Matthew 3:1-12 English Standard Version (ESV)
John the Baptist Prepares the Way
3 In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, 2 “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”[a] 3 For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when he said,
“The voice of one crying in the wilderness:
‘Prepare[b] the way of the Lord;
make his paths straight.’”
4 Now John wore a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. 5 Then Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him, 6 and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
7 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? 8 Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. 9 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. 10 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.
11 “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. 12 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.”
Theologian and scholar Craig Keener suggests that, in order to truly understand John the Baptist, we must see him in the light of the prophets. In a world where the prophetic ministry had appeared to cease, Matthew 3:3 sees John as a sign of its expected fulfillment (Isaiah and Malachi). The description of John as one who “came preaching in the wilderness of Judea” (vs 1) wearing a “garment of camel’s hair” (vs 4) evokes Elijah and the Exodus story, expressing the hope they, as children of Abraham, held for Elijah’s return and the promise of a new Exodus.
The audience in this passage are the children of Abraham (verse 7). The warning is for the presumptions they have regarding the nature of John’s baptism and their salvation. They expected John to be a sign of their coming salvation in an external sense. What they did not expect was the call for individual repentance.
According to Keener, a common understanding of repentance in the ancient Greco-Roman world would have been a change of mind or matter of thought. In the Judeo-Christian usage, repentance signified a complete change in direction, which is a matter of seeing. Contrasted with baptism through water in Matthew 3, which in John’s ministry is a matter of repentance, we find an emphasis on another type of baptism- fire and spirit (verse 11). The use of fire and spirit seems to indicate two unique and complimentary aspects of Jesus’ ministry- one is salvific (spirit), the other sanctifying (refining). This is the direction John desires his audience to turn towards, in the way of Christ.
So if John’s baptism desires to point us in the direction of Jesus, Jesus’ baptism is then God’s actual saving (purifying, refining) work. This is where John’s own prophetic voice in Matthew 3 begins to take root as an expression of renewed expectation through Jesus. For the children of Abraham, God was expected to establish His Kingdom in the world for their sake. John reforms their expectation by pointing them towards Jesus as the full expression of this kingdom building, which is refining us for the sake of the world.
Advent is a time of waiting and expectation as we anticipate Jesus. In this time of waiting, here are two worthwhile questions to consider. Where do our expectations need to be reformed, and how do our lives need to be refined?