Introduction to John the Baptist
In this article we're going to start to cover Matthew 3 in a verse by verse study. This is going to be a summarized version of the Bible study that we, Pure Faith Living, do with our church that you can find on our YouTube page. You can also find it on our podcast. The video version of the Bible study started in Matthew 3 because we had already covered the two previous chapters on our podcast and didn’t see a need to cover them again. We hope you enjoy this series. Let’s get started by reading verses 1-12, and then we're going to break that down one section at a time. So, the articles will be broken down in the following manner:
1 In those days, John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, 2 “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” 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 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.”
Before we get into this verse by verse breakdown of verses 1-3, I need to point out that the beginning of chapter one is the genealogy of Jesus, but at the end of chapter one and through chapter two Jesus was an infant and going into his young teenage years. Chapter three then takes a big step forward in time. At this point in the scriptures Jesus is getting ready to start his ministry. That is assumed to be when Jesus was around thirty years old. So we are making a fifteen to twenty year jump from the end of Matthew 2 into Matthew 3. During that time we don't know what Jesus was doing. We know that He was a craftsman doing carpentry work of some sort, but that is it. During this same time period, John the Baptist was out there setting up his ministry, baptizing and really pushing for a revival in the Jewish people. He was anything but quiet. He was out there making noise and doing everything he could to prepare the way for Jesus. So, as we start chapter 3, we're to the point where John does have that ministry and Jesus is ready to start his own ministry. But I just want to make that correlation between the end of chapter two and the beginning of three and mention that jump forward.
Now we're going to break down verses 1-3 and look at certain words, highlight certain things, and take a deeper dive into the meaning behind these verses. The first word I want to look at is ‘wilderness’ because John the Baptist was preaching in the wilderness of Judea. Where was that actually at? Modern day scholars believe that there are two sites that could have been the possible location of John’s ministry. Out of the two, one is believed to be far more likely than the other. That is because ancient scholars, historians and even oral folklore from days gone by have attributed that one location to John the Baptist. That location is known as Al-Maghtas, and if you look it up on current day maps its address is in Jericho. That is because Jericho is right next to the Jordan River in this same area. Well, this same Al-Maghtas, in ancient times, was known as Bethabara and/or Bethany. We all are familiar with Bethany because we hear Bethany a lot in the New Testament, especially when talking about Jesus. So, this ancient Bethany was also known as Bethabara, and it is currently known as Al-Maghtas. Bethabara, in the ancient language, is defined as, or it means, ‘the place of crossing.’ Well, this place of crossing is a spot in the Jordan River where John the Baptist was doing his ministry, as well as the wilderness, and doing most of his baptizing. It's also the location believed to be where Joshua led the Israelites across the Jordan whenever they initially went into the promised land to take over Jericho. Again, Jericho is literally right across the river and it's just a little north of where this actual location is. This is also the same location where they believe Elijah took Elisha across the Jordan and Elijah was “caught up” to heaven. Let’s remember that Elijah was one of the very few that never actually suffered death but was instead taken up into heaven, and Elisha witnessed this. Well, this ‘place of crossing’ is believed, by scholars, to be the exact same area, or very close to it, that John the Baptist was doing his baptizing on the Jordan River. When talking about the wilderness, this is worth talking about. The weird part about this, however, is that this location is known as the place of crossing, but I couldn't figure out why. The only thing I could find, as far as this place of crossing is concerned, was the fact that this is where Elijah crossed over into heaven. I've never been there myself, but I'm wondering if it's just a narrower or a more shallow part of the Jordan which would make it easier for John to do his baptizing. It does leave me to question why this location? Why this section of the Jericho River? I don't know and haven't been able to find good evidence for an answer. The only thing that I can think of is, like I said earlier, maybe it is an area of the Jordan that is a little more shallow or not quite so wide that makes it easier for people to cross without too much stress.
The next word that I want to highlight is repent. Matthew 3:2 says, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” John's mention of repentance here follows along the same lines as almost all the Old Testament prophets. If you go back and read a lot of the Old Testament and look at the prophets then you would see that their main mission was to give a prophecy in an attempt to get people to repent from (or change) their evil ways. Their goal was to possibly save them from the wrath of God. That form of repentance is the same idea of repentance that John is using here. It is John trying to call the Jewish people away from their evil ways and call them back to their true nature, which is God. Repentance is more than just a change in the way you are living, it's a change of heart. What I mean is, when you're living in a secular world like we do then you are surrounded by sin. If you start allowing that sin to work in your life and you start doing sinful things, then you're going down the wrong path. So to repent is to recognize those things that you're doing wrong, have that change of heart, that change of mind and that change of habit to get rid of those evil things in your life and to refocus and re-center yourself on the Lord. That's what John is calling the Israelite people to do. John is telling them that they need to change the way they are living their lives and to stop doing evil. We don't know what they were doing in order to be called to repentance, but we have to assume that they were living in sin. We also assume that John has been doing this for about fifteen years and for as many Israelites as he could. Especially when we look at the time difference from the end of Matthew 2 to where we are in Matthew 3. An example of this repentance that John is preaching about can be seen in the Old Testament in the book of Jonah. Jonah was called by God to go to Nineveh to prophesy to the people there and tell them to repent. He didn't want to go but got there in a long, roundabout way via a boat and then the belly of a fish. Eventually he got to Nineveh and he prophesied to the people there. He said repent or you're going to have the wrath of God come upon you and destroy you. They listened, repented and changed their way of living. They left their evil ways and re-centered themselves on the Lord which led to the Lord sparing them. That's what John the Baptist is doing here in these verses. He's saying repent, get away from the evil things you're doing and re-center your lives on the Lord because the kingdom of heaven is here.
Kingdom of Heaven is at Hand
Next we're going to look at ‘the kingdom of heaven is at hand’. John the Baptist is saying that Jesus is here, and you don't have time to wait to repent. He didn't know when Jesus was going to start his ministry, but he knew Jesus was there. And the thing is, the Jewish people were expecting God to come. They weren't expecting Jesus because they didn't know about Jesus at that time, but they were expecting God to come in some way, shape or form. So they really weren't overly surprised that Jesus came, they just didn't know who Jesus actually was or what His mission was. This really isn't much different than us today. We know Jesus is coming again because we have Biblical evidence saying that Jesus is coming again. We don't know when, we don't know where, but we have an idea as to how. He will come down on the cloud from heaven, but what is that actually going to look like? I don't know. I didn't see him go up in the cloud so I don't know what it’s going to look like when He comes down on the cloud. In the same way, they were also expecting it but they didn't know when. We know they were expecting it because of the way they prayed in their homes and at the end of every Sabbath liturgy. In ancient Israel they didn't have sermons or church services like we do today. Instead they went to temple or to the synagogue and just read scripture from the Pentateuch, which is the first five books of the Bible written by Moses, or some of the writing from the OT prophets. We know this because Jesus actually read from Isaiah in Luke 4:16-17. Well, at the end of these liturgy meetings, they would pray a prayer. And the prayer went like this, ‘may God let his kingship rule in your lifetime and in your days and in the whole lifetime of the house of Israel, speedily and soon.’ So they were praying for God to come both soon and quickly. All Jewish people prayed this every Sabbath. Since they were praying this weekly then we can assume that they were expecting it to be fulfilled. Again, they didn't know when, how or who. They did believe that whoever it was, that person was going to be a warrior king like the judges of the Old Testament and not a baby preaching love and forgiveness.
The Voice of One Crying
As we go into this last part in verse three, it says, ‘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.’”’ Matthew likes to add a lot of Old Testament prophecy into his writings, especially towards the beginning of his book. He does this to highlight the fulfillment of prophecy to the Jewish audience that he is writing to. His Jewish audience would have known those OT prophecies like the back of their hands. They were trained to memorize them from a young age. So just by mentioning some of these prophecies, it brings up a whole lot of memorized scripture for the reader. So for those ancient readers of Matthew, they would have read this prophecy and been reminded of Isaiah’s writings. This gives John the Baptist that credibility of being a prophet and not just some guy speaking falsely in the wilderness. Instead it tells the readers that John was a prophet of the Lord because there was somebody prophesying about him. That somebody was Isaiah in chapter 40. Isaiah 40:3-5 reads, “3 A voice cries: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. 4 Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. 5 And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”” There are a few things that we need to look at here. First off, Isaiah wasn't referring to Jesus but to God. Matthew abbreviates and changes it slightly so it focuses on Jesus. We see this in the wording and the way it's written. When you are looking at it in the written form then you will see that a lot of it is the grammar. Matthew puts the punctuation in different places and, therefore, changes how it's read. So if you read Isaiah again it puts a colon after ‘a voice cries:,’ but Matthew writes, ‘The voice of one crying in the wilderness:.’ Matthew put the colon at the end of wilderness. This implies that in Isaiah it's just a voice and this voice is crying in the wilderness. With Matthew it implies that the voice crying in the wilderness is a specific person which is John. So it's just looking at it in a little different way. Where Isaiah is more general Matthew is specific. But then if you go on to the end of Isaiah it says, ‘Make straight in the desert, a highway for our God.’ Matthew doesn't mention God in his version. It just says, ‘Make his path straight.’ He takes God out of it so it can be a little more generalized. He leaves ‘the Lord’ in there because by the time this is written, Jesus was well known as Lord. Therefore, leaving ‘the Lord’ in puts that reader in the mindset that Matthew is talking about Jesus. Taking God out while keeping Lord in changes the focus from God and puts it squarely on Jesus.
In our next article we will continue looking into Matthew 3 by covering verses 4-6 in the same manner that we did in this article. Don’t forget to check out our YouTube page to view this study and others as well as checking out our catalog of podcasts that we have available.