Matthew skips over nearly 30 years between 2:23 and 3:1 and in so doing he has emphasized for us his priority on the identity and role of Jesus over that of providing mere biographical information. This is further emphasized for us in that Matthew picks up all these years later not with Jesus, but with John, for John’s story serves to underscore the messianic role and function that Jesus will fulfill.
A common form of Jewish messianic hope is represented by the notion that Elijah would return as a precursor to the arrival of the Messiah (cf. Matt. 11:14; 17:10-13; Mal. 3:23-24; 4:5-6). Matthew takes care to present John in this light to underscore ultimately, the identity of Jesus, for in presenting John as he did, Matthew shows that John’s emergence upon the scene marks the beginning of a whole new paradigm in Israel. Consider the fact that John has come to the territory of David (3:1) in the spirit of Elijah (cf. 3:4; 2Kings 1:8) preaching a message of repentance (3:2, 7-10; cf. Mal. 3:1-5; 4:5-6), in the context of the nearness of the Kingdom (3:2) and the ultimate judgment of the “mightier one” to come (3:11-12). As Matthew’s story continues to unfold in the chapters that follow, John’s work will continue to give us focus on the character and mission of Jesus (cf. 3:14; 11:1-19; 14:1-12; 16:14-20; 17:9-13; 21:23-27). Matthew breaks his description of John the Baptist into two parts: 3:1-6 highlight John’s ministry, and 3:7-12 his message.
3:1-6: There is no coincidence in the fact that John appears in the “wilderness of Judea” (or “desert”) for it had long been expected that the precursor to messiah’s arrival would come from the Wilderness (Is. 40:3-4; 42:14-55:13; Ezek. 20:33-44; Hos. 2:14-15). This also provides us with a connection between Moses in the Wilderness and the story of Jesus. The Kingdom of Heaven (mentioned by Matthew 33 times in his Gospel) was near; there was urgency in John, an urgency that came from the very nature of his calling, as seen in the quotation from Isaiah 40:3.
John is further connected to the prophets of old in Matthew’s description of his wardrobe and menu. His dress is associated with that of Elijah (2Kings 1:8; cf. Zech. 13:4). His menu is that of a prophet fully consecrated to God. The impact of John’s ministry out in the desert was profound indeed; people came from all around to hear his message. They not only heard it, but they responded to it as well, confessing their sins and repenting, being baptized in the Jordan River.
3:7-12: Yes indeed, John’s ministry was having quite an impact, and when a radical message has a significant impact upon the people, the authorities will be looking into the situation, and that is what happens in these verses. Matthew tends to present the Pharisees and Sadducees as a united front throughout his Gospel, but to be sure, they would have only been united if they felt threatened, for they were rival factions that didn’t usually see eye-to-eye on very much. John, as Jesus would later, saw right through their façade.
In verses 7-10, John essentially launches a broadside at them; his message, crafted in apocalyptic terms they would understand was simply that they must repent of their unrighteousness like everyone else, or face judgment. This is made even clearer in vv. 11-12 where John clearly tells them that his baptism is all about repentance, but there will shortly appear one who is far greater than he, who will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. There are various interpretations of the issue of “Holy Spirit” and “fire” that John speaks of here and whichever you prefer is fine by me. As for me, as simple-minded as I am, I simply see a very tight context here that is illustrated in verse 12:
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.”
Using a simple agricultural metaphor that would be understood by most anyone in that day, John is telling the religious leaders that they will soon be able to repent and receive Jesus’ baptism and the Holy Spirit, or they can refuse and face the consequences; it would be their choice, just like it is our choice. This same tension will come up time and again in Matthew’s story.
In the next scene, John will have an entirely different kind of visit; see you there!