As the third chapter of the Gospel of Matthew opens, we are introduced to John the Baptist. Unlike Luke, Matthew provides no background for him; we just learn that he was preaching in the wilderness and baptizing people in the Jordan. His scant description and Old Testament quotations establish him as the first true prophet to speak to the Jews in 400 years since Malachi. With his location, description, and message, he is established by Matthew to be the embodiment of the prophet Elijah whom it was said would be sent by God to prepare for the Coming Messiah. Indeed, John seems to understand this as in his message he refers to the one that is coming after him that shall be far greater than he is. For the Jewish people in the surrounding area, alarm bells are ringing as the signs are starting to come together for the long-awaited Messiah.
Before I get down the historical rabbit hole of the background to this moment, I want to spend some time with his message to the people. In this interaction we see his call on people to repent, to be baptized, and to be ready for the coming Kingdom of God. He also calls out the religious and civic leaders of the day (Pharisees and Sadducees) for their apparent hypocrisy. His call on them to bear the fruits of repentance is like Jesus’ call that while they lived outwardly pious lives, inwardly they were devoid of a true relationship with God. It is a reminder that mere formalism or adherence to doctrine does not save.
John, like most Jews of his day, believed that the coming Day of the Lord would be a terrible ordeal where the righteous and the unrighteous would be separated and those found outside the pale would be destroyed, while those inside the kingdom would be rewarded and vindicated for their years of faithfulness. Thus, John’s call to true repentance, not just going to Temple and making a sacrifice, but truly changing one’s life to reflect a changed heart and mind.
The act of repentance has three parts. First, one has to admit one is in the wrong. This can be most difficult for some and is a barrier to many. We must recognize that we are going against God. This isn’t about breaking man’s law or our own law, but God’s law and any time we do that, we are in the wrong, regardless of how we feel about it. Second, is to be sorry or remorseful that one is guilty as such. Many people are upset that they got caught doing something wrong, not that it was wrong to begin with. Third, is to live the remainder of life striving not to repeat the offense. This is also very difficult and there will be failure at this, but the idea is not to give up, but to keep on striving. For us, since we live on this side of the cross, this is made much more bearable because of the Holy Spirit, and even John recognized this fact.
He reminded the people that while he baptized with water, the one that was come would baptize with the Holy Spirit and Fire. This means that what the people were doing with him was purely symbolic. They were making a public statement about their commitment to a changed life, the same as baptism in the modern church, but what would happen when Christ comes in the picture is totally different. With the cross and the resurrection comes the Holy Spirit. This enables us to strive for a new life, not in our own power but with the assistance of God. Again, it doesn’t mean that we will never fail but it means that our striving is much more powerful. As I remind people, the primary role of the Christian is not to be super moral or pious, but it is to grow one’s relationship with God and as they do, the other parts will happen. Along the way God will be at work in our lives through the Holy Spirit and purifying us with his Holy Fire. It may, at times, be a painful process, but oh what a beautiful result in the end when we stand around the throne, rendered Holy and Blameless before our God and King.
John’s clarion call to all, regardless of background, regardless of rank, regardless of pedigree is a staunch reminder that one day we will all stand before the throne, and the time to prepare is now.