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