Matthew 3:1-12
A Voice Crying Out In The Wilderness

Authored By Rev. Takao Kiyohiro, Tokyo, Japan

1.  In The Gospel According To Matthew appear as many as five long narratives by the Lord Jesus directed to the disciples and the public.  Why did Matthew write down these stories?  It needs not be said but, he did it to inform the church of that period.  In Matthew's Gospel, stern messages of judgment by the Lord Jesus are also recorded about the leaders in Judaism.  Why did Matthew write these down?  We should not consider this gospel's first hand readers as the followers of Judaism.  He did not write this book down for the purpose of disputing [with them].  [His] purpose is clear.  He wrote it in order to inform the church of his time period.  The words of judgment, spoken by the Lord to the leaders of Judaism, had become words of warning for the church as it was then.  In The Gospel According To Matthew, as is the same in the other gospels, John the Baptizer is recorded as a forerunner of the Lord.  The stern words that came out of the mouth of John were cast at the Pharisees and the Sadducees.  Why did Matthew record this?  It wasn't to inform Pharisees and Sadducees.  By the time of [the] original [writing of] Matthew, the Sadducee sect had no longer existed.  This was written to inform Christians.

2.  [A message of] repentance was called out to the people.  That means that [a message of] repentance has been called out to us.  He was trying to prepare the way for the arrival of the messiah.  We know that the messiah has already come, and we believe and confess that he will come again on the day of the end.  Just as the message of John the Baptizer was a preparation for the first coming of the Lord, his words, which we are informed about today, are a preparation for us for the second coming of the Lord.  That's why this passage of scripture is read during Advent season.  Advent season is a time of repentance, as I mentioned last week.  As we recall this in our hearts, I'd like us to incline our attention to the biblical words given to us today.

Repent: The Kingdom Of Heaven Is Near

3.  First let's read from verse one to verse six.  "In those days John the Baptizer appeared, he proclaimed in the Judean wilderness, 'Repent: the kingdom of heaven is near.'  This was a man who thus said according to the prophet Isaiah, 'He serves as the voice of one crying aloud in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his pathways.'  John wore a fur coat of camel and tied a leather belt around his waist and made locusts and wild honey for [his] food.  Then, people came to John from Jerusalem and all the land of Judah and from the entire area along the banks of the Jordan River, and they confessed their sins and received baptism from him at the Jordan River," (verses one through six).

4.  The character John the Baptizer appears on the scene abruptly.  In The Gospel According To Luke there is a description on his birth but none is written in Matthew.  It looks like he had no interest in who the character John was.  [Matthew's] interest was directed towards [John the Baptizer's] work.  It was about what he did in relation to Christ.  The Bible says about John that he was "a voice of a person crying out in the wilderness."  It says he was a voice crying out, "Prepare the way of the Lord, make his pathways straight."  The road must be prepared for the Lord to come.  The way must be prepared to welcome the savior.

5.  What does this mean?  John cries out, "Repent: The kingdom of heaven is near."  It is repentance that is required in order to prepare the way.  Repentance is the way we must get ready and prepare for the coming of salvation.  There is no salvation where there is no repentance.  Repentance is not mere regret.  Many people are sorry for the consequences of [their] sin.  More than most people have regrets.  There are some who go from regret to self-hatred.  But, no matter how much regret or self-loathing there might be, this by itself will not bring salvation.  Well, should a person give himself or herself to contemplation with a view to changing oneself?  That would definitely be better than just regretting; however, even though repenting does involve contemplation, it is not simple meditation.  Repentance is about changing direction.  Repentance is a reinstatement with God.  One makes a change in direction from a lifestyle that was separated from God and a life that was rebellious against God and turns to Him.  This is different from regret and is not something that naturally emerges from within the inside of a human being.  Only a call on the part of God makes it possible.  Therefore, over and over the prophets had been sent.  Here as well John the Baptizer has been sent by God and was made to issue a call for repentance.

6.  The reason a call has been made that one change directions and turn to God is because "the kingdom of heaven is near."  To say the kingdom of heaven is not what we might call paradise.  When the Jews say "heaven" it frequently refers to God.  They avoided pronouncing the name God and called [God] "heaven."  So, "the kingdom of heaven" is nothing but "the kingdom of God."  The kingdom of God means the government of God.  It is about God ruling as king.  We have salvation when God is ruling.  It is not when the devil rules, nor when sin rules, nor when death rules, but it is when God governs that we have salvation.  Therefore, the saying "the kingdom of heaven is near" is nothing but the saying "salvation is near."

7.  But, where salvation is there is judgment, too.  Salvation and judgment are both sides of the same activity of God.  Given a little thought it is something anyone will understand.  The perfect rule of God is salvation for the person who loves God.  But, it is a fearful judgment for the person who hates God.  It is salvation for those who obey God, but it is a dreadful judgment for those who oppose God.  The time when the world will be saved is also the time when the world will be judged.  Therefore, a call for repentance has been issued.  It [means] a change of direction.  It is a return to God.  In response to this call to repentance people came to John from Jerusalem and all the land of Judea and from all the area along the Jordan River, and they confessed [their] sins and received baptism at the Jordan River.

Bear Fruit Appropriate For Repentance

8.  Let's continue reading from verse seven to verse ten.  "John saw that a great crowd of Pharisees and Sadducees came to receive baptism and he said this: 'O children of vipers, who taught you to escape from the imminent wrath of God?  Bear fruit appropriate for repentance.  Don't think that Our father is Abraham.  Instead I tell you, God is able to create sons of Abraham even from stones such as these.  The ax is already laid to the root of the tree.  Every tree which doe not bear good fruit will be cut down and cast into the fire,'" (verses seven through ten).

9.  A crowd of Pharisees and Sadducees came to John.  This is surprising.  They came all the way to John who was in the wilderness and wanted to receive baptism.  This means that they at least seriously thought about God's absolute rule and his judgment.  They had understood that they themselves were in a precarious condition in their relationship with God.  So, they tried to escape from the wrath of God.  This is understandable.  After all we, too, would want to flee from such wrath upon being told about the wrath and judgment of God.

10.  However, this matter of simply trying to escape from the wrath of God is different from repentance.  When faced with crisis or when in hard times many people just attempt to escape.  They never even think about what was wrong in [their] relationship with God.  They have never even seriously thought about the fact the direction of [their] life was not correct with respect to God.  They only think of how can they escape.  But, that's the same as trying to trim up and pretty up only the leaf section while leaving the rotten root just as it is.  Because the root is rotten, though the leaves have gotten thick, it will not bear fruit.

11.  So,  John says to them with rather harsh words, "Repent: bear fruit appropriate for repentance."  This is not simply just asking them to do good or be good people.  Actually, it is bearing fruit in the vicissitudes of life.  Therefore, what is fundamentally the problem is precisely this matter of one's relationship with God.  What is required is not that we try to escape from predicaments and crises, but a repentance wherein one sincerely turns to God.  [What is required] is a life that repents and walks with God.

12.  For that reason we must abandon each and every source of hindrance to repentance.  For instance, [one seemingly authoritative hindrance to repentance] was their identity as Jews.  "Our father is Abraham."  On the contrary, such a thought is a hindrance to true repentance.  "So big deal!" John said:  "I tell you, God is able to create sons of Abraham even from stones such as these."  In other words, it means that their claim that we are the children of Abraham has no major significance when compared to the importance of doing true repentance and bearing appropriate fruit.  We must instead abandon such [claims].

13.  Furthermore, we [can] understand from the words which follow and which appear again later as the words of Christ which are about the same as verse ten that this was not merely a problem for the Jews, (7:19).  Matthew was thinking of this as a problem for the church.  It is our problem, that is, all those messages where they say salvation is guaranteed without repenting must be gotten rid of.

The One Who Offers A Baptism Of The Holy Spirit And Fire

14.  Finally, let's read from verses eleven to twelve.  "In order to guide you into repentance I have been offering a baptism by means of water, but the One who is coming after me is superior to me.  I am not worthy to untie his footwear.  He will offer you a baptism of the Holy Spirit and fire.  And, he was a winnow in his hand, he will clean up every nook and cranny of the threshing room, and after gathering the wheat he will put it into storage and will burn the chaff to ashes with a fire that will not turn off," (verses eleven and twelve).

15.  We understand from these words what John thought of the coming messiah.  The messiah is depicted as a sovereign judge.  The kingdom of God has come near.  John has said that the kingdom of God will be brought in by a speedy judgment from the messiah.  This [messiah] will "offer you a baptism of the Holy Spirit and fire."  It is clear from the illustration afterwards what John meant by the words a complete and utter judgment.  [It is clear] because of the imagery used here of the circumstances around the threshing process.  When the peasant lets the wheat go up into the air with a winnow, the wind blows apart the chaff.  Then the wheat is put into the store room and the chaff is to be burned up.  In this way he says the final judgment of God, which will be conducted by the messiah, will also take place.  In connection with this it is also spoken of as "a baptism by the Spirit and fire."  "Fire" is clearly a symbol of judgment.  But, how about the Holy Spirit?  It does not seem like John simply meant by this the Spirit of God.  Actually, "spirit" and "wind" are the same word whether in Aramaic which John was probably using or in Greek which was used in the gospel account.  So, what John intended was "holy wind."  Therefore, we understand that as he speaks using the imagery of threshing it is a symbol of the judgment which blows apart and separates the chaff and the wheat.  In short, John was persistently speaking on the messiah as the one who would perform the last judgment.

16.  Well, was John right about this point?  Was there really a person he called "the one coming after me" and was the one named Jesus really such a person as [John had proclaimed]?  No, the messiah did not come in his first coming as that type of person.  It is clear from what John had a messenger ask when he later sent him, "Are you the one who is to come?  Or, must we wait for someone else?," (Matthew 11:3) that [John's] image of the Lord Jesus might have let down the expectations of John.

17.  However, it often seems in bible prophecy that with no connection to what the original persons had ever even intended that [the prophets] have spoken words indeed that were right.  Certainly the One who was to come, the Lord Jesus, was the One who would "offer a baptism to you of the Holy Spirit and fire."  The aptness of these words became evident on the day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit fell on the disciples and the church was born.  The Lord Jesus came not as the One to condemn humans in sin and to enforce the judgment, but as the One to save people from sin.  Therefore, the Lord did not come as the One having a winnow in his hand that would blow apart and divide, but he came into this world as the One who would carry our sins and bear the cross upon his shoulders.  The Lord was crucified for us and accomplished the redemption of sin for us.  Also, the Lord, who was raised to heaven, is pouring out the Holy Spirit on whoever believes.  The Lord Jesus indeed is the One who is offering a baptism of the Holy Spirit and fire.

18.  John said, "The kingdom of heaven is near."  "The kingdom of heaven" has already begun in the Holy Spirit where God is ruling.  We are forgiven of sin, given the Holy Spirit, and can live under the rule of God.  Where God rules lies God's salvation.  Also, the rule of God is heading towards its fulfillment or perfection on the day of the end.  The rule of God will be fulfilled or perfected at the end when Christ comes the second time.  It means the time when salvation is fulfilled.  At the same time it will also be a time when a perfect judgment will come to be.  Because salvation and judgment are one and the same.

19.  Consequently, for us today as well, a call to repentance is being issued all the more.  "Repent: The kingdom of heaven is near."  This is a message directed to us.  The time when a call to repentance is being issued is a time of grace.  Paul said, "Now [is] the time of grace, right now is the day of salvation," (Second Corinthians 6:2).  We should not take repenting lightly nor should we waste the grace of God.

 
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