In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” For 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.’”
Now John wore a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. And 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 for Abraham. Even 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.
“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 fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”
Understanding And Applying the Text
We know from Luke’s gospel that Jesus was about 30 years old when He started His ministry. By ancient standards, Jesus was not a young man. He had had a career as a carpenter. So after 30 years, He began His life’s purpose. By ancient standards, He began as an old man. Even by today’s standards, he would be considered middle-aged.
From this point, we no longer hear about Joseph. Tradition holds Joseph had died. It was not uncommon for older men to marry much younger women. Women married at 12 or 13. Today that seems creepy. But not so in the ancient world. It is reasonable to assume Joseph died before Jesus began His ministry. But that is speculation. Some believe both Mary and Joseph married in their teens. The fact is we do not know the age of either Mary or Joseph. We can only make educated guesses based on the culture at that time.
John had started baptizing in the wilderness. His message was, “Repent.” There was an urgency in his message. The kingdom of heaven was at hand.
The command to repent was not unique to John. We find it throughout the Old Testament. “Repent” was Jesus’ first command. Repentance is not being sorry. It is a decisive change. It is a turning away from sin. It is turning to a life of obedience to God. It is not self-denial. It is not self-mutilation. It is not asceticism. It is a transition to a new life of obedience.
John introduced Jesus’ theme. “The Kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Matthew 4:17, Mark 1:15) Both John and Jesus proclaim the waiting period is over. The King has come.
But what does that mean? What is the “Kingdom of heaven?” We are alienated from God’s righteousness. We are banished from the kingdom of heaven. We must come to God. We must live under His guidance. We achieve this through His free adoption and forgiveness. He must reconcile us. We have proven ourselves unworthy of his grace and forgiveness. So the Kingdom of heaven is nothing less than a new life. (Romans 6:4) It is our restoration by God. It renews hope of blessed immortality. Even though we remain on earth our journey has begun. We enjoy our new life by faith.
It is important to notice John’s message. So often we confuse it. “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” It is not, ”Repent so the kingdom of heaven can come.” All too often we believe we have to do something. We think God is waiting on us. No! God is not dependent on us. God accomplishes His will with or without us. Claiming otherwise makes us sovereign and God subservient.
Matthew points to Isaiah’s prophecy. John was the fulfillment of that prophecy. He fulfilled it both literally and metaphorically.
“The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight.’”
John was in an actual wilderness. Judea was a spiritual wilderness. He was crying in a wilderness in both senses of the word. He was preparing the nation for Jesus’ message. “Repent.”
In baptism, John declared the forgiveness of sins and repentance. God demands confession of our sins. Without confession of sins, baptism was an idle mockery.
Christian baptism is not the same as John’s baptism. (Acts 19:1-5) There are similarities. Both are a symbol of repentance. Christian baptism is in the name of a triune God. (Matthew 28:19) And it symbolizes our union with Christ. (Romans 6:3-6; 1 Corinthians 12:13; Galatians 3:27; Colossians 2:12)
Baptism was not something John did as a religious symbol. It was not an exercise in piety. It was not a ritual rite. It was serious. It had meaning. It went hand in hand with repentance. So when the Pharisees and Sadducees came to John to be baptized. John rebuked them. All they were going to do was get wet. There was no repentance in them.
Pharisees were important and influential both religiously and politically. Pharisees outnumbered the Sadducees. According to Josephus, (Ant. 17.2.4 [17.42]) there were more than 6,000 Pharisees at about this time. Pharisees differed from Sadducees in both doctrine and behavior. The Pharisees were strict. They were zealous adherents to the Old Testament laws. To help ensure compliance with the Old Testament law they added several traditions.
The Sadducees controlled the official political structures. They made up the majority of members of the Sanhedrin. They were strict law and order guys.
It is clear John had not read the book, “How To Win Friends and Influence People.” So he called the Pharisees and Sadducees a bunch of snakes. Yeah, not a good way to win friends. But God called him to call people to repentance. He saw through their pride. They saw baptism as a way to be religious. And people would recognize their piety. But they had no repentance. The Pharisees considered themselves righteous. They believed they did not need to repent. John had to shock them into reality.
John told them to show their repentance. Repentance in words alone is not repentance. Repentance shows itself in behavior. Good works are the result of repentance. (Titus 3:8, James 2:24)
Good works do not produce repentance and salvation. But repentance produces good works. Remember what repentance is. It is not saying, “I’m sorry.” It is a decisive change. It is a turning away from sin. It is turning to a life of obedience to God. That, by necessity, produces good works.
In verse 9, I hear a taunting tone. “We have Abraham as our father.” They viewed salvation as a birth rite. They forgot God is a righteous God. God does not ask for righteousness. He demands it. And He condemns all who are not righteous.
They thought they had a get-out-of-jail-free card. God made a covenant with Abraham and his descendants. John reminded them God could fulfill that covenant out of stones. God did not need them. The true children of God are only children by God’s action. In the same manner, being born into a Christian family does not spare anyone from judgment. John announced God’s impending judgment.
John said he baptized with water but Jesus would baptize with the Holy Spirit. It is the Holy Spirit who cleanses. John said the Holy Spirit would baptize with fire. This is a metaphor to indicate cleansing. He takes away what pollutes us. It is how fire purifies gold. John used the metaphor of water. (John 3:5.)
John talks about grace and judgment. Grace cleanses. Judgment burns with unquenchable fire. Interestingly, John uses fire as the metaphor for both. In the case of grace, fire cleanses. In the case of judgment, fire consumes.
Jesus went to John for baptism. John did not want to baptize Jesus. He understood Jesus was the one person who did not need repentance.
In the Old Testament “righteousness” often refers to the observance of the Law. That is one way to understand Jesus’ comment, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” It was necessary He kept every part of the Law.
But John Calvin has this thought.
The general reason why Christ received baptism was, that he might render full obedience to the Father; and the special reason was, that he might consecrate baptism in his own body, that we might have it in common with him.The Complete Biblical Commentary Collection of John Calvin
When Jesus came out of the water. The heavens opened and the Holy Spirit descended like a dove. Matthew’s account is a little ambiguous. Matthew said descended like a dove. That could mean came floating down. But Luke is much less ambiguous. Luke tells us The Holy Spirit descended in bodily form like a dove. The anointing of the Holy Spirit testified to Jesus’ identity.