STUDY THREE: MATTHEW 3:1-17 - JOHN THE BAPTIST

Copyright Rosemary Bardsley 2012

John the Baptist was Jesus’ cousin, prepared by God from his conception to make people ready for Jesus. You can read about this in Luke 1 and Isaiah 40:1-9. The ministry of John the Baptist is the necessary precursor to the ministry of Jesus. 

A. HOW JOHN PREPARED THE WAY FOR JESUS

Discuss the following ways in which John prepared the way for Jesus:

John commanded people to repent [3:2]

 

 

This command was based on the nearness of the kingdom [3:2]

 

Confession of sins was a key factor [3:6]

 

 

Integrity was mandatory [3:7-12]

 

 

John’s baptism was a baptism for repentance [3:6,11]

 

John understood the superiority of Jesus [3:11-12, 14]

 

 

John knew that his role was that of a preparatory messenger, sent by God ahead of him to prepare the way for him. This preparation took several forms: 

It prepared the minds of his hearers for Jesus’ coming by challenging them to repentance. Repentance is literally a change of mind 

It informed them that ‘the kingdom of heaven is near’. There was an urgency in the command to repent because God’s kingdom was about to break into the human realm. Indeed, the kingdom of heaven was near because Jesus, the ‘King’, was just around the corner. 

It involved confession of sins. We should not understand this as a superficial detailed listing of one’s sins, but as a deep awareness and real acknowledgement of one’s sins as sins against the holy God, issuing from the one underlying sin of rebellion against God and rejection of God. As such it was a significant part of the ‘repentance’ commanded by John.  

For this reason it demanded integrity – a deep heart-felt repentance, a deep heart-felt acknowledgement of sins that demonstrated its integrity and reality by the evidence of a changed life. The King is coming … the King who will easily recognize and reject fake repentance and superficial confession. 

It explained that this baptism with water as a sign of repentance was nothing compared to the baptism that would be brought by the King. He, the King, would baptize in the Holy Spirit and with fire. John’s water baptism, while demanding genuine repentance, was itself a prophetic symbol of an even greater reality. John was a human, baptising in and with a physical medium – water, as a physical ritual accompanying and signifying a human act of repentance.

 

 B. THE SUPERIORITY OF JESUS

Matthew 3:1-17 declares the absolute superiority of Jesus Christ. Discuss how this superiority is depicted in the following: 

Jesus is ‘the Lord’ [3:3]

 

 

 

Jesus baptizes with the Holy Spirit [3:11]

 

 

 

Jesus baptizes with ‘fire’ [3:11]

 

 

 

Jesus ‘fulfils all righteousness’ by identifying with our human sinfulness [3:15]

 

 

 

 

Jesus’ identity is affirmed by the Holy Spirit [3:16]

 

 

God testifies that Jesus is his Son [3:17]

 

 

God testifies that he is pleased with Jesus [3:17]

 

 

 

Jesus is the Lord [3:3]
The one for whom John prepared the way is ‘the Lord’. ‘The Lord’ is a common Old Testament way of referring to God. In the Hebrew, there are two words translated by the English ‘Lord’: Adonai, which has the maning of ‘master’ [the one in control] is written in English Bibles as ‘Lord’. Jahweh, a name derived from the ‘I AM’ of Exodus 3:14, which refers to the eternally existing One, is written in most English Bibles as ‘LORD’. However, in the New Testament, there is only one Greek word for Lord – kurios. The verse from Isaiah quoted by Matthew is a clear reference to the eternally existing God – ‘prepare the way for the LORD … a highway for our God’ [Isaiah 40:3]. Matthew knows that Jesus, the one whose way John prepared, is none other than the God of the Old Testament. John is a mere human messenger: Jesus is the everlasting, almighty God.

 

Jesus will baptize with the Holy Spirit [3:11]
John’s water baptism, while demanding genuine repentance, was itself a prophetic symbol of an even greater reality. John was a human, baptising in and with a physical medium – water, as a physical ritual accompanying and signifying a human act of repentance. Jesus, the divine King, would baptize in and with a spiritual medium – the Holy Spirit, as a spirituality reality that accompanied and affirmed the divine action of the regeneration of the human spirit.

About this baptism we need to ask a few questions:

[1] Is John the Baptist saying that when Jesus baptizes in/with water he also at the same time baptizes in/with the Holy Spirit? No. Because John the apostle tells us that Jesus himself did not baptize anyone [John 4:2].

[2] Is this baptism in/with the Spirit a specific reference limited to the out-pouring of the Spirit in Acts 2? No.  In Acts 1:5 Jesus, just like John the Baptist in Matthew 3:11, contrasted John’s baptism with water and the baptism in/with the Holy Spirit that was to soon occur. This initial baptism in/with the Spirit occurred simultaneously with the one-off outpouring of the Spirit predicted by Joel [Joel 2:28-32] and the gift of the indwelling Spirit promised by Jesus in John 14 – 16. This out-pouring of the indwelling Spirit could not occur until Jesus returned to his glory, but from that initial outpouring onwards the baptism in/with the Spirit occurs for each person the moment that person believes in the Lord Jesus Christ [John 7:38-39].

[3] What relationship is there between our regeneration by the Spirit [John 3:1-8 – being ‘born of the Spirit’] and Jesus baptizing us with/in the Spirit? Regeneration by the Spirit is the saving action of God in which he reverses our spiritual death and gives us new spiritual life. Baptism with/in the Spirit is the saving action of God in which he comes to live within us. Prior to Acts 2 there was a delay between this regeneration and this baptism. From Acts 2 onwards they are simultaneous.

[4] What is the relationship between Jesus baptising us with/in the Spirit and the Spirit baptizing us into ‘ Christ’, into ‘his death’, and into ‘one body’ ? [Romans 6:3; 1Corinthians 12:13; see also Colossians 2:12.] When Jesus baptizes us with/in the Spirit, the Spirit is the medium or ’substance’ in which we are immersed, just as in water baptism the person is immersed in the medium of water. And it is not a external, fleeting, momentary thing, it is a permanent thing. In water baptism the actual water wets us only externally, and then quickly dries off; in this baptism in which Jesus immerses us in/with the Spirit, the Holy Spirit begins to dwell within us and permanently marks and seals us as God’s possession [see Ephesians 1:13]. When, simultaneously, the Spirit baptizes us into Christ, into his death, into one body [the church], it is a matter not of immersion, but of identification, with the result that all that pertains to Christ, in his humanness, now pertains to us: the Holy Spirit unites to and identifies us with all that Jesus Christ did, in terms of his righteous life and his sin-bearing death. This double-barrelled truth of baptism in/with the Spirit and baptism by the Spirit is a double-barrelled and irrevocable guarantee [see 2Corinthians 1:22 and 5:5] that we are the children of God and that all that God achieved through the incarnation, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is by this immersion and this identification applied to us at the moment we believe in Jesus Christ.

[5] Is this baptism ‘with the Holy Spirit and fire’ referring only to Jesus’ gift of the indwelling Spirit that began in Acts 2? It is possible that there is an additional significance. See comments below on ‘and fire’.

 

And fire [3:11]
In addition, the baptism Jesus performs is described as ‘with fire’.

The structure of the Greek sentence indicates a connection between the two: that the baptism administered by Jesus is one baptism that incorporates the two elements of the Holy Spirit and fire. It is not two distinct baptisms. It is not, as the NIV reads ‘with the Holy Spirit and with fire’, it is ‘with the Holy Spirit and fire’, both being governed by the one preposition.

Scholars debate the significance of ‘and (with) fire’. Consider the following:

[1] Some scholars/teachers want to limit this ‘baptism with the Holy Spirit and with fire’ to the one-off outpouring of the Spirit on the Day of Pentecost [Acts 2].  On the surface, the connection with the out-pouring of the Spirit at Pentecost appears to have some validation, because ‘tongues of fire’ accompanied that initial out-pouring. However, it is obvious that these were not tongues of actual fire. The text reads ‘what seemed to be tongues of fire’ [Acts 2:3]. In addition it is unlikely that such a minimal meaning was intended when John the Baptist is deliberately stating that the baptism Jesus will administer is something of extreme significance, and something far greater than the water baptism he himself administered.

[2] Fire is a symbol of cleansing or purification.

[3] Biblically, fire is also a symbol of judgement, and this interpretation is validated by verse 12. It is easy to limit this judgement, this ‘winnowing’, to the return of Christ and the end of the world, but it is not necessary to do so, and it may even be wrong to do so. Certainly Jesus is the Judge [see John 5:22,27] and the final judgement is definitely included in the meaning of verse 12 [see below]. But it is also evident as we read through the Gospels we learn that the message of Jesus constituted a judgement, and that his words are the basis of judgement [see John 12:47-50]. We also learn that the presence of Jesus constituted a judgement: that it exposed as already condemned already those who refused to acknowledge him [John 3:18,19].

As we read through Matthew’s Gospel we can see a ‘baptism’ with the Holy Spirit and fire already in action:

  • All the fullness of God was in Christ [Colossians 1:19 and 2:9]; the Spirit of God was in and with him without measure [Matthew 12:18; John 3:34]. Whenever he spoke, whenever he gave a miraculous sign, he did not act alone – he acted together with the Father and the Spirit. That he spoke the words of the Father is obvious in his repeated statements recorded by John [John 3:34; 4:34; 5:17-30; 9:4; 14:10; 17:8]. When he performed miraculous signs it was by the power of the Spirit [Matthew 12:28]. Whenever Jesus spoke, whenever Jesus did a miracle or acted with compassion, the Spirit of God was also present and at work – and those who heard, those who saw, were being flooded, immersed in the truth and the power and the love of God.
  • The period of Christ’s ministry generated faith [spiritual re-birth] in some and hatred and rejection [and therefore confirmation of judgement] in others. The word of Jesus either cleansed and saved [John 5:24;13:10; 15:3] or condemned [John 3:18,19; 8:47; 12:48].
  • Rejection of the message and miracles of Jesus brought immediate condemnation and confirmed the inescapability of the judgement [Matthew 11:20-24; 12:22-32; 38-45].

From the moment Jesus commenced his public ministry to the moment he concluded his ministry both the Holy Spirit and the fire [either cleansing or judging] were present and active in his message and his miracles.

 

His winnowing fork … [3:12]
Verse 12 presents Jesus as proactively involved in judgement – his winnowing fork, in his hand … he will clear his threshing floor … gathering his wheat …

Notice that John the Baptist states that Jesus’ ‘winnowing fork’ is in his hand … present tense.  Jesus is about to commence his public ministry … and his winnowing fork is already in his hand. While the final judgement is obviously the final and complete implementation of judgement, his public ministry also results in and implements judgement, as we have seen above. The message and miracles of Jesus expose human unbelief and human wrong belief, and with that exposure expose also the condemnation under which those who reject the message and the meaning already stand.

Judgement is in fact a key element in this Gospel – both the final judgement and that on-going exposure of unbelief, guilt and condemnation that occurs whenever the truth of God is revealed.

 

Jesus fulfils all righteousness [3:15]
In his response to John’s puzzlement about Jesus coming to him to be baptized, Jesus stated: ‘Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfil all righteousness’ [3:15].

At his level of understanding spiritual truth John was right. Jesus did not need John’s baptism, which was a baptism of repentance. Jesus had no sins of which to repent. What was commanded of sinners had nothing to do with Jesus, the sinless man.

But there was a deeper level of spiritual truth about which John was ignorant. He did know that Jesus was ‘the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world’ [John 1:29], but he did not understand what was involved in this title and this action.

As the Lamb of God
• he dies in the sinners place
• he is the sinner’s substitute
• he bears the sinner’s sin
• he identifies with the sinner

In submission to this baptism of repentance Jesus expresses this deep purpose, this central and critical significance, that he deliberately became one of us, that he deliberately identified with us, in order [1] to fulfil all the righteous requirements of the law, and [2] to take our place under the just judgement of God. As a result, the righteous penalty of the law is fully meted out on him, instead of us, and the legal acquittal [=righteousness/justification] that is granted only to those who are guilt-free is credited to all who believe in Jesus Christ.

 

The silent witness of the Holy Spirit [3:16] and the audible witness of the Father [3:17].
As Jesus came up out of the water the Spirit of God descended in visible form … like a dove. At the same time the voice of the Father stated ‘This is my Son, whom I love, with him I am well pleased.’

These two verses give us clear evidence of the fact of the ‘Trinity’ and some boundaries for our understanding of the Trinity: all three – Father, Son and Spirit – are present at the same time, and each of the three is engaged in his own distinct action. Yet there is also a very clear unity. Any unitarian concept of the Trinity is outlawed by these verses. So also is any concept of God that puts division or tension between the Father, Son and Spirit. We see here the truth of the formula: ‘unity without fusion; distinction without division’.

In addition, we here see clearly the two natures of the incarnate Christ: at the very moment when he deliberately identifies with us, God the Father announces that he is his ‘Son’. As is very evident in John’s Gospel, to identify as ‘the Son’ of God is to identify as God. A Son is of the same essence as the Father. It was this Father/Son relationship claimed by Jesus that provoked the murderous intentions of the Jews and led eventually to his crucifixion. Yet here the Father affirms that very relationship with Jesus Christ which the Jews deemed blasphemy. Here the Father affirms the deity of Jesus by calling him ‘my Son’.

 

Whom I love [3:17]
The love of the Father for the Son is an eternal love. It existed before time and the universe began. It is also an infinite love … immeasurable, incomparable. It is also unimpeded by any defect in either the Father or the Son. It is a love we cannot even imagine.

Now the Son, who for 30 years has lived incognito as a real human being, is about to embark on a mission that will provoke hatred, rejection, misunderstanding, misrepresentation. It will seem at the end, that the Father hates this Jesus. So here, right at the beginning, in a public context, the Father affirms his love for the Son.

The Father is pleased with the Son [3:17]
Not only that, the Father also affirms that he is pleased with the Son. This incarnation, this incognito, is not contrary to the Father’s purpose, indeed it is embedded in the deep, eternal purpose of God. So also is this identification with us sinners, embraced symbolically in the baptism. What appears to be a wrong move, what John the Baptist believed to be out of order, God himself approves and affirms. Here the Son walks perfectly in sync with God’s plan for our salvation which was in his mind before the beginning of time.