The Voice in the Wilderness

If you lived in Florida right now, you would likely be preparing for the approach of Dorian. How doe you prepare when it is your God who is approaching? Matthew 3:1–12 shows the preparations need for the coming of the God-man, the Messiah.

Repent, because Christ baptizes with fire! Listen to the herald. John’s preaching heralded the coming of the Messiah. “In those days,” (v.1) may mean in those crucial times. Matthew, like the other Gospels, introduces Christ’s work by describing the message of John the Baptist, called that to distinguish him from other men named John, and because his ministry was defined in terms of the baptism he administered.. He is an important figure, but as a pointer, a fore-runner. The account of John the Baptist is found in the New Testament, but in many ways he is an Old Testament figure. The quote from Isaiah 40 identifies him as a herald. The desert location recalls the Exodus, and the salvation God had once brought to his people. John’s attire recalls Elijah, the great prophet who had once summoned God’s people to repent. He is preparing God’s people fo rthe coming one. This coming Messiah baptizes with fire. The people of Israel longed for the coming of the Messiah, but John warns them that his coming may be more than they expect. He will come as a judge, with his winnowing fork in his hand, ready to burn the chaff with unquenchable fire. John’s baptism is provisional. It signifies repentance and preparation for the Messiah. The Messiah would baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire. John may be echoing Joel 2:28ff. “John’s role is provisional and preparatory, his call to repentance is anticipatory (cf. v. 4; 7:27f.); therefore his ministry in its entirety is set under the sign of water baptism. In contrast, Jesus is the fulfillment; therefore his ministry taken as a whole consists in the reality of baptism with the Holy Spirit and fire.” (Richard B. Gaffin, Jr., Perspectives on Pentecost, p. 15).

How do you prepare? Repent! Although the word “repent” was not uncommon in Greek, it usually just meant a change of mind (from good to evil just as much as from evil to good). John uses the term, but with a meaning gleaned from the Old Testament. He summons his hearers to a radical change of the direction of their entire lives. Matthew focuses your attention on the concept, as it introduces the preaching of John. Repentance demands more than observing the outward ceremonies of the Pharisees. It is not enough to be a descendant of Abraham. Repentance, of which John’s baptism was a sign, means a turning from sin to God. The term repent seems to have fallen out of wide use—but it is crucially important to your coming to Christ. John, as the advance party of the King, does not smooth the road, but speaks to the heart, calling people to prepare themselves by turning to God. “John the Baptist appears here as the herald of the King. He preaches the baptism of repentance unto the forgiveness of sins. Repentance is always a turning away from sin–especially the sin of trusting in oneself–in order to surrender to God’s grace. Hence repentance is by faith and unto faith.” (S. G. De Graaf, Promise and Deliverance, Vol. 3, p. 181).

Trust the powerful coming one. When you turn from sin, you turn to Christ. Be ready for his coming. We often focus on the birth of Christ, and that is appropriate. John’s desert preaching introduces the ministry, the life and work, of the Messiah. Notice that the prophecy in Isaiah speaks of the coming of the Lord. The one for whom John prepares is none other than the Lord , whose glory Isaiah had witnessed when he was called as a prophet. Matthew is continuing to show you who Jesus really is. John lived at a crucial point in history. He introduced the Messiah. Christ did come. But, if he has come, why do we still talk about his coming? Because his coming is in two parts. He has come, and he will come again.

Live as those baptized with the Holy Spirit. Rejoice that Christ did baptize with the Holy Spirit. John describes the life work, the ministry of Christ, in terms of baptisms. The baptism that John administered, while important as a sign of repentance, was with water. It represented something greater. Christ was to baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. John may well have expected both to happen at once. Actually, Christ has delayed the baptism with fire, so that the Spirit could be poured out on you, his people. Live as those under the influence of the Spirit. The Spirit is Christ’s gift to the church once his earthly work is done. That Spirit works in your heart, producing faith in Christ. He enables you to live in obedience to the Word. “True repentance is not a matter of words and ritual, but of a real change of life.” (R. t. France, The Gospel of Matthew, p. 111).

Keep in mind the fiery baptism of judgment will indeed come. But you can be ready for it only because the Messiah, whom John announced, underwent that baptism by fire as he suffered your punishment on the cross. As the risen, triumphant Savior he has now baptized you with the Spirit to live to his glory.

About jwm

I serve as pastor of Trinity Presbyterian Church, Newberg, Oregon.
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