Jesus fulfilled the role which had been given to the people of Israel, but which they failed to perform. Unlike them, the Lord Jesus was God’s obedient and well pleasing Son.
However, we can also say that the Lord’s baptism reveals the Trinity and it reminds us that our salvation was the work of all three divine persons, who worked together to save us. And so, at the Lord’s baptism, there’s the voice of God the Father. And the Father is speaking about the Son. And then there’s the Holy Spirit who appears in the form of a dove. And so, glory be to God the Father and glory be to God the Son and glory be to God the Spirit. One God in three persons. To him belongs all praise and glory, both now and forevermore.