In our study of Matthew chapter three, we look at three forms of identification and how it applies to our lives in Christ. Up to this point in the gospel, Matthew has focused on the identity of Jesus in the physical realm (line of King David). Now, the emphasis will shift to the spiritual.
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In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea and saying, 'Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.'
"In those days" speaks of the time that Jesus was in Nazareth where He was raised by Joseph and Mary. John the Baptist was a cousin of Jesus and was about six months older than Him. John was not preaching in the city of Jerusalem or any other major city where you would expect to find a prophet. Nevertheless, he came and was calling the people of Israel to repent. The Hebrew word is "teshuva" and it actually means "return". This is a process of examining our ways and comparing them to God's standard. In Judaism, teshuva has four steps. The first is regret and that involves distinguishing right from wrong. The second step is cessation and involves stopping the wrong that you are doing. The third step is confession and is a verbal admission of our sins. Although this verbal admission does not have to be given in front of men, it was legally required under the Jewish Law. The words had to be spoken to God to legally complete the process. The final step is resolution and is simply taking steps to keep from repeating the wrong things. Teshuva speaks of a return to our previous state which was created in the image of God (see Genesis 1:26). Before teshuva, we are identified by our sinful actions, through teshuva we are restored to our proper identity.
This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah: 'A voice of one calling in the wilderness, "Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him"'.
Matthew quotes from Isaiah 40:3 which was where the prophet was comforting the people of Israel. The prophet was speaking of the glory of God being revealed and the fact that there would be a messenger that went before this revelation of God's presence.
John's clothes were made of camel's hair, and he had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey.
Matthew takes care to give the physical description of John the Baptist. This is important to see the identity of the man. He wore camel's hair and a leather belt which matched the description of Elijah (see 2 Kings 1:8). The last Old Testament prophecy was that God would send Elijah back before the day of the Lord (see Malachi 4:5). His appearance would have identified him with that prophecy. The "locusts and wild honey" that John ate was the pods from the carob (locust) tree. In Israel, this is known as "John's bread" If they are picked from the tree and eaten at the proper time, they are said to taste like bread and honey.
People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.
The Jews from the region accepted John's message of teshuvah. The third step is confession and the people admitted to God that they had strayed from His ways. The fourth step, resolution, was the immersion of the people in the Jordan River. This was a picture of the cleansing and final resolution that would come through the blood of Jesus Christ.
But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: 'You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.'
The "fruit of repentance" is speaking of a change of mind and action. When John saw the religious leaders coming out, he knew that they were not coming out for teshuva because they had a self-righteous mentality. They thought that they were better than everyone else and did not see a need to change and be re-identified with the way that God created man. The mention of vipers would have brought to mind the deception by Satan in the Garden of Eden. They were compared to that because they were deceiving others with their self-righteous attitude even though they fell short of God's standard.
'And do not think you can say to yourselves, "We have Abraham as our father." I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The axe is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.'
John the Baptist reminds the religious leaders that salvation is not a birthright even for the Jews. He tells them that it is a matter of spiritual identity and not a matter of the flesh. He reminds them that judgment is near just as it is with a farmer and an unproductive fruit tree.
'I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.'
Repentance comes before salvation and John reminds them that a more powerful baptism is coming. The baptism of the Holy Spirit is what sets the Christian apart. Those that do not receive the Spirit will be judged.
'His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.'
Like wheat is separated from the chaff, Christians will be separated from the wicked. The righteous will be gathered to eternal life while the wicked will face the judgment of fire. Once the judgment starts, it is unstoppable.
Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John. But John tried to deter him, saying, 'I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?'
John was baptizing for repentance which is turning away from sin and back to God. When Jesus came and wanted to be baptized, John recognized the fact that he did not need to repent. So, why did Jesus come to be baptized by John? His baptism with water was a picture of the fact that he was consecrated to the work of the Father. Jesus had to go through all of the same things as a regular man and to do it without sinning. In doing so, He was being identified with mankind.
Jesus replied, 'Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.' Then John consented.
When Jesus explained that He had to do this to be completely identified with men, John agreed to baptize Him. This was the start of Jesus' public ministry and, just as He had to be identified with King David to be the Messiah, He also had to be identified with all men.
As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, 'This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.'
Three things happened when Jesus came up out of the water and we are reminded that the number three is associated with the earthly display of God's will. First, heaven was opened and it was possible to look into the highest of heavens. This reminds us that Jesus has given us direct access to the things of heaven. The second thing that happened is that the Holy Spirit was physically seen descending and landing on Jesus. With the arrival of the Spirit, Jesus would be fully equipped for His ministry to mankind. Likewise, as believers, when we receive the Holy Spirit, we are equipped to follow Jesus and to serve Him. The third thing was that the Father's voice was heard declaring that Jesus "is my Son". This is a stumbling block for many men as they reject the idea that God would have a Son. Nevertheless, we have this event presented to us by more than enough witnesses to make it legal. This identification with God was necessary to prove that Jesus did not have the original sin in Him. God also said that He was "well pleased" with Jesus and this speaks to the fact that He would be an acceptable sacrifice for the sins of men. In the Old Testament, only clean animals could be offered to God and it is the same principle here. Jesus had to be sinless to be an acceptable sacrifice for the sin of man.