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Jesus’ Ministry Begins
(chapter 3, verse 1 through chapter 4, verse 25)
John the Baptist prepares the way
Matthew chapter 3, verses 1-12
In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the Desert of Judea and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.” This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah: “A voice of one calling in the desert, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’ ” 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. 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. 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. 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 ax 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. “I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me will come one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not fit to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. 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.”
Matthew’s designation of time is very general when he tells us that John the Baptist began preaching in the desert “in those days.” Luke tells us exactly when this was: “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar—when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene—during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas” (Luke chapter 3, verses 1 and 2).
John began preaching in the desert country near the Dead Sea along the Jordan River. This country was barren, uninhabited, wild, and mountainous.
This terrain was an appropriate symbol of the spiritual state of the people of Israel. It also calls to mind the wilderness in which the Israelites wandered for 40 years when their unbelief delayed their entry into the Promised Land. In the wilderness John the Baptist called the people to repent of their sins, and he pointed to the Messiah, who alone could bring people into the kingdom of God.
John’s message of repentance echoed the call of all the Old Testament prophets, and soon Jesus would also be calling his people to repentance. Repentance involves a change of mind and heart and a change of direction in daily behavior and life. The full definition of repentance includes recognizing your sin as disobedience to God’s commandments, feeling truly sorry for your sin, having the sincere desire to amend your sinful ways, and trusting in the Lord Jesus Christ alone for forgiveness and salvation.
Repentance is not a one-time act. In his famous Ninety-five Theses, which mark the beginning of the Reformation, Martin Luther declared that the entire life of a Christian is to be characterized by repentance. In his Small Catechism, Luther tells us that our baptism should remind us to drown our old Adam by daily contrition and repentance. There is no such thing as an impenitent Christian, and it is not possible to repent of only some sins. Repentance includes all our sins, even those of which we may not be aware, and Jesus’ forgiveness is also total. When he forgives us, all is forgiven. Anything less would be of no value, for the guilt of a single sin would condemn the sinner to eternal torment in hell.
The kingdom of heaven and the kingdom of God are synonymous expressions. These terms do not refer to earthly territory or to citizens or subjects we can see and count; they refer to God’s gracious rule in people’s hearts. These terms describe the process by which God saves sinners. The climax of that saving process was at hand, for the promised Savior had come into the world. Jesus was about to begin his public ministry. After living a life of perfect obedience to all of God’s commandments, he would willingly lay down his life on Calvary’s cross to atone for the sins of the world. On the third day he would rise again, proving that God’s kingdom had triumphed over the kingdom of Satan. These momentous events were going to happen soon. That was why John could proclaim, “The kingdom of heaven is near.”
Matthew identifies John as the “voice in the desert” of whom Isaiah the prophet had spoken (Isaiah chapter 40, verse 3). To “prepare the way for the Lord” and “make straight paths for him” was essentially a description of the repentance John called for. Just as the road would be smoothed and straightened and leveled for an approaching Asian monarch, so John’s listeners were to clear away everything that would be an obstacle to Christ’s coming to them. It was like saying, “Christ is coming. Drop everything and get ready to welcome him!”
John’s food and clothing were not as unusual as we might imagine. His clothing of camel’s hair and his leather belt were characteristic of God’s prophets. See, for example, the description of Elijah in 2nd Kings chapter 1, verse 8. Such rough and rugged clothing was particularly appropriate for men whom God sent with a message of judgment and a stern call to repentance. Today a coat of camel’s hair may be expensive and luxurious, but John’s clothing would not fit that description.
Wild honey was abundant in that desert region, and locusts were food poor people would eat when nothing better was available. They would remove the wings and perhaps also the legs of the locusts. Then they would dry or roast the locusts or grind them up and bake them. The law of Moses had specifically told the Israelites, “You may eat any kind of locust, katydid, cricket or grasshopper” (Leviticus chapter 11, verse 22), but making it permissible did not make it popular.
Modern evangelists are likely to rent a stadium, an arena, or an auditorium, and advertise widely to attract a large audience, but John did nothing of the kind. He preached out in the desert, and people flocked to him from Jerusalem and Judea and the whole area. They listened to his message, openly confessed their sins, repented, and were baptized by John in the Jordan River.
John’s baptism was something new, but the Jews were familiar with many kinds of ceremonial washing, so this did not seem strange to them. We cannot say exactly how John applied the water when he baptized, but the opinion that he baptized by immersion cannot be proven. The word baptize was used to describe numerous methods of washing with water. It does not necessarily mean to immerse.
Some Bible commentators speak of John’s baptism as being only symbolic, and they suppose that those who later became members of Christian congregations were baptized again. It is clear, however, that there was no essential difference between John’s baptism and the Baptism later commanded by Jesus (chapter 28, verse 19). The Lutheran theologian J. Ylvisaker clearly stated, “John’s baptism was an effective sacrament, which mediated regeneration and the remission of sins.” This is what Mark tells us when he speaks of John the Baptist as “preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mark chapter 1, verse 4). Jesus’ disciples and John the Baptist were baptizing simultaneously (John chapter 3, verses 22 and 23), and there is no indication that there was any difference between their baptisms. So when Jesus commanded the apostles to go and make disciples by baptizing and teaching (Matthew chapter 28, verses 19 and 20), he was not telling them to do something new and different. He was telling them to keep on doing what they and John the Baptist had already been doing; only now they were to extend their ministry to all nations.
John did not baptize everybody who came to him seeking to be baptized. He commanded people to repent, and he required that they show visible fruits of repentance. When many Pharisees and Sadducees came to be baptized, he absolutely refused because there were no fruits of repentance in their lives. He called them a “brood of vipers.” The Pharisees and Sadducees had little in common except their opposition to Jesus and his message. The Pharisees believed they were righteous in God’s sight because they kept the law. They even added many regulations of their own to the laws of Moses, so they imagined that they were not even close to the point where God might condemn them. Repentance was fine for others, but they didn’t think they needed it personally. The Sadducees, on the other hand, did not believe in any resurrection or in the existence of angels. They were concerned only about this life and this world. They had no interest in the kingdom of heaven that John was proclaiming.
Why, then, did these Pharisees and Sadducees come to John to be baptized? Evidently, they saw the people flocking out to John, and they did not want to be left out. They were the religious leaders of the Jews, and they hoped to hold on to their power and prestige by going along with the crowd and not openly opposing such a popular messenger of God. But they were not able to deceive John.
When John addressed them as a “brood of vipers,” that was like calling them children of the devil. Genesis chapter 3, verse 15, the first promise of the Savior to come, spoke of the enmity that would exist between the offspring of the woman (Jesus) and the offspring of the devil, who had spoken to Eve through a serpent. That enmity became more and more evident during Jesus’ ministry and reached its climax in his trial and crucifixion. The “coming wrath” from which they were trying to flee is described in following verses as a fire of divine judgment. Just as serpents would scurry away from a brush fire or a burning stubble field, so these people were trying to escape God’s judgment by going through the motions of Baptism, but they would not succeed. To be baptized would only have increased their guilt before God—just as unworthy communicants are warned that they only bring God’s judgment upon themselves (1st Corinthians chapter 11, verses 27-30).
Being Abraham’s descendants did not mean automatic acceptance in God’s kingdom—even though these Pharisees and Sadducees and many more of the Jews imagined that nothing more was required of them. No one can get to heaven by virtue of the faith or piety of his ancestors. As a matter of fact, unbelieving and impenitent children and descendants of pious parents and grandparents are doubly guilty before God. They had special opportunities to know their Lord and his way of salvation, but they despised God’s Word and the Savior who is revealed there. Just as God had made Adam out of the dust of the ground (Genesis chapter 2, verse 7) and had made Eve from Adam’s rib (Genesis chapter 2, verse 22), so he could also make children of Abraham out of the stones of the desert if he so desired. He wasn’t “stuck with” unbelieving Pharisees and Sadducees just because they were physical descendants of Abraham.
God doesn’t need any of us either. If we insist on going our own way or trying to get into heaven on our own terms, God will reject us and find plenty of other people to populate heaven fully. We must not imagine that he needs us. At the same time, let us never forget that he wants us and that Jesus has done everything necessary for our eternal salvation.
Unproductive trees are marked for destruction. They are chopped out of the ground at the roots and thrown into the fire. Then room becomes available for productive trees. In the same way, professing Christians who produce no fruits of faith will be separated from believers at the time of God’s judgment, and they will be thrown into the lake of fire that will never be quenched. Jesus makes the same point in his parable of a wedding feast. Those who refused to wear the wedding garments provided by the bridegroom and insisted on being admitted on their own terms were cast outside into darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth (chapter 22, verses 1-14).
The purpose of John’s ministry was not to gain followers for himself but to direct people to Jesus, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world. From the very beginning of his ministry, John spoke of the more powerful one, for whom he was not even fit to be the lowliest servant. This more powerful one “will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire,” John foretold. This is a clear promise of the sending of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. Just before his ascension into heaven, Jesus told his apostles, “John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit” (Acts chapter 1, verse 5).
John ends this discourse with another description of God’s judgment. He speaks of a farmer separating the grain from the chaff on his threshing floor. As a farmer would toss the threshed grain into the air, the breeze would carry away the light chaff, and the heavier kernels of grain would fall to the ground. In the same way, Christ will separate believers and unbelievers (penitent and impenitent). He will consign the impenitent to hell and gather the penitent into the heavenly mansions. The message of John and of Jesus is timeless and universal. Nobody will be able to escape God’s judgment, and there will be no appeals to another court. “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned” (Mark chapter 16, verse 16). That’s what the whole Bible is all about.
The baptism of Jesus
Matthew chapter 3, verses 13-17
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?” Jesus replied, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” Then John consented. 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 lighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”
The situation was entirely different when Jesus came to John to be baptized. John had refused to baptize those Pharisees and Sadducees because they showed no fruits of repentance. He was reluctant to baptize Jesus because Jesus had no sins to confess, nothing of which to repent. We cannot say how well John knew Jesus at this time. He certainly knew of Jesus. Their mothers were relatives, and Jesus’ mother, Mary, had visited John’s mother, Elizabeth, before John and Jesus were born. There is no biblical record of any contact between Jesus and John during the next 30 years. John tells us, “I would not have known him, except that the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, ‘The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is he who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.’ I have seen and I testify that this is the Son of God” (John chapter 1, verses 33 and 34).
Jesus did not disagree with John’s statement about his need for Baptism and forgiveness from Jesus. It was true that John was a sinner and Jesus was without sin. But Jesus told John to baptize him anyway. The only explanation he gave was, “It is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” But what did he mean by that? It was not a legal requirement like Jesus’ keeping of the Ten Commandments, because Baptism is gospel, not law. Jesus was simply saying that this was what the Father wanted them to do, and that was enough explanation for John.
Jesus’ baptism identified him with the world of sinners. Paul describes Christ’s substitution for sinners by telling us, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2nd Corinthians chapter 5, verse 21). He certainly placed his stamp of approval on John’s baptism and indicated that he also wants us to receive the blessings of Baptism. Jesus’ baptism and the testimony of the Father and of the Holy Spirit publicly identified Jesus as the Lamb of God, who had come to take away the sin of the world.
The baptism itself is not described. Matthew simply states that it took place. The manner in which John applied the water to Jesus is not indicated, and this again tells us that we are not limited to any one particular method of applying the water when we baptize today. Jesus’ coming “up out of the water” simply means that he stepped up onto the bank of the river and does not give us a clear indication of exactly how John applied the water to Jesus in his baptism.
The opening of the heavens after Jesus’ baptism was much more than the parting of clouds so that the sun could shine through. It was more like the experience of the prophet Ezekiel: “The heavens were opened and I saw visions of God” (Ezekiel chapter 1, verse 1). Or we think of Stephen, the first Christian martyr. “‘Look,’ he said, ‘I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God’” (Acts chapter 7, verse 56). We cannot say whether only Jesus saw heaven open or whether John saw it too.
But John did see the Holy Spirit come down on Jesus in the form of a dove (John chapter 1, verse 32). Martin Luther believed this was a natural dove used by the Holy Spirit, but that is more than the Bible actually states. All we can say for sure is that the Holy Spirit assumed the visible form of a dove. This may be comparable to the occasions when angels appeared in human form. They did not become human beings or borrow the bodies of human beings; they simply assumed that visible form. They appeared and disappeared.
The bodily form of a dove was appropriate for the Holy Spirit, for the dove is used in Scripture as a symbol of innocence and peace. This dove reminds us of the dove Noah sent out from the ark. That dove returned carrying an olive branch, a symbol of peace. Peter calls the waters of the flood a symbol of Baptism (1st Peter chapter 3, verse 21). The church father Chrysostom made the observation that the dove (Holy Spirit) coming down upon Christ symbolized that the deluge of God’s wrath over sin had ceased and peace was being extended to man. May every dove we see bring such comforting thoughts to our minds.
Jesus was not without the Holy Spirit before this. After all, he had been conceived by the Holy Spirit before he was born of the virgin Mary. At this time the Holy Spirit bestowed upon Jesus the special gifts he would need to carry out the responsibilities of his office as the Messiah. The prophet Isaiah had foretold what these gifts would include: “The Spirit of the LORD will rest on him—the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of power, the Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the LORD” (Isaiah chapter 11, verse 2). In Isaiah chapter 61, verse 1 Christ speaks to us personally: “The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.” In the synagogue in Nazareth, Jesus quoted these words and applied them to himself, stating, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke chapter 4, verse 21).
Then the Father spoke from heaven, acknowledging Jesus as his beloved Son. About three years later, near the end of Jesus’ ministry, the Father spoke similar words from heaven on the Mount of Transfiguration (chapter 17, verse 5). The Father was pleased with everything his beloved Son did and endured for our salvation. So we may be certain that we are reconciled to God and are heirs of everlasting life for Jesus’ sake.
Jesus’ baptism is one of the occasions when God revealed himself as triune. It is true that the Bible never uses the words triune or Trinity, but the Christian church has long and properly used them to express what the only true and living God has revealed about himself in the Scriptures, namely, that he exists in three persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. These three distinct persons are one God. They share equally in all the works and all the attributes of God. Nevertheless, we properly speak of creation as the special work of the Father, redemption as the special work of the Son, and sanctification as the special work of the Holy Spirit. In these truths all Christians agree.