The kingdom at hand: response

john-the-baptist1 In those days John the Baptist appeared, preaching in the desert of Judea 2 (and) saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!”

Our Response:  What should be our response to the coming of heaven? Should it be worship, praise and giving thanks? Ironically, those are good responses, but in Matthew’s gospel, not the ideal ones. Jesus never reprimands people for failing to worship or give thanks in this gospel (compare Luke 17:17-18), but he does rebuke those who have witnessed his mighty works and not repented (11:20-24). For Matthew, the ideal response seems to be repentance. We know from Jesus’ teaching in Matthew that people can worship God with their lips even when their deeds demonstrate that their hearts are far from God (15:3-9). Thus, the responsive worship of the crowds in 9:8 and 15:31 is commendable but will be in vain if performed with unrepentant hearts.  It is Matthew’s warning to the overtly religious of his day, the Pharisees and Sadducees – and perhaps to us in this season of Advent – it is good to want to celebrate and praise, but make your priority repentance.  Let the coming one change our lives.

4 John wore clothing made of camel’s hair and had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey. Boring [156] offers, “The description of John’s clothing and food serves to separate him from elegant society and to identify him with the wilderness that was to be the scene of eschatological renewal. In Mark, too, it indicates that John is the expected Elijah (cf. 2 Kgs 1:8), an identification that Matthew will later make more explicit and place in the mouth of Jesus (11:14). “Locusts” are not carob pods (contra the popular tradition that has designated the species of tree that produces them as the “John the Baptist tree”), but actual locusts, described as ritually clean food in Lev 11:22 and eaten by the poorer people of the desert from ancient times until today.”

5 At that time Jerusalem, all Judea, and the whole region around the Jordan were going out to him 6 and were being baptized by him in the Jordan River as they acknowledged their sins. Again Boring [157] notes, “The throngs come to be baptized, a distinctive practice that had given John his name. The verb for “baptize” (baptizō) means to dip or to immerse, and John baptized these persons in the Jordan River. Various ritual immersions and washings in Judaism may have served as a model for John, as indicated by the pools/cisterns at Qumran and the mikveh, found in religious households as well as in public places, such as the Temple. Baptism for proselytes may have already been practiced. But John did not simply take over a current practice. In contrast to the repeated washings at the Temple and Qumran, John’s once-for-all baptism had eschatological implications, sealing the converts from the eschatological judgment to come (see vv. 7–12). Mark had related it to the forgiveness of sins (Mark 1:4), but Matthew omits that feature of John’s baptism in order to attribute it exclusively to Jesus (26:28, where the same words occur) and to the church.

7 When he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Historically, in the Judaism of Jesus’ time, the Pharisees and Sadducees were opposing religious parties, unlikely to work together. Matthew is not reporting the facts of an event, but is describing the Jewish opposition as a united front, already manifesting itself against John as it would later against Jesus. John does not shy away from the opposition, but labels them a “brood of vipers” (literally “sons of snakes.”) It paints the image of people scurrying away from the coming eschatological judgment like snakes fleeing a forest fire.

8 Produce good fruit as evidence of your repentance. 9 And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you, God can raise up children to Abraham from these stones. 10 Even now the ax lies at the root of the trees. Therefore every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.

Boring [157]: “The image of the ax at the root of the tree indicates the coming eschatological judgment that is already prepared, and the brief interval before it begins. Like other apocalyptic prophets, John sees the judgment as already on the horizon and the basis for his urgent call for repentance. An appeal to belonging to the elect group by virtue of descent from Abraham will not save one in the fiery judgment…Matthew understands John’s original preaching in a Christian sense: Inclusion in the holy people of God and acceptance at the last judgment is based not on descent from Abraham and belonging to empirical Israel, but on response to the call to decision, to baptism, and to the corresponding ‘fruits.’” In Matthew, these fruits are lived out as disciples to Jesus (7:16–20; 12:33; cf. 13:8, 26; 21:18–19).


Notes

Matthew 3:1 in those days: This is an OT expression that marks the beginning of the new period, not necessarily a precise indication of time (see Mt 13:1; 24:22, 29, 36; 26:29). Here it marks the time-shift from the infancy narrative to the adult Jesus’ appearance.  the desert of Judea: wilderness would perhaps be the better word for modern English. The area is the barren region west of the Dead Sea extending up the Jordan valley.

Matthew 3:2 Repent: the biblical idea of repentance involves a willingness to turn one’s life around in the sense of a complete re-orientation. the kingdom of heaven is at hand: “heaven” (literally, “the heavens”) is a substitute for the name “God” that was avoided by devout Jews of the time out of reverence. The expression “the kingdom of heaven” occurs only in the gospel of Matthew. It means the effective rule of God over his people. In its fullness it includes not only human obedience to God’s word, but the triumph of God over physical evils, supremely over death. In the expectation found in Jewish apocalyptic, the kingdom was to be ushered in by a judgment in which sinners would be condemned and perish, an expectation shared by the Baptist. This was modified in Christian understanding where the kingdom was seen as being established in stages, culminating with the parousia of Jesus.

Matthew 3:3 the prophet Isaiah had spoken: The quotation that follows is from Isa 40:3 as found in the Septuagint (LXX). This is a repunctuation and reinterpretation (as in the synoptic gospels and Septuagint) of the Hebrew text of Isaiah 40:3 which reads, “A voice cries out: In the desert prepare the way of the Lord.” Isaiah 40:3 comes at the very beginning of the second part of Isaiah (40–56), in which the prophecy shifts abruptly from present judgment to future restoration after the Babylonian captivities. Chapter 40 begins this part of the book with the proclamation of comfort and tender speech to Jerusalem, whose sins, God assures, have been forgiven (vv. 1–2). Isaiah 40:3 harks back to the imagery of 26:7 with its teaching about God making the ways or paths of the righteous smooth. But even the land and its topography are metaphorically changing, as 40:4 describes the leveling of the mountains, the elevation of the valleys, and the smoothing out of rugged places. Then the Lord’s glory will be revealed and all humanity will see it (40:5). Nothing in the immediate context of Isa. 40 suggests that Isaiah is referring to anyone other than Yahweh himself returning to Israel as king but the references to special sons in Isa. 7–9 and to the messianic branch in Isa. 11, along with the Servant Songs yet to come (beginning in Isa. 42), do indicate God revealing himself through a specially anointed agent. The “shepherding” imagery of a text as close to ours as 40:11 also dovetails with other prophecies in which a messianic figure is likened to a shepherd (esp. Ezek. 34).

Matthew 3:4 clothing made of camel’s hair and had a leather belt around his waist: The clothing of John recalls the austere dress of the prophet Elijah (2 Kings 1:8). The expectation of the return of Elijah from heaven to prepare Israel for the final manifestation of God’s kingdom was widespread, and according to Matthew this expectation was fulfilled in the Baptist’s ministry (Matthew 11:14; 17:11-13).

Matthew 3:5 Jerusalem, all Judea, and the whole region around the Jordan were going out to him: the tense of the Gr. verb (imperfect) implies that there was a steady stream of people regularly going out to John. The three place names and the words “all” and “all over” add to the impression that the response to John was astounding – enough to raise concern among the religious leadership of Israel.

Matthew 3:6 being baptized: Ritual washing was practiced by various groups in Palestine between 150 B.C. and A.D. 250. John’s baptism may have been related to the purificatory washings of the Essenes at Qumran. acknowledge their sins: many other translations well use the word “confess.” The basic meaning of exomologeomai is “to acknowledge an inward fact publicly.”  Interestingly exomologeomai also means “promise.”

Matthew 3:7 many of the Pharisees and Sadducees: the former were marked by devotion to the law, written and oral, and the scribes, experts in the law, belonged predominantly to this group. The Sadducees were the priestly aristocratic party, centered in Jerusalem. They accepted as scripture only the first five books of the Old Testament, followed only the letter of the law, rejected the oral legal traditions, and were opposed to teachings not found in the Pentateuch, such as the resurrection of the dead. Matthew links both of these groups together as enemies of Jesus (Matthew 16:1, 6, 11, 12; cf Mark 8:11-13, 15). The threatening words that follow are addressed to them rather than to “the crowds” as in Luke 3:7. coming to his baptism: the phrase is ambiguous. It can also be translated as “coming against baptism.” Some older translations read “coming to watch his baptism;” however, there is no verb indicating a “watching” activity. vipers: a genus of snakes prevalent in wilderness areas. The term is used metaphorically for evil or evil people (cf.  Mt 12:34; 23:3). The accusatory description of the Pharisees and Sadducees as an evil “brood of vipers” is twice echoed by Jesus (12:34; 23:33, cf. Gen 3:1; Ps 58:4).   the coming wrath: the judgment that will bring about the destruction of unrepentant sinners.

Matthew 3:8 produce fruit: The Pharisees and Sadducees are warned that mere ritual is inadequate and will not preserve them from God’s wrath. Rather they must do good deeds that are appropriate to genuine repentance in view of the coming kingdom. Producing fruit as a metaphor for a repentant lifestyle occurs elsewhere in Matthew (3:10; 7:16–20; 12:33; 13:8, 23, 26; 21:19) and is common in the OT (Ps 1:3; Isa 3:10; 5:1–7; Hos 10:1). The image of Israel as the tree from which fruit is expected echoes Hosea 9:16; Isaiah 27:6; Jeremiah 12:2, 17:8; and Ezekiel 17:8-9, 23.

Matthew 3:9 we have Abraham as our father: There may be a reference to the rabbinic idea of the “merits of the fathers” according to which the righteousness of the patriarchs is charged to the account of Israel. children to Abraham from these stones: In Aramaic and Hebrew there is a clear play on the words ‘abnayya (stones) and bēnayya (children). The message is that God’s power far surpasses the laws of natural heritage.  In Galatians 3 and Romans 4, St Paul develops arguments about the true children of Abraham and concludes that the true children are those who follow his example of fidelity.

Matthew 3:10 cut down and thrown into the fire. A vivid picture of judgment. A similar picture of false prophets as unfruitful trees is found in 7:19 (cf. Isa 10:15–19; Jer 11:16), and 13:24–30 pictures the weeds among the wheat being thrown into the fire at the harvest (cf. the chaff in 3:12). Jesus’ cursing the unfruitful fig tree in 21:19 is another similar image. The burning of unfruitful trees is also related to the punishment of evildoers (5:22; 13:42, 50; 18:8–9; 25:41). The vividness of the picture is heightened by the words “already,” which depict the chopping down of unfruitful trees as a process that is presently occurring.

Sources

  • Eugene Boring, The Gospel of Matthew in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. VIII (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1994) pp.154-61
  • Warren Carter, Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2000)  p. 94
  • T. France, Matthew: An Introduction and Commentary in the Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, Vol. 1, ed. Leon Morris (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1989) pp. 94-98
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