10th January 2023
Read (Matthew 3v1-12)
Message (Scott Woodburn)
In days of yore the coming of a king was always declared before his arrival. The king’s herald would go before him to prepare the way and allow time for preparation. The last thing anyone wanted was for the king to arrive and no arrangements to have been made. Christ is not just a king but He is the King of kings and John the Baptist was His herald.
John was the son of Elizabeth and Zechariah and Elizabeth and Mary shared a family connection (Luke 1v36). Indeed when John heard Mary speaking to his mother, John leapt in the womb (Luke 1v41). John was a child appointed by God to fulfil a very specific and wonderful purpose. He was the one spoken of by the prophet Isaiah who said “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight.’” (Isaiah 40v3).
John was an uncompromising individual preaching the need for repentance in preparation for the kingdom of heaven (v2). What is repentance? Our catechism answers “Repentance unto life is a saving grace, whereby a sinner, out of a true sense of his sin, and apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ, doth, with grief and hatred of his sin, turn from it unto God, with full purpose of, and endeavour after, new obedience.” To be fit for the kingdom of heaven, one must absolutely repent of their sin and put their faith in Christ.
If his message was uncompromising then so too was his dress and lifestyle. Matthew tells us that John wore a camel’s hair garment, leather belt and ate locusts and wild honey for food (v4). He sounds like a modern day hipster living off the land and drinking coffee that has been brewed by Peruvian shepherds. But John was no poser and his lifestyle choices weren’t for Instagram followers - John had come as another Elijah. The Lord had promised “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.” (Malachi 4v5) John was that Elijah and both prophets dressed and lived in the same manner (2 Kings 1v8).
As John’s ministry progressed more and more people were travelling to see him and to be baptised by him. In John’s day anyone converting to Judaism would have been baptised but John’s ministry involved the baptism of Jews. These men and women were coming and confessing their sins and being baptised (v6). In other words they were responding to John’s preaching about the coming of Christ and were preparing themselves for the Saviour.
This would have been a news worthy act and so soon the Pharisees and Sadducees came to see what John was doing (v7). Who were the Pharisees and Sadducees? The Pharisees were a Jewish religious group who sought to keep themselves separate from those around them. The took God’s law incredibly seriously (a good thing) but often missed the bigger picture as a result. The Sadducees came from a higher class of society than the Pharisees and were mostly priests tracing their lineage back to Zadok the high priest in the days of David. Although we don’t know much about either group we know that the Sadducees denied the resurrection (Matthew 22v23). These groups were not friends and often fiercely opposed one another but throughout the Scriptures we see them constantly linked in their opposition to Christ.
Once again John's message for these visitors was uncompromising. It's hard to say if the Pharisees and Sadducees had come to be baptised by John or merely to see what he was up to but regardless John perceived that their hearts were in need of Gospel change. He called them a "brood of vipers" (v7) who took great pride that as Jews that were descendants of Abraham (v9). But the kingdom of heaven isn't built on earthly standards. If we are to flee the wrath of God which is to come then John's advice must be heeded - "bear fruit in keeping with repentance" (v8).
What did John mean? If He wanted the Lord is able to raise up true followers from the rocks of the earth (v9) - saying "we have Abraham as our father" isn't enough, the spiritually dead must be raised to life. Your earthly family tree can't save you nor can the money in your bank account. The Lord demands Gospel transformation and lives that produce good fruit that comes from a good Gospel root. Without true repentance the sinner has no hope. Using an image of the tree to describe a person, John says that an axe will be put to the roots of any tree not bearing good fruit. Such a tree will be cut down and burned (v10).
John understood his place. He could baptise with water for repentance but Jesus was much greater than John and He would baptise with the Holy Spirit and fire (v11). Every sinner who repents will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. To be baptised by the Holy Spirit is the experience of anyone who has truly come to Christ and as we receive the Spirit so He sanctifies us and brings fire to the sin and dross our lives. As John's message to Pharisees and Sadducees finished he reminded them and us of Christ the Judge. Jesus will take His winnowing fork and separate the wheat from the chaff (v12). The wheat (the Christian) will find a place of safety in the heavenly barn of God but the chaff (the sinner) will only know the unquenchable fire of God's judgement in the place called Hell.
How are we to respond? My friends repentance remains a major concern in 2023. We would do well to heed the Baptist’s call. Christ has come and is coming again soon with the winnowing fork in His hand. May we flee from the wrath to come and live lives producing the good fruit of repentance.
Q46 What is required in the first commandment? The first commandment requireth us to know and acknowledge God to be the only true God, and our God, and to worship and glorify him accordingly.