Matthew 3 opens with a look at John the Baptist, setting the stage for Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River. The bulk of the chapter covers what John was preaching and who his audience was. A few pieces of background are helpful, though, before we take that apart. First, note that there is a gap between Matthew 2 and Matthew 3 that covers at least two decades. It’s probably closer to two-and-a-half decades, but we have to take the information from Luke that places this in the fifteenth year of Tiberius to draw a clear date. (Somewhere around 26-28 AD, depending on how the calendars synchronize.)
Second, note that Matthew does not spend any time on the birth of John the Baptist. Neither is any effort expended on John’s overall lifestyle or community efforts. We get a glimpse of his diet and fashion, and we know he dwells out in the wilderness, but we know little else. Be sure, as with all parts of Biblical narrative, to separate the known from the assumed. Knowing the culture and the general idea of normal life allows us to fill in some suppositions, but they remain just that. An example with John the Baptist is found in the frequent assumption that he was part of the Essene community in the wilderness—or, at the very least, was in a community that was like them—or, perhaps he was trying to model his life after theirs.
John’s a good example of someone that Scripture records a very specific slice of his life and nothing else. Then we try to fill in the blanks and project that as truth.
Let’s take Matthew 3:7 for our focus point in this passage. John has been preaching that the people should repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. He is seeing some measurable results, for many are coming out to hear him preach. And of those that hear him, many are baptized by him in the Jordan River. (There is no corroboration to the rumor that he baptized so many that “John the Pruned-Fingers” was an alternate title.) Sounds like things are going well in his ministry, for the more people that baptized to recognize repentance, the better he has made straight the path of the Lord.
Then events take a turn, and out come some of the Pharisees and Sadducees. They claim to be coming for baptism, but rather than baptize them, John calls them a brood of vipers. He then pointed out the wrath that was coming on them, for a baptism of fire was on the way (3:11-12) and that fire would be destroying the chaff that was useless. John religiously derides the religious leaders of his day and leaves them with one possible out: bear fruit that shows repentance. Not make statements or even join the movement, but bear fruit. Otherwise the axe and the fire are coming for them.
John is certainly not subtle in how he speaks to the Pharisees and Sadducees.
Fortunately, in our day, we don’t have Pharisees and Sadducees to deal with. After all, there are none in our culture who claim to be religious leaders who are driven by power, legalism, or materialism, right? Maybe we have something to learn here after all. Let’s take a moment and see what we have.
We’ll start with how John is not subtle with the religious leaders in his speech. He calls them what they are, making plain their offenses before God. He is not doing this on a populist notion, thinking it will win him points with the people. Instead, it is truth-driven. What does that mean?
Flattery, especially without truth, is not the God-honoring option for our speech. It is worth noting that John is direct with the crowd, but that his harsh tones appear reserved for the people who should have known better. We would be wise to consider our audience as well: there are people that should know better, spiritually, and those who are rightly still figuring out what it is to walk with Jesus. This does not change the truth, nor allow us to avoid speaking the truth. But no more than we chastise toddlers for falling should we chastise new believers for stumbling. Those who claim to be marathoners, though, who can’t get down the sidewalk are another matter.
Second, note the rest of the chapter. John is not subtle, and then Jesus comes on the scene. He’s less subtle than John. He instructs John about baptism. Then, God the Father speaks from the heavens—again, clearly. Subtly, then, should not be taken as the God-honoring option. Not when the plain truth should be spoken.
Three Nerd Points:
Nerd Point 1: “the Baptist” could be translated “the Immerser” if not for a few hundred years of English-translation tradition. While you will find “ceremonial washing” as a potential definition for the Greek word “baptizo,” you will also find that usage applies almost exclusively in the Christian tradition, starting with John. In short—if you want “baptizo” to mean “ceremonial washing” because you do “ceremonial washing” and not immersion, you can assume that’s what the word means and read it back. Otherwise, you have to wrestle with the idea that “immerse” is the idea present. (This understanding of baptism is one of the major reasons I’m not Presbyterian. That and ecclesiology. Well, that, ecclesiology, and a few other things.)
Nerd Point 2: Dating of the events. When does this happen? Around the fifteenth year of Tiberius. Is that not 29 AD? It is, if you count from Tiberius taking over by himself. It could be earlier, if you use Tiberius’ coregency. Mix it up with Tiberius’ adoption (unlikely) and it changes more. See? This is why your history book has absolute dates in it.
Nerd Point 3: Don’t miss all of the Trinity present/evident at the baptism of Jesus. Which was, most likely, in the modern nation of Jordan.