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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It was during those days that Yochanan the Immerser arrived in the desert of Y'hudah and began proclaiming the message, "Turn from your sins to God, for the Kingdom of Heaven is near!"
"In those days" speaks of the time that Yeshua was in Nazareth where He was raised by Joseph and Mary. Yochanan the Immerser (John the Baptist) was a cousin of Yeshua 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 the man Yesha`yahu was talking about when he said, "The voice of someone crying out: `In the desert prepare the way of ADONAI! 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. We see that the verse mentions "straight paths" and this refers to the fact that there are many ways that lead to an encounter with Yeshua Messiah but all of those ways lead to Him for salvation. We may encounter Yeshua through times of grief or physical need or maybe just hearing someone give a testimony of what He has done in their lives but it still comes down to personally accepting Him as our Messiah.
Yochanan wore clothes of camel's hair with a leather belt around his waist, and 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. At that time, the camel's hair was basically considered garbage and only the poorest people would use it to make clothing while the belt speaks of a posture of service as a belt was put on by someone that was going to do physical work. 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. The honey refers to a jam that was made from figs that ripened and fell to the ground which were unfit for anything else. All of this speaks to the fact that John was more concerned with the coming Kingdom of God than the things of this world.
People went out to him from Yerushalayim, from all Y'hudah, and from the whole region around the Yarden. Confessing their sins, they were immersed by him in the Yarden 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. The baptism (immersion) represented a change in status much the same as we saw with the consecration of Aharon and his sons in Leviticus 8 where they were prepared to serve the Lord. The name Yarden (Jordan) comes from the Hebrew word for going down which speaks of humility and it was an act of humbling oneself to go to the Jordan River for immersion.
But when Yochanan saw many of the P'rushim and Tz'dukim coming to be immersed by him, he said to them, "You snakes! Who warned you to escape the coming punishment? If you have really turned from your sins to God, produce fruit that will prove it!
The "fruit of repentance" is speaking of a change of mind and action. When John saw the religious leaders (Pharisees & Sadducees) coming out, he knew that they were not coming out for teshuva because they had a self-righteous mentality. The Pharisees had replaced the Law of God with their own traditions while the Sadducees rejected the words of the prophets and basically everything except the commandments. Both groups 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. It is important to notice that John did not reject them but merely told them to back up this show of humility with real actions.
And don't suppose you can comfort yourselves by saying, `Avraham is our father'! For I tell you that God can raise up for Avraham sons from these stones! Already the axe is at the root of the trees, ready to strike; every tree that doesn't produce good fruit will be chopped down and thrown in 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. This also reminds us that it is only when Israel gets right with God by accepting Yeshua Messiah that the kingdom will be established.
It's true that I am immersing you in water so that you might turn from sin to God; but the one coming after me is more powerful than I -- I'm not worthy even to carry his sandals -- and he will immerse you in the Ruach HaKodesh and in 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 members of the kingdom apart. Those that do not receive the Spirit will be judged and we are reminded that the role of the Spirit and fire is refinement. Refinement is the process of removing impurities with fire and the result is something pure.
He has with him his winnowing fork; and he will clear out his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn but burning up the straw with unquenchable fire!"
John is speaking of Yeshua Messiah and the gospel is the winnowing fork that he is talking about. Like wheat is separated from the chaff, members of the kingdom 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 and it does not end. In this, we see that the gospel is an instrument of separation and accepting the truth which is Yeshua is what saves all of us from the coming judgement.
Then Yeshua came from the Galil to the Yarden to be immersed by Yochanan. But Yochanan tried to stop him. "You are coming to me? I ought to be immersed by you!"
John was baptizing for repentance which is turning away from sin and back to God. When Yeshua came and wanted to be baptized, John was confused because he recognized the fact that Yeshua did not need to repent. So, why did Yeshua 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. Yeshua 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.
However, Yeshua answered him, "Let it be this way now, because we should do everything righteousness requires." Then Yochanan let him.
When Yeshua explained that He had to do this to be completely identified with men, John agreed to baptize Him. This was the start of Yeshua's 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 Yeshua had been immersed, he came up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, he saw the Spirit of God coming down upon him like a dove, and a voice from heaven said, "This is my Son, whom I love; I am well pleased with him."
Three things happened when Yeshua 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 Yeshua 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 Yeshua. With the arrival of the Spirit, Yeshua would be fully equipped for His ministry to mankind. For us, as members of the kingdom, the Spirit brings order into our lives and allows us to submit to the things of God. In short, it is the Spirit that empowers us to be disciples of Yeshua Messiah. Likewise, as believers, when we receive the Holy Spirit, we are equipped to follow Yeshua and to serve Him. The third thing was that the Father's voice was heard declaring that Yeshua "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 Yeshua did not have the original sin in Him. God also said that He was "well pleased" with Yeshua 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. Yeshua had to be sinless to be an acceptable sacrifice for the sin of man.