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Matthew 3:1-12 – The Preaching of John the Baptist

Summary

John the Baptist appears in the wilderness as one who prepares the way of the Lord. In his preaching he calls for repentance because the kingdom of heaven is at hand, and he warns that baptism brings with it the call to bear fruit worthy of repentance.

Analysis

At this point in the narrative, Matthew rejoins Mark's lead and follows him at certain points (see Mark 1:1-8). Matthew underscores the wilderness location for John's preaching, John's baptismal activity in the Jordan, John's rough dress and diet, and the wide response to his ministry. At other key points, Matthew has modified the narrative to give it his own stamp and distinctive character.

First, his summary of John's preaching as "repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near" (3:2) quite significantly alters the content of John's preaching. Instead of Mark's description of John's preaching as a "baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins," Matthew's John calls for repentance "because the kingdom of heaven has come near," thus directing John's message more toward the theme of repentance rather than toward the theme of forgiveness. Second, Matthew typically makes more clear the prophetic link as one of fulfillment and as referring directly to John by changing Mark's ambiguous "as" to "this is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke."

Third, he expands John's preaching with warnings about judgment, the coming wrath, and the danger of presuming upon the ancestry of Abraham. The motifs of the ax laid to the root of the tree and the winnowing of the grain, along with the double reference to branches or chaff thrown into the fire, all give an overall mood of judgment to John's call for his hearers to bear fruit worthy of repentance. This motif is further extended even to the description of the one who is to come: he will baptize not just with the Holy Spirit, but "with the Holy Spirit and fire" (3:11).

The result is that while clearly proclaiming a message of hope in pointing to the one who will come, Matthew's John also gives a certain somberness and seriousness to this expectation in the call for a repentance shown forth in the bearing of fruit that is worthy of repentance. Like the wedding guest who is expelled for failure to have the proper garment (see 22:11-14), one cannot presume upon the mercy of God. The motif of judgment and the call for obedient discipleship in the face of the message of the coming kingdom is one that will be repeated elsewhere in Matthew.

Matthew 3:1-12

The Proclamation of John the Baptist

3In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, 2‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’* 3This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,
‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
   make his paths straight.”
4Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. 5Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, 6and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

7 But when he saw many 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 worthy of repentance. 9Do not presume to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor”; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 10Even now the axe is lying at 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 one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with* the Holy Spirit and fire. 12His winnowing-fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing-floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’

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v 2.2.7
10 February 2011

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