Matt. 3:1 ¶ Now in those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea, saying,
Matt. 3:2 “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
There’s a reference here to John the Baptist. Matthew does not give us any background on John, it’s like he assumes that the reader knows who John the Baptist was. Fortunately for us, we have the Gospel of Luke which gives us some of John’s background.
We see that John the Baptist was preaching. The idea of the Greek word that is used here is that of telling good news. John the Baptist was bringing good news.
We also see he was speaking the good news out in the wilderness of Judea. The wilderness was deserted. It’s very curious why he was preaching in the wilderness. Typically, when you have a message that you want people to hear, you go to where the people are to proclaim your message so that people can hear it. In this case, John was out in the wilderness, which, by definition, would indicate there weren’t many people around.
This is a map of the Middle East. The Mediterranean Sea is off to the left. The Sea of Galilee is up towards the north, it flows into the Jordan River, then the Jordan River flows down the Jordan Valley into the Dead Sea.
The colors on this map are different to show elevation. The white areas are the very high areas, the tops of mountains. The brown areas are the next levels down. The light green areas are just above sea level. The dark green areas are below sea level.
Between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River we see an area of brown. This shows us there is a mountain running north and south between the Jordan Valley and the Mediterranean Sea. At the top of that mountain is something called the watershed. The watershed is the line which divides which direction the water flows. Anything rainfall east of the watershed would flow down into the Jordan Valley. Any rainfall west of the watershed would flow down into the Mediterranean Sea.
In this area the prevailing winds flow from west to east. The prevailing winds bring moisture and clouds from the Mediterranean Sea over the land of Israel. When the clouds get over land they start dumping rain, but by the time the clouds get above the watershed they have pretty much dumped all of their moisture. When the clouds get east of the watershed there’s not much rain anymore. The area between the watershed and the Jordan Valley is known as the rain shadow, because they get very little rain there. Some years they get as little as one or two inches of rain per year in that area. This is the area known as the wilderness because it’s very dry, there’s very little vegetation there.
When Matthew wrote about John the Baptist being out in the wilderness of Judea, he would have been referring to that area between the watershed and the Jordan Valley.
This is a picture of the wilderness. I took this when I was in Israel during my days in college. This area is very brown. We don’t see any trees or vegetation except in the bottom of the picture. There’s an aqueduct on the side of the hill, so there’s some vegetation growing around that water. Other than that we don’t see any vegetation, nor houses, nor telephone poles. We don’t see anything except brown hills because it’s a very dry, arid, deserted area. This is the wilderness that John the Baptist was in when he was preaching.
Notice the word repent. John’s message was repent. The idea of repent is to change directions. If you’re traveling east and you realize you’re going in the wrong direction, when you turn around and travel west, that turn is the concept of repent. You realize you’re going in the wrong direction so you start going in the opposite direction. John the Baptist went out and he preached repentance. He was telling his listeners they had to change, they had to do something very different than what they were doing.
Then John mentioned the kingdom of heaven was at hand. The idea of the kingdom of heaven or the kingdom of God is mentioned many times in the Gospels, so it’s good to know exactly what that term means.
Think of it this way. Think about the kingdom of Spain. What is the kingdom of Spain? There’s a geographical area in Europe known as the country of Spain. They have a king so that is known as the kingdom of Spain. Likewise, what is the kingdom of Queen Elizabeth? The kingdom of Queen Elizabeth is any geographical area that falls under the authority or under the crown of Queen Elizabeth.
Likewise, the kingdom of God or the kingdom of heaven is any area that is under the authority of God or heaven. John the Baptist went out into the wilderness and preached repentance and he said the kingdom of heaven was at hand. We know in hindsight that what he was doing was indicating that Jesus Himself, God Himself was about to make an appearance.
Matt. 3:3 For this is the one referred to by Isaiah the prophet when he said,
“THE VOICE OF ONE CRYING IN THE WILDERNESS,
‘MAKE READY THE WAY OF THE LORD,
MAKE HIS PATHS STRAIGHT!’”
Verse 2 was a quotation of what John the Baptist was preaching. Verse 3 is not part of that quotation. Verse 3 is the message Matthew was writing to his readers. Matthew used the pronoun this. The pronoun this refers to John the Baptist. Matthew wrote that John the Baptist was the one referred to by Isaiah the prophet. Then Matthew quoted a verse from Isaiah. Isaiah had prophesied that somebody was going to come and prepare the way for the Lord. Matthew was telling his readers that John the Baptist was that voice that came preparing the way for the Lord, meaning Jesus was the Lord Himself who came fulfilling these verses.
Matt. 3:4 Now John himself had a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist; and his food was locusts and wild honey.
Here we have a description of John’s garments and his food. This indicates John was living a very basic, austere lifestyle.
Matt. 3:5 Then Jerusalem was going out to him, and all Judea and all the district around the Jordan;
Matt. 3:6 and they were being baptized by him in the Jordan River, as they confessed their sins.
I mentioned earlier it’s a little interesting that John was preaching his message out in the wilderness because that’s not where the people were. What we see in this verse is that, for whatever reason, the people were going out to John. It doesn’t tell us why they were going out to him, nor does it tell us why his message was attractive. I can guess that the reason it was attractive is because John was preaching that the kingdom of heaven was at hand.
At this time, the Jewish people were looking forward to their Messiah. Their expectation was that the Messiah would come and overthrow Rome and establish the Davidic throne and the kingdom of Israel. The Jews wanted that to happen. When John the Baptist said the kingdom of heaven was at hand, the Jews probably understood that as him saying the Messiah was about to come. They understood that to mean the Messiah would come and overthrow Rome. That would have been why his message was so attractive. In hindsight, we know that’s not what John meant, but that is what his listeners would have heard.
Verse 5 specifically mentions that people went out from Jerusalem, Judea, and all the district around the Jordan. Let’s take a look at those areas on a map.
This is the country of Israel. Jerusalem is near the watershed between the Dead Sea and the Mediterranean Sea. Jerusalem was up on top of the mountain that runs between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River valley.
Judea was the area surrounding Jerusalem, the area between the Dead Sea and the Mediterranean Sea.
The district around the Jordan would have been the Jordan River Valley. These are the geographical areas from which John was drawing his audience.
Verse 6 tells us these people were baptized by John. In their culture being baptized meant you were agreeing with the message of the person who was baptizing you. When John preached a baptism of repentance, the people that went to be baptized by him were agreeing with the notion they had to repent.
As part of repentance, they were confessing their sins. The idea of repentance is to change. When they were baptized, agreeing with the idea they needed to repent, they were confessing their sins. They were confessing the things they were doing wrong.
Matt. 3:7 ¶ But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?
Some Pharisees and Sadducees went out to the wilderness to hear John and they were also baptized. The Pharisees and Sadducees would have been the religious leaders and the religious intelligentsia of that time. Many of the men who studied in the rabbinical schools were Pharisees. Many of the priests were Sadducees.
John the Baptist called the Pharisees and Sadducees a brood of vipers. This was not a compliment. This was a criticism. It meant the Pharisees and Sadducees were harming people.
In our society, many people espouse the idea that if you don’t have anything nice to say you shouldn’t say anything at all. That sounds great, but it’s not a biblical concept. Jesus did not live his life that way. We see in Matthew 3:7 that John the Baptist did not live that way. John called the Pharisees and Sadducees a brood of vipers. That was not nice. It is not biblical to go around and say we should never say things that are not nice. Instead, the Bible emphasizes that we need to speak the truth. Sometimes the truth is not nice. Sometimes the truth is harsh, but we have to speak the truth, and that’s more important than being nice.
John asked the Pharisees and Sadducees who had warned them to flee the wrath to come. This is somewhat of a rhetorical question. John was the one who was preaching the message, but John was a messenger of God. Ultimately John was pointing out that God was the one who was warning the Pharisees and Sadducees that they had to flee the wrath to come.
Matt. 3:8 “Therefore bear fruit in keeping with repentance;
Matt. 3:9 and do not suppose that you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham for our father’; for I say to you that from these stones God is able to raise up children to Abraham.
Notice the word therefore. In verse 7 John called the Pharisees and Sadducees a brood of vipers. He pointed out to them that God was warning them to flee the wrath to come. Then in verse 7 we see the word therefore, which indicates John is about to mention the ramifications of the fact they are a brood of vipers and that God is warning them to flee the wrath to come.
First, he told them to bear fruit in keeping with repentance. The idea of repentance is to change. The Pharisees and Sadducees were coming out to be baptized by John which was an outward sign saying they agreed with John that they had to repent. John pointed out that if they were going to be baptized, then their behavior had to reflect repentance. Their behavior had to reflect that they were changing their behavior. That’s what John meant by bear fruit. They had to change their behavior and behave better. Better behavior was the fruit that was in keeping with repentance.
In verse 9 we see the words do not. John told the Pharisees and Sadducees not to rely on having Abraham as their father. Being sons of Abraham was a point of pride for many of these religious people. They had this idea that since they were children of Abraham, they were right no matter what they did. John was pointing out to them that was not true. Just because they were sons of Abraham did not mean their behavior was necessarily correct. That’s why John was preaching this message of repentance, because even though they were Jews, even though they were children of Abraham, their behavior was not right, and they had to change their behavior.
Then John pointed out as a way of reinforcing his message that God, being God, can do anything He wants to do. God is able to turn stones into children of Abraham if He so chooses. The message was that God did not need the Jewish people. God did not need the Pharisees and Sadducees. Part of the reason the Pharisees and Sadducees were somewhat arrogant about their Jewish background was the fact there were promises in the Old Testament that relied on Jewish people or sons of Abraham in order to be fulfilled. The religious Jews felt they were indispensable because God needed them to fulfill His promises. However, John pointed out that God can turn stones into children of Abraham. Therefore, He really didn’t need the Pharisees and Sadducees.
Matt. 3:10 “The axe is already laid at the root of the trees; therefore every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
John used an illustration of an axe and trees. God is the one who was wielding the axe. The trees are a reference to the Israelites. God was taking the axe and cutting down some of the Israelites. Specifically, it says the ones that did not bear good fruit were going to be cut down. In other words, some of the Jews were righteous and some of the Jews were unrighteous. God was going to cut down the unrighteous Jews. He was also going to discard the unrighteous Jews.
This was very different than what the Pharisees and Sadducees assumed. They assumed that something like this was not going to happen because of the fact that they were Jews, but John made a distinction between righteous Jews and unrighteous Jews. John told them that God was going to discard the unrighteous Jews.
Matt. 3:11 ¶ “As for me, I baptize you with water for repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, and I am not fit to remove His sandals; He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.
John recognized his inferiority to Christ. John said Jesus was mightier than he. He also said he was not fit to even remove the sandals of Jesus.
John also made a distinction between his baptism and the baptism of Jesus. John indicated his baptism was water. His baptism was earthy and temporary.
The baptism of Jesus was the Holy Spirit and fire. His baptism was heavenly and eternal.
Matt. 3:12 “His winnowing fork is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clear His threshing floor; and He will gather His wheat into the barn, but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”
Throughout this verse we see the pronoun his and he. Those pronouns refer to Jesus. Jesus has a winnowing fork. The winnowing fork is an agricultural reference.
In that area they grow a lot of wheat. A stalk of wheat is a couple feet tall. At the top of the stalk is the head of grain. Within the head of grain is a couple dozen kernels of wheat. All the kernels of wheat are attached to each other, and attached to the stalk, with something called the chaff. The chaff is a very thin, film-like material that attaches everything together.
When they harvested wheat they would go out into the field and cut down the stalks. They would bring the stalks onto the threshing floor. They would lay them on the threshing floor. Then they would start beating the stalks to separate the kernels of wheat from the chaff and from the stalks.
Once they were done separating the wheat from the chaff, they had to gather the kernels of wheat into one pile, and the chaff into a different pile. The way they did that was to throw the wheat and chaff up into the air when it was breezy. The chaff was lightweight and would blow away while the kernels of wheat would fall back down to the ground. The tool they used to do this was the winnowing fork.
We see a reference in verse 12 to the winnowing fork of Jesus, meaning Jesus was going to separate one thing from another. There’s a reference to the threshing floor. John said that Jesus was going to clear His threshing floor. The Jews were the ones who were on His threshing floor and He was going to clear them out.
The wheat was a reference to the righteous Jews. When you’re threshing wheat, you gather the kernels of wheat into the barn. Likewise, Jesus was going to bring the righteous Jews to Himself. When you’re threshing wheat, you burn the chaff because it is useless. Likewise, God was going to discard the unrighteous Jews.
This message was very different from what the religious leaders of the Jewish people understood. They thought that since they were Jews, they were safe. John the Baptist was telling them they were not safe. Instead, there were some Jews who were righteous and some Jews who were unrighteous.
We have a similar problem in 21st century Christianity. There are many people who consider themselves Christians, they go to church on a regular basis, and they think they’re safe, they think they’re saved, but they’re not. There’s a reference to this later on in the Gospel of Matthew.
Matt. 7:21 ¶ “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter.
Matt. 7:22 “Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’
Matt. 7:23 “And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; DEPART FROM ME, YOU WHO PRACTICE LAWLESSNESS.’
There’s a warning here that not everyone who thinks they’re on the Lord’s side are actually on the Lord’s side. Not everyone who thinks they are going to heaven are actually going to go to heaven.
We have this problem in 21st century Christianity. All my life it’s been very common for churches to tell people to pray a prayer, to pray the sinners prayer in order to be saved. They are told to ask Jesus into their heart. However, the Bible does not talk about a sinners prayer. The Bible does not talk about asking Jesus into your heart.
Instead, the Bible says the people who are saved are the ones who believe that Jesus rose from the dead, and who confess the Jesus is lord. Oftentimes, the sinners prayers that people pray don’t cover those two elements. This means there are many people in our churches who think they are saved because they prayed the sinners prayer, but they’re actually not saved because they never dealt with the two essential issues of Jesus rising from the dead and Jesus being lord.
In 21st century Christianity we need to think hard and evaluate how we are presenting the gospel, because many times we are presenting a very light gospel that doesn’t actually end up with people being saved.
Once again, thank you for watching Bible Mountain. Before you go, I’d like to invite you to become a member of Bible Mountain. As a member you’ll receive all my free content. You’ll also receive some content that is for members only, and you’ll be able to participate in discussion groups. Also, if you join today, I’ll send you a free CD of Christmas music. In order to join, click on Join Bible Mountain, and that will take you to a web page where you can join. Once again, thank you for watching Bible Mountain.
“Scripture quotations taken from the New American Standard Bible®,
Copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973,
1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation
Used by permission.” (www.Lockman.org)