With the outdoor Easter service, we ended up doing Sunday school in the evening and had a little extra time, so this post might be a touch longer than usual. Just get some coffee and your Bible and saddle up!
Matthew’s structure of his gospel is mimicking the 5 books of Moses, book-ended with a prologue and an epilogue. We are about to finish the prologue bookend by concluding chapter 3 and that will launch us into the first major section of Matthew. In chapters 4 through 7, we are going to see Jesus Christ enter into His ministry and as Matthew has already highlighted a few instances of what Immanuel (“God with us”) looks like, we are going to see what Immanuel teaches like. We will get into the Sermon on the Mount and I believe we will see some very exciting things that perhaps we’ve never seen before, but, through that, our purpose isn’t to simply draw attention to new information like a shiny new gadget, but to draw our hearts’ attention to the spirit of Jesus’ teaching. We’ll get there soon enough, so let’s finish chapter 3.
In part 1 of chapter 3, we were introduced to John the Baptist who was holding a ministry of repentance in the wilderness. This repentance was signified through baptism in the Jordan River and as we noted, it was very much an Essene baptism (mikvah). For the sake of quick review, the Essenes were those who broke away from the corrupt priesthood in Jerusalem and took their dedication to the way of God as a priest out to the wilderness. They dedicated themselves to knowing the text and knowing the path and when someone would repent (change the direction of their mind’s thinking, resulting in a change in course of life), they would be forsaking their own path in favor of walking the Lord’s path. They understood Proverbs 3:5-6 that by trusting in the Lord with all of their hearts and not leaning on their OWN understanding but rather in all of their ways acknowledging Him, that He would direct their paths. When someone determined to leave directing their own path and yielding to the Lord’s leadership to direct their paths, they would be baptized as a ritual washing of repentance. Don’t confuse this with what is referred to in some Christian traditions as “believer’s baptism.” Those who submitted themselves to this baptism were already part of a covenant family and as the prodigal son, they simply came to their senses about who they were but more importantly about who their Father is. This baptism was proctored by John to allow for prodigals to come home. Just as the prodigals left the confines of their father’s house and property and hit rock bottom, John’s ministry very appropriately therefore is in the wilderness – a desolate place outside the comforts of home. As we explore more of chapter 3, we’ll see why this wilderness isn’t just a random place, but has real significance for Israel and for us. But, before we can get there, let’s deal with some folks who showed up to John’s baptism and how John responds to their visit.
Matthew 3:5 Then went out to him Jerusalem, and all Judaea, and all the region round about Jordan, 3:6 And were baptized of him in Jordan, confessing their sins.
Note John wasn’t prohibiting baptism but only for a select few, but indeed people were flocking to him in the wilderness. They were baptized of John in the Jordan and were confessing their sins. We noted last time that in Jewish baptism, one baptizes, or washes, themselves. Being baptized “of John” is simply a reference to the authority under which they were being baptized. As they were baptized, they were confessing their sins (again, just as John isn’t baptizing them personally, he is likewise not confessing their sins for them either). But, for as much attention as this passage gets from Christian viewpoints on baptism, what I find interesting is how often do you see folks confessing their sins while submitting to Christian baptism? We seem to take elements of this event, repurpose them for our Christian purposes and ignore the rest. I’m not suggesting this is done maliciously or with any unrighteous agenda, but, objectively, it happens. For Jews coming out to baptize in the Jordan, why would the confession of sins be mentioned here? We’ve already seen how this is a baptism of repentance, so it would seem fitting for folks to have made a decision about themselves and where they were headed, as it relates to God’s purpose for them, but, is sin’s confession what sealed the deal for them?
To confess sins is to agree with God, not only that sin is indeed sin, but also that the specificity of sin one’s life isn’t relatively acceptable because God understands one’s circumstances and can overlook it. In other words, confession of sin isn’t just a global confession (i.e. that sin is indeed sin), but also a local confession (i.e. that MY sin is indeed sin). For the Jews, there has been many calls to repentance and of sin’s confession. I’m not going to attempt to make a dogmatic claim about what these sins were because we are simply not told, however, there are some likely candidates if we trace through the scriptures.
First, in Luke 3, we see John telling different groups to stop doing certain things in light of their baptism. Could it be that these things were the some of sins that were being confessed? Possibly.
Luke 3:10 And the people asked him, saying, What shall we do then? 3:11 He answereth and saith unto them, He that hath two coats, let him impart to him that hath none; and he that hath meat, let him do likewise. 3:12 Then came also publicans to be baptized, and said unto him, Master, what shall we do? 3:13 And he said unto them, Exact no more than that which is appointed you. 3:14 And the soldiers likewise demanded of him, saying, And what shall we do? And he said unto them, Do violence to no man, neither accuse any falsely; and be content with your wages.
Second, we find instances where a national confession is called for from Israel before God will operate with them on the basis of the covenant He made with Abraham and subsequently passed down to Isaac and Jacob. Not only does this play into their national purpose, collectively, but it likewise draws on the purpose God had for them individually, as outlined in Exodus. They were to be a kingdom of priests, by which they would administer the things of God to the world. Just as the priests of the tabernacle and the temple were to minister to the people and help them navigate their atonement, so too was Israel at large to do the same for the other nations of the earth. A priest always had a specific set of washings (baptism – mikvahs) that he would perform TO HIMSELF in order to be ritually clean for priestly duty. They would go to the laver, which was a basin of water that they would wash up before going to work, as it were.
Exodus 19:4 Ye have seen what I did unto the Egyptians, and how I bare you on eagles’ wings, and brought you unto myself. 19:5 Now therefore, if ye will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto me above all people: for all the earth is mine: 19:6 And ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation. These are the words which thou shalt speak unto the children of Israel.
Exodus 30:17 And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying, 30:18 Thou shalt also make a laver of brass, and his foot also of brass, to wash withal: and thou shalt put it between the tabernacle of the congregation and the altar, and thou shalt put water therein. 30:19 For Aaron and his sons shall wash their hands and their feet thereat: 30:20 When they go into the tabernacle of the congregation, they shall wash with water, that they die not; or when they come near to the altar to minister, to burn offering made by fire unto the LORD: 30:21 So they shall wash their hands and their feet, that they die not: and it shall be a statute for ever to them, even to him and to his seed throughout their generations.
It is very possible that the Jews who were coming out to be baptized were washing themselves as a priest would and so fulfilling their suitability to enter into the priestly role for the kingdom. The blessing of Abraham was their primary duty to administer to the world and God told Israel that should they get away from God that God would remember His covenant with Abraham should they confess their iniquity and the iniquity of their fathers – should they agree with God that their way may have been right in their own eyes, but not in God’s and humble themselves and pray, God would forgive them and heal their land. I’m mashing up a few scriptures in that statement, but that is the idea.
Leviticus 26:40 If they shall confess their iniquity, and the iniquity of their fathers, with their trespass which they trespassed against me, and that also they have walked contrary unto me; 26:41 And that I also have walked contrary unto them, and have brought them into the land of their enemies; if then their uncircumcised hearts be humbled, and they then accept of the punishment of their iniquity: 26:42 Then will I remember my covenant with Jacob, and also my covenant with Isaac, and also my covenant with Abraham will I remember; and I will remember the land. 26:43 The land also shall be left of them, and shall enjoy her sabbaths, while she lieth desolate without them: and they shall accept of the punishment of their iniquity: because, even because they despised my judgments, and because their soul abhorred my statutes.
2Chronicles 7:12 And the LORD appeared to Solomon by night, and said unto him, I have heard thy prayer, and have chosen this place to myself for an house of sacrifice. 7:13 If I shut up heaven that there be no rain, or if I command the locusts to devour the land, or if I send pestilence among my people; 7:14 If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land.
By baptizing themselves and confessing their sins, they are not only just making a statement to the watching world about what path they were going to walk, but they are likewise accepting their priestly role in the kingdom and seeking forgiveness of sins and healing for their land.
Lastly, this could be a personal confession with a national backdrop. In Daniel 9, we find Daniel making a prayer of confession that includes both a personal reflection but within the context of a collective. Note the pronouns Daniel uses in the opening of his prayer (which extends to verse 19).
Daniel 9:3 And I set my face unto the Lord God, to seek by prayer and supplications, with fasting, and sackcloth, and ashes: 9:4 And I prayed unto the LORD my God, and made my confession, and said, O Lord, the great and dreadful God, keeping the covenant and mercy to them that love him, and to them that keep his commandments; 9:5 We have sinned, and have committed iniquity, and have done wickedly, and have rebelled, even by departing from thy precepts and from thy judgments: 9:6 Neither have we hearkened unto thy servants the prophets, which spake in thy name to our kings, our princes, and our fathers, and to all the people of the land.
Daniel 9:17 Now therefore, O our God, hear the prayer of thy servant, and his supplications, and cause thy face to shine upon thy sanctuary that is desolate, for the Lord’s sake. 9:18 O my God, incline thine ear, and hear; open thine eyes, and behold our desolations, and the city which is called by thy name: for we do not present our supplications before thee for our righteousnesses, but for thy great mercies. 9:19 O Lord, hear; O Lord, forgive; O Lord, hearken and do; defer not, for thine own sake, O my God: for thy city and thy people are called by thy name.
By the way, it is on the heels of this prayer of confession and pleading for God’s mercy that God sends Gabriel to Daniel to reveal that the exile is going to last longer than the initial 70 years Jeremiah spoke of (Jeremiah 25:1-14) – it would be 70 x 7 years, or 490 years before their exile would conclude…which just so happens to coincide with Jesus Christ. Remember that Matthew has been painting Jesus as the new Moses, who would be the true Exodus from their true Egypt. The time spent in Egypt is referenced quite frequently throughout the scriptures and is used as the ultimate type of exile, but God’s deliverance that brought Israel out of Egypt is likewise a day when the Lord brought salvation to the oppressed and judgment to the oppressors. This is why New Testament writers, including Paul (2Corinthians 6) can refer to Jesus Christ as the “Day of the Lord.” Jesus Christ is the exodus for the oppressed but judgment upon the oppressors. John the Baptist is going to major on the judgment part and perhaps as we get into Matthew more (namely, by chapter 11), we are going to see that John the Baptist didn’t have his theology in proper balance. His expectations of Christ were rooted in an overzealous desire for judgment and when he didn’t see Jesus doing this, he (John) gets to the point where he is questioning if Jesus is really the Christ (Matthew 11:1-3). But, we’ll get to that when we get to chapter 11.
At this point, let’s simply summarize that people are coming to John to receive a baptism of repentance and confessing their sins all the same. Above, we postulated what this sin confession could be – and I honestly think all of these options are not only possible, but possible at the same time. As the people are baptizing, some other folks show up who John is not too pleased to see. It is in this section that we see John go full Elijah in the sense that he is going to call fire out of heaven in the tone of what he says.
Matthew 3:7 But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees come to his baptism, he said unto them, O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 3:8 Bring forth therefore fruits meet for repentance: 3:9 And think not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham to our father: for I say unto you, that God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham. 3:10 And now also the axe is laid unto the root of the trees: therefore every tree which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire. 3:11 I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance: but he that cometh after me is mightier than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to bear: he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost, and with fire: 3:12 Whose fan is in his hand, and he will throughly purge his floor, and gather his wheat into the garner; but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.
We’ve spent time on the Pharisees and Sadducees already, so I’ll not rehash that information, but suffice it to say that even those these groups are showing up together, they are polar opposites in their views. Pharisees honored the Law and the Prophets, whereas the Sadducees just the Law. Pharisees believed that holiness was achievable outside of the Temple, whereas the Sadducees only saw it from within the Temple. The Pharisees were the separatists who become the forefathers of what we know of as Rabbinic Judaism. The Sadducees essentially dissolve into the pages of history when the Temple was destroyed in 70AD by the Romans. Nonetheless, both groups come out to see what all of the commotion is in the wilderness around this maniac hosting baptism for the people. John wastes no time and calls them a bunch of snakes and mockingly asked them who told you to flee from the wrath to come? John saw his baptism as the deliverance from God’s wrath (or, at least the seal of deliverance for whenever that wrath would fall) and he has no real interest in the Pharisees and Sadducees being there because he knows the answer to his question – no one warned them because that’s not why they are there. They are playing games in John’s eyes – they are the oppressors (next to the Romans) that John would see the exodus from as being necessary. John demands fruits of repentance before they are welcome there and that they shouldn’t conclude their lineage with Abraham as a reason why repentance isn’t necessary. If being a child of Abraham, by the flesh, is all that God cares about, then God would simply raise up children of Abraham out of rocks and stones. But, God isn’t interested in that – He’s seeking repentance that will result in a circumcised heart. Not only does John call them snakes and mocks their very presence, he likewise essentially tells them that they have no place special in God’s family save for they repenting. Then, he poetically tells them that the very foundation of the tree is at risk from the swing of an ax and the limbs that fall are simply good for nothing but firewood. The very authority and aristocracy that they respectively sat upon was like a tree that was about to have its roots cut out from under it. (This will be important again in verse 12 that we’ll get to shortly.) And, if that isn’t strong enough, John says that his baptism of repentance is with water, but One is coming who this wilderness-dweller isn’t worthy to carry this One’s shoes, and, it is this One who will host baptism but of the Holy Spirit and of Fire. Under the authority of this One to come, there will be a washing of the Spirit and a washing of Fire. In other words, they can come and play games with John as his baptism is simply water, but the One who is coming will expose all, washing with His very Spirit and His Fire. It is in this baptism that John says that the fan is in His hand and He will thoroughly purge His floor, gathering His wheat (the desirable grain) but burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire. There is a lot of imagery in these few sentences, so let’s try to break this down.
The Spirit/Ghost of God is what gives life. Paul references this in Romans 8:3 when speaking about the “law of the Spirit of Life in Christ.” To the Hebrew mind, the idea of ‘spirit’ is the same idea as ‘breath’ or ‘wind’ (which will likewise be important in the next post). When John references the floor being purged, he is describing a threshingfloor. A threshingfloor was the place where wheat was gathered after being harvested from the field and with a winnowing fork, the wheat would be thrown in to the air (sifted into the air) and actual wheat grain, having some weight to it, would fall down to the floor, but the rest of the wheat stalk (the chaff) would blow away. In this baptism of the Holy Ghost is when God is threshing His floor, baptizing the wheat grain in His Spirit, but reserving the chaff for the fire. The waters of the Jordan can be quenched, meaning, you’ll get wet, but eventually you’ll dry out–the evidence of moisture is no longer there. The Spirit of Life certainly isn’t quenchable, but likewise this fire the chaff go into isn’t quenchable either. Now, we shouldn’t try to impose ideas about hell upon this verse. I know it is easy to see the word “fire”, when applied to non-believers, and finding your mind drifting down that road, but we need to be careful we are not imposing ourselves upon the text, wanting the text to say what we want it to say rather than the text saying what it says. We’ll get to hell later in the book of Matthew, but for now, just let the text be what it is. From John the Baptist perspective, knowing chaff doesn’t burn forever but is TOTALLY consumed, he sees the baptism of fire as when God totally CONSUMES the oppressors. Those being oppressed have no power to quench the fire – to stop it before it finishes its purpose. The full effects of this fire will do what it does – it utterly consumes the chaff. As long as there is something combustible present, it will burn unquenched. And, this idea shouldn’t surprise us if we are familiar with the Old Testament. Here are a few:
Psalm 1:1 Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful. 1:2 But his delight is in the law of the LORD; and in his law doth he meditate day and night. 1:3 And he shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water, that bringeth forth his fruit in his season; his leaf also shall not wither; and whatsoever he doeth shall prosper. 1:4 The ungodly are not so: but are like the chaff which the wind driveth away. 1:5 Therefore the ungodly shall not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous. 1:6 For the LORD knoweth the way of the righteous: but the way of the ungodly shall perish.
Notice the tree and fruit imagery here as it relates to the one who walks uprightly. Notice it is planted by rivers of water and prospers in its production. No coincidence that John the Baptist is at a river of water and tells these Pharisees and Sadducees that the ax is laid to the root of their tree and to not come back until they have fruits that demonstrate repentance. But, the ungodly are like chaff and their way will perish as wind that scatters the chaff from existence. How about another?
Malachi 4:1 For, behold, the day cometh, that shall burn as an oven; and all the proud, yea, and all that do wickedly, shall be stubble: and the day that cometh shall burn them up, saith the LORD of hosts, that it shall leave them neither root nor branch. 4:2 But unto you that fear my name shall the Sun of righteousness arise with healing in his wings; and ye shall go forth, and grow up as calves of the stall. 4:3 And ye shall tread down the wicked; for they shall be ashes under the soles of your feet in the day that I shall do this, saith the LORD of hosts. 4:4 Remember ye the law of Moses my servant, which I commanded unto him in Horeb for all Israel, with the statutes and judgments. 4:5 Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the LORD: 4:6 And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse.
Malachi writes of the Day of the Lord that will burn as an oven and devour the proud and wicked. And, again, we have reference to trees and roots succumbing to this judgment. But, this day shall not be a day of judgment to those who fear the name of the Lord (those who are repenting and baptizing under John, for example). Notice that this is described as ONE Day of the Lord, yet, depending on your disposition, this Day would find you differently. The proud and wicked would see this Day as a consuming fire, whereas, those who fear the name of the Lord, they would see it as the dawning of a new day as the Sun of righteousness arises with healing in his wings. Just as the plagues of Egypt were judgment to the oppressors, yet, signified soon-coming salvation to those who feared His Name. I’ll not get into eschatology here, but I encourage you to really stop and think about the implications of this.
John absolutely has this in his mind when he is railing against the Pharisees and Sadducees. He wants them to realize that they are not a tree planted by rivers of water (of life), but are those who are about to experience winnowing for the ax is laid to the root of their tree and they are about to be consumed as fire consumes chaff. There will be One who will come and be planted as a tree of life with the water of life and that river will flow out with healing to the nations (just like the Tree of Life in Eden and had 4 rivers that flowed out of Eden to the world). But, we’re not there yet – let’s finish verse 12 of Matthew 3.
Why would the threshingfloor be on John’s mind? Threshingfloors are interesting if you study them out in the Old Testament, but, there is one in particular I want us to think about. In 1Chronicles 21, David numbers the people (against God’s wishes) and a plague arises from within the people. David is seeking restoration for his people and wants to build an alter to the Lord. He goes to this guy named Ornan and asks to buy his threshingfloor. Ornan wouldn’t think of charging the king and insists David just take it, but David refuses. David won’t use something for the Lord that didn’t cost him anything. (There are a number of sermons that could be preached on this very attitude of David). So, Ornan agrees to let David buy the threshingfloor and David sets up the alter. You might wonder how this has any tie to the threshingfloor John the Baptist is preaching about. In 2Chronicles 3, we find David’s son, Solomon, building the Temple and it just so happens that the Temple is built upon the threshingfloor of Ornan the Jebusite, whom David purchased it from. For the Sadducees, the Temple was ground zero – it was home base for God’s operations as they viewed themselves as the purveyors of God’s ministration to the people. The Sadducees were in the 2nd Temple as the first one was destroyed by the Babylonians, but their connections to the 1st Temple would have been on their minds for sure. Yet, John the Baptist tells them that God is about to purge His floor–the very foundation of the structure that the Sadducees were using to exercise their corruption and oppression over the people is going to be cleaned out. God is about to clean house, in other words. Jesus Christ, in Matthew 19, will walk into the Temple and clean house. Through Christ’s death, the Temple veil rent in two, exposing the dwelling glory of the Lord to the world. And, in 70AD, the 2nd Temple will literally meet its final demise. John the Baptist in just a few quick statements brings the Old Testament upon the Pharisees and Sadducees like a ton of bricks. It is as if John is working quickly to get these folks out of the way and to stop occupying space that is needed for those who actually care to be there. It is in this preaching against fruitless trees being cut down that the Tree of Life walks into the scene to be planted by the river of water, upon whom the Spirit of God will descend. For the sake of time/space, I’m going to split up this up into a third part. The lesson was given as one lesson, but our next post will look at the baptism of Christ.
Three questions we’ll want to answer:
- Why is Christ baptizing?
- What is the theme of the story? (i.e. what do Creation, the Flood, the Exodus and the Crossing of Jordan have to do with Jesus’ baptism?)
- What is so important about the wilderness? Why is John preparing the way of the Lord in the wilderness? How does this prepare us for Matthew 4 when Jesus is lead in the wilderness to be tempted?
Our story continues…