The Herald’s Message – Matthew 3:1-12

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January 19, 1992
Scott L. Harris

The Herald’s Message
Matthew 3:1-12

This morning we will be continuing in our examination of John the Baptist by looking at the message he brought. Though the message was first delivered by him nearly 2,000 years ago, his message is still relevant to us today. We will be looking at his message in three aspects. First, it was a message from Prophecy; second, a message of change; and third, a message of hope and judgement.

Message from Prophecy: Make Ready the way of the Lord.

Recall from last week that we talked about who John the Baptist was. John himself declared in John 1:23 that, “I am a voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as Isaiah the prophet said.” This is what Matthew tells us here in verse 3. We found that this was the fulfillment of Isaiah 40:3-5. As we examined that passage we learned that the idea of one, “making straight the way of the Lord” as well as the phrases about “making smooth in the desert a highway,” “lifting up the valleys”, making the “rough ground plain”, and the “rugged terrain into a broad valley” that are contained in the prophecy refer to the oriental custom of that time period of someone proceeding a king or a prince and making sure that the highway they were to travel on was in fitting condition for the king or prince. The analogy being that the one who was to proceed the Messiah was to prepare the hearts of the people for welcoming and following Messiah once He did arrive.

We also saw that John the Baptist fulfilled the prophecies of Malachi 3:1 and 4:6 just as both his father Zacharias the priest and the angel Gabriel had said he would. John was the one God sent as the messenger before the Messiah to clear the way before Him just as Malachi 3:1 and his father had predicted (Luke 1:76). John was also the one of whom Gabriel said was to “go before Him (Messiah) in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers back to the children, and the disobedient to the attitude of the righteous; so as to make ready a people prepared for the Lord” (Luke 1:17) thus fulfilling Malachi 4:6. (See: The Messiah’s Herald)

Matthew has driven his point in once again that Jesus is the Messiah because here is yet another prophecy concerning Him that was fulfilled. The forerunner had been sent before Him to prepare the way. And so it is that John the Baptist presents a message from prophecy, for it is the message the prophets foretold that he would bring.

The message from prophecy was that John the Baptist would prepare the way for the coming of Messiah, but how? Messiah is the greater son of David who would sit on David’s throne. Wouldn’t part of the preparation for His coming include getting everything ready in Jerusalem? Perhaps he should be heading up the Jerusalem reconstruction and beautification projects. The palace, the throne room, and all of the city needs to be fixed up. Herod has built some nice new buildings , especially the temple, but there is so much more that should be done to prepare for the King, the Son of David!. Why then is John out in the wilderness? Why is he wearing those shabby looking clothes? That is not fitting attire for the representative of the king! Who will even pay attention to him dressed like that? Why is he eating those disgusting insects? Shouldn’t he be testing out the best chef’s and finding the one that would prepare the Messiah’s meals!

But remember, though the prophecy of Isaiah 40 does mention things like preparing a road, the prophet is not talking about preparing a physical road. Isaiah is talking about the same thing that Malachi was speaking of in Malachi 4:6, ‘and he will restore the hearts of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the land with a curse.” It is as Gabriel had said in referring to this verse. John the Baptist came to prepare the hearts of the people for Messiah. He did not come to lead a public works project. But how would John the Baptist prepare the hearts of the people? How would he be able to “restore the hearts of the children to their fathers,” and to turn the hearts of the fathers back to the children,” as well as turn “the disobedient to the attitude of the righteous.” To accomplish this, he would have to bring a message of change.

Message of Change: Repent

John’s message of change is summarized in verse 2, “Repent, for thekingdom of heaven is at hand.”

What is Repentance? What does John mean by that and why was it necessary tobe done?

The first thing to note is that the call to repentance was nothing new in Jewish history. It had been part of the message and often the basic call of all the prophets throughout Jewish history. But what was different in John the Baptist’s message is that the call to repentance was tied in with coming of the Kingdom of heaven. We will look at this in more detail in a moment, so for here just note that the soon coming arrival of Messiah was the motivation for the message and gave the message urgency, but the nature of the message was the same as had been given to their forefathers by the prophets of long ago.

Repentance is a word that should be understood by all Christians and especially evangelicals for it is part of the message that we are to carry to the world. Repentance was the message carried by Jesus (Matthew 4:17 Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand”), by Peter in Acts 2:37 (the people were “pierced to the heart” by his first sermon and his concluded with a call for them to repent), and in Acts 3:19 (in his second sermon he again told the people to repent). Paul proclaimed repentance from the very beginning of his ministry. In Acts 17:30 he told those on Mars Hill in Athens that “God is now declaring to men that all everywhere should repent.” In Paul’s defense before King Agrippa in Acts 26:19,20 he concluded, “Consequently, King Agrippa, I did not prove disobedient to the heavenly vision, but kept declaring both to those of Damascus first, and also at Jerusalem and then throughout all the regions of Judea, and even to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God, performing deeds appropriate to repentance.” Repentance continues to be in Paul’s message in his epistles too (Romans 2:4; 2 Corinthians 7:9,10; 12:21; 2 Timothy 2:25). It was part of the apostles message of salvation and therefore should be part of our message to a dying world, yet, we find that within evangelical Christianity repentance is not understood. So lets spend the next few minutes getting a grasp upon what it means.

Some have tried to make repentance equal a person turning from all sin which then brings salvation. Others have reacted to this and said that would make repentance a work and salvation is not by works (Ephesians 2:8,9). They in turn define repentance as simply “a change of mind” and say that in salvation that means simply a change in mind about who Jesus is. As is usually the case whenever two extreme views meet, “repentance” is neither a work of salvation, nor is it just a “change of mind” about Jesus.

The Greek word for repentance is a compound word. The preposition meta / meta (with, after, around) with the noew, nouV / noeo, nous word group (mind, think, understand, insight, feel). Thus the word can mean: 1) To change one’s mind; to adopt another view; 2) to regret, to feel remorse; 3) to convert, conversion (Kittel, vol IV, pg 976,999). Remember that I said earlier that John the Baptist’s message was really no different than that of all the prophets that preceded him. Thus we also get involved with corresponding Hebrew words for repentance which are the words shub (To return) or nacham (to regret something / repent).

Because Israel stands in a special relationship with Yahweh, Hosea could describe that relationship as a marriage in which the wife was unfaithful to her husband (Hosea 1-3). Isaiah can speak of sons that rebel (Isaiah 1:2), and Jeremiah describes their sin as their forsaking Yahweh. Sin was seen as a turning away from God. With that in mind the prophets called upon the nation to return (shub) to Him. This is foundational in understanding the repentance message of John the Baptist for he was speaking to the same people, the nation of Israel, as did the earlier prophets.

The message of repentance by the earlier prophets involved 1) Turning to obedience to Yahweh’s will, 2) Turning to trust in Yahweh and 3) Turning from everything ungodly. As an example of this look at Hosea 6:1-6. In chapters 4 & 5 the charge against Israel has been given. The direct call of 6:1 is to return (shub) to the LORD. In verse 3, Hosea makes it plain that this is not a return to playing religion, but to “know the Lord.” Their loyalty has been fickle in the past (verse 4) resulting in judgement (verse 5). Verse 6 explains that God is not interested in outward show (sacrifice & burnt offerings), but in inward reality (loyalty and knowledge of God). So the first element of repentance is a turning to the LORD. The second element is putting trust only in Yahweh. We find this in chapter 14 as well as the element of turning away from everything that is ungodly. In verse 2 the call is given again to return (shub) to the LORD asking Him to remove their iniquity. The fruit of their lips reveals where their trust was now to be: “Assyria will not save us, We will not ride on horses; Nor will we say again, ‘Our god,’ to the work of our hands;” Turning back to Yahweh involved turning away from the false things they had trusted in and placing their trust only in Yahweh.

These are the basic elements of John the Baptist’s call to the people of his time. The command of the LORD had always been that His people were to follow Him from the heart and not just with outward compliance. Even back in Deuteronomy 6:4-6 we find Moses commanding the second generation that was about to enter the promised land, “Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD is one! And you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words, which I am commanding you today, shall be on your heart.” Moses reinforces this in chapter 10 by saying much the same thing. Yes, the LORD wanted outward obedience, but that was not enough and still is not enough. God wants our hearts! Yet that seems to be the one thing humans want to give Him the least.

Throughout Israel’s history, if the people were not in open rebellion against God by actually worshipping other gods, then they were playing religion. The same was true in John the Baptist’s day. There were some Jews that had apostatized from following the law of Moses and instead had adopted the Greek and Roman world view even to giving obeisance to their gods. The call to repentance was certainly to them. But the call to repentance was as equally strong to the many people of the land that were playing religion. The religious leaders of the day had long before abandoned the true worship of and seeking after God. We saw that at the birth of Jesus. Stories of angels talking with shepherds near Bethlehem are reported. Simeon and Anna are proclaiming all sorts of things about a baby boy brought to the temple. Here come magi from the east looking for “one born king of the Jews.” The religious leaders are even able to tell them the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem, but none of them bother to go see for themselves! They are too busy playing their religious games. These are the ones that the people have been following. They are lost sheep in need of a good shepherd. John’s message is to them.

“Repent” is to result in turning back to obedience to Yahweh, trusting in Him alone, and forsaking everything in your life that is ungodly. John the Baptist’s message to them was that their lives needed to change. His call to them was to be converted. Recall that the prophecies concerning him said that he was sent “to turn the hearts of the fathers back to the children, and the disobedient to the attitude of the righteous; so as to make ready a people prepared for the Lord”(Luke 1:17). He was calling them to a radical transformation of their lives.

The people understood this message and many were following the call. Look at verses 5 & 6. “Then Jerusalem was going out to him, and all Judea, and all the district around the Jordan; and they were being baptized by him in the Jordan River, as they confessed their sins.” Notice here that people from all around the area were coming to John at the Jordan River. Even to come from Jerusalem meant about a 20 mile journey descending from about 2,000 feet above Sea level to 1,000 feet below. Coming from other areas of Judea may have meant a climb over the mountain range Jerusalem sits on and then down into the Jordan valley. It was not a journey to be taken by the strictly curious. There had to be a desire to hear more about what the man of God was saying.

The next thing I want you to notice is that the people were baptized as they confessed their sins. That is the nature of the radical transformation John was calling them too. They were baptized because they were willing to obey the Lord, place their trust in Him, and forsake everything ungodly as evidenced by their confession of their sins.

Some have tried to say that repentance is just “changing your mind about Christ.” It is true that repentance involves that, but it also involves more. If I change my mind about who Jesus Christ is then I must also change my mind about myself and about my sinful actions and attitudes. You can not change your mind about Christ in a vacuum, for to understand Him for who He is, (God Himself in human flesh, the Lord), and to understand what He has done, (lived a sinless life, died in my place for my sin on the cross and was raised from the dead on the third day), then there must also be a change in my view of myself (from proud and demanding to humble and seeking), and a change in my view of sin, (from “its no big deal” to an abhorrence of it). Repentance is a change of mind that radically transforms the life. There can be no change of mind of this nature without a change of direction. Repentance speaks of conversion. That was the conclusion of the apostles upon hearing Peter’s testimony in Acts 11 about the conversion of the gentile Cornelius and those that were with him. Verse 18 says, “And when they heard this, they quieted down, and glorified God, saying, ‘Well then, God has granted to the Gentiles also the repentance unto life.”

That is exactly the conclusion of Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. “Investigation of the history of the term up to NT days has shown us, however, the only path which may be followed, and exposition of the theological usage of the NT will pursue this to its destination, namely, that metanoew  / metanoeo and metanoia / metnnoia are the forms in which the NT gives new expression to the ancient concept of religious and moral conversion.” (Kittel, vol IV, pg 1000).

Some would say that would make repentance a work, but salvation is by grace through faith and not of works (Ephesians 2:9). I couldn’t agree more that salvation is by grace through faith and not of works, however, God declares that all men every where should repent (Acts 17:30). Repentance is not a work you generate, it is something given by God. Look at 2 Corinthians 7:9,10 – “I now rejoice, not that you were made sorrowful, but that you were made sorrowful to (the point of) repentance; for you were made sorrowful according to (the will of ) God, in order that you might not suffer loss in anything through us. For the sorrow that is according to (the will of) God produces a repentance without regret, (leading) to salvation; but the sorrow of the world produces death.” Notice that it is God that produces true repentance. Paul says this is 2 Timothy 2:25 as well. “And the Lord’s bond-servant must not be quarrelsome, but be kind to all, able to teach, patient when wronged, with gentleness correcting those who are in opposition, if perhaps God may grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, having been held captive by him to do his will.”

Repentance involves a change of mind about sin, but who brings conviction of sin? John 16:8 tells that is the work of the Holy Spirit. Repentance involves a change of mind about Jesus Christ, both who He is and trusting Him only for salvation, but who is it that draws a person to Christ? John 6:44 tells us that is done by God the Father. And who is it that gives the faith needed to believe and trust? Ephesians 2:8 tells us this comes from God Himself.

The message of John the Baptist was for the people to repent for without it they would not be ready to enter the kingdom of heaven which was at hand, yet the radical change of life he was calling them to was only possible if God was already working on their heart. And if God works on your heart, then there will be change. That is why in the next couple of verses John calls on the Pharisees and Sadducees to bring forth the fruit of repentance.

The Fruit of Repentance

Verses 7-10, “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? 8 “Therefore bring forth fruit in keeping with repentance; 9 and do not suppose that you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham for our father’; for I say to you, that God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 10 “And the axe is already laid at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

Remember that the Pharisees and the Scribes were the ones that were leading the people astray from the true worship of God. The Pharisees did this by promoting self-righteousness through a hollow religion of rituals, and the Sadducees did it by their pragmatic approach to life in which they denied the supernatural aspects of Biblical doctrine and promoted living for the present. Both groups, but especially the Pharisees, were experts at keeping all the outward rituals, and in doing so they thought that they were above the common people. They hear that there is a Prophet of God in the wilderness and he is saying to come and be baptized and they go since they have no real problem of adding in another ritual, especially if it might increase their standing by either gaining the prophet’s approval or even take advantage of the movement for their own ends if they could parade the pretense of repentant spirituality. Whatever the specific reason, they come to John for baptism (vs 7) with the wrong motives and receive a strong rebuke from him. John calls them a brood of vipers implying that they were like the desert viper, which was a small snake that seemed harmless because it looked like a stick, yet it was deadly. The Pharisees and Sadducees outward appearance seemed harmless, but in reality they were full of poison and deadly to true godliness.

John the Baptist then tells them if they really are going to flee from the wrath to come, then they had better demonstrate the fruit of repentance. Verses 9 and 10 simply say that they could not trust in their lineage of being children of Abraham because that would not save them. We will see as we continue through Matthew that their heritage as children of Abraham is exactly what they trusted. The reality was that fact the axe was already swinging at that false hope and those that did not bear the fruit God was looking for would be cut down and thrown into the fire. Judgement was already at hand.

What is the fruit of repentance? Simply the outworking of doing righteousness which is the result of the change of heart and mind that has already taken place. In the parallel account in Luke 3, John the Baptist gives some practical examples of this fruit. In verse 11 it is sharing what you have with those in need. In verses 12,13 it is being honest in your work. In verse 14 it is being content with what you have and not stealing from or lying about others. I am sure you can think of many other examples yourself because the fruit of repentance is simply the outward works of righteousness that result from a righteous heart. The first demonstration of that change of heart & mind was submitting to baptism.

Baptism of Repentance

In verse 11 John says that he baptized with water for repentance. We will discuss this in more detail when we talk about the baptism of Jesus, but for now lets just point out that it was a ritual that gave outward demonstration to an inward reality. Water is a cleansing agent and being immersed in water signified the cleansing that should have already taken place in the heart. This differs from believers baptism in that believers baptism is an identification with the death, burial and resurrection of Christ. It is symbolic of dying to sin and being raised to new life in Jesus. The baptism of repentance was looking for the coming of Messiah and was done in preparation for entering that kingdom, a kingdom of hope and judgement.

Message of Hope & Judgement: The Kingdom is at Hand

In verse 11 John also said that “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. “And 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.”

Remember that John’s purpose in life was to prepare the way for Messiah who was to come after him. John says here in no uncertain language that the one that was still to come was the one to follow. He is mightier than John to such an extant that John saw himself as unworthy to be even perform the job of a house servant on Him, removing His sandals and washing His feet. The one to come will bring hope and judgement. Hope because he will baptize with the Holy Spirit and bring them into the kingdom of heaven. Hope because He will prepare everything and gather His wheat into His barn where they will be safe and protected. Such is the blessing of the believer today because every true Christian has been baptized by the Holy Spirit into the Body of Christ (1 Corinthians. 12:13). We are looking for the day of His return when we shall be gathered to Him to remain with Him forever (1 Thessalonians 4:16,17).

But John’s message was also one of judgement as well. We already saw that in his rebuke of the Pharisees and Sadducees saying, “You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” This judgement described in verse 12 as Him coming with a winnowing fork in his hand and clearing out the threshing floor. This process separates the good part of the wheat, the kernel, from the chaff that surrounded the kernel. The wheat was then taken and stored in the barn, but the chaff was hauled away and burned. Messiah would separate the righteous from the false religionists who would be taken away into eternal punishment.

John’s message of repentance is still the message today. God is calling on you to a radical transformation of your life. If you are not living your life for Jesus Christ then you need to come to grips with some facts of life. First, you need to face the reality that God really does exist and He has a claim on your life. One day you will face Him and He will call you into account for everything you have ever done. Every person has sinned, including you, and the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23) which includes judgement and eternal punishment (Matthew 25:41). The starting point for a change of mind that brings about a change of life is recognition of your need, and you need God’s mercy. Second, you need to come to grip with Jesus Christ, who He is and what He has done. He is God in human flesh who came and paid the penalty of your sins in His own flesh on the cross. He was buried and then raised to new life on the third day. He is Lord. He is master, and He is to be obeyed. Third, you need to change your mind about your efforts to earn your way into God’s favor. You cannot work your way to heaven. You cannot stand in your own self-righteousness. You must trust in Jesus alone for salvation and being given a right standing before God. He has already paid the penalty for you, will you accept His mercy and gift of grace? Do you believe in Him? Believing the truth about Him and what He has done and trusting Him alone for salvation is what is meant by having faith in Him. Fourth, If you have changed your mind about those three areas, then there is a corresponding change of mind about everything ungodly. Have you changed your mind about ungodly acts and attitudes from seeking their fleeting pleasures to an abhorrence of them? The consequence of these changes in your mind will changes in your view of reality and result in the fruit of repentance which are the good works of righteousness.

If you are here today and God is speaking to your heart on these issues then you need to respond. If you have not yet repented from your old sinful manner of life and turned to God and you desire to do so, then talk with me or any of our church leaders and let us show you how to get right with God today.


(See also: The Ministry of John the Baptist, April 2013)

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