The Word Made Fresh
1Years passed, and then one day John the Baptizer showed up in the wilderness of Judea. 2“Repent!” he preached. “The Kingdom of Heaven is here!” 3John was the one the prophet Isaiah had foretold when he wrote, “A voice will cry out in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the Lord’s path, and make it straight!’”
4John was wearing a garment made of camel’s hair, tied with a leather belt around his waist. His diet consisted of locusts and wild honey. 5People from Jerusalem, and from all over Judea came out to see and hear him, and others came from all along the region beside the Jordan River. 6They let John baptize them in the river, confessing their sins.
7However, when John saw a lot of Pharisees and Sadducees coming to be baptized, he said, “You offspring of snakes! Who warned you to run from what is coming? 8Start behaving as though you have really repented. 9Don’t depend on claiming Abraham as your ancestor! I am telling you that God can make descendants of Abraham from these stones! 10The ax is leaning against the tree, and every tree that does not bear good fruit is going to be cut down and burned!”
11John said, “I baptize people with water as a sign of repentance, but there is someone more powerful than I who is coming. I am not worthy to carry his shoes. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit, and with fire! 12A pitchfork is in his hand, and he will clean up his threshing floor and gather his wheat into his granary, but the waste he will burn in a fire that can’t be put out!”
13Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan River, and asked John to baptize him. 14John refused at first. He said, “I need for you to baptize me, not the other way around. Instead, you come to me?” 15Jesus said, “Just do what I ask. This is what must be done to make everything right.” Then John agreed, 16and when he had baptized Jesus, as Jesus was standing up in the water the sky seemed to open above him, and the Spirit of God glided down like a dove and lit on him. 17And from the sky a voice was heard, saying, “This is my son whom I love, and with whom I am very pleased.”
1-6: Matthew continues to accumulate the prophetic witness which points to Jesus as the Messiah, but now he has left Jesus as a toddler with Mary and Joseph in Nazareth and moved ahead some thirty years to the Judean wilderness. The introduction of John the baptizer is abrupt. The description of him reminds us of Elijah, who is described at 2 Kings 1:8 as “A hairy man, with a leather belt around his waist.” For Matthew, of course, John’s appearance is a fulfillment of prophecy (Isaiah 62:10, Malachi 3:1).
7-10: Matthew continues to set the stage for Jesus’ ministry with the introduction of Pharisees and Sadducees. Jesus will have a number of conflicts with the Pharisees, the legal rigorists of the day (see 5:20, 9:11, 9:34, 12:14, 16:6, 27:62 for a few examples), and with the Sadducees, the more liberal upper-class Jewish sect (see 16:1, 16:6, 22:23). John’s point here is that what you do is more important than who you are. As my grandparents liked to say, “Handsome is as handsome does.”
11-12: John has instituted a revival movement, baptizing people in the river Jordan as a sign of their commitment to live in accordance with the will of God. Matthew is clear that John’s role is simply to herald the coming of the Messiah, and has John announcing Jesus’ arrival in self-deprecating oratory.
13-17: Jesus comes to be baptized, and it is immediately clear that this presents a bit of a problem. Matthew carefully points out that Jesus, who did not need to repent, was simply authenticating John’s message about the importance of doing good and John, initially reluctant, performs the baptism. The appearance of the dove adds God’s approval and reminds us of Noah’s dove which returned to the ark with evidence of nearby land. It is Matthew’s way of interpreting the ministry of Jesus as the beginning of a new world.
Jesus is careful not to take over anyone else’s authority – a good lesson for us as we seek ways to spread the Good News. This new world is in our hands, now, and we need to remind ourselves often that our words and actions have consequences.