Let us read Matthew 3:1-12 and understand that the way John the Baptist and Jesus did ministry is very different than many modern evangelists. Maybe they lack faith. Maybe they want to see something like numbers of people who answer an altar call or loud rambunctious shouts. Yet God works in mysterious ways changing peoples’ hearts. And what happens in our hearts is not immediately evident. Like faith, it is initially unseen.
The word "preach" originally meant to “announce” the message of the kingdom of God? John the Baptist preached that the kingdom was near (Matthew 3:1-2). Jesus preached that same message (Matthew 4:17). Jesus instructed his disciples to preach it as well. Today, we associate preaching with what is taught at church, not what is announced to unbelievers. Both preaching and teaching are VERY important to the life of the church. Preaching was originally a public announcement to unbelievers including a message of repentance and turning to God (Matthew 3:2; 4:17). Teaching was supposed to be what happened inside of church time, instructing believers to obey what Jesus had commanded. The most important thing that we need to learn is what Jesus commanded. After all, that's what he instructed his disciples to teach (Matthew 28:19-20).
When John called for repentance in Matthew 3:1-12 his proclamation signaled that something was wrong. Is such a message relevant for today? Is there something wrong with our modern world? Repentance is a change of heart about our life’s direction. Is our world in need of a change of direction? John’s message is an announcement of hope for a new beginning and a new world. The change of heart that John called for was to be accompanied by fruits. Thinking about the need for change is only a beginning. Something must also be done to create change. Only the most deluded of us would imagine that there is no need for change. The unasked question is: What must change? The answer is: our hearts. The root cause of all our planet’s ills is spiritual and so is the solution.
John the Baptist (Matthew 3:1-12) and Jesus (Matthew 4:17) called for repentance. How can we repent if we do not first understand our sins? How have we placed pride and materialism before God? How have we worshiped man-made images? How have we taken God’s name in vain? How have we worked demanding our employees work without rest? How have we dishonored our parents and previous generations? How have we killed the innocent by killing our babies and withholding help from the needy? How many people’s marriages have we ruined by stealing their sexual innocence and marital happiness? How much have we stolen in unjust wages and putting in a full day’s labor? How much have we lied to sell overpriced and inferior products? How have we enticed others to covet and go into debt just to sell things?
“Come, just as you are to worship” goes a popular song. Yet, songs are not always written by well-versed theologians and sometimes weaken the message of the Gospel? Jesus did not go about preaching worship to new people, but some other rather more pointed things. Worship also means appreciating God's worth-ship in every area of life and not just singing songs. Worship is what mature Christians are learning to do. It is important not to ignore the way that Jesus or John the Baptist preached. John the Baptist prepared for the ministry of Jesus by calling for repentance (Matthew 3:1-12). Likewise Jesus did not preach worship to the public but “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near” (Matthew 4:17). Worship certainly begins with repentance. However, perhaps we could learn from how Jesus preached publicly calling for repentance.
Sometimes we may think, “Repent? Sure, I did that before I was converted.” So, is repentance then just a one time thing? In Matthew 3:1-12 when John the Baptist began preparing the way for the ministry of Jesus, he did not use the word in a one time sense. The word repent is an ongoing command. After all, Christians will make many mistakes during life’s journey. If we think we’ve arrived, we can become arrogant and self-righteous. Conversion is merely the beginning of a process of change. Our journey usually begins with small changes. If we never come to the point of realizing how immature those initial ideas were, we may have stopped repenting. The idea that we do not have perfect knowledge and the humility to learn new perspectives are indicative of ongoing repentance.
In Matthew 3:1-12 we read of John the baptizer’s announcement about the impending ministry of Jesus Christ. Yet, unlike former prophets, his announcement of repentance had a greater sense of urgency in that the “kingdom of heaven is near.” We moderns tend just to refer to “the kingdom” yet that is not how the apostles spoke. Whereas we tend to omit God or heaven from the phrase, the original language emphasized God or heaven. It was an announcement of the sovereignty of heaven or the kingship of God. In military terms, God was establishing a beachhead from which he would eventually take over. God’s kingdom is God’s rule. He rules in the lives of those who accept him. The words “the kingdom of heaven has come near” is the modern equivalent of saying that God is now taking control. (The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Commentary of the New Testament, R. T. France, 2007, Wm B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, p. 102)
In Matthew 3:1-12 the writer introduces us to John the baptizer, a wilderness preacher dressed in the clothing of poor country folks, challenging the establishment with a new approach to sin. In the Hebrew Scriptures, a sin offering was to be made at the temple. John’s approach was most likely seen by the religious leaders as being in direct rebellion to that. However, as a herald of the new covenant which was to be made in the Messiah’s blood, John emphasized an oft overlooked ingredient, repentance, a change of heart. After confession of sin, John did not encourage the repentant to make a sin offering as in Leviticus 5, but to be baptized in water. John’s baptism of repentance paved the way for a new high priest who would also baptize people but in a far more powerful way.
In national assemblies of this world there is often a herald who announces important dignitaries. He is usually dressed in elaborate clothing. In Matthew 3:1-12 we are introduced to one of the most important newscasters in history. His job was to be herald of the most important announcement of all history. One could have thought that this announcement would be made in the leading assemblies of the most important cities of the time. Instead it was made in the wilderness at the edge of Roman imperial control. This last of the Old Testament prophets was dressed in the simple clothing of poor farming folk reminiscent of the prophet Elijah. He preached in a place of historic significance to Israel. Israel crossed the Jordan to become God’s people in this wilderness. It was a fitting place to announce a revival.
So many people today want words of comfort and they certainly have their place. But some of Christianity’s biggest churches have been built on comfort over truth. At times we need to be discomforted by the truth. John the Baptist was such a preacher. He did not start out with words like, “Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today…” Rather, he started out with the same thing that Jesus also began with, a call to repent [have a change heart] for the kingdom of heaven is at hand (Matthew 3:1-12). He was even starker with certain religious leaders who came on the scene, calling them a brood of snakes and warning them to produce outward fruit to prove an inward change of heart. In a selfish world perhaps what we all need now is a confrontation with the truth.
As in all things that divide Christians, the words “social gospel” are unfortunately misunderstood. The phrase is not a quote from scripture. However, the concept of a social responsibility towards others is there. One example is that of the selfish rich man in Luke 16:19-31 who was hard-hearted towards poor Lazarus. Another question that Protestants have is whether this passage requires works for salvation. I believe that Protestants and Catholics actually agree on works. The biggest difference is that Protestants see good works resulting from saving faith. Catholics see saving faith evidenced by good works. It’s like splitting hairs, if you ask me. The bottom line is that a social responsibility towards others is clearly evident among those who believe. Jesus told the Pharisees to show fruit of a changed heart. One such fruit is how we treat others.
Part of John the Baptist’s questioning if Jesus was the one (Matthew 11:2-15) may have been that he had predicted a more powerful one (Matthew 3:11-12). Some Christians may also be disappointed that we celebrate the birth of a baby on Christ’s first advent, rather than only focus on the power of his second advent. Yet God with us, Immanuel, was born among us as a helpless babe. Why? We human beings tend to focus on a different kind of power. We want dramatic miracles like the Red Sea crossing. We want power that we can see. Yet, like the still, small voice that Elijah experienced, the real power of God is not in things seen. It is in the potency of good news that Jesus brought. Perhaps if we hear that message we may find unimaginable power.
Bishops wear a mitre hat picturing tongues of fire resting on each of the faithful (Acts 2). Yet many churches which speak of this as the baptism of fire predicted by John in Matthew 3:1-12 do not recognize a water baptism that only places water on the head. What a contradiction! How then is the coming of the Holy Spirit also a baptism of fire? The Baptist argument is that only immersion is a proper baptism. However, if we accept that the children of Israel were baptized into Moses in a non-literal sense because they walked through dry shod, then the door is open for other modes of baptism. Baptism with fire also has a double meaning. The unrepentant who choose hell over heaven will also be thrown into a lake of fire, a mode even Baptists might approve.
Bishops wear a miter hat remembering the tongues of fire resting on people’s heads at Pentecost (Acts 2). Some church fathers and John of Damascus described this as the baptism of fire predicted by John the Baptist in Matthew 3:1-12. That is why some churches also recognize a baptism of water on the head. If we accept that the children of Israel were baptized into Moses in a non-literal sense because they walked through dry shod, then the door is open for the word baptism to also have a non-literal meaning. Other baptisms with fire are perhaps an immersion experience. Early Christians suffered great persecution, which we call a trial by fire or baptism of fire. Also the unrepentant who choose hell over heaven will sadly be cast into a lake of fire possibly resulting in their total immersion.
John the Baptist had preached that Jesus would baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire, clean house and burn the chaff with fire (Matthew 3:11-12). Then a different side of Jesus shocked John and he was disappointed (Matthew 11:2-15). Was Jesus all sizzle and no steak? Was this just another empty promise? Was Jesus just like so many who promise more than they can deliver? Was Jesus just like so many who stir your emotions with exaggerated ideas, but in the end leave you empty? Even the disciples were disappointed that Jesus came to die for the world rather than conquer the world. Perhaps the real steak is not in a king like this world’s, but one who rules in the hearts of men and produces a fire that creates permanent change in us from the inside out.
Rather than preaching smooth things, perhaps there is a better way. Perhaps what the world needs instead of a wishy-washy liberal message is a revival of John's and Christ's message of repentance.