Our Bible study group continued a couple of weeks ago, trying to read the book of Matthew as the original hearers might have heard it, understanding the role the narrative played in the mission of God at that time, and the missional implications for the church as we engage with the text in our own situation.
John the Baptist Prepares the Way
1 In those days John the Baptist came to the Judean wilderness and began preaching. His message was, 2 “Repent of your sins and turn to God, for the Kingdom of Heaven is near.” 3The prophet Isaiah was speaking about John when he said,
“He is a voice shouting in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord’s coming!
Clear the road for him!’”
4 John’s clothes were woven from coarse camel hair, and he wore a leather belt around his waist. For food he ate locusts and wild honey. 5 People from Jerusalem and from all of Judea and all over the Jordan Valley went out to see and hear John. 6 And when they confessed their sins, he baptized them in the Jordan River.
7 But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming to watch him baptize, he denounced them. “You brood of snakes!” he exclaimed. “Who warned you to flee God’s coming wrath? 8 Prove by the way you live that you have repented of your sins and turned to God. 9 Don’t just say to each other, ‘We’re safe, for we are descendants of Abraham.’ That means nothing, for I tell you, God can create children of Abraham from these very stones. 10 Even now the ax of God’s judgment is poised, ready to sever the roots of the trees. Yes, every tree that does not produce good fruit will be chopped down and thrown into the fire.
11 “I baptize with water those who repent of their sins and turn to God. But someone is coming soon who is greater than I am—so much greater that I’m not worthy even to be his slave and carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.12 He is ready to separate the chaff from the wheat with his winnowing fork. Then he will clean up the threshing area, gathering the wheat into his barn but burning the chaff with never-ending fire.”
The Baptism of Jesus
13 Then Jesus went from Galilee to the Jordan River to be baptized by John. 14But John tried to talk him out of it. “I am the one who needs to be baptized by you,” he said, “so why are you coming to me?”
15 But Jesus said, “It should be done, for we must carry out all that God requires.” So John agreed to baptize him.
16 After his baptism, as Jesus came up out of the water, the heavens were opened and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and settling on him. 17 And a voice from heaven said, “This is my dearly loved Son, who brings me great joy.”
The first question we asked was what on earth was John doing? This is the first time baptism is mentioned in the Bible, so why is John doing it and what does it symbolise? The text seems to tell us that it had to do with repentance and preparing for the Lord returning to his people. The symbolism of passing through the river Jordan would presumably have brought associations with the journey from Egypt through the wilderness, and eventually into the promised land.
John himself would have reminded people of Elijah, especially as Matthew describes him as being in the wilderness with hairy clothes and a leather belt around his waist (c.f. 2 Kings 1:8). This association of John with the prophet Elijah continues elsewhere in the gospels, and should remind us of the last couple of verses of the Old Testament where Malachi prophecies that Elijah will come “before the great and dreadful day of the Lord arrives” (Malachi 4:5).
The quote from Isaiah 40:3 about preparing the way for the Lord’s coming is in the context of the return from exile and God returning to his people after their time of punishment. This is very much in keeping with Matthew’s theme that the exile is coming to an end through Jesus, although we are surprised that in Isaiah the road is being prepared for God to return to his people, whereas Matthew takes this prophecy and seems to suggest that John is preparing the way for Jesus the messiah. This is the first hint we have in the gospel that Jesus may be identified with Israel’s God himself.
Verses 7 and 8 give the first indication that this return of God isn’t just good news, but will involve judgement for those not living in a way that pleases God. John insists that being Abraham’s descendants doesn’t guarantee being right with God, hinting at a possible redefinition of what it means to be part of God’s people when he suggests that God could make new sons for Abraham out of stones if he wanted to.
This redefinition of God’s kingdom is quite startling in many ways, with even the Jews needing to be baptised to prepare for what God is doing. The threats of judgement are made using stark metaphors of cutting down trees (a picture that is reserved for the judgement of Gentile nations in the Old Testament, e.g. Isaiah 10:33-34, Ezekiel 31, Daniel 4:14) and throwing them into the fire. But along with this fire of judgement, the one who is coming will baptise with the Holy Spirit, carrying out what God has promised he himself will do (c.f. Isaiah 32:15, Isaiah 44:3, Ezekiel 36:26-27, Joel 2:28-29).
After this big build up and talk of fire, wrath and judgement as God dramatically returns to his people, Jesus quietly walks in, surprising us all (and John most of all) by asking to be baptised. He is obviously the one about whom John is talking, but when he actually arrives it seems almost an anti-climax, and very puzzling that he should ask to go through the baptism of repentance and forgiveness of sins.
Why does Jesus ask to be baptised? I wonder if it is again to do with the theme we see in Matthew of Jesus not simply being the representative of God to rescue Israel, but at the same time being identified with Israel herself who needed rescuing. We saw this briefly in chapter 2 as Jesus was identified with Israel “my son” in Hosea 11:1, and again we see Jesus becoming as Israel and going through the process of repentance and preparation that Israel herself was taking in anticipation of God’s return.
We finished with a few questions…
- There is quite a sharp contrast between John’s build up to Jesus as the Lord coming to his people, and the reality of Jesus simply walking up and asking to be baptised – with baptism being the symbol of repentance which Mark also associates with turning to God to forgive sins (Mark 1:4). In what ways was Jesus surprising?
- In this chapter we get the first clue that Jesus may be identified with God himself, but it is only a hint. Why does Matthew not say clearly at the start that Jesus is God? Why does he instead invite us to walk with him through the story, helping us to glimpse bit by bit who Jesus is as we journey with him?
- What can we learn from how Matthew presents Jesus to his audience, for how we might help people to understand who Jesus is today? How can we invite people into the story of the gospel rather than immediately bombarding them with what we think are the answers?